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E.T. Go Home—Spielberg’s Really Bad Aliens
The history of science fiction is built on a Manichean foundation of good aliens and bad aliens. In War of the Worlds,. H.G. Wells helped create that tradition when he invented what came to be known in the genre as the BEM (Bug Eyed Monster) with his boneless, blood-sucking octopoidal Martians. For Wells, however, good socialist that he was, the point was not to leave it as a simple us vs. them. For him the BEM was a doppelganger, a wild image of British Colonialism come home to roost. In Wells’s book, we meet the enemy and the enemy is us.
By the 1950’s, in the midst of cold war, the enemy was definitely the enemy and there was no two ways about it. George Pal’s 1953 version of Wells’s book starring Gene Barry captured all the Manichean terror of the original, but without any sense of doubling. America under attack could mean only one thing—the Russians were coming. Along with other classics of the period (The Thing , Invaders from Mars (1953), The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Earth vs. The Flying Saucers (1956) and so on) the political paranoia of the era coagulated in images of icky, unsympathetic aliens bent on destroying god-fearing Americans.
But this vision of the utterly evil other was not left unchallenged by the liberal wing in Hollywood, staggering though it was under the right wing assault led by Joseph McCarthy. At the same time the evil aliens crawled or slithered across the screen in movie theaters across North America, a counter sci-fi sub-genre arose in which the aliens were actually the good guys and the militaristic, testosterone soaked military industrial complex were the bad guys. The Day the World Stood Still (1951), It Came From Outer Space (1953), and others portrayed gentle, peace loving aliens harried, and even killed by right-wing brutes bent on maintaining aggression at all costs.
Enter Steven Spielberg, whose early classics, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and especially E.T. (1982) took the liberal peacenik version of the lovable alien to new levels of peace, love, and good vibes. Spielberg’s aliens did more to counter the stereotype of the evil alien than any other films or books of the period, throwing the Joint Chiefs of Staff (not to mention the CIA) into such an unfavourable light that to this day they still have not fully recovered (who can ever forget those white-suited fascists marching into the house terrifying those innocent little alien loving children).
But that was several Spielberg’s ago, and now he has given us a new version of Wells’s original BEM’s remarkable both for their absence of any redeeming qualities and for their unalloyed Manichean otherness. This close encounter is definitely not of the third kind. But this is not the first time we have met these aliens in Spielberg’s work. With Schindler’s List (1993) and Spielberg’s rediscovery of the horrors of the Holocaust, he began to rethink the nature of evil in his films. Most notably in Saving Private Ryan (1998) this self examination developed into a full blown renunciation of his former, wishy-washy peacenik 60’s liberalism.
In Private Ryan we meet the other and although he pretends he’s like us, he’s really a dirty Kraut who deserves to be shot down like mad dog. There are only two scenes in the film in which actual human interaction occurs between the Americans and the Germans, other than through a gun sight.. In the first scene the Americans argue over whether or not to execute a captured German. By singing American pop songs, speaking English, and claiming to have lived in the U.S., the alien manages to persuade the Americans that he really is one of them. Soft-hearted, naïve, and too easy-natured for their own good, they let him go.
When they next encounter him he has rejoined his German outfit. In that second scene a protracted knife fight takes place between him and one of the Americans who freed him. The alien ends up stabbing the American in the heart. Slowly. While looking into the eyes of the man who had spared him. The message couldn’t be more clear—E.T. go home, we don’t want your kind around here. You may be able to sing our songs and pretend you’re one of us, but really you’re a bug eyed monster just waiting for a chance to stab us in the heart. Certainly the final snarl of the dying alien in War of the Worlds indicates no death bed regret over the havoc they caused to the poor unsuspecting earthlings. I’ll be right back, he seems to hiss. And the message is not that we should learn about ourselves from this. It seems to be that we should be damned ready to blow his ugly head off if he and his kind ever show up in our end of the solar system again.
What’s even more interesting, though, are the changes Spielberg and his writers make to the narrative details of Wells’s original story. Wells was mostly interested in splashing a little cold water in the face of the Empire. His BEM’s might have landed in Dorset wearing pith helmets and sipping gin and tonics as they popped off the wogs, the parallels were so close. Over and over Wells refers to the extinction of the Dodo and Darwin’s theory in referring to the attack of the Martians, implying that no matter how big a dog Western-Civ-As-We-Know-It considers itself, there is always a bigger dog around the corner, and the sun would indeed sit—er, set—on the British empire some day.
In that context, Wells singled out three specific targets for the brunt of his horror-satire —liberal democracy, the church, and the military. Each of them in its own way served as a pillar—or at least facilitator—of British colonialism. Liberal democracy, the illusion of the universal political rationality and equality of the “masses” (not to mention the indicator of the innate superiority of those who got it over those who don’t) goes first without a whimper as Darwinism asserts itself in panicked flight. The whole social world dissolves into mindless flight and violence. You never see it recovered in Wells’s novel. Spielberg touches on this in his film, but only briefly, and by the movie’s end, the American family has reconstituted itself across class lines in the home of American democracy—Boston’s Beacon Hill (remarkably untouched by the predations of the aliens).
Wells takes on the church and the military in the two protracted encounters the narrator has with other humans. Early in the book he hides with a curate in a semi-destroyed house watching the Martians build their tripods. Toward the end of the book he encounters the artilleryman whose army has dissolved around him. The curate is represented as utterly hapless, unable to come to terms with the reality of what is happening as he endlessly frets about why God would do this to a perfectly good Empire. The artilleryman, somewhat like the Tim Robbins figure in Spielberg’s film, goes on and on about going underground and fighting the Martians, so lost in his militaristic rhetoric that he is oblivious to the Martians overwhelming military superiority. But as a representative of what’s left of the military that had conquered large parts of the world, he is unable to recognize those who have replaced him with bigger guns and better machines.
It’s probably not surprising, given the current political climate in the US, that Spielberg excises the curate from his allegory. Imagine the brouhaha that would erupt from the Bush crowd over that. Even Pal removed the religious figure, replacing him with Anne Robinson, and turning the ruined house into a little romantic get away. But beyond that, Spielberg’s agenda is different. Wells wants us to see ourselves both in the aliens and in our response to the aliens. All the institutions of Western-Civ-As-We-Know-It are revealed as self-imposed delusions when we suddenly confront our own brutality in this otherness that is us.
Spielberg attempts something like that with the artilleryman. But Tim Robbins’s hysterical Militiaman (however delightfully acted) has lost all connection to the State and so is unable to carry that alienated image of ourselves that the artilleryman carries in the novel. He is simply loony. As a Militiaman, he seems to stand as one, last, knee-jerk slash at the right—at least the “extreme” right and their stupid gun fetish. We laugh at him, rather than recognizing ourselves in him.
But perhaps the most interesting change Spielberg and his writers make is in the way the war starts. Both Wells and Pal who follows him, begin with the landing of the Martian’s ships. In that initial moment there is room for considering the possibility that this contact is not hostile, that some communication can occur. Dramatically it’s effective, but it’s also part of the drive to establish verisimilitude. They had to get here somehow.
In what is arguably the weakest plot device in Spielberg’s film, one that actually threatens our ability to suspend our disbelief, we are asked to believe that hundreds, thousands of these intact, giant, tripod machines have lain buried in the earth for hundreds of thousands of years—even millions, someone suggests at some point—just waiting for Tom Cruise’s estranged kids to come stay with him so they can teach him a lesson about fatherhood. Under Manhattan? You’ve got to be kidding.
This is the point at which the allegory threatens to assert itself over any desire for a reasonable fiction. Of course!—the machines are SLEEPER CELLS. They are all around us, waiting to waken and destroy our values and way of life, as the saying goes these days (e.g. Western-Civ-As-We-Know-It). At that point, the whole sad metaphor threatens to overwhelm what fun the BEMs have always offered. Luckily the BEM’s are bad enough to withstand that threat, even when Cruise, the motorhead, working class, presumably right-wing, slob manages to reunite his daughter with her mother and her liberal Beacon Hill Brahman family (I’d love to see the back story there, but it’s so improbable that Speilberg and his scriptwriter simply ignore it, hoping we won’t notice). There’s nothing wrong it seems with Family America that a little terrorist—er, alien—attack can’t cure as long as we are clear on who are the good guys are and who are the bad guys.
Fine and well if you’re a good guy. But if you look like a bad guy, perhaps not.
Born and raised in Riverside, California, Michael Boughn moved to Canada in October 1966 to escape the U.S. military draft and to continue organizing against the Viet Nam War. He lived in Vancouver for 7 years, meeting Robin Blaser who introduced him to the work of William Blake, Charles Olson, H.D., Jack Spicer, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and other crucial contemporary writers, forever changing his life. In 1980 he returned to California, eventually returning to school at the University of California at Santa Cruz and SUNY Buffalo, where he completed his PhD. Today he lives in Toronto with his wife and their two children. Among his many books of poetry are Dislocation Flutter, One’s Own MIND, Dislocations in Crystal, and, published in 2005, 22 Skidoo.
Copyright ©2006 by Michael Boughn
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