Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens

Patterns and themes in science fiction films about aliens have often reflected social anxieties prevalent at the time of their release. In the 1950’s, this meant a lot of science fiction films reflected the cold war, the alien invaders representing the prevalent fear of communism. By the 1970’s, things had changed drastically with the public developing growing distrust in the American government, and there were more alien-centered films which began to reflect this new outlook.

The first major cycle of science fiction films in the 1950’s saw a large number of alien-based movies. Many of them were centered on invasion or otherwise treated the alien as a danger. Exceptions to the rule, such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, were rare. Movies such as The War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, and to a lesser extent Forbidden Planet, had the common trend that the government is cast in a positive light. If not soldiers themselves, the protagonists are often scientists or other individuals who co-operate with the military in defeating the invaders.

The 1970’s began to see some major changes in patterns with alien-centered films. There were still “alien invasion” stories such as the first remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Thing, Alien. However, there was also a new trend involving a larger number of films centered on more sympathetic aliens such as Close Encounters of the Third KindE.T.: The Extraterrestrial, Starman, and The Abyss. In spite of the obvious differences in story, these films did in fact share one element in common; the isolation or alienation of the protagonists from any form of authority. This in turn reflects a massive change in outlook at the time.

The 1960’s was a period that brought about great social strain in America, largely due to massive counterculture movements such as the sexual revolution and civil rights protests for the rights of women, minorities, and homosexuals. It was also a time when there was a growing distaste for the American government, in part because of the decision to join in the Vietnam War, and this was followed by the army gunning down a group of protesters at Kent State University. Later Nixon himself was impeached and forced to resign after his men were caught trying to plant microphones in the hotel room of a political rival. 

As you can imagine, the American population had good reason to be distrusting of their government. Many of the filmmakers associated with the science fiction genre in the 1970’s and 80's, such as John Carpenter, Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, lived through this period, and it subsequently influenced the style of their work.

Traces of distrust in authority can actually be seen early on with the Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World. In that film, the military heroes are cast in a moderately positive light. The protagonist, Air Force Captain Hendry, is seen as the proper authority and the person whom the rest of the crew trusts to handle the situation. Meanwhile, the scientist Dr. Carrington objects to Hendry’s decisions, and goes to great lengths to preserve the Thing in the name of science even after some of his own men are killed by it. 

The same cannot be said for Hendry’s superiors- from whom he repeatedly receives orders to refrain from taking action against the Thing even as it is wreaking havoc, and Hendry ultimately has to disobey direct orders in order and destroy the Thing with minimal casualties. 

The newspaper journalist Scotty is clearly upset when Hendry does not initially allow him to relay his news story about the discovery of the flying saucer, and protests that his story is one that should be heard by the whole world and he should be allowed under the American Constitution. Hendry tries to help but his requests to give Scotty clearance for the news story go unanswered, and in the end he grants him permission without receiving authorization. 

Howard Hawks was unusually progressive for his time, and here he manages to foreshadow several issues that would become more prominent during the following decade, particularly a rising awareness of freedom of speech, and most notably, the distrust and subsequent alienation from authority.

In the 1960’s, science fiction films began to become less popular, and there was a shift from using aliens to stand in for communism towards producing films directly showing nuclear war and Cold War paranoia, one of the most famous being the dark comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The 1970’s and 1980’s would subsequently see a revival of the science fiction genre, with the rise of several associated filmmakers, many of whom had lived through and had been influenced by the counterculture movements of the 1960’s. The re-emergence of the genre would in turn see a massive change in how aliens were depicted by science fiction. Whereas the 1950’s had largely been dominated by alien invasion stories, the 1970’s saw a curious emergence of films dealing with benevolent aliens.

Stories dealing with sympathetic aliens usually seemed to come in one of two flavors. The first plot type centers on human protagonists gradually discovering the presence of the aliens and attempting to make contact or to study them, as in The Abyss.

In the second style, the aliens themselves become the central focus, landing on Earth and often befriending a human co-protagonist as in E.T. or Starman. Either way, instead of the obvious threat of the alien, the conflict instead becomes one between humans, often because of corrupt, unreliable, inflexible, or unreachable authorities.

Of course, the alien invasion concept never went away, but instead, changed with everything else. Movies such as Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Carpenter’s The Thing continue to deal with threats posed by hostile aliens. The difference is that unlike the 1950’s it is no longer up to the military to save the day. 

The growing distrust of the government during the period is reflected by a distrust of authority; be it an actual government presence, the military, or even simply a person in charge. While in the 1950's it was up to the army to save the day, in the 1970's, responsibility to make things right—whether that means helping a friendly alien get home, making peaceful contact with a benevolent race, or to destroy a threat to humanity—falls upon the shoulders of ordinary individuals.

There are two common ways authority is handled in science fiction films from the 1970’s onward. The first and most straight forward is for the heroes to be cut off from any sort of government or military body, forcing them to act on their own initiative. In The Thing, it is established early on that the protagonists are unable to contact the outside world for help due to problems with the radio. It is not long after the Thing is discovered that Garry – the station manager and closest person to an authority figure – is suspected of being infected. 

It is the helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady who steps in to organize the increasingly paranoid men. Later that breaks down and the crew begin to distrust MacReady after it appears that he may have been infected. MacReady then has to resort to threatening his colleagues with dynamite and a flamethrower to maintain control, though the remaining men co-operate with him after he manages to prove himself human. 

The second way that authorities are commonly handled in films of the 1970’s occurs if a body of authority, such as the government or the military, is involved with the story. They are either seen as a serious threat, and/or treated as unreliable. The authority figure will almost always be cast in a villainous role, hindering the goals of the protagonists. In fact, if the main cast includes some form of authority figure, they will likely lose their position in the plot in favor of either a subordinate taking their place or everyone working more closely as equals (as we see with Garry in The Thing).

In Alien, it is the corporation that poses a serious threat. After three of the crew of Nostromo, including the captain and first officer, have been killed, Ripley discovers that science officer Ash was actually a robot planted by their employers to ensure the alien is brought back safely, even if it means the deaths of the crew. 

Prior to his moment, this was the person the crew had trusted with their lives in figuring out how to defeat the alien, and the whole time he had actually been protecting it. The crew are considered expendable by their own superiors, who have made it a priority to ensure that the Alien is brought back to Earth and used for research for potential weapons. 

Now to be fair, you could make the argument that the sequel Aliens casts the marines in a sympathetic light. While this is true, they do end up in a similar position to the protagonists in Alien after losing their commanding officer, and it is eventually revealed the company man who hired them has also prioritized bringing back a specimen for weapons research over their lives. Also, in keeping with the trend seen in movies of this period, it ultimately comes down to the civilian Ripley to save the day.

On a similar level, Starman has the role of authority taken by the government agent George Fox, who relentlessly pursues the title character. The Abyss has the military represented by the navy SEAL team, whose commanding officer Lt. Coffee grows visibly paranoid while still remaining in charge with his own men continuing to follow orders. 

Unlike Hawks’ The Thing From Another World, Carpenter’s The Thing eliminates the presence of organized military figures. Instead, the cast is confined to a twelve-man Antarctic research expedition. In Hawks’ film, the crew, aside from Carrington, was united against a common danger and, under Hendry’s command, mobilized to defeat it. In Carpenter’s film, the civilian crew are slowly torn apart from each other and, until MacReady figures out the blood test, forced to rely on themselves as they do not know who they can trust.

Once in a while we might get an a non-conformist within with the predominant authority who is cast as sympathetic and tries to object to their authoritarian interference. In any case, they try to do their job as best they can, but will constantly voice their opinion and in some cases even try to take action.

A good example would be the SETI astronomer Sherman in Starman, who repeatedly protests against George Fox’s plans and wants to meet the alien under more pleasant circumstances. He eventually goes as far as to deliberately provide false information to a local police unit in order to keep the Starman from falling into government hands. 

Similarly, in The Abyss, it is the Navy SEAL medic, Ensign Monk, who remains the only member of the team to treat the Deep Core crew with respect, recognize Lt. Coffey’s unreliability, and eventually assisting in disarming the nuclear warhead Coffey has sent towards the aliens. 

Both are similar to the French scientist Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who protests in vain against the government’s secrecy and refusal to allow civilians personally invited by the aliens to be included.

This distrust continues on to more recent science fiction films, as seen in the 1997 film Contact, in which the aliens become a backdrop for a very human conflict between scientists, politicians, and religious leaders. This in turn creates a number of problems when the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, discovers the first confirmed signal of extra-terrestrial origin. 

The government is depicted as obstructive and paranoid, with security advisor Michael Kitz constantly assuming the worst and not always listening to Ellie. At the end, during Ellie’s trial, Kitz persistently maintains that she hallucinated her journey to Vega claiming there is not a single shred of proof, but he is revealed shortly after to have kept quiet about one crucial piece of evidence to the contrary: the fact that Ellie's headset recorded 18 hours of static during an event that he publicly insisted lasted less than a minute.

As a thought experiment, we could imagine how The Thing from Another World might look if it were instead made during the 1970’s (disregarding the fact that John Carpenter's remake came out in 1982). Going on the established pattern, Captain Hendry would become the ignorant, close-minded, and obstructive villain, while the arrogant and troublesome Dr. Carrington would be the hero responsible for preventing Hendry’s men from destroying a misunderstood life form. Similarly, if The Abyss were made in the 1950’s, Lt. Coffey and his SEAL team might instead have been the heroes, mobilizing the civilian crew and preventing a surprise invasion from the aliens below.

Over time, science fiction films, especially those centered on aliens, have changed from positively emphasizing dependence on authority to focusing on the individual and self-reliance. This in turn has been a reflection of changes in society over time as the public changed from being dependent on the government to slowly becoming alienated from it. Regardless of whether the movie casts the aliens as invaders or if the aliens are made sympathetic, these films have increasingly become more about the responsibility of the individual over dependence on authority.

The trends of both the 1950’s and 1970’s may in fact continue into the present day, but may also be changing to more of a balance. Nowadays we do seem to have more pro-government films such as Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, and Pacific Rim, which cast the authorities or military in a positive light but also manage to put emphasis on the individual. It makes you wonder just what sort of pattern is forming in modern science fiction, and what events it is in turn reflecting.

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