Aliens, forming the enigma of extraterrestrial life, have been a source of both our dread and fascination for decades. What’s interesting is that the figure of the alien has always been shaped by the cultural and political forces at play, and so it has undergone numerous transformations since its initial conception. The alien is shown either baring its flesh-tearing teeth in a montrous display of barbarity, or using superior intelligence to bridge the gap between the familiar and the unknown.
When seen as a cunning predator, the alien can be interpreted as a metaphor for human remoteness, and monstrosity. The beginning of the 1940s saw a tendency in science fiction to depict humans in the role of alien conquerors trying to colonize less developed worlds, as Borbála Bökös points out. The byproduct of any encounter with the Other is a culture-changing experience, and the notion of change is inevitably perceived as a threat to any system already in place.
Jessica Langer noted that sci-fi stories showing humans vanquishing aliens reflect with “the historical dehumanization of indigenous colonial people”, particularly when humans take on the role of the Other. What the appearance of the alien symbolizes, then, is an existential threat for humankind, sharpening the realization that the human is not at the center of Creation anymore. This daunting thought started percolating in the 1950s and 1960s, when America trembled before the atomic threat of the Cold War.
What emerged was a kind of parasitic relationship, which thrived on the aliens’ ability to take over human minds and bodies. We can see this in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Stuart Orme’s The Puppet Master (1994) and Lawrence Kasdan’s Dreamcatcher (2003), to name a few. Interestingly, the alien invasion genre didn’t begin in the United States, but among other societes.
Voltaire’s novella Micromégas (1752) featured titan-sized aliens taking a peek at the Earthlings down below. They laughed at the humans’ Earth-centric views, which raised them to the same level of importance as the mighty extraterrestrial life forms. Similarly, Yaochong Yang points out that Japan, having experienced the horrors of a nuclear attack during World War II, developed a fascination with monster-based films.
Either way, the incorporation of the Other into the human body brings up the issue of dominance. As their technology and morality always outshine ours, aliens take on the role of intergalactic judges of humanity. And so, they either annihilate our species with the carnage warranted by their evolutionary edge, or weigh our destructive natures against our emotion-driven potential during a Judgement Day of their own making. Robert Wise’s The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), and then Scott Derrickson’s 2008 remake illustrate this germinating fear rather well.
The alien-human body serves not only as a means of colonization, but a physical representation of our collective healing from the horrors of colonional encounters, as Bökös points out. It makes sense, then, that in a globalized world, alien-human confrontations in film are used as a means of understanding and enduring the changes in the existence of culture.
James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) presents the hybrid of the Other and the human in the form of Jake Sully’s genetically modified body. It’s used to reconcile the humans, who appear as the alien invader, and the Na’vi, the local creatures agonized by the destruction brought on by human colonization.
Why do we keep searching for the alien, though? Well, Michael Beehler sheds some light on this conundrum by noticing the threat to the institution of mankind that the alien poses, and the way the search for the alien becomes the human beings’ “search for determining themselves”. This naturally leads us to contemplate the Fermi paradox which is,
It was at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1950 that Enrico Fermi famously asked his colleagues, “Where are they?”. When we take into account data that reflects current scientific understanding, a conclusion that may prove baffling to fans of the geocentric model bares itself quite magnanimously before us. Namely, that there’s no reason to be confident that the “observable universe” at our disposal contains other civilizations, much less any that would forsake the resources within their immediate reach to make contact with Earth.
Fear of the unknown
It becomes clear, then, that the projection of our anxieties and desires molds itself into fictional depictions of superior forces. Humanity has employed its imagination for the same cause since the beginning, when people worshipped the elements in a humble show of submission before the great unknown.
What alien invasion films do remarkably well is capture the distrust and dehumanization of the Other, the foreign element, when two cultures clash. But it should be noted that, in the words of Yaochong Yang, they also suggest a neoconservative and alarmist perspective on hegemony, and the superiority of the familiar above all else.