Every month, I will be sharing some of the media that has been inspiring me and fueling my own creative energy.
Alien: The Illustrated Story
Alien, despite its tragic downfall in years recent, remains one of my favorite franchises of all time. When I learned that in the same year as the original movie’s release (1979), Heavy Metal had released an Illustrated Edition of the movie, I knew that I had to find it.
The world of Alien comics is extremely confusing and cluttered – even more than the film franchise, believe it or not. There are literally 100 Alien comic series which overwrite movies 3 and 4 (never 2, which is held as sacred canon). Some of these comic series respect one another and even reference one another, while others simply ignore one another, trampling the carefully laid lore of their predecessors, ret-conning facts from the movies, invalidating Prometheus, and weirdly choosing vague lorepoints to share in common. It is a tangled, dark web of competing lore, and while some of it is wonderful, a lot of it isn’t great.
At the eye of this storm stands Alien: The Illustrated Story, a magnificent pillar of visual storytelling, unclouded by sequels, prequels, alternative lore or the pretentions of bad writers. Alien: The Illustrated Story is simply Alien, manifested as a short and perfect graphic novel.
The graphic novel, like the movie, is a masterclass in pacing. The panels and artwork are as dark and gothic as the corridors of the Nostromo in the film, and unbelievably, the artists Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson manage to compress the entire movie into about 60 pages of extremely dense framework. It is seriously incredible how much they are able to cover in just two pages of imagery – without making the story feel rushed at all.
While the comic is extremely faithful to the movie – nearly all of its dialogue is plucked right from the Alien script – there are some really interesting choices made by the authors to take tiny liberties with certain moments, and even to insert small scenes that were not in the movie. For example, just before Ash is revealed to be an android, Ripley and Lambert have an odd conversation about how neither of them have ever slept with Ash, and that he seems disinterested in women. Upon looking this up, it turns out that this was in fact a scene deleted from the film – maybe the authors were given a pre-release version to work with?
As we might come to expect from Heavy Metal, the gore level is turned up to the absolute maximum in the illustrated edition of Alien, but it’s not without taste. The sense of claustrophobia, darkness, helplessness and tension from the movie are all expertly portrayed in the graphic novel.
I highly recommend you turn on the score of the original Alien film (or from the video game Alien: Isolation, whose score is phenomenal), set the lights low, and knock this one out in a single 60 minute sitting – it’s the only way to experience it.
The Outer Wilds
Do not be fooled by The Outer Wilds’ chunky graphics, its odd outdoorsy aesthetic or its cartoonishly tiny planets. What lies just beneath its deceptive appearance is a hard-hitting, mind-bending SF masterpiece on the order of Myst meets Eon by Greg Bear.
After being recommended The Outer Wilds by a good friend, it took me almost a year to finally get around to playing it. Despite his (frantic?) praise for the game, its cute graphics, the weird camping-in-space vibe and its absurdly tiny planets really turned me off.
What I discovered after a few hours of play was that everything in The Outer Wilds is exaggeratedly small: the distances between worlds, the sizes of the worlds and the timescales of the events which unfold. The Outer Wilds has squeezed an incredible, operatic concept which would ordinarily span millions of years into a 21 minute game (yes, you eventually need to figure out how to beat the entire game in 21 minutes), and if you give it a few hours to explain itself, you realize it has really done an incredible job.
In The Outer Wilds, you are at once a detective, an archaeologist and an astronaut. You will spend the majority of the game treading the ancient remnants of a bygone civilization, learning about where they came from, their nomadic and scientific philosophies, and what ultimately became of them.
When you’re not sifting ancient ruins, you’ll be performing complex, high speed EVA maneuvers, attempting to sync your ship up with highly elliptical comets, harnessing the cyclonal storms of gas giants to launch your ship, evading leviathan monstrosities and even befriending a species of space jellyfish.
Much like Myst, The Outer Wilds is a reading game. Unlike a lot of its contemporary peers, however, Outer Wilds is extremely well written. It’s a deeply intellectual game, and if you give it the time and space, it’ll worm its way into your heart. Ultimately the game is a tragedy, and I’d be lying if I said the last few heartpounding moments of gameplay didn’t make me tear up a bit.
The game also has a spectacular score. It’s short (and sweet); it took me about 30 hours to beat, and I’m a pathological reader and explorer; I’m sure a speed gamer could complete it in 10-15. Fun fact: the game as also developed in Unity, the same engine I’m using for PISES.
Simply put, it’s been one of the best gaming experiences of my entire life. I cant recommend it more highly – there is sincerely no game like it.
Prospect is a rare, independent modern science fiction film that did absolutely everything right.
From its pacing to its set design and from its all-star acting to its careful realism, the film has a visual style which is completely unique. In a (fortunate!) age of pop-scifi, where every third movie in theaters features spacesuit wearing, laser gun wielding actors, Prospect manages to actually define a sincerely unique and recognizable aesthetic.
This is due at least in part to its sets and props, which are almost entirely constructed by hand. The interior of the ships with their unevenly discolored white plastic and peeling leather chairs, the ill-fitting patchwork suits made out of spare parts, and the weird hex-barrel guns all feel like extremely beat up surplus gear held together with duct tape (in the best way), and that’s because they literally are.
Moreover, instead of opting for a sleek, modern interpretation of space travel, Prospect imagines a future where computers are still chunky DOS terminals and cockpits are made of hundreds of toggle-switches and mechanical punch buttons – a choice we almost never see made in modern SF films and shows.
With an incredible visual aesthetic at their backs, Sophie Thatcher and Pedro Pascal deliver an incredible, believable performance. Rather than focusing on explosive special effects and fast paced action, Prospect focuses on worldbuilding and actual, sincere character development.
Prospect is ready to get weird and absolutely does so, but at all times, the pacing and development are patient, baited and classy. When the time for action finally arrives, it has a lot of impact. I can’t speak more highly of this low-budget masterpiece.
Dishonorable Mention: High Life
I was so incredibly excited to see High Life, and was so let down with the final product.
For all its aspiration and potential, I could not help but feel like the movie was a poorly executed version of the 70s classic “Gateway” by Frederik Pohl.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that the writers of High Life did this deliberately (though if they had been influenced by Gateway I would be unsurprised). The respective plots of the two works do not really overlap, but the overarching premise (a group of desperate men and women with nothing left on Earth, waiting for the seemingly inevitable coming of death, which eventually arrives at the event horizon of a black hole) is nearly identical.
The sense of slow dread, the sexual, emotional, and ultimately violent interface of men and women under pressure, and the ultimate horror of an eternal dying at the edge of a black hole are all so well and intelligently explored in Gateway. In High Life, I felt that the team lacked the scientific writers – or perhaps, simply lacked a respect for the genre – that they needed in order to explore such an interesting space with grace and credibility.
I understand the movie was ultimately not a hard SF movie. But to use such a setting and premise – the terror of deep space isolation, the cosmic horror of time-dilation, the visceral horror of rape and insemination – I feel that in order to be taken seriously in a hard SF environment, the SCIENCE of the science fiction must be sound, or at least given a modicum of consideration, and the setting must be convincing. The ship felt and looked low budget, with flatscreen Dell monitors, multicolored LED lights from Spencer’s illuminating the walls and office cubicle panels lining the hallways. Hell, the baby’s crib was made out of hockey nets. Why? Look to a low-budget film like Prospect for how persuasive and aesthetic a space experience can be with a small budget. Ship #7 felt cobbled together out of spare, current era components – and not in the good way. Look to Alien for a sexually charged discussion of Rape in a hard SF setting that is really, truly, hard SF.
Later in the film, there were so many poorly explained or simply unexplained offscreen events (Boyse waking up covered in buckets of semen, Tcherny laying down for a nap in the garden and then inexplicably dying, Ship #6 being overrun with dogs (this could have been such a cool symbolic moment but fell flat)) it felt like lazy – almost self-indulgent – writing.
Do not honor this movie with your time. It does not deserve your time.