by Daniel Harris
Films and novels usually portray alien invasions, not simply as instances of tribal aggression on the part of such phrenological curiosities as the Klingons in Star Trek or the Sith Lords in Star Wars, but as evacuations from dying planets, from ecosystems imperiled by supernovae, cannibalized by black holes, or rendered toxic by negligent residents who, having contaminated their own world, strike out for greener pastures.
Aliens in movies like Independence Day, in which the monsters devour habitat after habitat, leaving behind a poisoned swathe of intergalactic waste, are actually our own surrogates who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, are forced to watch premonitory visions of Christmases Yet-to-Come, of our own outer-space exodus from paradise should we continue to squander our planet’s resources. Aliens, in other words, are not visitors from other worlds but autochthonous, tax-paying natives who refuse to curb their carbon emissions, ratify the Kyoto Protocol, and therefore, in order to survive, must engage in a campaign of savage interstellar colonialism.
As we inch closer to planetary destruction, to a holocaust of biodiversity, indifferent to the fact that between 200 to 2,000 species become extinct every year, the imaginative impulse to repopulate Earth with undocumented aliens accelerates. What we destroy in life, we recreate in art. In animal laboratories, we drop corrosive chemicals into rabbits’ eyes, feed pesticides to dogs, and infect marmosets and spider monkeys with hepatitis and HIV. In the alien invasion plot, the tables are turned and we ourselves the endangered species, the persecuted untermensch who must face the consequences of his own misbehavior vicariously through the sadism of a predatory tourist from a distant galaxy.
In The War of the Worlds, the urtext of all alien invasion films and novels, H.G. Wells offered a half-hearted exoneration of Martian cruelty (Earthlings were either incinerated by the heat of their ray guns or exsanguinated with straw-like pipettes) when he stated that “before we judge them too harshly we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals . . . but upon its inferior races.” In the 2014 film Extraterrestrial, we receive our comeuppance when a group of vacationing millennials are beamed up into a flying saucer where they are cocooned into the walls of the ship. The dreaded anal probe, the very incarnation of our remorse for our mistreatment of laboratory animals as well as for our ecological carelessness in general, is administered to a frat boy who, squeamishly protective of his rectal inviolability throughout the film, is strapped into a chair and sodomized by the whirling blades of a tiny saw. The legendary anal probe gives us a taste of our own medicine, forcing us to exchange places with the white-smocked vivisector, a star-tripping Mengele whose experiments on humans make us see the error of our ways and embrace the agendas of PETA and the ASPCA lest our own flayed pelts become haute couture on the cat walks of Cassiopeia and Ursa Major.
In the 1950s, the alien was the original person of color, a member of a race of “little green men.” Defined by his pigmentation, he was a racist fantasy, the paradigm for Trump’s felonious Mexican, a diminutive yet pernicious pigmy. Green, however, is also the color of goblins and supernatural folk entities – Shreks, Grinches, Wicked Witches of the West, and Green Giants – spirits of the earth who existed long before the albino Aryan races conquered the forests and streams and evicted druids, tree nymphs, and water sprites from the wilderness. In a folkloric sense, the alien is actually the primordial resident of Earth, ousted from his home even as we ourselves, the real aliens, paved their woodland habitat. The iconography of these unwelcome astral visitations is mined from the same emerald lode of chthonic images as ogres, elves, pixies, leprechauns, and gnomes.
Children, disobedient, selfish, prone to outbursts of malice and animosity, as well as time-consuming and prohibitively expensive, are another source of alien iconography. The subjects of our greatest passions are so disquietingly mysterious, incommunicative, and burdensome that, in the movies, we cast them as extraterrestrials. Many adults are ill at ease with toddlers, unable to talk to them or to take sincere interest in their trivial pursuits, daunted by their gratuitous hugs, by an intimacy some find vexing enough for the child to reappear in fiendish form in our cinematic nightmares. Compare the distorted features of dolls with the stereotypical face of the so-called “Greys,” bald, androgynous beings like the kind-hearted Claymation figures with hands that hang past their knees and necks as attenuated as garden hoses that warmed the hearts of audiences in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Cute dolls have huge dewy eyes that serve as portals to the child’s soul, allowing parents complete access to their offspring’s subjectivity. It takes only one small step into the uncanny valley for these alluringly hydrocephalic heads to become the expressionless faces of the alien, with grotesquely large, black, unrevealing eyes that, when pivoted a full 45 degrees, turn into sinister lozenges. The doll’s sweet button nose becomes the alien’s quivering animal slits, sniffing for prey, the outcome, it would seem, of constant rhinoplasties that have whittled away all of the cartilage, leaving a proboscis no larger than a thumb. The towering dome of the doll’s forehead, which reflects our sense of children’s invertebrate awkwardness, their helpless inability to remain erect and upright, and their need to be held, their heads cradled like infants, becomes, in conventional alien iconography, the skull of a preternaturally massive brain that reflects the invader’s advanced, malevolent intelligence. The doll’s face is round, but the alien’s narrows to a jawless point, while the doll’s plump, pinchable cheeks are liposuctioned to gaunt, anorexic pits. The alien, in short, is a Patricia Keane painting gone wrong, the face of a conniving intelligence stripped of all adipose fat.
What does it say about our parental instincts that, when we imagine invaders from outer space, the first thing that comes to mind is the face of a child, albeit through a glass darkly? This vicious intruder is a compilation of pentimenti of our children’s bodies, a jigsaw of their traits, a reflection in a funhouse mirror that reveals the enmity we may bear towards those we smother with our all-consuming affections even as these delinquent imps of the perverse deplete our pocketbooks and thwart our personal aspirations and sense of independence.
In films within the last twenty years, however, little green men and tearful Patricia Keane waifs have given way to tentacled, oceanic forms. The Lilliputians who battled Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers on the covers of pulp 1950s sci-fi magazines now have increasingly inhuman bodies, like those in the 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow in which the so-called “Mimics” are twisted skeins of metallic filaments with the yawning beaks of screaming banshees, or those in the 2005 cinematic version of War of the Worlds in which the invaders have the spindly bodies of praying mantises and the heads of flaring cobras. Such images are not sui generis forms invented afresh with every big budget film but, like little green man and famine-stricken children, indigenous races inspired by our deepening visual knowledge of our own world.
The layman’s view of the plurality of life once derived almost exclusively from parks, pets, and zoos but with the invention of micrographs (photographs taken through a microscope), we can now see the eyes of a fly, the pincers of a dust mite feeding on flakes of flesh, the blue thorax of a flea with flesh pierced with cactus-like spines, or the unforgettably homely faces of the moss piglet with a tubular mouth and skin like an ill-fitting grey raincoat. Our understanding of what life is, what a body is, has evolved dramatically within the last century as speleologists take us into the deepest caves documenting eyeless amphibians and translucent salamanders, oceanographers dive into the Mariana Trench documenting incandescent hatchetfish and giant isopods, and microbiologists plumb the depths of a drop of pond water documenting nematodes and paramecia, introducing us to exotic new life forms we recycle in the Cineplex. Aliens are not otherworldly. The alienation happens right here on Earth, on our pillows and our mattresses where entomologists wish us sweet dreams as we curl up in the poop of hundreds of thousands of microscopic arachnids.
Despite their bellicosity, travelers from abroad are famously bashful and self-effacing. Their appearance is postponed until the last possible minute, perhaps because they are ashamed of their own homeliness and wish to spare us the shock of revulsion, but also because the director is determined to defer what might be called the “alien reveal,” the money shot of sci-fi, for as long as possible in order to build suspense. In the 2002 film Signs, the alien is first seen, for no more than two seconds, on a television broadcast from Brazil, surreptitiously tiptoeing past an alley during a children’s party, and is later spotted, through a characteristically impaired view, in the reflection on a blade of a knife slipped beneath the pantry door behind which one of the creatures has been trapped. Directors introduce their monsters through deliberately obstructed sightlines that conceal and tantalize more than they reveal.
In the 2005 television series Invasion, the alien, little more than a lambent glow, a sparkly trail of orange phosphorescence, swirling in the swamps of Florida, was so late in making its debut that the audience quickly lost interest and the series was discontinued. The program foundered on its stonewalling of the central revelation, which was lost in the tedious love interests of people we cared about, not as the characters of a sci-fi soap opera, but only as dismembered victims of aquatic carnivores or the tormented progenitors of alien spawn. The aesthetic advantage of protracting the “reveal” is suspense but the aesthetic danger is anticlimax, especially when the alien turns out to be physically implausible, some papier mâché contraption wearing a wobbly antennae headband cobbled together by a bumbling intern in a kitchen sink. The alien in the 1974 parody Dark Star, for instance, consisted of little more than a pair of flippers taped to a beach ball, while the aliens in the 1957 Invasion of the Saucer were vegetal creatures with a strong resemblance to Homer Simpson, albeit green rather than yellow. Suspense becomes an excuse for incompetence, for the bathos of low-budget special effects, the Achilles’ Heel of all alien invasion films whose audiences are enraged when they must twiddle their thumbs for hours before they are allowed to see a monster that, despite the calamitous score that introduces his unconscionably belated first appearance, ultimately looks like an elementary school science fair project.
The alien is also bashful because he is in many respects identical, aside from his physiology, to a central assassin from an altogether more terrestrial genre, the slasher film. Aliens skulk about trapping their prey because, like Freddy Krueger and Leatherface, they kill by ambush, they hide in ventilation ducts, in sewers, beneath beds, suctioned cupped to ceilings, until, unseen, there is a muddled commotion, a strangled scream, and the hurried scramble of bloody claws scurrying away to raven down their dinner in some nocturnal lair. The aliens’ great modesty stems in part from the fact that they are stranded in the wrong movie, Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, and Friday the 13th, where they have been miscast, not as monstrosities from Io or Sirius, but as lunatics with raging hormones who prey upon pert virgins in tight sweaters at college keggers and graduation proms. Invasion films, often about the mongrelization of species, are also about the mongrelization of genres. Sci-fi splices its genes with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs.
Aliens often arrive on our planet unnoticed, not with a fanfare of flashing lights serenaded by eerie symphonies of theramins, but in a more low-key, less ostentatious form: in a cloud of dust-like pollen, as in the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers; in a shower of incandescent lights, as in Invasion; or in bug-infested meteors, as in the 2016 television series Braindead, in which alien insects (deplorably little effort is made to distinguish them from plain old ants) crawl into the ears of sleeping politicians who, in great pain, pummel out on their pillows a glutinous lobe of their brains to make room for the new extraterrestrial parasites. Unlike the monsters in Edge of Tomorrow or Independence Day, these aliens simply take over the bodies of their victims, which become puppets for their schemes, disguises that allow them to move freely among us, recruiting more and more of us into their fold. Such extraterrestrials are impersonators, leeches whose humanoid masks enable them to infiltrate the government, much as members of the Comintern once infiltrated the State Department, changing their victims into obedient Stepford wives, who take over Congress as un-elected entomological officials. Fears of government conspiracies provide limitless fodder for alien invasion films because both political machinations and alien attempts to take over the planet draw upon a deeply rooted vein of Joseph McCarthy lunacy, a neurotic conviction that sedition is under foot, that a cabal, whether of communists or extraterrestrial apparatchiks, is undermining the American way of life. Evil visitors are appropriating our planet as their own colony, moving their own scaly, behorned President into the Oval Office, no doubt redecorated by the First Reptile with elegant accouterments of mucus, web, and slime.
If the alien himself is recycled from preexisting life forms seen through new varieties of close-up photography, his spaceship is cobbled together from everything from circuit boards, toasters, bicycle wheels, geodesic domes, bathtubs, Swiss Army Knives, needle nose pliers, and plumbing fixtures. The original flying saucer, like that seen in the 1957 film The Mysterians, in which disks swirling like dessert plates bring aliens to earth seeking the equivalent of mail-order brides for breeding, had two separate origins: first, the tripods that Martians used to lumber around England zapping cities with their ray guns in The War of the Worlds, which Wells described as milking stools, low circular seats with three legs used to milk cows (as opposed to the ships themselves which were shaped like bullets and had no independent means of locomotion, having simply been shot out of very powerful cannons from Mars). Second, the saucer was the result of the streamlining aesthetic of the 1930s which was designed to prevent drag and increase speed and hence used shapes without angles or projections, impediments like aerials, satellite dishes, or the petal-like wings of solar panels that disfigure the appearance of the International Space Station. The spaceships in the 2016 film Arrival are throwbacks to this somewhat dated aesthetic, consisting of monolithic, lopsided ovoids which, in an apparent triumph of balance, hover only feet above the earth like hard-boiled eggs in an invisible cup.
In the past few decades, the streamlining aesthetic has given way to a more industrial aesthetic, that of a rusty plank of a ship, larger than an ocean liner, covered in interstellar soot and countless projections that resemble nothing so much as the eroding chips of a circuit board. The old mining freighter Nostromo in Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien partakes of this kind of futuristic anachronism, consisting of a million different oxidized parts, as does the mothership of the 2009 film District 9, which resembles a disemboweled saucer, one with all of its hardware dangling from the vessel like the tentacles of a mangled jellyfish. Industrial designer Raymond Loewy invented the MAYA principle, Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, a conservative impulse of design that limits the forms of refrigerators, telephones, blenders, and air conditioners to structures that are at once recognizably the appliances we are accustomed to using and yet vary ever so slightly from the traditional pattern, leading to incremental modifications towards an exotic paradigm, much as species evolved through minute mutations over millennia. One of the most exciting things about sci-fi is that the MAYA principle has been suspended and things no longer look anything at all like the gadgets we really use: cars have retractable wings and propellers, doors are oculi, airplanes zeppelins. We live in a world whose appearance changes at a glacial pace and therefore are exhilarated by a futuristic utopia governed by the aesthetics of the outlandish, one in which everything has deviated so far from normality that we feel we have slipped down a technological rabbit hole.
It is far easier for us to imagine spacecraft than their drivers, advanced forms of technology than advanced forms of life. Since the Industrial Revolution, dreaming about machines, how they can simplify our lives, bring us comfort, make us rich, has been our culture’s very mission. Scientists devote their lives to the invention of new types of technology to serve needs we never knew were so exigent until a solution was in sight. Sci-fi is the pornography of the inventor, the way he stimulates his imagination, an intellectual eroticism that allows him to play with new forms, imagine new structures. Aliens, by contrast, are often just reupholstered insects, but space ships and alien weaponry have a kind of daring and ingenuity that only an imagination accustomed to visualizing machines could bring to life.
Alien invasions give us militarism without politics, wars without empathy for the other side, conscienceless conflict that unifies nations rather than splits them into hostile factions. With no enemy physiologically similar to us to appeal to our humanity, such incursions from abroad become pretexts for what Hollywood blockbusters do best: destroy, eradicate, take a complex architectural structure and turn it into a cloud of fiery fragments, a chaos of shattered glass and twisted beams of molten steel. The appetite for destruction has grown exponentially over the decades. In old sci-fi films from the 1950s, cars, people, and houses were simply vaporized when struck by the proverbial ray gun, turned first into a ghost-like shape imprisoned in a throbbing envelope of red light and then into an ashen shadow on the grass like a human profile cast on the wall of Hiroshima. In the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Gort the robot arrives in Washington, D.C. with his master Klaatu only to blast the army’s inhospitable tanks, which don’t explode but disappear, leaving scorched patches on the grass of the National Mall. Similarly, people collapse into rattling heaps of fleshless bones in the 1959 Teenagers from Outer Space in which teenagers from another planet use their ray guns to turn the Earth into one gigantic cow pasture for their gargans, alien herds of grazing ruminants that look exactly like lobsters. Vaporization followed the principles of an oddly dainty aesthetic, tidy, antiseptic, unlike the pulverizing effects of today which turn people into bloody splatters of jelly, an advance that reflects both developments in special effects and the audience’s growing tolerance for gore. We have become inured to weapons that time and time again topple the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, level the Taj Mahal and the Colosseum, smash the Sphinx and Big Ben, as if aliens were not invaders so much as iconoclasts like the Taliban with malicious designs on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sights.
In contrast to the tasteful dematerializations of 1950s sci-fi, the modern combustion of structures has its own particular type of elegance, a grandeur inherent in the contradiction between the time it takes to build something and the time it takes to demolish it. It is exciting to watch thousands of man hours, the value of which we know all too well in our own work lives, squandered in a single instant, for the Golden Gate Bridge to wobble and fall into the Bay after a single swipe of the Godzilla-like alien in the 2013 film Pacific Rim, or for a forty-story ship to crash land in downtown San Francisco toppling over skyscrapers like bowling pins in the 2013 Star Trek: Into Darkness. That destruction can be beautiful, death aesthetic, runs counter to our belief that only craftsmanship, artistry, and technique can appeal to our senses and that blowing up buildings, a type of sci-fi iconoclasm, is always absurd and chaotic, an act of malign vandalism. Outer space creatures seem to arrive on Earth equipped with their own complimentary copies of Fodor’s or Lonely Planet, which tells them the exact location of Mt. Rushmore, the Arc de Triomphe, the Empire State Building, and the Hollywood sign, all of which crumble beneath their laser beams, as in Tim Burton’s spoof, the 1996 Mars Attacks!, in which everything from the British parliament to the statutes on Easter Island are destroyed in an instant. Indiscriminate waste can be aesthetically pleasing, the fall of a structure almost a balletic demise. Robert Capa created undeniably beautiful photographs of men collapsing under hails of bullets and in French and Dutch paintings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, artists depicted swans, hares, pheasants, peacocks, roosters, partridges, and song birds arranged as if the animals had collapsed in a series of heroic faints, oblivion overtaking them mid-flight in a kind of sumptuous swoon. Buildings in Hollywood blockbusters fall like the animals in paintings by the Flemish artists Frans Snyders and Jan Fyt, as if they had experienced a loss of balance, a fatal misstep, a capsize or plunge that ennobles the architecture even as it tears it apart.
Painting provides another metaphor for understanding alien invasion films. Such blockbusters have, not so much casts, as staffage, an art historical term that refers to the figures with which a painter, usually a specialist different from the landscapist himself, populates an otherwise empty scene. As measured by their histrionic skills, mainstream actors are, more often than not, mere staffage, perfunctory figures that inhabit a landscape that primarily focuses on supersonic dinghies spilling like an infestation of insects from the mothership or entire cities being set ablaze like Sodom and Gomorrah, New York City itself having been destroyed no less than seventy times, Los Angeles twenty-six, Paris a meager twelve. In the Renaissance and Baroque period, artists kept pattern books from which staffage could be traced, reused as often as needed, and the exorbitantly paid staffage of Hollywood pattern books – Tom Cruz, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mark Wahlberg, Milla Jovovich, Angelina Jolie, Vin Diesel, Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone – is also reusable, faded and dog-eared, their faces famous but insipid, there simply to provide a flesh and blood ensemble for the far more interesting interactions of the real cast, the monsters and the machines.
The staffage exists to blather on about what makes us human, spin the steering wheels of the jets they fly, and dodge projectiles moving at unimaginable velocity. They pull triggers, push buttons, launch deadly sequences of code, or chew up the scenery with patriotic speeches (“today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them. Today we are cancelling the apocalypse”). But they cannot and should not upstage the real actors of such action films, the exotic modes of transportation and the otherworldly creatures they transport. Indeed, the actor who drops all pretense of theatrical merit and delivers his lines with wooden ineptitude is often more successful than the actor who insists on trying, as is the case in the Terminator series in which the ham-fisted Schwarzenegger plays a machine, a robot, and thus rivals in interest the weaponry and spacecraft that usually overshadow the human cast.
Science enlightens us at the same time it breeds superstitions. The gulf between the layman and the scientist is simply too wide to be bridged by real explanations of quarks and quasars, gamma-ray bursts and Magellanic Clouds, spectroscopes and spectrographs. Instead, fabulists create empirical fantasies. They parrot the jargon of science. In the 2006 British invasion series Torchwood, the lead character, in one unpunctuated burst of nonsensical prolixity, natters on about something called a “perception filter” to an understandably bewildered neophyte:
If I were to guess I would say that there was once a dimensionally transcendental chameleon circuit placed right on this spot which welded its perception properties to a spatial-temporal rift.
In the popular imagination, scientists, as their technical jargon recedes from the common parlance, become mage-like figures and, ultimately, magicians, wand-wielding sorcerers, as in the 1961 film Battle of the Worlds in which the cigar-chomping “Professor” is a galling shaman with coke-bottle lenses who grouses about the universe while tending exotic horticultural specimens in his conservatory (prominent amount them, such botanical rarities as the hydrangea and the Boston fern). When seen from the perspective of the dilettante, science becomes its opposite, not facts but fables, necromancy, hocus pocus, spells. It is not science that inspires sci-fi but our ignorance of science, our belief that science can launch spacecraft through the heavens with no other means of propulsion than a throbbing light spinning beneath it, that Scottie’s and Spock’s molecules can be scrambled, disarranged, and then reassembled at their destinations, and that creatures like those from the Species series can gestate within seconds of insemination and, already the size of toddlers, rip out of a woman’s womb, killing her instantly.
The incomprehensibility of science leads us to trust blindly in a hypothetical reality in which anything is possible, in which there are no rules, indeed, no science, in which gigantic aliens emerge from “interdimensional portals” that drift across the Pacific, as in Pacific Rim, and in which metallic worms can be tweezed out of the eyes of the protagonist of the 2011 series Falling Skies, grow wings, and fly away. Films busily dismantle and fictionalize the laws that science uncovers. Facts that we cannot understand become fantasies.
Illustrations by Daniel Harris.
 Most alien reveals occur at a cinematographically opportune moment – when the alien is dead. If one is to believe the rumors, Hangar 18 at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio is an extraterrestrial aquatic museum with wizened fetal creatures bubbling in tubes of formaldehyde. In the 2011 film Battle: Los Angeles, the alien is seen up close only when a medic performs a brutal autopsy in order to determine its point of vulnerability, ripping out its lungs, heart, and other indeterminate organs and tossing them aside in a gooey heap of silicone and latex, the materials favored by Hollywood puppeteers. Dead aliens are one of the cinematic conveniences of invasion films since inanimate bodies save small fortunes on robotics, and sculptors can simply slap together a paralyzed maquette from epoxy, foam rubber, and Ben Nye Nose and Scar Wax.
About the Author:
Daniel Harris is the author of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture; A Memoir of No One in Particular; Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: the Aesthetics of Consumerism; and Diary of a Drag Queen. A petition with 4,000+ signatories was recently circulated denouncing his “The Sacred Androgen: the Transgender Debate” which appeared in Winter 2016 issue of The Antioch Review.