Star Dreck: Paranoia & Patriotism in Alien Invasion Films

Star Dreck: Paranoia & Patriotism in Alien Invasion Films

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Star Dreck: Paranoia & Patriotism in Alien Invasion Films

My premise is really quite simple: aliens are among us.And they're bad.But they're not the aliens you think they are, and they're not bad for the reasons you might imagine.In order to understand who these aliens are and why they're bad I want to begin by reaching back into the dark heart of the McCarthy era, when American paranoia in its most popular incarnation as American patriotism was at its peak.The year is 1951 and the film is Howard Hawkes' The Thing: From Another World.

For those of you who have somehow come this far in your otherwise admirable education without once seeing this influencial film, a brief synopsis: a group of scientists at the North Pole discover a flying saucer buried in the ice, and with it the body of a man from Mars.Unintentionally, they blow up the saucer and melt the Martian.The thawed Martian, or Thing, proceeds to run amok, killing scientists and draining their blood in order to nourish its progeny.Importantly, a group of visiting air force men have taken over in this moment of crisis, a coup which the film seems to believe requires no justification.Thus the major conflict is defined; not, that is, between man and Martian, but between soldier and scientist.The leader of the scientists, Dr. Carrington--who is referred to earlier in the film as both a genius and, more significantly, the "man who was at Bikini," thus aligning him with the H-bomb--is portrayed as arrogant, cold, precise, unemotional, i.e., everything we've come to expect from a card-carrying 1950s egghead.In the four short scenes I'm about to show you, Dr. Carrington demonstrates just what we have to fear.

Thus the film has given us an intellectual whose chief characteristic is that he admires things more than people, aliens more than Americans.Carrington suggests that the Thing is in every way superior to the humans with which he is surrounded, and he is entirely willing to sacrifice himself and the others in order to add the alien's superior knowledge to the "brain," as he calls it, of his own culture.We might see in Carrington an enthusiasm for other ways of thinking and being taken to suicidal extremes, a sort of multicultural mania.

The soldiers, on the other hand, understand the mortal threat the Thing represents from the very beginning; in fact, they can't even stand to look at it--a deep-seated aversion which sets the plot in motion, as it causes a soldier to put a blanket over the block of ice which contains the Thing, thus melting the ice and setting it free.

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Throughout the film, while the intellectuals stand about debating endlessly about how to deal with the Thing, the soldiers resolutely do what is necessary to first exclude the alien from their midst, and then annihilate it, without wasting a moment worrying about whether the Thing and its culture are worth getting to know.As their commander says at the end, he doesn't want "any part of it."

In traditional readings of this film, the Thing is seen as a stand-in for our fear of Communism as a de-humanizing ideology, a system which made people into unfeeling, replaceable, souless plants.But I find this argument unconvincing.After all, the Thing does not represent the real threat in this film; rather, that distinction goes to Dr. Carrington, the intellecutal, who works at every turn to betray his fellow Americans because he believes in the superiority of the Thing and its culture.At most the Martian represents brute strength, while Carrington embodies the cunning arrogance of deceptive rhetoric and ideological fervor, which I would argue are the true trademarks of the demonized Communist.While the intellectual carrot, as the reporter Scotty calls it, is an enemy the American soldiers can understand, it is Dr. Carrington who is the true alien to them.As Margaret Sullivan, the commander's love interest and Dr. Carrington's secretary puts it, "he doesn't think the way we do."Thus, not only is Carrington saddled with the blame for creating nuclear weapons, but his desire to understand foreign ideas is figured as inherently fanatical, dangerous, crazy--and, most importantly, traitorous.Lastly, I would point out that Dr. Carrington--with his goatee and fur hat--looks a lot more Russian than the Martian does.

Of course, much has been written about The Thing as an expression of 1950s American paranoia, especially given the last line of the film, when the reporter Scotty warns the world to "Watch the skies!Keep watching!Watch everywhere!"Clearly Scotty is heralding the coming seige mentality of the Cold War.But I believe, given Carrington's intellectually amoral commitment to selling the whole bunch of them down the river, Scotty was also warning his fellow Americans to keep their eyes peeled closer to home; to watch not just the skies, but their neighbors.The American paranoid of the 1950s understood that the real threat to American ideology wasn't the brute strength of the Red Army, but the theorized tendency of certain intellectual internationalists to misread the mentality behind that brute strength as, in ways completely unintelligible to the average American patriot, fascinating and seductive.

Now I want to broaden our discussion to include two contemporary alien invasion films, this summer's blockbuster Independence Day, and the lesser known but thematically more explicit The Arrival.Even if you haven't seen Independence Day, or ID4 as it is known, I believe it's impossible to have been conscious through this summer and not know its plot: ugly aliens in big ships blow the hell out of New York and Washington and L.A. until a resolute fighter jock President kicks their butts back to Pluto.That's about it.ID4 could be called The Thing on steroids.The aliens want only one thing from us: that we die; so their threat is, like The Thing's, purely brutal.They don't attempt to seduce us with edenic rhetoric or promises of technological largesse. The only intellectual threat in the entire film comes from--surprise--a scientist, as played by Brent Spinner, who is so enamored of their technology and physiology that he considers them clearly superior to his fellow humans.

However, while the traitorous role of the intellectual isn't as developed in ID4 as it is in The Thing, the links between paranoia and patriotism are much more explicit.We might begin with the title of the film and the other obvious nationalistic tropes which are used to portray the humans who defeat the aliens as, above and beyond all else, American patriots.Even more significantly, I would point to the fashion in which, through the multinational attack force which is led by the Americans, the entire world is in a sense made over into America.As the President says just prior to the climactic attack, from now on July 4th will be Independence Day "for the whole world."

But independent from what?The aliens?That doesn't seem quite right.They don't want to master us, to have us live as their slaves; they just want us to disappear, so that they might strip the Earth of its natural resources and then move on.They are described as intergalactic locusts, and one hardly imagines achieving independence from insects.

I want to argue that what we are made independent from are all the necessities of a truly multicultural world, where American ideology is just one ideology among many.It is clear that it is American ingenuity, American determination, American pluck and sheer American chutzpah that achieve victory over the technologically superior aliens.The implication is that, once the tiny task of burying 1 billion dead is over, the New World Order that will emerge from the ruins--and there are of course a lot of ruins--will be one headed by the Americans; the further implication is that the evangelical patriotism of these Americans will do what 50 years of diplomacy and foreign aid haven't done, which is to finally convert all those foreigners to an essentially and eternally American zeitgeist.

Of course, you might object that the cast of the film is markedly, even hysterically multicultural: an African-American fighter pilot, a Jewish scientist, as well as a scattering of Asian and Italian and Irish Americans, etc., etc.It is the traditional multiethnic platoon from those formula World War II movies writ large.But I would counter that all this enthnicity is presented as remarkably homogeneous.In fact, the most markedly ethnic character, Jeff Goldblum's Jewish father (as over-played by Judd Hirsch), is used solely for amusement, arguably as an example of outlandish, antiquated, stereotypical and no longer relevant ethnic traits.Ethnicity as stand-up comedy.And, though the scene where fighter planes fill the air with the national symbols of everyone from Britain to Iraq seems at first glance properly internationalist, there is something sanitary about their ethnicity, something clearly ancillary and in a sense merely complementary to the resourceful American patriots.That scene in fact seems most reminiscient of the shots in British World War II films which show colonials of one nation or another coming to the call of their English masters in common cause against the Japanese.In other words, the world of ID4 is the world of American Empire, an empire which allows America to escape or outflank or render irrelevant the very demands and conflicts of multiculturalism which brought an end to the British empire.It is an empire where we need no longer fear illegal immigrants, for one thing because most of them lie dead in the rubble of the major metropolises, but also because after this Apocalypse all nations will be resurrected as cultural and ideological versions of America, and there will be no immigrants, illegal or otherwise.

Illegal immigrants are the explicit enemy of the last film in our discussion, The Arrival.Since more of you will not be familiar with this film, a brief synopsis: a radio astronomer discovers an odd signal coming not from the sky--which, according to The Thing, we are supposed to be watching--but from Central America.Upon investigation, he discovers that the aliens are already among us, disguised as humans, and are using fake power plants to pump our atmosphere full of greenhouse gases, which is what they breath.

The alien threat represented here is somewhat more sophisticated, if less muscle bound than in ID4.But there is one aspect to this threat that makes this film an excellent expression of 1990s American paranoia: the aliens and their pollution factories are based in 3rd world countries.The one we visit in Central America is staffed by aliens disguised as Mexicans, and there is heavy implication that human Mexicans have been bribed to help them).In other words, the aliens are explicitly identified with not only the contemporary American concern about illegal immigration, but also our fears about the loss of the South American rain forests and other eco-disasters; eco-disasters which our political rhetoric often seems to construct as somehow the fault of sloppy 3rd world industrial practices, or rampant 3rd world greed, or simple 3rd world incompetence.

Interestingly, the aliens in The Arrival, for all the technological mastery demonstrated by their pollution factories and disguis-o machines, have only one weapon, and it's not exactly what we'd call a weapon: it's a simple hand-grenade size sphere, which when activiated simply sucks up everything in a room, turning it into an empty shell--a sort of miniturized neutron bomb.While its explicit purpose is to erase evidence, I believe we could argue its implicit logic is not unlike the city-buster beams of the aliens in ID4, i.e., to create an empty space which then may be filled with whatever the aliens desire.Both weapons create Lebensraum, space to be occupied; but the vacuum sphere is an improvement on the brutal city buster beam, as it leaves no trace or rubble.What could better represent the ultimate paranoia of those who fear their traditions and sheer presence are being overwhelmed and subverted by strange foreign cultures, and that they themselves will eventually be forgotten, as if they and their history had never existed?

How much difference is there, really, between the black spaceships of the alien invaders, and the mythical black helicopters of those multinational United Nations troops who are even now massing in Canada?How much difference between an alien plot to pollute and inhabit our world, and an immigrant plot to pollute and inhabit our country?I need hardly point out that ID4 depends for its resolution on believing in the 2nd most popular American paranoid conspiracy theory, that being the whole Roswell/Area 51/alien autopsy scenario.If the aliens hadn't already been here and the government weren't concealing that fact from us, then the cable repairman couldn't use the alien figher to implant the virus and nuke the mother ship.In other words, without a concealed past and a deceptive present, the human race--again, a human race from now on decidedly and primarily American--would have no future.

Finally, there is one last bit of evidence in ID4 which I believe can be read as a link between its own ideology and that of paranoid patriotic militias, and here I refer to the destruction of the American monuments which has been shown hundreds of times in film clips.Most audiences greet the destruction of the white house and washington monument and empire state building, to say nothing of the destruction of most major American cities, with cheers and laughter.And after all, aren't such scenes straight out of the militia's most rabid anti-government, anti-urban fantasies?Such monuments and the cities which contain them are icons of those urban centers of crime and liberal ideology which we'd all be better off without anyway, leaving the country--or the West anyway--to rebuild the true American patriotic spirit.

Fifty years after The Thing, Americans still construct their patriotism around paranoid visions of untrustworthy internationalists, multiculturalists and illegal immigrants who are all too ready to betray and erase American culture and traditions.And thus does Independence Day confirm that the paranoid patriot was not only right, but also the key to a re-discovery of our patriotism--which now, the film suggests, is international, and perhaps even interplanetary.
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