We Come in Pieces: The Alien as Metaphor
When, in a movie or TV show, the aliens arrive on Earth, or we meet them somewhere out in space, one thing is certain: whatever they’re supposed to represent, it’s not life on other worlds. Each genre has certain stock characters and situations which, in the hands of a master storyteller, can be used to turn a story into a work of art, or at least great entertainment. They can also be used to discuss things in a kind of code where facing it head on might be too heavy or controversial. For example the western High Noon is often seen as a parable about the Hollywood blacklist, with the Gary Cooper character systematically abandoned by all his friends and neighbors. In 1952 the blacklist was a topic filmmakers were unable to tackle directly.
Inevitably stories where humans encounter beings from other worlds are really about us, not them. Often it’s about the ways we deal with people we view as “other.” If, at times, viewers become caught up in the lives of the alien characters, it’s because they, too, are being used to tell us something about the human condition. Once we know what kind of human in alien guise we’re dealing with, the point of the story becomes clear. Let’s take a look at five different metaphoric aliens.
The Alien as Healer
He comes to Earth with a message of peace, assumes the guise of a Carpenter, is persecuted, killed by the authorities, and is then brought back to life with a warning that we must change our ways. That’s the narrative of the Christian Bible, of course, but it’s also the plot of the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Here the alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) looks and speaks like us and wants to help us avoid destruction by getting us to give up our warlike ways. Although the film is obviously a product of the Cold War, the antagonists here are not the merely the Russians but any political and military authority. Klaatu’s message turns out to be best appreciated by scientists and other intellectuals, along with a widowed mom and her young son. In addition to the overt and deliberate borrowings from Christian theology, Klaatu is delivering an equally subversive message encouraging us to question authority. Humanity will advance when it places its trust in wise people instead of powerful ones. Just as importantly, we must trust ourselves.
The aliens in both Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E. T. don’t have that kind of agenda (E.T., of course, just wanted to go home) but they also bring a message of healing. The characters most open to the message of the aliens in Close Encounters are those who haven’t lost their childlike sense of wonder, while it is actual children who befriend and rescue E.T. In the latter film it is the authorities, including the scientific ones, who risk the alien’s life. Since we in the audience are asked to cheer for the aliens and the humans who befriend them, the message of peace and love and being open to new and wondrous things is key. It’s the grown-ups who have forgotten how to see the world with a child’s eyes who need help.
Even in the marvelous spoof Galaxy Quest, the silly but lovable aliens who put all their hopes in the cast of a canceled TV show end up helping the jaded actors realize their true potential. The pompous star (Tim Allen) who played at heroism must now truly act heroically, while the bit player (Sam Rockwell) gets the opportunity to become a lead. Even the actor embittered by his career as a TV alien (Alan Rickman) learns to embrace what was great about his character.
In all these films the kind-hearted, benevolent aliens serve as the means for both the viewer and the on-screen characters to realize what is best about humanity.
The Alien as Evil Empire
There’s no question that many aliens in Cold War era movies and TV shows were stand-ins for the Soviet Union. It’s not surprising that those who attacked us in the 1950s films War of the Worlds and Invaders from Mars came from the Red Planet. If The Blob wasn’t Red, it was certainly pink, and its goal was to overtake and consume everyone around it, almost like a Communist front group. These aliens were all after land and power, as even Marvin the Martian demonstrates in the classic Warner Bros. cartoon, Duck Dodgers in the 24th and a Half Century. Dodgers has already claimed Planet X for the Earth when the “Martian Maggot” spaceship makes a belated landing. Marvin tries to steal the planet, the only known source of the “shaving cream atom,” for Mars.
The 1950s and 1960s gave us many examples of aliens as metaphorical Cold War rivals. In the original The Thing, the alien may have been a carrot monster from space, but here the military authority was shown to be correct in engaging in a shoot first, ask questions later policy. The brilliant scientist who wants to try to communicate with it endangers everyone. Even in carrot form, the movie makes clear, Communists can’t be reasoned with. They must be defeated with brute force. When, at film’s end, we’re told to “Keep watching the skies,” audiences knew it wasn’t only for UFOs. It was also for those Soviet weapons which would signify the start of World War III. Similarly, the sneaky aliens of Invaders from Mars set up a base where they can plant devices that transform humans into willing slaves. Those parents, teachers, police officers and military officials under Martian control become stand-ins for Communist fifth columnists.
The Klingons in the original Star Trek TV series served much the same purpose. Where the peaceful Federation (read: the West) wants only to explore the galaxy, the Klingons are out there stirring up trouble for their own nefarious ends. Such was the power of the metaphor that when the real Russians complained about the absence of a Russian crew member on the Enterprise—given the successes of the Soviet space program—the character of Chekhov (Walter Koenig) was added. Yes, he was part of the Federation, but he would also brag about various Russian accomplishments, often rewriting history in the process. If the “real” Russian was now one of the good guys, the alien Klingons represented what we really feared about them.
The Alien as Corrupter
Sometime aliens represent our own worst excesses, not an external threat. One of the most famous alien invasions on television occurred in the Twilight Zone episode entitled “To Serve Man.” The benevolent visitors cure our diseases, end famine and war, and even offer to take Earthlings to the paradise of their home world. The humans become complacent, happy to take all these gifts as their due without asking the price. The memorable price is that the alien book that gives the episode its title turns out to be a cookbook.
More recently the revival of the series V has brought similarly benevolent aliens with ulterior motives. When the aliens offer their free advanced medical treatments to humans, it is this a swipe at President Barack Obama’s health care proposals, or is it a critique of how we weren’t taking care of our own? Whichever side of the issue you come down on, V has the answer: be suspicious.
The original Alien would seem to have a simple message: if you encounter an alien designed by H. R. Giger, go screaming in the opposite direction. However in watching the film it is clear that it is personal and corporate greed that sets the story in motion. The crew of the Nostromo see the opportunity for bonuses in retrieving the alien egg while their corporate masters see their employees as expendable if they manage to bring back alien technology or lifeforms. The profit motive proves to be a death sentence for nearly all concerned.
Two of the sequel Star Trek series—Next Generation and Deep Space 9—offer many alien races and metaphors, but in this context the arrival of the Ferengi offered not only comic relief but a chance to show capitalism run amok. Their “Rules of Acquisition” spell out a philosophy that would not have been out of place on Wall Street in the last few decades, with adages like, “Once you have their money, you never give it back” and “Anything worth doing is worth doing for money.” In the guise of aliens, these characters suggested that we are our own worst enemy.
The Alien as Victim
Sometimes the alien stands in, not for our exploiters, but for our victims. The “Prawns” of the South African District 9 were an obvious substitute for the native black Africans who had been subjected to apartheid. Often in a story set in the future we’ll see that humanity has moved beyond racism and now projects their xenophobia and prejudice onto alien species. This was the driving force of the plot of Avatar, with the Na’vi substituting for American Indians, Australian aborigines, or whatever native population subjugated by western colonialism you prefer. Where mainstream critics compared it to Dances with Wolves and the animated Pocahontas, science fiction fans might have noticed the similarities to Ursula K. LeGuin’s short story “The Word for World is Forest,” which pitted militaristic humans against the native population on another planet. Instead of asking us to be open to other ways of thinking and living, as in the “alien as messiah” films, these are harsh warnings about the damage powerful civilizations do to the powerless.
Sometimes the victimized aliens are closer to home. Both the movie and TV series “Alien Nation used the Newcomers as a marker for prejudice in our everyday lives. Although it was set up as a buddy cop story, Alien Nation was really about integrating the Newcomers into the American way of life. The human cop in both versions had to overcome negative attitudes towards the aliens and, in the series, eventually started dating one of them. This led to a hilarious scene where he’s introducing her to one of his favorite aspects of Earth culture – the Three Stooges – and she looks at him admonishingly and says, “If you only knew what ’Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk’ meant in our language.” It was a low key example of the theme of Alien Nation: each subculture in our society has things to offer as well as providing a unique perspective on the mainstream world.
The Alien as Unknowable
Why do the unseen aliens in Independence Day attack Earth? Why do the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers want to replace humanity? What is the agenda of the superior beings who created the monoliths of 2001? Why couldn’t the super-intelligent Krell realize what unleashing the power of the mind could mean in Forbidden Planet?
In each case the answer is, “We don’t know.” We like to have things explained and to see that things make sense. When confronted with the unknown there’s usually someone who wants to make it known, whether it means conquering a disease or climbing Mount Everest or heading into space. Yet there is much we don’t know and can’t know and these aliens stand in for our fears and frustrations in such situations.
In movies like the original War of the Worlds and Independence Day there are people who want to welcome the space visitors to Earth. They must have so much to teach us. This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Instead, the humans get blasted. One of the hardest things for people to understand is that not everyone sees the world as we do. It’s why westerners who prize freedom of the press and Muslims outraged by editorial cartoons mocking their Prophet can’t communicate with each other. The views are so divergent they might as well be from different planets. Aliens who don’t appreciate humanity’s diplomatic overtures are truly alien to us.
On the personal level the truth is that we can never really know another person fully. Think of friends and family members who turn out to have interests—legitimate or clandestine—that are surprising when they come to light. Nowhere is this clearer than in a marriage where two people make continuing discoveries about the other, or evolve and change in unexpected ways. This often plays out in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where characters are taken over by aliens, making their loved ones feel their family members or neighbors are not the “real” ones but not being able to explain why. In I Married a Monster from Outer Space, the aliens take over the bodies of men in a town, and one newlywed bride can’t understand why her husband is acting so differently. Has there ever been a clearer metaphor for marriage? “You’re not the person I married” is a claim that only needs the explanation of alien mind control in the movies.
Yet another level of the unknowable is for those whose lives are informed by religion. To a western monotheist, the mind of God is beyond human understanding. Even when there’s direct evidence of God’s intentions as in a Biblical text, mere mortals can’t agree on what it really means. A film like 2001 approaches this ambiguity by keeping its aliens off-camera, instead letting them intervene through the mysterious monoliths. One monolith has a hand in evolution when it turns primitive apes into tool users. Another is buried on the moon ready to send a signal when humanity sufficiently advanced to have bases there. Yet another one is some sort of interstellar gate off of Jupiter, taking Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to be transformed into—possibly—the next evolutionary step. Whomever or whatever is behind the monoliths seems benign and even helpful, but we can’t be sure. The rival ape killed by a crack to his skull certainly wouldn’t have felt that way.
Finally, there is much we still don’t know. Scientists and others keep pushing back the borders of human knowledge, but there are always others who will argue that we go too far. There are some things man is not meant to know or is not yet prepared to handle. If the arguments against stem cell research and cloning seem familiar it’s because they are the same arguments used by Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) in Forbidden Planet. Those long dead and unseen Krell are a warning to us to turn back from the path of forbidden knowledge before it’s too late. If they couldn’t control the power of the mind, what chance do we puny humans have?
What’s clear is that whether friend, foe, or beyond our ability to understand, the aliens in our popular movies and TV shows tell us little about whether life exists on other planets, but they speaks volumes as to the nature of life back home on the planet Earth.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran film critic and author of Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and Other Observations on Science Fiction Movies (Fantastic Books) He is past president of the Boston Society of Film Critics and reviewed for the Worcester Telegram and Gazette for 25 years. His reviews now appear at NorthShoreMovies.net. He is a correspondent for Variety and teaches film at Suffolk University. In addition to being a frequent contributor at CLARKESWORLD and Space and Time, he is the author of an award-winning history of FOX TV, The Fourth Network (2004), a history of DreamWorks, The Dream Team (2006) and I'll Have What She's Having: Behind the Scenes of the Great Romantic Comedies.