Sunday, August 8, 2010

Alien invasion: evolution of a meme

One thing that I take heart in is that the notion of the Saturday "fright night" or "creature feature" movie survives here in Chicago.  Just as it has been since my youth, it is hosted by a character named Svengoolie.  Last night's feature was Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.
Despite being a cheesy to modern sensibilities, it was a fun ride.  It also got me thinking of how long the notion of alien invaders has been around and how much it has changed in form with the times.  H.G. Wells was probably the first to come up with the idea that aliens might not be all that benevolent with his landmark book, The War of the Worlds.  When the medium of film came along, works like the aforementioned Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the more recent Independence Day took over.  Both those movies and their ilk tend to be fairly straightforward.  Aliens show up in saucers and decimate the Earth.  Humans survive by being lucky or crafty or both.  As derivative as these things can be, I truly do enjoy them.  I love to see a good old, us versus them sci-fi conflict with Earth landmarks razed to ruins while military forces fight back.  This could be curiosity at observing war in a location it normally does not occur, e.g. the streets of Washington D.C.  It's all candyfloss for the mind, but that is not such a derogatory thing every now and then.
In time, this notion of hostile aliens from the void changed.  The concept of them arriving in spaceships and invading Earth the way the Allies invaded France seemed passe, almost wasteful.  More elegant and ingenious methods were explored.  One of the earliest examples I can think of this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  A tense metaphor for the Red Scare, this book has aliens not just taking over the Earth, but taking over us, assuming our identities.  You could never really tell who was really one of "them."  A riff on this theme is It Came From Outer Space.  
Michael Crichton came up with what is probably the most likely alien invasion scenario.  In his book The Andromeda Strain, the alien is a tiny but deadly virus that humanity has no defense against.  I have not read it, but I understand that Stephen King's Dreamcatchers is a bit like this.  I'm going to have to add this one to my inordinately long reading list.  
I'm jumping around a bit, but Signs is another unique case.  The attack does not come via ships and lasers.  Rather, the aliens engage us at street level, house-to-house and hand-to-hand.  Debate all you want about the film's viability, but I found it inventive and engaging.  Probably the last good thing Shyamalan's done, up there with The Sixth Sense (you know, that movie that Jen liked, too.)  One approach I have not seen is a psychological invasion; aliens invade us not physically but through our very minds and have us do the killing for them.  Arguably that could already be going on and we'd never know.  I'm certain there must be multifold examples of such a meme and I'll get plenty of comments and emails pointing them out.
So what is it about alien invasion that fascinates us so?  Are we masochists?  Gluttons for punishment?  Or is it just a way of exploring our fears, our apprehension of what lurks in the dark, specifically the unknown in the pitch of space or perhaps even alternate dimensions?  There are obvious political and social metaphors as well, such as the previously mentioned Communist scare of the McCarthy era with Body Snatchers.  Wells even cites the British destruction of the people of Tasmania as his inspiration for War of the Worlds.  
Maybe that's it.  We enjoy a thrilling battle against alien invaders because we know that when all is said in done, we're our worst enemies.

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  1. Great observations. I too am hungry to see an alien invasion story where our military forces are not completely ineffective against the alien technology and we are able to fight it out. We see some elements of this is futuristic movies like "Starship Troopers" and "Alien Mine" where we are at war with other alien races and able to hold our own. Just because aliens have somehow figured out how to travel from whereever to Earth does not mean they should automatically have invincible shields and super weapons that we are powerless against. I for one would expect us to be fully able to deliver some effective retaliation.

    Maybe we don't see this because the special effects budget would be so big to show these battles but maybe that will change. All I know is that if big bad aliens are going to try and invade, I want to see humans doing what they do best, waging war like nobody's business.

  2. You're right, David. I don't think it's outside of the realm of possibility that we could be the most ferocious, warlike civilization in "the neighborhood." I'd say "the universe," but there's just so much we don't know.


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