Mirror in the Sky: How We See Aliens and Ourselves

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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Two Views of Aliens

After World War II, where victory depended as never before in history on scientific advances, Americans had a deeply ambivalent attitude toward science. On the one hand, we were grateful for the role science had played in defeating Germany and Japan, and for the promise it offered of improving life in many ways. On the other hand, we were deeply troubled by some of the immense powers that science had unleashed. Also, we were no sooner free of the threat of Nazi Germany than we were confronted with a new threat in the form of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. Science fiction films of the Fifties frequently followed one of two patterns: aliens as saviors or hostile invaders.

With only crude warning systems, Americans found themselves vulnerable for the first time to sudden attack. It had already happened at Pearl Harbor and there were occasional rumors that Nazi Germany was planning bombing raids (it would have required building multiple clandestine bases in North America because no plane had sufficient range, but paranoia isn't deterred by mere facts.) In the early years of the Cold War there were volunteer observer units that practiced scanning the skies for hostile aircraft. In this sort of climate, it would be an absolute miracle if there hadn't been some sort of national hysteria involving mysterious apparitions in the skies.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1953)

One of the classic, indeed cult films of the "alien as savior" genre. An alien ship (a saucer, of course) lands in Washington D.C. and a startlingly human pilot emerges with a rather menacing robot servant. He announces that his mission is peaceful, but after the military begins to become paranoid, he escapes to take his message to the people of earth. He convinces a scientist to convene a meeting of his colleagues from all over the world, and to demonstrate his power, shuts off all energy sources on earth for one hour (but spares facilities like planes in flight, hospitals, and so on). While returning to his ship, he is mortally wounded by the military, but his robot companion places him in a machine that temporarily restores him to life. He reappears, issues a warning that the earth has become a danger to the rest of the universe, and departs.

The idea that the earth could be a danger to the rest of the universe is megalomaniac in the extreme, and the idea that the clumsy weapons of the 1950's could be a danger is downright laughable. Some of the "savior" films suggested that aliens were watching because they viewed us as a danger, others that they hoped to save us. But they all hinted that someone would step in before things got out of control.

Many people also viewed science as a threat to religion, and a lot of science fiction films threw in a reassuring nod to religion. In this film, a human woman who has befriended the alien sees him revived and asks if their civilization even has power over life and death. "No," he reassures her, "that power is reserved to the Almighty."

War of the Worlds (1962)

One of the last and best of the "hostile alien" genre, a retelling of H. G. Wells' classic story set in California. After proving invulnerable to our most advanced weapons, the aliens are close to wiping out humanity when they succumb to microbes in our atmosphere. Good special effects for the time, although a tad quaint by modern standards.

Reality check: wouldn't advanced aliens test for the presence of dangerous microorganisms before mounting a full scale invasion?

Again we have a reassuring nod to religion. The narrator explains that the aliens had been unaffected by our countermeasures but fell prey to the microorganisms that "God in his wisdom" had created. The film closes with a scene of a crowd singing a hymn. Americans of the 1950's desperately wanted to be reassured that science would not make God obsolete.

The One, the Only, The Inimitable

At the other end of the spectrum, we have what is widely regarded as the worst movie ever made. It can only be Plan Nine From Outer Space. A hybrid of invading alien film with vampire and zombie movie, it excels in being bad in all respects. Mere words cannot do this film justice.

Ed Wood, the producer, had befriended Bela Lugosi, a once celebrated horror actor who had been largely forgotten and who was in the last stages of dying of drug abuse. He shot some hand-held footage of Lugosi and billed him as the star of the film, accurately noting that the film included the last footage ever shot of Lugosi.

When you are almost done shooting, and your star dies, you can work around it. When you're halfway done, and the star dies, you can sometimes salvage the film if you have a good cast. When your star dies before you start shooting, you have a problem. The ever audacious Wood killed Lugosi off by showing him walking off camera to the schlockiest narration ever. Do not have food in your mouth when you watch this scene! Wood then fakes Lugosi by having another actor mimic Lugosi's famous cape across the face.

And what is Plan Nine? It involves reanimating recently dead humans. The aliens proudly announce that there are no human witnesses left alive. Got that? They're reanimating dead people and simultaneously killing live people but not reanimating them.

In the climax, the hero invades the alien ship and, since our mightiest weapons (stock World War II footage) had had no effect, decides the only solution left is a good old American punch in the mouth. While he and the male alien slug it out, the ship catches fire(!) and the female alien proves as simpering and helpless as human females in films of the time. The hero escapes, the ship takes off, but explodes in flight.

The film Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp in the title role, is a nice companion piece to the film. The film intercuts some of the cheesy effects of Plan Nine with Wood saying "This is the one they'll remember me for."

Wood was a man of high ambition coupled with a total lack of talent. He didn't bilk his backers out of money - he honestly believed he could produce great films. He befriended an over-the-hill film great and gave him a little companionship and compassion in his last days. Every night the news features footage of people being led off in handcuffs who have more talent in their little fingers than Ed Wood had in his whole body. THere are far worse things to be than a benigh incompetent like Ed Wood.

Paradigm Shift

Cowboys and Aliens

The rise and fall of hostile alien films closely paralleled another American idiom, the western. Both were morality plays featuring the Good Guys (white Americans) fending off an unholy, seemingly unstoppable horde of savage opponents (Indians, aliens). This scenario closely paralleled the self image Americans had of themselves in the real world, defending democracy against first Fascism, then Communism. In 1955-56, none of the top ten rated television programs was a western. The following year, Gunsmoke made the list and the year after that five of the top ten shows were westerns. In 1958-59, seven of the top ten programs were westerns, including the top four spots. By 1962-63, only Gunsmoke and Bonanza were in the top ten, where they stayed, with occasional interruptions, through the Sixties. 1973-74 was the first year with no westerns in the top ten.

When the World War II series Combat was produced in the 1960's, the producers lamented how hard it was to find sets, and noted that if the war had been fought in the Old West they could blow up a different town every week. By the 1980's, producers who made occasional attempts to revive the western were finding it almost impossible to find props.

What happened? Partly, the genre simply saturated the market and wore itself out. But also there were powerful challenges to the simple morality play concept. The Civil Rights movement made Americans conscious of widespread injustices in American history, including toward Indians. And there was a very messy business called Vietnam, where neither the local populace nor many Americans regarded us as the Good Guys.

Whenever an idiom starts to parody itself, that's a sure sign it is losing its power. The late 1960's saw two changes in the western idiom. First, there were a large number of westerns that dealt with the closing of the west. Second, there were dark, cynical films nicknamed "spaghetti westerns" because many were produced by Italian filmmakers (and mostly filmed in Spain.)

Star Trek

The time was ripe for a new vision of humans interacting with other species, and Gene Roddenberry supplied it in Star Trek. Considering the impact this series had on American society, it is positively embarrassing to read listings of the eminently forgettable dreck that routinely outperformed Star Trek in the ratings. Star Trek spent its three seasons near the bottom of the ratings before going off the air. It went into syndication, where it has never gone off the air. After almost two decades of attracting a loyal viewership, it eventually had enough credibility to attract money for a feature film. It was a dreadful film, but it was Star Trek! The film led to eight more films and three spinoff series, all of which stayed on the air far longer than the original series. Die-hard fans can literally watch Star Trek for a solid month, 24 hours a day, without seeing the same thing twice.

The special effects were crude even by the standards of the time, and the series had the misfortune to appear during the fashion excesses of the Sixties.

Nichelle Nicols (Uhuru) was the first black actress to be cast as a social equal with white males in a prime-time television series. As she tells it, she was convinced the series was not a good choice for a serious acting career, and she had told Roddenberry she was planning to quit. She was in her dressing room when an aide told her a fan wanted to see her. She figured it was someone wanting an autograph and told the aide to let him in. She turned around to find herself face to face with Martin Luther King. He told her how much he enjoyed her work, and she explained that she had decided to quit. He replied: "You can't do that. Do you have any idea how important what you're doing is?" Years later, recounting the event in an interview, the awe in her voice was palpable.

Modern Sci-Fi


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Created 26 February 2001, Last Update 14 December, 2009

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