Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 20, August 2003

 

 

Jon Baldwin

 

Other Bother:

The Alien in Science Fiction Cinema;

Sardar and Cubitt's _Aliens R Us_

 

 

_Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema_

Edited by Ziauddin Sardar and Sean Cubitt

London: Pluto Press, 2002

ISBN 0-7453-1544-5 (hb) 0-7453-1539-9 (pbk)

208 pp.

 

In a speech to the United Nations in the late 1980's, Ronald Reagan, then President of the USA, announced a certain desire:

 

'In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognise this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.' [1]

 

A decade later science fiction film delivers Reagan's hope, a universal threat from the other that creates assimilation. In _Independence Day_ President Thomas J. Whitmore addresses a press conference, in response to an attack from aliens:

 

'Good morning. In less than one hour planes from here and all around the world will launch the largest aerial battle in the history of Mankind. The word has new meaning for all of us now. We are reminded not of our petty differences but of our common interests. Perhaps it's fate that today, July the Fourth, we will once again fight for our freedom. Not from tyranny, persecution or oppression, but from annihilation. We're fighting for our right to live, to exit. From this day on, the fourth day of July will no longer be remembered as an American holiday but as the day that all of mankind declared we will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We will live on. We will survive.'

 

Whitmore's stirring delivery, and pastiche of Dylan Thomas, ensures that Mankind does indeed unite in the attempt to exterminate the alien threat. The Rest is assimilated to the West in military unity and shared persecution of the other. The American holiday of the fourth of July becomes a holiday for all. Calendars are to be in line with American concerns. America is to be the peacekeeper as well as the timekeeper of the world. Independence is to be celebrated as being independent from everything except American influence.

 

This scenario affirms that much sci-fi serves Western ideology. As the authors of the collection of ten essays in _Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema_ stress, Hollywood representations of the alien often serve Western prejudices and fantasies about otherness. Ziauddin Sardar, co-editor, informs in the Introduction that: 'Science fiction is a very particular possession of just one tradition -- Western civilisation' (2). In sci-fi film light is not the only thing projected, 'science fiction employs the particular constellations of Western thought and history and projects these Western perspectives on a pan-galactic scale' (2). As this collection makes abundantly apparent, the consideration of sci-fi film has come a long way since its summary dismissal as just a juvenile exercise in special effects. Sci-fi offers morality tales about science, technology, and the future. It has provided large-scale speculations on the future of modern society. The contributors to this book demonstrate that sci-fi can both reinforce and reflect dominant cultural and political assumptions. The future is written with today's agenda in mind, thus sci-fi artefacts are complicit with contemporary ideologies, struggles, policies, and political discourse.

 

Sci-fi film, significantly, also deals with the concept of *the alien* (as well as encounters with aliens). It is therefore well placed to offer metaphors and allegories of difference and the self/other relationship. As Sardar has it: 'Difference and otherness are the essence of aliens.' (6) Sci-fi offers images of the other that reflect a society's attitude to the other. The mise-en-scene of sci-fi film typically adds another layer of otherness in that it presents a futuristic, uncanny, alien landscape. In the encounter with the other sci-fi film presents a frontier mythology that reveals attitudes to colonialism. It has been suggested that ray guns and rockets have replaced Smith and Westons and wagons. Because of this frontier element and because the alien stands in for the other, sci-fi can be subjected to the postcolonial analysis and critique usually applied to colonial texts. The critical investigation of the representation of the other is a key preoccupation of the authors of the texts in the collection. European, Asian, and American cinema comes under scrutiny. Also of concern are issues of globalisation, European identity, Orientalism, technology, the cyborg, militarism, xenophobia, and the politics of ecology, race, sex, and gender.

 

Toshiya Ueno's contribution to the collection illustrates the virtue of the geographically diverse series of perspectives in the collection. The contributors are from New Zealand, Dublin, Glasgow, Delaware, Belfast, Hong Kong, Lyon, Manchester, Liverpool, and London. Ueno is from Tokyo and brings this to bear in his discussion of Japanese sci-fi animation. This discussion results in the neologism Japanimation in the delicious title of his essay, 'Japanimation: Techno-Orientalism, Media Tribes and Rave Culture'. Ueno complains of the problematic imaginary Japanese culture that has been constructed by non-Japanese scholars. Ueno's specific target is those thinkers overly fascinated by illusions and images of Samurai and moral codes based on Shinto and the spirit of *hara-kiri* or *kamikaze*. Ueno claims that this scenario is a stereotype and has 'never existed but has been constructed as an interface for understanding the heterogeneous culture' (99). Ueno convincing reveals the political economy of Japanimation, and relates manga and anime culture to rave culture. Both rave culture and Japanimation have progressive attitudes towards women, Ueno suggests. Japanimations often feature female protagonists with a 'cyborg subjectivity' possessing superior powers, and in rave culture (unlike disco culture), 'women are no longer treated as the target of sexual pick-ups' (107). All this points towards an alternative politics exploring the potential of cyber feminism and cyborg politics. Ueno also celebrates the rave DJ and likens their position to that of the shaman of archaic societies; the 'antagonism of ravers can only be resolved around the DJ as mediator and techno-shaman' (107). This notion of the DJ as hero seems odd until one reads in the 'Notes on Contributors' that Ueno, as well as being Associate Professor, Wako University, Tokyo, is also 'a sought after DJ of Psychedelic Trance techno music' (182).

 

Jan Mair's contribution considers _Independence Day_ in terms of postmodernism. She is prescient in pondering: 'If _Top Gun_ prepared us for 'Operation Desert Storm' with its high tech military hardware, then what kind of apocalyptic future does _Independence Day_ warn us to expect?' (35) Given the recent events in Iraq, it can be suggested that if _Top Gun_ prepared us for 'Desert Storm', then _Independence Day_ prepares us for 'Saving Jessica Lynch'. Mair competently discusses the inter-textual elements in _Independence Day_, relating it to _The X Files_, _Alien_, _The War of the Worlds_, and the cult surrounding the incident at Roswell. Muir ends with a chilling warning: 'The future is the old Western frontier: all that does not submit will be destroyed. When the Other is eradicated insularity becomes total.' (49)

 

At face value Christine Wertheim's input to the collective is peculiar insofar as she does not seem too enamoured with her subject matter, _Star Trek: First Contact_. She describes it as being 'neither interesting nor original' (74), finding that 'the basic plot of this saga is as dull as dishwater' (75). To be sure this may well be true, but the cult of Star Trek ensures that its audience will typically be deeply engaged with the text rather than offering the detached critical viewpoint of the academic. This points to a potential problem with the methods of the essays in the collection -- there is an absence of empirical audience research. We discover how postcolonial critics read and react to the other in sci-fi film, but there is no consideration (just the odd speculation) of how cinema audiences read and react to the other in sci-fi film. For instance there is no focus group research, often no discussion of the contemporary reception of the film, and little discussion of qualitative or quantitative research findings. This omission, whilst not at all invalidating any aspect of the book, means that we are not, for instance, given elaboration on the thesis suggested by Richard Kearney, following Timothy Beal, on how and why sci-fi films work for audiences. In symbolically eliminating the ethnic, sexual, ideological, or political other, sci-fi film resolves the problem of the other by simply blasting it away. The threat of the other is eliminated and the audience can sleep safely. In this way sci-fi alien films function for audiences in the same way that monster films work:

 

'Hollywood monster movies serve as vehicles for what Beal calls a 'public rite of exorcism in which our looming sense of unease is projected in the form of a monster and then blown away'. For even if there is some 'collateral damage' before the battle is over, the monster will be defeated in the end and the nation restored to safety.' [2]

 

Wertheim is exceptional in offering a perspective on the enemy in _Star Trek: First Contact_: the Borg 'are a synthesis of every cliche about the Other: a complex (con)fusion of insect-virus-commie-machine, with a hive mentality in which each will is absorbed into the collective drive' (75). No wonder that 'the Borg represent the opposite of the Thatcher principle' (76), in terms of consisting of only society with no such thing as the individual. Wertheim's subsequent discussion of the Borg Queen's seduction of Data leads her to reaffirm that 'to be a human subject is to be a sexed subject' (80). We see this at play in her text, with frequent sexual comments such as the hope that Data's fabled 'multiple sexual techniques will be more fully explored in later episodes' (82), and, pace Freud, a cigar-shaped-rocket is never just a cigar-shaped-rocket, it's an 'all thrusting phallus', that elicits two crew members to start 'cooing over this artefact, touching it in awe like two little boys wanking a giant collective member' (75). Wertheim persuasively argues that what is so problematic (from a male perspective) about the Borg Queen is the threat of the other to masculinity, namely the feminine position. In sexual relations the Borg Queen 'takes for herself the active part and puts *him* in the position of passive object' (85). This view shares much that Stephen Mulhall suggests is threatening and otherly in Ridley Scott's _Alien_. The bodily invasion (the rape and distinctive attack of the alien by attachment to the face and impregnation of the victim via the mouth) then subsequent expulsion (in the classic frenzied birth-giving scene with John Hurt), 'threatens the human race as a whole with the monstrous fate of feminisation, forcing our species to occupy the sexual role (that of being violated, of playing host to a parasite, and of facing death in giving birth) that women are imagined to occupy in relation to men'. [3]

 

The book's co-editor, Sean Cubitt, discusses the potential ecological insight of _Delicatessen_. The rise of Green politics challenges Lyotard's thesis of the demise of master narratives, and 'one of the few values that the film industry can appeal to is the equation of nature with the good' (24). Cubitt has the ambition of an extension of the work of Habermas:

 

'Where Habermas restricts interactivity to human agents engaged in rational discourse, we must extend it towards an understanding of communication that cannot be restricted towards an rationality because it embraces communication with the non-human and specifically with the natural environment.' (27)

 

Can _Delicatessen_ realise this 'dialogic conception of the ecological relation' (27)? Cubitt suggests that the nostalgic 'idealisation of the unmediated' ultimately deprives '_Delicatessen_ of a politics, even as it provides it with an ethics' (25). Cubitt concludes, that the film 'charms us as a kind of futurological statement' (32). In this way the sci-fi would find support from Philip K. Dick who provides a normative definition of the genre: 'good' sci-fi contains the essential ingredient of '*the distinct new idea*'. Central to the reception of good sci-fi would be Dick's notion of the reader invaded by a 'conceptual dislocation' -- the 'shock of dysrecognition'. Dick suggests that sci-fi 'deconstructs time, space, reality', and in this way a claim could be made for 'good' sci-fi to be considered as sharing the same terrain as philosophy. [4]

 

The essay by Nickianne Moody does not, strictly speaking, concern itself with film and cinema. The subject matter is the television serial _Space: Above and Beyond_. Moody discusses the failure of the show -- it was not granted a second series by Twentieth Century Fox. The problem was one of plot development and genre expectation: '_Space: Above and Beyond_ wants to explore the emotional aspects of total war at a very different pace to other science fiction series or visual products' (69). The serial failed in terms of popular rather than critical or cult acclaim, but popularity is the assessing criteria in commercial television. In discussing the failure of this sci-fi Moody necessarily offers insight into the success of other sci-fi. The pace of narrative, and military gender relations in _Space: Above and Beyond_ are compared with _Babylon 5_, _Star Trek_, and _Starship Troopers_.

 

The essay by Gregory B. Lee and Sunny S. K. Lam begins with a discussion of a 1930's Chinese sci-fi novel by Lao She. This somewhat disrupts Sardar's notion in the introduction that sci-fi is an exclusively Western preoccupation and genre. Cyberpunk is also investigated but it is not until half way through the essay that film is engaged with. On occasion the lack of confronting the specificity of film and the rather arbitrary choice of film selected is problematic from a film-studies point of view. Certain films that seem apt for postcolonial critique are not mentioned in the series of essays. In particular _Men In Black_, with it's advertising strap-line 'Protecting the earth from the scum of the universe', seems to warrant attention. The 'scum' are those 'illegal aliens' who exist undercover on earth, and outstay their visa. The film seeks the elimination or extradition of literal 'illegal aliens'. It could be argued that in this sense it plays on and stokes up fears of immigration and asylum. It makes heroes out of the immigration service! It also validates the persecution of the immigrant, illegal alien, and asylum seeker. Not for the _Men In Black_ Alain Badiou's slogan: 'Whomever lives and works here belongs here.'

 

Film is likewise marginal to the contribution by Kirk W. Junker and Robert Duffy. Indeed their concern is a discourse analysis of the television series _Deep Space Nine_. To this text Junker and Duffy apply the work of Kenneth Burke on the notion of otherness as a linguistic construction in dialectical terms of what is same and what is other, of I and thou, us and them, and mine and yours. The claim is that _Deep Space Nine_, with its many alien characters, more than any other _Star Trek_ spin-off, disrupts the simple dialectical identification of us and them: 'who is the other in _Deep Space Nine_?' (141) The conclusion is a confusion of identity predicated upon an other, 'what was 'yours' could now be called 'mine', and what was 'mine' might now be called 'yours'' (147).

 

Peter X. Feng contributes to the growing literature reflecting upon on _The Matrix_: 'Banal irony: this film that supposedly celebrates the human spirit's triumph over machines could not have been achieved without computer technology.' (152) Feng successfully relates _The Matrix_ to notions of false consciousness and double consciousness derived from Marxism and W. E. B. Du Bois. He also investigates the role of the star Keanu Reeves. Reeves has an English mother and a Chinese-Hawaiian father and his 'blank visage allows spectators to jack into him' (151). Hence: 'The successful postmodern subject is an Asian passing for white, a resistance fighter passing as a drone, a martial artist hiding not behind Jet Li's black mask but behind Keanu Reeve's blank mask.' (157)

 

The final essay of the collection by Dimitris Eleftheriotis examines European identity. He claims that due to the historical and cultural repression of factors contributing to the construction of European identity this identity suffers 'collective guilt'. Such factors contributing to this guilt include: the role of the military; the abuse of cartography; the exploitation and systematic destruction of the human, natural, economic, and cultural resources of the planet; the role of reason and objectivity in the pseudo-scientific discourses of racism; the wars carried out in the name of democracy and/or nationalism; and the systematic dismissal of the rest of the world as inferior and insignificant (167). Eleftheriotis uses Wim Wenders _Until the End of the World_ to examine certain contradictions and attitudes in this European identity.

 

In summation, the diversity of approach and focus in this impressive collection of essays means that one cannot consider the book as a unified work on the issue of the alien in sci-fi cinema. Often discussion of the specificity of film is passed over in pursuit of other considerations, and the notion of the other is thought through the work of Stuart Hall and Edward Said rather than Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. But then the ambition of the book is not to present a unified front or to exclusively serve the analysis of film. It will obviously be necessary for those with an interest in film, sci-fi, and the other, but it should also be of immense interest to those working in cultural studies, future studies, postcolonialism, and those engaged with the critical discourse of subjectivity, identity, and difference.

 

London Metropolitan University, England

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Address to the United Nations General Assembly (42nd session, September 21, 1987).

 

2. Richard Kearney, _Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness_ (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 121.

 

3. Stephen Mulhall, _On Film_ (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), p. 20.

 

4. Philip K. Dick, 'My Definition of Science Fiction' (1981), in Lawrence Sutin, ed., _The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings_ (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), p. 99.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Jon Baldwin, 'Other Bother: The Alien in Science Fiction Cinema; Sardar and Cubitt's _Aliens R Us_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 20, August 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n20baldwin>.

 

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