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film, Miles discusses the growing epidemic – manifested so far only by a few people’s assertions that their family have been replaced by impostors – with a psychiatrist, Dr.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!”
ALF (bachelorhood) (Fenzel)
On the streets of Iraq, the faces of insurgents targeting U.S. soldiers and Iraqi policemen are young and male. From Haiti to the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda, from Afghanistan to the occupied Palestinian territories, the age demographic of rebellion and terror is remarkably similar. Young men – out of school, out of work and charged with hatred – are the lifeblood of deadly conflict.
– Richard P. Cincotta and Robert Engelman, “Conflict thrives where young men are many: Demographics of Discord,” International Herald Tribune, March 2, 2004
Meanwhile, three or four decades from now, after they’re done sifting grist and are good and drunk, ALF will give those film students plenty more to talk about. For ALF stood in for an entirely different alien threat to American suburban bourgeoise life: in a world of nuclear families, perfect marriages, and spunky kids with bowl and/or hockey cuts, squat, furry Gordon Shumway was the dangerous, the unpredictable, the foreign, the “other” – the bachelor.
In the 80s, the Boomers were just getting into their heyday of raising kids. In my corner of suburbia, let me tell you, married and unmarried people did not mix. Partly it was because unmarried people couldn’t or wouldn’t get themselves mortgages. Partly it was, in the reactionary era of Reagan, Americans leaving behind the ERA, rapidly resegregating their urban areas, and hunkering back down against the Communists, rediscovering wholesome values was once more presented as our only hope against instant annihilation. Obsessing about protecting children from unlikely threats became, and remains, the national sport. (Who doubts that, were Alf alive today, PBUH, the frothing parental masses would insist he ended up, entirely without cause, on some sort of draconian national sex offender registry? IT ISN’T DYSTOPIAN WHEN IT’S FOR THE CHILDREN!)
It was the era that brought you the childproof medicine bottle, firmly shifting the balance of power away from those with headaches to those irrationally terrified by their toddlers’ imagined ability to climb to the top shelves of cabinet. It was the decade when the 60s generation gave up fighting the status quo, traveled to the West and took the Grey Ships to J.C. Penny. It’s an era that is not yet entirely over. And why? Because the biggest segment in the U.S. population got married, and they got families.
Most revolution comes at times of demographic change, and that one of the most common correlations with revolution is a surge in the population of people without their own homes and families (either because of population distribution or the inability to support them). In a world where corporations are struggling to replace “Give Peace a Chance” with “Try Lemon Fresh Pine-Sol,” someone who doesn’t have a floor to mop is dangerous. No one is freer to upend the social order than someone with nothing to lose . . .
In suburbia, unmarried men are aliens. Sometimes society tries to band together and find him a wife, but if no such option is on the table, the bachelor quickly becomes “the other,” much like the ostracized woman who doesn’t want a husband, or, God forbid, those who have to deal with the great mass of people’s delusional madness with regards to persecuting the LGBT contingent.
And of course, by way of marginalization, when “the other” isn’t being a threat to everything you hold sacred, he’s busy with zany antics showing how unfit he is to be a father (but is this clip entirely without a political message? Alf showing the flimsy powerlessness of the Missile Man? You be the judge):
And Alf is the quintessential representation of indefinite bachelorhood. The stereotypes are all there. He’s not a homeowner. He’s hairy, sloppy and underemployed. He eats what he likes, and, unlike “human” males, he makes his own meals. He’s nice to kids, but you get a vague sense he shouldn’t be around them. He’s smarmy, affable and never quite understands why people like him, but won’t accept him. And he’s always chasing pussy.
They Live (class resentment) (Belinkie)
Times are tough for the nameless hero of John’s Carpenter’s twisted classic. We first see the man (played by Rowdy Roddy Piper, keeping his rowdiness largely in check) walking into town with all his worldly possessions on his back. The first place he goes is an employment office. He explains he worked in Denver for 10 years, “then things just seemed to dry up. They lost 14 banks in a week.”
His new friend Frank has a similar sob story. “Steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under.” But Frank knows who to blame–the rich. “They close one more factory,” he growls, “we should take a sledge to one of their fancy foreign cars.” Piper’s character, however, just tells him to be patient. Sure, he’s no fan of the rich, but it’s ridiculous to think about violence. After all, rich people aren’t monsters. Right?
In They Live, the rich are not merely profiting from the poor; they are malevolent aliens. And their crimes go way beyond economic exploitation. As one of the human resistence fighters explains, they’ve actually perverted human nature with some kind of mind control: “Racial justice and human rights are nonexistent. They have created a repressive society. They have made us indifferent to ourselves, to others. We are focused only on our own gain.” And here’s the kicker: “They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.”
That is correct: the aliens are responsible for global warming.
It seems that every problem in the world, from poverty to racism to the hole in the ozone layer, is entirely the fault of the aliens, who are disguised as the rich and powerful. And so Piper’s character does what any real American would do in that situation: he walks into a bank and begins killing rich people.
They Live is a jaw-dropping populist fantasy. Society’s problems can’t be solved by economic stimulus, a higher minimum wage, or affordable health insurance. Society’s problems can only be solved by armed revolution. Piper gets to save the world by blowing away the assholes who cost him his job, and he doesn’t even have to feel bad about it. “How many people have you killed?” Frank demands. Piper merely replies, “Not people.”
The movie was made in 1988, but watching it again reminded me uncomfortably of last fall. The economy was melting down, and there was this outpouring of blue collar rage against the fat cats on Wall Street who were destroying America for personal gain. People were so angry that Congress actually had to pass a law nullifying some of these executives’ contracts. Joe Sixpack was out for blood.
And as I was writing the previous paragraph, a thought suddenly popped into my head: “I bet Hollywood is remaking this movie.” And yup, Google confirms it. The announcement was made back in December, when investment bankers might as well have been monsters. Well played, Hollywood.
By the way, for those of you who haven’t seen it, please enjoy the PUT ON THE GLASSES!! fight.
Coneheads (immigration & assimilation) (Lee)
It’s not much of a stretch–the INS is after them–but it’s still worth mentioning the Coneheads and their pursuit of the immigrant’s American Dream. So instead of explaining the metaphor (there’s not explanation needed), I wanted to use this opportunity to ask: why is it that they come from France, of all places?
In this scene from the 1993 movie, it’s depicted as happenstance, but I suspect the creators had a more intentional reason for choosing that particular country. The Coneheads needed to represent broad swaths of the immigrant experience, everything from assimilation to alienation (pun intended). An immigrant from France can experience both ends of this spectrum: as a Western European country, France shares many cultural elements with America, yet also maintains enough distinction to repulse and frighten Americans:
Likewise, the Coneheads experience some success at assimilating into mainstream American life, yet always remain on its periphery:
That, and like the French, the Coneheads are white. As long as they can pass as Caucasians, immigrants=good, INS=bad!
Alien (vaginas) (Shana)
Today I shall endeavor to use literary analysis, both traditional and postmodern, to prove to you that the facehuggers in the Alien franchise symbolize the female genitalia. First, let me find my book on New Criticism so I can quote you some T.S. Eliot and—
OH MY FUCKING GOD IT’S A VAGINA WITH LEGS
All right, so its pretty obvious that the facehuggers are supposed to be vaginas: scary, gross vaginas that want to attach themselves to your face so you have to, like, taste them. Which is super-gross. Am I right, guys?
And here’s the scariest part of all: in space, vaginas impregnate you! It’s a world gone mad. Mad, I say! Luckily for you mens, there’s an Anti-Vagina living in the Alien universe, and her name is Ellen Ripley. Ripley truly is the ideal woman: when she’s not sleeping, which is often, she’s traipsing around in skimpy undergarments:
or carrying around giant phallic symbols:
Even though she’s super-hot eye-candy, Ripley never actually has sex with anyone, because that would involve someone touching her vagina, and vaginas are super-icky. I mean, look at this thing:
ACK GROSS. Thank God Ripley doesn’t have one of those.
Ripley becomes even more ideal a woman in the second movie, Aliens, when she gets to be a mother—without actually bearing a child! Thus:
Sweet. Why sweet? It’s sweet, because we want our women to be effective, badass mamas, but we don’t actually want them to birth the damn kids. That would be gross. Remember, everyone, vaginas are icky. And scary! Did I mention scary? LOOK AT IT:
I shudder. The world… shudders.
I must admit, I haven’t seen Alien 3, and I’ve blocked Alien Resurrection out of my memory. But I’m hoping the filmmakers, and even Ripley, herself, learned to accept the beauty of the female form. Perhaps Ripley and the Alien Queen joined forces to establish some sort of futuristic eco-feminist collective to take down the Weylan-Yutani Corporation and help humans and Aliens coexist peacefully. And maybe they developed some kind of facehugger abortion technique to preserve a man’s right to choose if he wants a baby alien bursting out of his chest and killing him. I hope so, because Oh! what a glorious, vagina-loving future that will be.