The Alien franchise

The first Alien (by Ridley Scott, 1979) was brilliant. It is simply one of the best sci-fi monster movies ever made. Everything (except perhaps the annoying cat) works in this movie. It has a well-written plot, intelligent dialogue, great characters, and good acting. There’s no melodrama. There are no pointless sub-plots. There’s no tacked-on romance. The pacing is perfect. The use (and spotting) of music is as good as it can ever get. In brief, Ridley Scott’s Alien is a true classic, re-watchable many times.

In contrast, I hated the follow-up Aliens (by James Cameron, 1986). When I saw it, it only re-affirmed my prejudices about crappy sequels. I hated the cliched macho characters, the over-sized guns, the wide-eyed cute orphan kid, and most of all the pathetic mock-family — "mommy", "daddy", "girl" — that emerged at the end. It really made me want to stick a few fingers in my throat.

At first, I didn’t even bother to watch Alien3 (David Fincher, 1992), as I had become convinced by Cameron’s crap that the story didn’t have potential for more than one good film. That is, until the DVDs came out and I saw the so-called Assembly Cut of Alien3. I loved it immediately: the down-beat atmosphere, the music, the setting, the dialogue, Ripley being bald, the supporting cast, the supporting cast being bald, virtually everything but the fact all those supporting bald guys were rapists and murderers. (It would have been more tasteful if the setting had been a far-away mining colony, instead.) And I was soo pleased that they killed of Ripley’s mock family already before the story began (good riddance to rubbish characters), made Ripley an interesting character again, and gave her a pitch-perfect arc with that ending.

Alien3 is definitely my second favourite in the whole franchise. The now-famous troubled production is obviously unfortunate for those involved (esp. Fincher, it seems), but for me as a viewer it’s completely irrelevant. Alien3 is a great movie, and a worthy conclusion to the story of Ripley.

That’s also why I put off watching Alien Resurrection (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 1997) for a long time. I, like many others, thought that even the idea of a resurrected Ripley was bad, to say the least. Her story had reached a perfect resolution in Alien3, so what would be the point? Other than cashing in on the franchise, obviously. Anyway, I did see it eventually. While I still agree that bringing back Ripley was a Bad Idea, the movie turned out to be quite good. It’s actually a very good action movie, and has a lot of things working in its favour: the visuals, the cinematography, the story, and the characters were all great, although the acting did seem a bit hammy at times. Still, it’s definitely a film worth watching.

However, I had to convince myself that it wasn’t part of the true Alien continuity. Instead, I told myself that it was all happening in a parallell universe, with a Ripley-like character that just happened to share some superficial similarities to the real Ripley. I brushed aside and repressed from my conciousness any bit of dialogue that tied it in with the original Alien films. It’s much easier to appreciate the good qualities of Alien Resurrection if it’s seen as separate from the Alien franchise.

As for the gawdawful Alien/Predator films, I’d rather not think about them at all. I saw the first one, and roughly an hour of the second. Cinematic rubbish is about the nicest thing I can say about them.

Academia and ethics

Not long ago, Kingston University staff were caught trying to pressure students into giving dishonest replies to a nation-wide survey about student satisfaction. The BBC and Wikileaks have several informative postings about the subject. In a world dominated by marketing and PR, the underlying motto has become: what looks good, must be good. It’s the same logic that makes (some) university departments spice up their activity reports with dead projects listed as being ongoing, non-active students listed as being active, non-refereed articles being passed off as refereed, and so on. Dishonesty and deceit are seen as short-cuts to better-looking results, which increases the attractiveness for prospective students and sponsors.

Individual researchers do this, too, in the hope of increasing the apparent value of their own CVs. There is a whole website devoted to famous plagiarists, for instance, many of whom are scientists. Although I would suspect that plagiarism as a simple copy-and-paste procedure is less common than the practice of "forgetting" to credit one’s sources and properly display the origin of ideas. Although I must hasten to point out that while it’s often easy to suspect, "forgetfulness" is difficult to prove.

Ideally, a scientist should be a kind of guardian of truth. At the very least, s/he should be trusted to be honest and ethical about data, methods, etc., and nothing like the South Korean Scientist & the much-publicised affair of the faked cloning research. With the advent of high-tech computers and digital imaging, deceptions are becoming more and more advanced. See, for instance, this article about a caught attempt at using faked images for a medical research article.

There are also other types of deceitful behaviour in academia, some of which I’ve witnessed myself. For instance, I have been asked to forge signatures on applications, and fake receits for travel accounts; both with the claimed intent of simplifying paper work. (Don’t ask. I don’t understand it either.) I’ve even been asked to use my private bank account to "store" project funds in order to make it easier to access. Needless to say, I’ve refused participation in each case. It does make you wonder, though. Can people who rationalise shammy behaviour be trusted to produce honest research? Personally I doubt it. People who lack moral standards in one area, generally lack morals in other areas, too. The simple truth is that con men are con men 24 hours a day.

Anyway, this sounds a bit depressing, but it really isn’t. There are, generally speaking, good people in academia, just like there are elsewhere.