Magonia 86, November 2004
If aliens ever came to earth to trade, raid or simply take pictures for Galactic Geographic, it always seemed to me that they would do so by disguising themselves and their technology in such a way that they simply blended in with the natives as much as possible, or they would hire locals to do much of the work for them and act as guides and interpreters. Even on earth, people who need to work or do business in foreign countries do this all the time, and also try to learn something of the native language and customs before they go.
No matter whether their intentions were sinister, benevolent or neutral, they would try to mimic humans at least to some degree, simply in order to carry out their tasks without being disturbed. In the TV mini-series V for example, the reptilian Visitors walk around at first wearing human suits and talking of peace and love, although their disguise wears thin very quickly when it becomes clear that their real intentions are to strip the earth of its resources and enslave or exterminate the population.
This is one of the main themes running through science fiction books and movies. Aliens who try to mimic humanity are never very successful for long, either because they are so much worse than humans or sometimes – so much better. Their deficiencies are usually on the social and emotional side, since they are often shown as cultures with highly developed mental powers and technologies, but as moral and emotional idiots, with no more conscience or empathy than sociopathic career criminals. Their relationships and interpersonal skills are so stunted and undeveloped that one wonders whether such a society could long survive, since its members are so wooden, robotic and zombie-like, usually motivated by fear and power considerations.
The aliens depicted in the Cocoon movies are one exception to this, and seem to have social, emotional and empathic qualities that match their advanced technology, but my guess would be that in popular culture, the aliens from imbalanced, paranoid and aggressive cultures, with stunted personalities and severe psychosocial deficiencies heavily outweigh the healthy, benevolent, well-adjusted ones. It was a running commentary on the fears and disappointments of the 20th Century, and on the loss of faith in humanity in the wake of two world wars in thirty years and horrors like Auschwitz and Hiroshima. There was a very common assumption that in an advanced technocratic society, the human personality would become narrower, less individualistic and emotional and more like the machines that society now relied on for everything. If the aliens of the movies were just a anti-utopian vision of what humans feared their future would be like, then they saw themselves evolving into highly intelligent drones and automatons. Moreover, virtually none of the alien societies were free and democratic, but usually an authoritarian or totalitarian system of some kind.
Three classic films immediately came to mind when I thought of this genre of aliens trying to blend in among humanity: The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Village of the Damned (1960). One reason I chose these as examples is because they reached a huge audience in America though television, which always had regular slots for science fiction and horror movies, like the famous Creature Feature on WOR TV in New York. Obviously, Hollywood aimed most of these movies at a juvenile audience and whole generations grew up watching them again and again on TV, but Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Children of the Damned were also serious ‘message pictures’, using the theme of ETs mainly as a hook to get the attention of the audience.
I have no way of guessing the actual number of people who saw these, but it is safe to say that anyone in America who had even a remote interest in such subjects had a chance to see them, not just once but many times. If aliens really were visiting earth, it was the worst kept secret in history, and even among my grandparent’s generation, it was already a commonplace that UFOs were real and that such sightings were nothing unusual. TV had a lot to do with this, of course, and perhaps it was only coincidental that the first big UFO wave was in 1947, the same year that regular commercial television began broadcasting in America.
While not an actual war movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still was made during the Korean War, which is long-forgotten now but at the time seemed like the prelude to a third world war. For Americans on the political right, like the McCarthyites, it was also an extremely frustrating war, since it seemed likely to end in a stalemate. Americans in general were used to having their wars end in complete victory, and their greatest victory of all in 1945 was still a very recent memory, so it was a bitter pill to swallow that the country could not work its will in a place like Korea. This was not because Americans are a naturally war-like people. If anything, they are natural isolationists who would prefer not to be involved with the outside world in any way, and it took extreme provocations to before they joined in the world wars. Once they are at war, though, they insist on complete victory, and if this is impossible prefer to do nothing at all.
Total victory was no longer possible in a world where other countries also had nuclear weapons. The hydrogen bomb, first tested in 1952, effectively meant destructive power without limit, and thus rendered traditional concepts of victory not only impossible but meaningless. General Douglas Macarthur had wanted to escalate the Korean War to the nuclear level, but President Truman fired him – and privately called him insane – for which he suffered the rabid backlash of the right wing and the McCarthyites. For years, the Democratic Party was scared by the viciousness of the attacks, and presidents like John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were extremely edgy about right wing accusations about ‘losing’ Cuba and Vietnam the way Truman had ‘lost’ China and failed to liberate North Korea. It was probably the most dangerous time of the Cold War, except for the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and if Stalin had made a move in Europe, then the U.S. really would have used its nuclear weapons.
This was the atmosphere in 1951 when The Day the Earth Stood Still was released, and under the circumstances, making a movie like this was courageous. It was an ugly and anxious time in American history, and science fiction was one of the safer ways to get dissenting views across. Even sober and hard-headed types like George Kennan thought world war might break out at any time, so it is no surprise that many people were hoping for some act of divine intervention or a helping hand from friendly aliens to prevent civilization from self-destructing. The horrors of World War II were still fresh in everyone’s mind, and there was more support in America at the time for a strong United Nations organization to keep the peace than exists today.
This is the message that the benevolent alien Klattu wants to deliver when he lands his flying saucer in Washington D.C. on a summer’s day in the Cold War. If humans do not surrender their power to make war to some higher authority, then they are going to destroy themselves, an idea even some presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt would have agreed with.
Klattu is everything we would expect from a diplomatic representative of a higher civilization: polished, urbane, cultivated, speaking like the dean of the finest English department in the land. In this movie, the humans come off badly in comparison to the alien, and appear as cynical and self-interested, or paranoid, aggressive and militaristic, while Klattu looks like he would make a good leader for earth. From the very start of movie, when a trigger-happy soldier shoots up a communication device that Klattu intended to give to the president, we can tell his mission will go badly. The elite will not listen to him so he decides to escape from the hospital where the government has him confined and live incognito among the common people–in order to get a better understanding of humanity and perhaps decide if it is a species worth saving.
As we might expect, he finds quite a variety among the American public, including a war widow and her son who are sympathetic characters and try to help his efforts. On the other hand, her boyfriend wants to turn him in for the reward and imagines himself as the biggest man in the country when he gets credit for it. The landlady of the house where he is staying believes that the alien is not an ET at all, but really a Russian spy sent to lull America into giving up its nuclear weapons, and the theme of suspicion, paranoia and tension runs throughout the whole movie.
Klaatu leaves the people of Earth with a simple choice: either give up the power to make aggressive war or face total obliteration at the hands of Gort
Probably Klattu’s greatest ally is Professor Lieberman (i.e. Einstein), who believes he is an alien and wants to help in his efforts to stop the arms race and slide towards global destruction. The real Einstein, of course, had similar views, as did many nuclear scientists, but as a Jewish emigre, a socialist and a pacifist, the national security establishment never trusted him and the right wing targeted him with the usual kinds of attacks. Essentially, Klattu is Professor Einstein – or a WASPish version of him – delivering the same message that war was obsolete. He is not simply a do-gooder, however, strumming a guitar and singing of peace, love and tofu, but has considerable power to back up his words.
If ETs really do exist, it is a good bet that they have developed intelligent machines, and in this case, Klattu’s people have developed benevolent robots like Gort, who keep the peace by threatening to rain total destruction on the heads of anyone who commits aggression. Gort, in fact, has the power to shut off all the electricity on earth whenever he chooses, and to bring Klattu back to life after a soldier shoots him dead. He is a serious peace officer, and one that humanity would be well advised not to fool with. In the end, Klattu leaves the people of earth with a simple choice: either give up the power to make aggressive war and threaten each other with nukes or face total obliteration at the hands of Gort.
Needless to say, it is not an optimistic movie, and states rather bluntly that this is the only kind of language humans understand. Whether any international organization formed by a species as defective as this one would work as intended or simply become a new kind of tyranny is problematic at best. The movie solves the problem by putting the real power over war in the hands of intelligent machines, but none of those existed in 1951 or even in 2001, for that matter. One suspects that if it is ever intended, it will only result in an arms race of ever more intelligent robots, as well as robot-destroying weapons systems designed to take out the other side’s technology.
On the surface at least, the Eisenhower Era after the end of the Korean War and McCarthyism was one of bland conformity, which as we know now, is exactly what the president wanted it to be. There was a reason he spent so much time playing golf, since he calculated that it would create a more relaxed atmosphere, in which people would not be so anxious that the world would end at any moment. There were still crises, to be sure, like Suez in 1956 and the Sputnik panic (and UFO wave) a year later, and always over Berlin, which served as periodic reminders that the Cold War could revive at any time. Somehow, though, Eisenhower made it seem less dangerous or at least less immediate, even though he could be quite ruthless as well, such as approving coups against the governments of Iran, Indonesia and Guatemala by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Compared to what came before and after, the years 1945-73 were exceptionally prosperous ones in America, and even today, the 1950s are still remembered nostalgically as Happy Days. The economic downturns were less severe than in the 1930s or post-1973 period, the middle class was growing, and real poverty seemed confined to groups that had always been marginalized like blacks, Indians and poor whites in the South and Appalachia.
The conventional wisdom held that an expanding economy and a benevolent welfare state with new civil rights laws would lift even the boats at the bottom eventually, although there was no such optimism in the years after Vietnam and the economic decline of the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1950s, though, the general sense was that mass poverty and deprivation would never again be a problem for the majority, as it certainly had been in the Great Depression.
Nevertheless, there were many hidden tensions and anxieties in the Affluent Society that would explode to the surface in the next decade. Popular books like David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1951) and William Whyte’s The Organization Man (1956) held that Americans had lost their traditional individuality and independence and become a mass consumer society with a culture of dull, suburban conformity. The threat was no so much from little green men as little gray men and yes men, serving the giant corporations and bureaucracies that really governed the country. For a populist culture that had always inordinately valued self-reliance, rugged individualism and self-sufficiency, it was a bitter pill to swallow, almost as heretical and difficult to accept as the idea that America could not defeat any other nation in battle of that it was no longer a can-do country. Even Eisenhower warned of the military-industrial complex before he left office and the threat it posed to the republic.
The great American middle class, the ‘booboisie’ as H.L. Mencken called it, has always had a masochistic streak, and a seemingly endless appetite for books and movies that portray it as a bunch of stooges in service to the rich and powerful – bigoted, semi-literate clods in love with their alarm clocks and refrigerators. This was true in the time of Mark Twain, and was never more true than in the 1950s, when the middle class was expanding at a record pace. In addition to Riesman and Whyte, it was reading articles like ‘Must You Conform?’ and Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders, which portrayed a middle class that no longer even had any idea of what it wanted unless some advertising agency told it what to want.
Something about all this social criticism struck a nerve in a deeper way than all the right-wing hysteria about Communist plots to take over the government and fluoridate the water supply never quite did. In a country with such a large and relatively well off middle class, Communism had no chance of becoming a mass movement in America, as it had been in the 1930s, but it was also clear that that the old small town, small producer economy was finished once and for all. The new middle class in the suburbs depended on big organizations for its livelihood – big government, big military, big business and big labor – and this led to a libertarian backlash in the 1960s and afterwards. The Organization Men were anxious and alienated, fearful about lost individuality, creativity and spontaneity, a manipulated, managed public whose job was simply to consume and let the experts run things. The danger was an internal kind of totalitarianism, in which a dehumanized population simply went along with whatever the experts, managers and bureaucrats decided.
The most horrendous example of Organization Man was still recent in people’s memories when Invasion of the Body Snatchers came out in 1956. Americans still remembered that the Nazis in World War II had always denied individual responsibility for any of their actions, and in the war crimes trials afterwards had invariably repeated that they were ‘just following orders’. One school of thought, promulgated by writers like Hannah Arendt, was that mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann were banal; simply dull, plodding automatons and bureaucrats, carrying out whatever they had been programmed to do, without a hint of originality or individuality.
There was a fear that all of humanity was heading in the same direction, but now armed with nuclear weapons, and many of the young of the 1960s were determined that they would never be ‘Good Germans’ and ‘cheerful robots’, and would not obey or cooperate with any directives from above they considered immoral.
The truth about the Nazis was different from what they said at their trials, however, and perhaps even more depressing than the robot thesis. Many of them were actually fanatics and ideologues who truly believed Hitler’s ideas that the Aryans were the master race and responsible for all human progress, rather than simply machines who executed any instructions given to them. Men like Eichmann, in fact, were genuine enthusiasts for genocide, who strove not merely to follow orders but to exceed them, and often took the initiative in the absence of instructions.
In his case, he continued the extermination right up to the end, even when his superiors recognized the war was clearly lost and ordered him to stop. There were many like him, who kept up Hitler’s work of destruction even after Hitler himself was no longer able to give the orders. So while it is true that the Nazis relied on large-scale industry and organization to carry out their atrocities, it was also the case that the people who got ahead in these organizations were not merely robots but true believers who showed genuine zeal for the organizational mission.
The aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are not fanatics like this at all, and in fact are about the most utterly alien, inhuman creatures ever portrayed in a movie. After all, they were simply spores that drifted around in space until they took root in a farmer’s field by accident, and did not represent an advanced civilization of any kind. The pod creatures were not spaceship builders, but simply The Blob in human form; human bodies with the personalities of spores, and had no more humanity than fungi or viruses. This made them all the more truly frightening. Although they still looked human and could imitate human communication and interaction, they totally lacked emotion, individuality or desire of any kind, except to survive and create more things like themselves – creatures without love or hate, enthusiasm or excitement.
While the Body Snatchers attempt to mimic human emotion, they are not very good at it, and their friends and relatives see through the act very quickly. Even a small boy can tell that the creature acting like his mother really was not her. The only defense the aliens really have is that the other humans will not really believe something like this could happen until it is too late, and thus they are able to take over the town of Santa Mira, California and turn all the inhabitants into pod creatures, except for a few holdouts. Their main goal is to use the town as a base and expand the region under their control by sending seed pods out in all directions, and only by accident are their plans discovered and the authorities alerted. At first, no one would believe Dr. Miles Binnell, the lone human survivor of Santa Mira, until a truck driver from there crashes into a bus and is found covered with the alien seed pods.
Interestingly, in the remakes of this movie in 1978 and 2002, the aliens win, which may indicate a certain decline of optimism in American society from even the cautious and limited level of this bleak 1956 film. Dr. Binnell is a voice crying in the wilderness of a mass society that neither believes him nor cares to listen to his story about how his small town was taken over by monsters.
If the traditional values and virtues of small town American were fast disappearing, then, it was not clear what was to replace them. In the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the answer would seem to be: nothing. The Body Snatchers had no culture, no ideology, no great plans for the future, nothing at all, really, except the will to survive and continue to take up space. Although they felt superior to humans, then did not even desire power or conquest, but simply expanded their domain out of instinct. Any world these zombies and couch potatoes controlled would have been a barren one, and it is difficult to imagine how they would have been able to make enough effort to feed themselves and keep the lights on.
The generation that experienced the Great Depression and World War II was determined that the next generation would never have to go through anything like that again, although as we have seen, they felt great tension and anxiety about the type of society they were building. In the postwar years, America and all the other Western nations were riding the wave of an economic boom, and the kids grew up in far more egalitarian and affluent societies than ever existed before. Education expanded at all levels and was not simply a rich boys’ club as it had been in the past, and even the children of farmers and workers could now aspire to a university education and a ticket into the middle class. The other side of the coin was a building resentment against the young that finally boiled over in the 1960s.
Supposedly, the kids had become spoiled brats, and very arrogant as well, thinking themselves superior to the older generation because they had more education and economic opportunity. They had been given everything and still wanted more, or as Richard Nixon said, they had been given too much, too quickly, and this had weakened them. Youth showed no gratitude to its elders for all the sacrifices made on its behalf; and had become soft, self-centered and self-indulgent, taking everything for granted and now demanding the impossible.
A generation gap of this magnitude had never existed in the past, since children simply inherited the same status as social class as their parents and rarely had the opportunity to change it. The fear and suspicion of the young that was already increasing in the 1950s was not simply about their clothes and tastes in music, but really a resentment of the fact that they had more money and leisure time than ever before, hence more opportunities to get into trouble. Never before had there been so many middle class young, at least among whites in America, and society did not adjust well to it.
Movies like Blackboard Jungle and Rebel Without a Cause, both made in 1955, reflected this growing fear that the young were getting out of control, although Blackboard Jungle was still a more traditional movie, set in an inner city school among teenagers who were obviously lower class. Their type of rebellion and delinquency was already a cliche in the 1930s or even in the Progressive Era of the early-1900s, although the 1950s version was set to rock and roll music.
Rebel Without A Cause broke new ground, since its setting was among middle class, suburban white kids, whose anger and rebellion was not caused by economic deprivation, and therefore mystified the older generation. If they already had everything, then what more did they want? It was a frequent question in the 1960s.
Before World War II, the middle class was only about 20% of the population at most, and the generation of that time was determined to enter its ranks, while at the same time worried about the consequences. In America at least, crime, violence and sociopathic behavior had always been associated with the lower classes, blacks, immigrants in the cities and of course, the frontier. The new middle class delinquents, however, did not quite understand themselves why they were so alienated, except a vague sense that something was missing from their lives, either love or personal fulfillment or simply a purpose beyond mere consumption. It is possible that they had too much in the material sense, but too little of the spiritual kind, and like their parents, felt like prisoners in a blandly conformist society.
In Village of the Damned, based in John Wyndham's book The Midwich Cuckoos, some unknown alien civilization puts all the women of Midwich, England (or Midwich, California in the 1995 remake) to sleep, and they find out they have all been impregnated. In due course, they all deliver perfect, beautiful infants, with blond hair and blue eyes, who mature very rapidly. Soon it is clear that the kids are geniuses with powerful telepathic abilities, and not at all like the other children. In fact, they are like a military unit with a leader, and although they do well in school, the little fiends are also sadists and sociopaths, who destroy anyone who gets in their way and do not seem bothered by it at all.
It is never really clear who sent them or why, but it does not matter since they are clearly a threat to the world and lack the capacity for normal human ethics and social interaction. They are brilliant monsters, and the society they would create is a total reversal of the norm, in which the young control everything and adults are their slaves. They are spoiled and arrogant little Nazis, who want what they want when they want it, or, as Jim Morrison sang not too many years later: “We want the world and we want it – NOW.”
The advanced civilization that created the little brutes evidently had some serious flaws in its production and distribution system, and only understood the forms of human life and culture, but not the substance. Right from the start, it sent some of its units into regions where the natives were instantly suspicious of women who gave birth to white, Nordic-looking infants and exterminated them on the spot. The Russians attempted to use their kids as weapons in the Cold War and gave them advanced training, but finally had to nuke them when they realized they could not be controlled.
The British eliminated their kids in a more typically British way, with cleverness and economy of force. Their teacher knows how to shield his mind from their telepathic probes, at least long enough to carry a bomb into the classroom and take out both himself and the aliens with minimal collateral damage.
From the alien point of view, though, the conclusion must be one of serious mission failure. Whatever their plan was, either to establish a new ruling elite on earth or set up bases under an advance guard of an invasion, the children they sent were too flawed to complete it. These aliens were not skillful at concealing their true natures and intentions, and gave the humans the opportunity to destroy them before they could accomplish anything.
In the 1963 sequel to the movie, Children of the Damned, the aliens have evidently learned from their mistakes and sent children who are not so obviously maladjusted. This time, they use their psychic powers only against people who are a threat to them, or military and intelligence types who try to employ them in the development of more destructive weapons. As in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the aliens are milder and less paranoid than the humans, and do not even fight back in the end when the military destroys them. They are machine gunned in front of a church and die holding hands in what looks to be a 1960s love-in or non-violent protest, and although the song ‘Give Peace a Chance’ was not yet written in 1963, the same spirit was there. It also had strong Christian undertones along the lines of `and the children shall lead them’, and they are martyred by the forces of the national security state before they have the chance to do good.
Obviously, none of these movies can tell us anything about real ETs, nor were they intended to. The issues and concerns they raised were purely human ones, and the story lines about aliens were simply a vehicle for getting the message across. The postwar culture created aliens in its own image, reflecting its own concerns at any given historical instant, whether the fear of nuclear annihilation after 1945 or of zombie-like suburban conformity in the 1950s and the gap between generations due to the unprecedented affluence of the times. One commonality they all shared was that the aliens – our future selves – all felt superior to ordinary humans, much as the Nazis and Stalinists did. Because of their intelligence, technology or superior organization, they regarded themselves as the wave of the future and everything that came before them as obsolete.
Even a benevolent alien like Klattu assumes the right to dictate to earthlings for their own good, and assumes his civilization where all power is in the hands of intelligent machines is really superior to any social organization in the present world. His benevolence is also of a very abstract, impersonal and intellectual kind, while the aliens in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Village of the Damned do not have a concept of benevolence at all, only power.
The kids of Midwich are cold and arrogant in their airs of superiority, and show no human feelings at all, except at the very end, when they reveal a fear of death, while the pod creatures of Santa Mira believe their lack of emotion makes them better able to see the world clearly and realistically. They are all more or less ruthless in achieving their goals and destroying all opposition, and even a relatively moral alien like the professorial Klattu feels free to threaten the world with a power cut off or total destruction unless it starts to toe the line and gets on the team.
None of the alien (future) societies is a democracy made up of free individuals. Klattu’s world sounds like an elitist technocracy, while the kids of Midwich look like an aristocratic, Aryan elite and the pod creatures of Santa Mira like a totalitarian herd that occasionally gets orders barked through loudspeakers.
All these societies have found ways to eliminate the threat of war, of course, and none of the aliens ever fight each other or even question their leaders, but to one degree or another, they are all mass societies where people have no real liberty or independence. Most humans do not even show much enthusiasm for Klattu’s authoritarian technocracy, but their only choice is to join or suffer prompt and utter destruction.
The verdict of these three films on human life and prospects for the future is a profoundly negative one, except for a few lonely heroes who struggle against the inevitable to preserve their humanity, and the in all cases, the cure on offer is far worse than the disease.