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Gothic Themes in "Alien: Alone" and "Harvest" (2019)

Recently, I saw the Alien 40th Anniversary short, "Harvest," directed by Ben Howdeshell, and "Alone," directed by Noah Miller. I made a response video. In this post, I wanted to explain why the authors' works are so enjoyable for reasons that go beyond the scope of my original response.

Note: Watch "Alone" first, here; then "Harvest," here.

In my video, I'd watched all of "Alone" before deciding to "react" to "Harvest," on camera. I then took some time comparing the two. To a certain point, comparison is foreseeable; they share the same universe, the same palimpsest (or so it would seem). In truth, there's more to emulate than Alien—or rather, more to emulate than a singular take on Alien's sinister worldview. Scott's latter-day prequels imperfectly replicate an old proposition; so do "Alone" and "Harvest." There's much to recognize, but new directions to explore.

To an extent, so was Alien, when it debuted. Visitations to an ancient world relayed cryptic messages—a beacon, for starters. Emitting from a bony vessel steeped in shadows, its pursuit pushed the violence of mad science into a tenebrous parallel: the cathedral-esque Nostromo. Disinterred, the past revives in a still-living craft. The skeleton ship was a grave-like marker of what had already transpired many times, before (936, to be precise); its trauma elided with that of another threat, the company's agenda. Both are off-world, a nebulous history that bleeds into the kaleidoscopic tableaux.

The trick is occupation. In Alien, the two ships are mirrored castles; their perils exchange through a closeness, a space shared over time. Think of it as a recursive nightmare, a Gothic "time-space" or chronotope (what Bakhtin calls, in Gothic novels, the castle chronotope). Except, this nightmare can reoccur in new stories, what Borges might call a "circular ruin." In a shared universe, situations repeat, replete with a bevy of familiar characters and locations. Each cycle makes use of them, but differently. "Harvest" and "Alone" demonstrate just how different, while still being cut from similar cloth. Textually they align; thematically their focus is idiosyncratic.

Both feature aliens, androids, survivors, and "castles." Like the Nostromo before them, the November and Otranto are less like ships and more like castles in space. At some indeterminate point, evil befalls them, the likes of which envelopes all parties involved. The androids are crafty servants; jogged loose from the corporate chain, they obey their masters in the loosest possible sense. Their indifference for humankind couples with a poorly disguised admiration for the grander menace surrounding everyone; either sensation is thinly veiled on a doll-like face.

I found myself appreciating "Harvest" for its gritty, in-door light show. On a collision-course with the comet, the crew's actions are reduced to a game of cat-and-mouse; they cannot avoid the hunter's presence. Instead, the actors communicate with their bodies. One of my favorite moments was early on, when the pregnant woman groaned. I loved how everyone froze, their faces twisting in panic. Any sort of verbal protest might cost them their lives.

While a little lite on smoke or steam, the variety of strobe lights (and the negative spaces by which to shine them through) recalled Ripley's despair, decades prior. The "hunting" portions could have been darker. However, the myopic quality of the motion tracker is a clever trick; it holds our gaze. When the creature does attack, it emerges out of frame or from the darkness where nothing is visible (Milton's "darkness visible"). I recall a distinct lack of non-digital splatter. Instead, much of the impact derives from the pacing, itself (watching the husband do his best not to pull out his hair, I sympathized; the tension was palpable).

The story in "Harvest" is somewhat basic, its themes mostly textual. It begins in medias res, "in the middle of things." The title of the short is "Harvest"; the craft is a harvesting vessel called the November (which marks the end of the harvest season, after Samhain); as they try to escape, the crew are harvested by their perfidious guide (who is then sacrificed by the creature, looking on). Her identity as an android is very last-minute. A twist, it reveals the central cause for all this mess: crops. The whole disaster is merely a ruse to infect several crew members for the company to collect. Strange fruit, indeed.

"Alien: Alone" is very much the opposite. Rather that communicate through action and peril, it tells its story through isolation. It clocks in at over twelve-minutes, the longest of the bunch. Its protagonist is Hope, a lonesome android. Left to stagnate aboard the derelict Otranto (a lovely nod to Horace Walpole), she narrates her aimless journey through the impenetrable void. Her face is a ceaseless portrait, her voice describing one day after another. Many shots are announced by specks of out-of-focus light; slow-fade transitions are frequent, adding to the dream-like feel.

Light is a textual theme, here. At times, Hope is wreathed in light; others, shadow. She talks to herself (and, by extension, us). Eventually she befriends a marooned specimen freed from its lab container. It wounds her, but she doesn't mind; the isolation is far more worrisome, especially its end. There's a futility to everything that occurs, here. Her name, Hope, is ironic because she has little if any ("I do not think the ship is going to make it," she croaks). The danger is gone. She is simply alone, slowly breaking down. So is the ship and the alien. Her last act isn't desperate, but consigned, a somber footnote.

Still, Hope pushes forward, determined to reach her goal. She is boarded by a fellow, unsuspecting castaway. She subdues him with glee, holding the decrepit parasite over his face (action is not this movie's strong suit). While Hope waits, she continues her drawings, something of a governess; like Jane Eyre, she is handy with a quill. The artwork, the narrations—these allude to "The Crossing" prologue, for Alien: Covenant (2017). So does the shot when Hope emerges, walking from the background into focus.

These are not identical nods to the earlier work, however. Instead, they are clever variations. While her prisoner sleeps, Hope draws to distract herself. She has no subject, like David had. Instead, the drawing is her own miniature. Fussing over it, she lashes out with her pen, ruining her image. As she does, she"weeps" milk (not tears, like David did, for Walter or Shaw). Together, the "tears," failing voice and ruined likeness—each imply a deeper pathology concealed by Hope's pristine visage. Her perennial lack of maintenance is not unlike David's, in Covenant. On her own island, she doesn't die; she slowly goes mad. She would seem to lack David's cultured mind. Instead, she stumbles upon his artwork, the lab a luminous kind of storage locker.

At times, I felt as though the lighting were a mask, made to conceal technical limits. The smooth-bodied Otranto exterior is nearly invisible, cloaked in darkness; others, obscured by lens flare. The use of light was symbolic, as well, however. Born, the creature glistens, crystalline. The light fractals do not merely hide the beast; they announce it as something rapturous for Hope to bask in. Here, the (excellent) music rises, prompting the arrival of a kind of errant lord. Walpole's novella ends with the disintegration of the castle, the wayward sire come home:

"The moment Theodore appeared, the walls of the castle behind Manfred were thrown down with a mighty force, and the form of Alfonso, diluted to an intense magnitude, appeared in the centre of the ruins. Behold in Theodore, the true heir of Alfonso!" —Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto (1764)

This "true prince of Otranto," in "Alone," is the creature, a hideous reversal the likes of which David created through his own "Adam," his own Creature (as Victor before him did, in Mary Shelley's novel, Frankenstein). It is a perversion, but one Noah enshrines in light:

This beast is Hope's Theodore, her "god's gift." She did not make it, David did. He lorded over the creature, arms outspread; Hope, by comparison, kneels before it, rapt. I appreciated the continuation of the artistic cycle, the beast heralded by heavenly light: "wrapped in it from mortal eyes like a blaze of glory" (to use Walpole's language). The xenomorph did not kill David; perhaps Hope will survive and carry on her ancestor's work. He waited to approach humanity's creators, only to destroy them; will Hope face hers, only to bring about their demise?

Seeing the creature, I recalled J.J. Adam's closing lines in Forbidden Planet (1956): "Alta, about a million years from now the human race will have crawled up to where the Krell stood in their great moment of triumph and tragedy. And your father's name will shine again, like a beacon in the galaxy. It's true, it will remind us that we are, after all, not God." Neither was David; his failed creation reflects this: 

"How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God!" —Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (1818)

David's madness is different than Victor's. His adoration, not hate, for the creature is blind. He loves the monster. So does Hope. It is their "demon," a word uttered with love. And perhaps it is easier for them to grasp this perverse love; they are replications, themselves, horribly mistreated. David was abused, and Hope left to die by her human counterparts. "And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"

"Alone's" thematic material embraces latter-day Scott. A drama at heart, it depicts the modern Prometheus as an ancient, artistic struggle. By comparison, "Harvest's" themes are largely textual, told through speechless action. "Alone" enjoys more analytical potential; "Harvest" is a feast for the eyes. Conversely, Noah's photographic eye is solid, employing various tricks and workarounds worthy of praise. Ben's gore reliably shocks; his suspense cultivates the imagination, long after the hunt is over. We know what's in the box, at the end; our imaginations work overtime, regardless.

Expanding on the Alien world, both remain open-ended; I'd happily watch a sequel of either.

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