Best Use of Aliens As Metaphor [Think Tank]

Best Use of Aliens As Metaphor [Think Tank]

Before District 9, what were aliens teaching us about ourselves?


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!”

14 Comments on “Best Use of Aliens As Metaphor [Think Tank]”

  1. Lara #

    “were Alf alive today”

    Did I miss something? Like a heartbreaking series finale perhaps?

    Awesome post.

  2. fairportfan #

    “Overthinking it” is right.

    I hope this is a put-on, but i’m terribly afraid it isn’t.

    Of all of these exigeses, the most ludicrous is the one of “Alien”.

    Ripley was originally male in the script.

    Sigourney Weaver was just so good that they cast her as Ripley, with no real changes in script. (Likelou Gossett in “An Officer and a Gentleman”, a part written assuming the actor would be white.)

  3. Arnaud #

    A small mistake: Ripley does have sex with the prison’s doctor in Alien 3…

  4. Chris #

    Star Trek: First Contact
    The Borg as AIDS (or any virus, for that matter).

  5. Me #

    Do not forget about Enemy Mine. It may have taken place 100 or so years in the future, but the movie was clearly about racism. Jerry may have been a Drak, but come on, he was really black. Not only are the Draks used as slaves, but Jerry is portrayed by Lou Gossett Jr.

    Great movie.

  6. Timothy Toner #

    Predator as an ANTI-hunting film. Think about it–many of the animals we hunt for sport lack sufficient color definition, so that we can wear day-glo overalls and yet somehow melt into the background. Its weaponry is vastly superior to our own, yet it pursues those with the biggest ‘guns’, because they might just pose a threat. It even records the sounds the prey makes, and repeats them when it wants to attract other prey (a duck call). Predator 2 reinforces this view, with the alien allowing the pregnant cop to go free–wouldn’t want to screw up future gaming stock. In short, it’s about how fundamentally unfair the current state of game hunting is. At the same time, though–an animal can get in one lucky shot every now and then, and turn the tables.

  7. Adam #

    You mentioned you haven’t seen Alien: Resurrection. Too bad, your breakdown of the sexuality of the aliens would’ve benefitted a lot from that movie, since it’s the most obvious deconstruction of sex and femininity in the series.

  8. Graham #

    Actually, Ripley had a child on earth who was awaiting her return from the voyage of the Nostromo in the first film. In the second movie, she finds out that her daughter has died of complications from old age while she was in hibernation, which is what makes her adoption of Newt at the colony in Aliens so touching, and is what makes her plight in Alien 3 and 4 take on deeper weight.

    Seriously, I get the joke you’re trying to make about woman parts, but your research is severely lacking. If you’re going to really be “overthinking it”, you really need to be “minimally researching it” at the same time.

  9. Todd #

    The Jaffa in Stargate as a metaphor for slavery and oppression. While it would be easy to say they represent black slaves only, simply because Teal’c was black, a deeper examination reveals that they work on many different levels: The American Revolution, the Hebrew Exodus from Egypt, the European resistance against the Nazi regime, and most of all the modern struggles of Iraqis against Saddam Hussein/Afghanis against the Taliban. This last possibility is even more intriguing if you consider that the goa’uld are recognizable as middle eastern to a Western audience (deserts, pyramid ships) and that the Jaffa receive aid from the modern US Air Force in their fight against their ancient oppressors.

  10. Bob #

    Hah, the alien one was funny :P Comparing abortion of a sub-sentient alien killing machine that will murder you in the birthing to abortion of a sentient being with rights of its own is a bit iffy, but the rest of the article was pretty funny and yes, I think everyone’s noticed the facehugger’s rather suggestive mouth parts :D

    Oh and to Timothy Toner; that could very well be seen as the purpose of predator. If so, however, it (and your own comments) are pretty heavily flawed. First and foremost because we kill animals to survive, and it is undeniably more humane to hunt than to raise livestock. Livestock are seen as a necessity for modern society, but the lives of the animals themselves are horrible and unnatural, and no doubt confusing and distressing for them as well, to whatever degree they experience such emotions. Being hunted down and killed, however, is the fate that practically every herbivore can expect in its old age, if it manages to make it that far first. It is natural; even hunting by humans with weaponry has been going on long enough to easily be called natural. Every deer or pig or whatever you hunt and kill is one less animal that has to be subjected to the highly unpleasant situation of being held as livestock. Hunting and fishing for your own protein is about the most nature friendly thing a person could do. Not to mention the fact that hunters, hunting organizations, and fees upon hunters do more than every single eco-organization on the face of the Earth to protect wildlife and improve or re-habilitate habitats. The day PETA (those dog murdering hypocrites) and their pals manage to ban hunting is the day American wildlife and wildlife habitats start the march for their graves. About the only space your folks haven’t turned into shopping malls and salons is the space my folks have bought and turned into preserves and conservation land.

    So please, calm down the whole anti-hunting thing. It is one of the most brazenly uneducated and hypocritical arguments in history. There’s only one humane way to procure meat and it sure isn’t from the grocery store :P

  11. fenzel #

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say the Predator films are pretty pro-Predator. The Predator’s chief trait is that he’s totally awesome. His secondary trait is that he’s an alien. Killing people is a distant third, and most of the people who die in Predator movies are pretty annoying and kind of ask for it.

    AVP supports this thesis.

    As for AVP:R, if you saw it, tell me what it’s like, because I am amazed at your courage and initiative.

  12. Lisa #

    I think Predator comments more on colonialism rather than anti-hunting. You’ve got a technologically superior force invading and reaping trophies from a third-world, tropical landscape while massacring the natives, who in spite of their noble efforts to fight back with their primitive weapons just don’t stand a chance. Various nations have appeared as colonial forces throughout history such as the English, French and, oh, Dutch.

    Pete- While I know that AVP and and Predator technically share a franchise, don’t you think it’s rather cruel to relate them like that? It’s like garnishing a Christmas ham with Spam and Baco-bits.

  13. Bon Findley #

    I agree with Timothy Toner.

    Bob: In this day and age of technology, hunting is an act of cowardice – using advanced weaponry to kill defenseless nonhumans. If you hunters are such heroes, try “hunting” with no weaponry. Yeah, I thought not.