The continued critical acclaim and box office success of District 9 proves that audiences are comfortable with aliens as metaphor for apartheid. So the Overthinkers tackle other cultural artifacts that have used aliens as metaphor for something in the human condition. For only by stepping outside of ourselves … can we see ourselves … as we are.
Which is your favorite “aliens as metaphor” piece of pop culture? And did we miss one of the classics? Sound off in the comments!
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Suburban Conformity) (Perich)
Five decades behind us now, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers provides film students of all stripes with plenty of grist to sift through. A secret conspiracy subverts a small California town. Unsympathetic creatures from outer space murder everyone and replace them with “pod people.” Only one paranoid doctor knows the truth.
No two critics can settle on what this film is About. Some insist it’s an allegory for the growing presence of Communist subversion in the U.S. (our collective revulsion at the McCarthy hearings makes it easy for us to forget that this was actually happening, albeit not on so large a scale). Others take the opposite tack: that it’s a metaphor for the spreading tide of McCarthyism, turning entire communities against lone individuals. Neither of these answers really satisfy, though: contemporary films, either for or against anti-Communist alertness, tended toward a militaristic, confrontational tone (see On the Waterfront, or High Noon, or The Manchurian Candidate, etc). What makes Body Snatchers so chilling is its subtle, creeping horror.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers, ultimately, is about the fear of growing up.
Consider the theme through the lens of our protagonists, Dr. Miles Bennell and Becky Driscoll. They romanced as children but married other people. Having since divorced, their first conversation in the film has a flirtatious, playful tone to it. Miles jokes that they’re in the same club, except “I’m paying dues while you collect them.”
Miles and Becky are a man and a woman, attractive and attracted to each other. But they’re also both divorced. They have problems with commitment. These problems don’t make them any less attractive to each other, however. In fact, that freedom is a source of whimsy – an irony that they recognize in their first interaction.
Later in the film, Miles discusses the growing epidemic – manifested so far only by a few people’s assertions that their family have been replaced by impostors – with a psychiatrist, Dr. Kaufman. Kaufman explains these fears away as “an epidemic mass hysteria [caused by] worry about what’s going on in the world, probably.” Epidemics have been around since recorded history, but it took the young science of psychiatry to introduce us to the notion of mental epidemics. Contagious diseases spread through close living quarters, but contagious fears can only spread through close thinking. For a mass hysteria, everyone affected must already be thinking alike.
Consider also how the process of pod-replacement affects people: it makes them emotionless. They’re not necessarily sinister (except insofar as they want to kill you and parade a friend around who looks like you). They don’t have passion, fear or anxiety. The suburbs of the housing boom that followed World War II have often been interpreted as a concrete manifestation of a desire for placidity: not as loud and rushed as the cities, not as cold and demanding as a country estate. And the alien invasion starts in a small town, not a city (where population density would logically make assimilation easier).
As the evidence of this alien conspiracy begins to mount, Miles and Becky flee the town. They hide in Miles’s office from the police. During this time, Miles gives a speech about how he’s been watching people become emotionless for years. “I’ve seen how people have allowed their humanity to drain away. Only it happened slowly instead of all at once. They didn’t seem to mind. [...] We harden our hearts, grow callous. Only when we have to fight to stay human do we realize how precious it is to us.”
If this wasn’t conclusive proof of the movie’s message as a warning against social conformity, consider the movie’s chilling climax. Having taken shelter in an abandoned mine at the outskirts of town, Miles and Becky try for the last dash to freedom. Miles takes Becky in his arms to kiss her … and panics when she does not respond. Her kiss, passionate and flirtatious in the beginning of the film, has become mechanical. Before she was a childhood sweetheart he was taking out on a date. Now she’s his fiancee (“I want your children,” she told him before they fled). She has gone from Girlfriend to Wife, and Mile’s horror is complete.
“I never knew fear until I kissed Becky,” he says.
Only then, the purposeless dash from the aliens. The horror that leads him to stumble into traffic, trying to get the drivers’ attention. And finally (in the film’s intended ending), Miles pointing directly at the camera, at the hordes of suburban theatergoers watching his exploits in the anonymizing dark. He doesn’t tell them to take up arms or to keep watching the skies. That would imply there’s still a fight to be won. He tells them, “You’re next!”