Asimov, Lovecraft, & promiscuous continuities

Aliens

HERE’S A piece of news for you: Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 2, formerly known as Paradise Lost, Prometheus: Paradise Lost, & Alien: Paradise Lost, is now called Alien: Covenant, until a new title for it rolls around. Pfft, who cares? Prometheus was rubbish, & the whole world is much more excited for the same-franchise, rival-movie, Neill Blomkamp’s maybe-one-day-to-see-release Alien 5. And if we have to see Ridley Scott revisiting a gritty early sci-fi classic, aren’t we all way more excited for the Blade Runner sidequel? Yeah? Kind of? Yeah.

You know, in another world, both movies would be the same thing. Scott stopped just short of including explicit reference to Blade Runner‘s Tyrell Corporation in Prometheus. Given the visual & thematic similarities of Alien & Blade Runner, it only makes sense to bind them together as sisters in continuity. But, it could be argued, it doesn’t even require a Prometheus to do that. The recent videogame Aliens: Colonial Marines had absolutely no qualms about including a cheeky nod to Blade Runner. OK, given it also includes nods to Prometheus & Spaceballs, it may not be that significant, especially since Colonial Marines has trouble even fitting itself into the franchise. But the more authentic Alien: Isolation also enjoys a good Blade Runner nod.

& then, of course, there’s the matter of Soldier. Released in 1998 & forgotten shortly thereafter, the film was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson & written by David Webb Peoples, also credited for Blade Runner. Sharing many elements of continuity with Blade Runner, & incorporating several references to other Philip K. Dick works (Blade Runner was based on Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), Peoples admitted to seeing it as something of a sidequel to Blade Runner. But freeze-frame enthusiasts would also have determined that it shares a continuity with Aliens, thanks to a reference to Kurt Russell’s character Sgt. Todd 3465 having received training with the M41A Pulse Rifle & the USCM Smartgun. Those even fonder of freeze-framing may also have discerned the wreckage of Event Horizon‘s Lewis & Clark alongside a wrecked Blade Runner spinner. It seems appropriate, given that Event Horizon, also directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, so effectively aped the look & the mood of the Alien series that it was more satisfying than the same year’s Alien: Resurrection. About the only property it seemed to resemble even more closely than Alien was the videogame franchise Doom: in Doom, an experimental teleporter on Mars accidentally opens a portal to Hell; in Event Horizon, an experimental FTL engine in space accidentally opens a portal to Hell. Doom, the most influential first-person shooter game in history, had begun life as an Aliens licensee, before legal issues required a quick reskin & change in backstory. & what other weapon should Todd have been trained in the use of? The DOOM MKIV BFG! Perhaps we shouldn’t take all of this too seriously: the really really freeze-frame-savvy would also have spotted references in Soldier to Executive Decision (in which Kurt Russell starred as Dr. David Grant), Escape From New York & Escape From L.A. (in which Kurt Russell starred as Snake Plissken), Stargate (in which Kurt Russell starred as Colonel Jonathan O’Neil, & which also deals with aliens contacted via experimental portal technology), Tango & Cash (in which Kurt Russell starred as Lieutenant Gabriel Cash), The Thing (in which Kurt Russell starred as R. J. MacReady, & which owes its structure, mood, & nightmarishly-designed alien villain to Alien), Captain Ron (in which Kurt Russell starred as Captain Ron), Backdraft (in which Kurt Russell starred as both Captain Dennis McCaffrey & his son, Lieutenant Stephen “Bull” McCaffrey), Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (& thus indirectly every other iteration of Star Trek, too), & the Dexter Riley trilogy: The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, Now You See Him, Now You Don’t, & The Strongest Man in the World (which starred Kurt Russell as Dexter Riley, & whose use of Medfield College, a fictional university setting shared with The Absent-Minded Professor, Son of Flubber, & Flubber, recalled the use of fictional Miskatonic University in the works of Lovecraft). Soldier was clearly having its fun, & “Tannhauser Gate” has become almost an obligatory reference for science-fiction works.

But, at the same time, there might be something to this. Science-fiction giants of the late-twentieth century, Alien & Blade Runner both established handy ready-made references that later films could easily piggyback on, aiming perhaps to gain a bit of easy credibility or, less cynically, just to make audiences smile. Both were accepted into a wider canon of what we might call “promiscuous continuities”: fictional shared continuities which were a) open to new entries, b) proved to be attractive continuities for other writers, & c) could have continuity easily established with a throwaway line or references. Most of these pre-established promiscuous continuities came from pulp literature, in which originality is uncommon, but so is litigation. Prominent promiscuous continuities include: the Cthulhu Mythos, a cosmic horror continuity established by H.P. Lovecraft & others; the robot stories of Isaac Asimov, whose Three Laws of Robotics are sufficiently simple & sensible to be adopted whole by numerous other writers; & the world of Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in which mech armour is deployed against alien “bugs” (probably shares DNA with the aforementioned Doom: just as Aliens FPS games look like Doom ripoffs; just as the Doom movie, when it finally appeared, looked like a ripoff of Aliens, Event Horizon, or even Resident Evil, itself a videogame-to-film adaptation by Paul W. S. Anderson; just so, the eventual Starship Troopers movie owed a fair debt to the superior Aliens).

Academics would call this wealth of pre-established suggestive connections intertextuality, though the key difference is that, where intertextuality requires only that another work is being referenced, these are cases of it being invoked, i.e. the use of elements from that work are to establish that both take place within the same wider narrative universe. Connections to these promiscuous continuities are often so casually established that it’s easy to miss &, like invoking magic with spells, there are usually certain preferred phrases with which to do it. For Blade Runner, you just have to say “Tannhauser Gate”. For Asimov, it’s “Three Laws”, while for Lovecraft it might be Miskatonic University, the Necromonicon, or Cthulhu. Alien is often referenced via the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, while the Terminator films, sharing much cast & crew with the Alien series, are invoked in Aliens with Cyberdyne Systems.

Aliens just couldn’t stop namedropping, so it only made sense when a Freeze-Frame Bonus gag in Predator 2 led to a full-fledged crossover film directed by Paul W. “him again!” S. Anderson. In the comics world, things were taken even further with an Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator comic. Aliens came out in a more innocent time, & writer-director James Cameron was probably only aiming for window-dressing in hitting the big promiscuous continuities: the android Bishop, we are told, is Three Laws Compliant, while Starship Troopers, required reading for the actors, was invoked in one throwaway “bug hunt” line. Meanwhile the first Alien film, without ever directly referencing Lovecraft, has also been suggested to do a better job recreating the mood & themes of his works than most official adaptations, & between it & Prometheus, Lovecraft’s celebrated At the Mountains of Madness has pretty much been covered.

If one has to go to Alien for their Lovecraft fix rather than to other, more official sources, this is likely because most official Lovecraft film adaptations were by either Stuart Gordon or Brian Yuzna or both, whose successful Re-Animator set a comedic tone influenced by The Evil Dead & Ghostbusters, both of which suggested themselves as unofficial Lovecraft films. Lovecraft’s sphere of influence, however, extended beyond the cinema; it was a sufficiently promiscuous continuity for Doctor Who, who found himself battling Lovecraftian Old Ones several times in the novels; more officially, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos & Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria (home of Conan the Barbarian & other, less successful, creations) were mutually dependent. Conan the Barbarian even became a part of Marvel Comics continuity, which also included G.I. Joe, TransformersStar Trek, & another promiscuous continuity of the cinema: Godzilla.

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