Unspecified Species

Fiction or not, aliens will always be a great enigma to me even if they are not worth figuring out. They’re just interesting that way. In reality, we barely know anything about them. This permits fiction storytellers to give aliens any attributes but must adhere to the “fact” they are from anywhere but here. In “Alien,” Ridley Scott uses our vague notions of aliens to fashion an inventive nightmare. Though the alien might be alone, the number and the strength of its alarming attributes is unknown.

The set-up goes like this. A cargo spaceship is rerouted when it has detected some kind of signal from an unknown planetoid. It is thought to be a distress call and the ship lands to investigate. No sign of life is found until one crew member finds a nesting ground. Curious as a cat, he disturbs one of the eggs and unexpectedly the enclosed offspring springs and attacks. The injured man is rushed back inside the ship, with the small life-form attached to his face. The crew tries to save him but they have no clue as to what they are dealing with.

For a movie before my time, this has evolved well to be a classic in its genre. “Alien” has a polished metallic look and the soundtrack is mostly at murmur level. The screenplay has a strong plot, which oddly didn’t feel so formulaic. The only thing that has aged is the look of the actors. There’s something distracting about a future populated by 70s-looking people. At least, the movie got it right that women (in the form of Sigourney Weaver) can kick alien ass like men in the future.

The terrifying part of the movie is not the reality of the alien. But it’s the imagined perception of the alien’s nasty capabilities. Even at the end of the film, we barely know anything about the creature. We only see it in bits and pieces, and imagination fills out the rest of its overwhelming presence. I haven’t seen the other movies of the series so I don’t know if the alien is fleshed out. But I’m predicting the alien would be less frightening the more I know about it.

In the recent indie “Mysterious Skin,” the alien in question is even vaguer and more mysterious. A young introvert named Brian (Brady Corbet) believes he’d been alien abducted when he was a kid. How else can he explain the blackouts, the nosebleeds and alien nightmares? At some point, he had been probed, experimented on. What is it that really happened? His investigation will bring him to the movie’s main character, Neil (Joseph Levitt-Gordon), a local prostitute who caters to gay men.

I watched the film curious to find out if it’s worthy of its good buzz. Well, I followed the buzz and I got stung. The movie is quite brutally shocking, to be brutally honest. I didn’t expect to cringe a lot, but I did. Unlike “Alien” where we’re mostly kept in the dark, here is a film that is seemingly mysterious but it shows more than it has to. It’s like watching a magician performing in the buff. As much as you would like to concentrate on the illusion, there’s an obtrusive distraction that’s out of place. It’s confusing. You’re pulled in by the movie’s story but pushed away by its sickening moments. At some point, I got tired of gauging my distance and by the end I was indifferent and detached.

I admit the movie had its moments. The best scenes come early when Neil recounts his special bond with a baseball coach when he was 8. These are cheerfully shot with a dream-like atmosphere (colorful cereals are thrown into the air) despite the peculiarity of their friendship. When Neil grows up, the movie becomes more grim and sadistic. There’s no denying that Levitt-Gordon is brave to wear the stripped hustler role but he tries too hard to be edgy. (If his character is meant to act edgy too then I give him props). Meanwhile, Brian’s subplot, which provides the alien angle to delve into its dramatic story, becomes less interesting as the mystery quickly wears off. The ending oddly lacks a certain impact for a film that’s forcefully gritty. Ultimately, I realize these alien stories aren’t about the aliens. They are just devices designed to aggravate a man’s curiosity and fear. If anything, they make us understand anything “alien” about ourselves. It’s no mystery that we’re a strange species, even to ourselves.

Grades:
Alien: A-
Mysterious Skin: D

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