Though cosmic pluralism (storytelling about worlds beyond Earth) can be traced as far back as the second century, the modern alien invasion narrative evidenced in films like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Independence Day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Cloverfield, and Attack the Block all derive some measure of influence from H.G. Well's 1897 serial, The War of the Worlds. In the narrative, England is invaded by Martian colonizers motivated to replenish their dwindling resources when Mars becomes uninhabitable. It's simultaneously an undeniable critique of imperialism, and the single most influential text published during the wave of "invasion literature" produced in England between the 1870s and First World War, a result of the citizenry's perception that a weakened military rendered the country vulnerable to attack by foreign nationals (sound familiar?).
Like the abolitionists of the period, Wells' story was inflected with an inherent white supremacist bias that ultimately renders his critique somewhat hollow, susceptible as it is to misinterpretation. He writes,
"We must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals such as the vanished bison and dodo, but also upon its own inferior races. The Tasmanians, in spite of their human likeness, were entirely swept out of existence in a war of extermination waged by European immigrants, in the space of fifty years."
Even as Wells understood intellectually the hypocrisy of British invasion anxiety, his use of "inferior races" to describe the aboriginal peoples' "human likeness" reveals the already-centuries-long investment in the perception of an essentialized European superiority that did not and has never actually existed. As a result, the story struck terror in the hearts of its readers, who ingested it as evidence to support the need for a stronger military presence, as opposed to questioning the imperial empire itself. The same response occurred in America following Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast radio rendition (which took on new meaning within the American imagination when Pearl Harbor was bombed three years later), and again following the first film adaptation in 1953—fodder for Cold War paranoia.
Alien invasion is often presented as a type of swarm, and herein is its situation within the lexicon of The Swallowing. This is demonstrated at the global level as well as the level of the individual (Alien), and in some cases- like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and its progeny like The Faculty- both. In Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films from 1890's to Present, Dr. Robin R. Means Coleman writes of 1915's The Birth of a Nation that
"…the prompt to associate Black culture with monstrosity, comes when Black Union soldiers arrive in the town of Piedmont as a marauding gang, looting and bringing destruction, as they 'enter the town like monsters,' preying upon the White innocents."
According to Coleman, the film's logic operates through an understanding of "true horror" as what "came after [the Civil War] in the form of unchecked, freed Black men," portrayed as "wolves overtaking the sheep." In other words, the film presents free Black people as akin to an invading swarm: the occasion of The Swallowing. The effectiveness of this method is such that it has been implemented again and again in different subgenres coinciding with generational politics. The '50s saw a wave of sci-fi ecohorror (Them!, Tarantula, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) that mirrored the invasions of Wells' imagination, which is to say nothing of Gojira and the birth of kaiju films in general, conceived in direct response to the horrors committed by the U.S. at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
While the etymology of the word monster famously means 'to warn or portent,' the word alien derives from the Latin, alius or alienus, meaning 'other' or 'belonging to another.' The alien, metaphorically speaking, represents essentialized Otherness. Beyond metaphor, it's a legal designation weaponized to lawfully reduce human beings to monstrous symbologies in order to justify their exploitation.
Consider the Alien and Sedition Acts passed in 1798, part of the U.S. response to the Haitian Revolution and the growing xenophobic anxiety that Haitian immigration ("Cannibals of the terrible republic," according to Thomas Jefferson) could influence and inspire similar revolts in America. Of these bills, the Alien Enemies Act remains in effect today, authorizing the president to imprison or deport "aliens…of a hostile nation." How does this influence our understanding of the violence against Haitian refugees fleeing climate disaster, as witnessed last week at the Texas border?
If the monster creates the human, the alien creates the nation-state, a demonstration of the same impulse toward homosocial triangulation I wrote about in my previous column on cannibalism. In order to sanctify statehood, the citizen must be created and exalted through the existence of the legal alien, the subjugation of whom bonds the nation and begets nationalism. We saw this after 9/11, when Muslim citizens and non-citizens alike were demonized as invading terrorists, fear of which led to the creation of ICE in 2003: an entire organization dedicated to hunting the "illegal aliens" who prowl the imaginations of those unable or unwilling to distinguish fiction from reality.
With every passing year, the rhetoric and imagery of alien invasion is increasingly prescribed to immigration for any and all reasons, revealing the violence of borders themselves. Like the titular author confesses in The X-Files episode, "Jose Chung's From Outer Space," "as a storyteller, I'm fascinated how a person's sense of consciousness can be so transformed by nothing more magical than listening to words."
Despite being of the same subgenre, Mars Attacks! (1996) and Annihilation (2018) couldn't be more different in tone, method, or story. The former works with the canon and the latter reimagines what it can be entirely. The easy question is what alien encounters reveal about our most human experiences? The harder one is what they portent about the future, the increasingly alien world, and how we view and respond to each other within it?
A completely irreverent and critically underappreciated piece of genre satire, Mars Attacks! riffs on the sci-fi horror of earlier decades, using classical elements to launch a full-scale attack on the arrogance of world leaders, capitalists, and idealists alike. Though the plot is fairly straightforward- little green men come to Earth and wreak havoc- the film's brilliance is in its ensemble cast of painfully inept characters, all of whom come with their own messy agendas.
Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close play President and First Lady, James and Marsha Dale, both of whom are obsessed with appearances to the point of paralyzed fecklessness (aka The Liberal Agenda) while dutifully ignoring their daughter, Taffy (Natalie Portman). They are advised by Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), an ardent believer that the martians' advanced technology and large external cerebrum indicate an inherently peaceful nature, warmonger General Decker (Rod Steiger) who wants to nuke them on sight, even-tempered if ambitious General Casey (Paul Winfield), and the ever-horny press secretary, Jerry Ross (Martin Short), all of whom essentially represent archetypes of American politics. Meanwhile, Nicholson appears again as Las Vegas hotel and casino owner Art Land, husband to Barbara (Annette Bening), his new-age pseudo-environmentalist hippie wife, and boss to Byron Williams (Jim Brown). Byron is a former boxing champ trying to support his family back in Washington by working at the casino. At the same time, his ex-wife-but-current-love-interest, Louise (Pam Grier) struggles to keep their two sons, Cedric (Ray J) and Neville (Brandon Hammond) on the straight and narrow as the two are primarily interested in shooting aliens at the neighborhood arcade. Elsewhere, Richie is the black sheep of a family obsessed with military service. He works at a doughnut shop and feels kinship almost exclusively with his grandma, whose horrid warbling music proves to be a better defense than all the weaponry and military might of the American empire.
One of the things that most distinguishes Mars Attacks! from other alien invasion films is that its human characters- particularly those who represent power- are basically insufferable nincompoops. Everyone's a caricature, so even as the Martians are depicted as comic villains with all the chaotic impulses of Bart Simpson, they are no more terrible than their human counterparts motivated by power, greed, career aspirations, and- most meaninglessly- optics. The infusion of absurdist humor serves to reinforce and render overt the critique of imperialism that has always been central to Wells' story, oftentimes buried beneath the romantic nationalism so enticing to viewers.
Consider Independence Day; the Will Smith-helmed summer blockbuster released six months before Mars Attacks!. Compared to Bill Pullman's rousing speech about "not go[ing] quietly into the night," Jack Nicholson's cornered appeal to the Martian ambassador garnered far less inspiration: "Isn't the universe big enough for both of us? …. Why can't we all just get along?" This, after a flying squeak toy sucks up all the energy of a nuclear missile and converts it to something closer to a powerful toot.
Audiences were far less romanced by Burton's satire and the ineptitude with which he portrayed American leadership. Nevertheless, this side of the turn of the century/millennium, the project's humor lends a certain amount of realism. We've seen the buffoonery, and frankly, if anyone needed to be deflated to Plankton size and squashed…well, I can think of a number of current and former government officials who are more than deserving of the fate.
Everyone who represents power dies in this film—their institutions left in shambles. Taffy, abandoned by her parents, is the only presidential family member to survive and bestows medals of honor upon Richie and his grandma as a mariachi band plays behind them. Byron somehow boxes his way out of a Martian horde and makes it to Washington, where Neville and Cedric's hours of shooting digital aliens made them better than the secret service when the actual invasion came. The film's final shot shows Byron entering Louise's apartment building, the external face of which has been ripped off to reveal everyone inside, cleaning, gathering Martian corpses, altogether rebuilding. Which is what always happens after a disaster, regardless of leadership. It's not our governors, senators, presidents that recreate the world—it's us. Regular people in regular communities working together for the common good.
This is the romance Burton taps into. Where Independence Day makes heroes of the military and government, Mars Attacks! knows real heroism is not with power, but with the people.
At its core, 2018's Annihilation is a Journey to the Center of the Earth-style meditation on love, grief, selfhood, and transformation; a character study as much as a social and ecological one. Told in a braided three-timeline narrative structure, we follow Lena (Natalie Portman)- a cellular biologist and army veteran- through pre-mission flashbacks, the in-mission present, and post-mission interview (which is to say, recollection) of her journey into a strange, mysterious zone referred to as "the Shimmer." When her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), comes homefollowing a secret assignment with the military, something is a bit off. Only after exposure does she learn about the ever-expanding territory surrounding a lighthouse in the southern U.S. where a meteorite struck three years prior. Ever since, a shimmering essence continues to spread and grow, all efforts to study it failing because no one who enters the Shimmer ever comes back—except Kane.
A parallel is established in the film's onset between Lena's consuming grief and the Shimmer itself. Both threaten to devour her by first devouring Kane, and it's this recognition that motivates her to join a team of women into the zone, ostensibly to figure out how to save him and, by proxy, herself. Led by psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the two are also joined by Josie (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic, and Cass (Tuva Novotny), a geomorphologist.
Even before their entering, the Shimmer is described as "a religious event, an extraterrestrial event, a higher dimension." Inside, they lose time, their technology useless, the world around them uncanny: not unlike our environment but again, off. "Like they're stuck in a continuous mutation," Lena speculates of the plant life. "Corruption of form, duplicates of form…echoes." By this, she means that though elements of the world within the Shimmer demonstrate difference, they are nevertheless a single organism. A pair of strange deer move in perfect synchronicity, one an echo of the other, but how to tell which is which? Who is the subject, and who is the object?
Annihilation is a definitively ecogothic text as the boundaries between the human, plant, animal, and other elements of the natural world meld, fall away and take new forms. You can read the Shimmer as a metaphor for climate change in the sense that the known world becomes alien as what is known is absorbed into the unknown. The Shimmer is both a possessed and haunted landscape, familiar in form and shape. Still, by the narrative's science, that familiarity is more akin to a ghostly encounter, hereby marking a significant departure from tales of little green men acting on distinctly human motivations.
"The Shimmer is a prism," Josie theorizes, "but it refracts everything. Not just light and radio waves. Animal DNA. Plant DNA. All DNA." Plants grow in human forms; humans can become plant forms. A person can be eaten by an animal, and "as she was dying part of her mind became part of the creature that was killing her," the space between her sounds and the animal's sounds terrifyingly collapsed. The alien is traditionally understood as the essence of Other, but within the Shimmer- within this alien- everything is interconnected in a single cellular structure. It represents, in essence, perfect unity.
Humans, by contrast, struggle with interpersonal connection at the most individual levels, and the haunted landscape is again meant to parallel Lena's haunted mind. "Almost none of us commit suicide and almost all of us self-destruct," Dr. Ventress tells her. "In some way, in some part of our lives." It's not until she's inside the Shimmer that we learn Lena has had an affair, that Kane knew and, in this knowing, made the choice to go on the apparent suicide mission. A lot is made of this question- why anyone would enter knowing no one comes back- so even as Lena follows her husband's path, who she really winds up confronting is herself.
When Lena arrives at the lighthouse, the Shimmer's center, and site of the meteor landing, she finds inside the blackened silhouette of a human skeleton sat prayer-like beside a literal black hole—the face of the void. A camcorder reveals that Kane duplicated, that his human self took his life, leaving his doppelganger to return home to Lena. Annihilation demonstrates, in a sense, a mutual invasion- the human intrudes upon the alien, the alien intrudes upon the human- and in doing so, collapses the space between subject and object.
The Swallowing is all about the devouring Other, represented ontologically in the appearance of an open mouth. In a profoundly literal rendering of the famous Nietzsche quote, "And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you," the void literally beckons to Lena until she crawls inside to find…something that speaks from Dr. Ventress but isn't Dr. Ventress. "It's not like us. It's unlike us," she describes. "I don't know what it wants or if it wants, but it will grow until it encompasses everything." She comes apart, her energy reshaping itself before Lena's eyes. A single cell becomes two, two become four, until the echo of a human form takes shape, mirrors her, becomes her. At the very moment the new being seems to sort of wake up, Lena leaves a grenade in her hand, immolating the Shimmer at its core until it comes apart, leaving the Earth as it once was.
In quarantine back at the base, Lena's interviewer asks after the extraterrestrial's motivations. "I don't think it wanted anything," she answers, an echo of Ventress's statement. "But it attacked you." "It mirrored me," she clarifies. "I attacked it. I'm not sure it even knew I was there." Confused, he argues it "came…for a reason…was mutating our environment…destroying everything." His estimation is, of course, a matter of perception. "It wasn't destroying," Lena explains. "It was changing everything. It was making something new."
Like monsters, aliens both "dwell at the gates of difference" and "police the borders of the possible." They also "stand at the threshold of becoming." Annihilation recognizes that the only god we will ever be able to quantify is change; that what dwells in the void, the unknown and potentially terrifying future, is also usually awe-inspiring. The face of the divine.