Communists and Space Aliens as Metaphor in Cinema
An Homage to Paranoid Sci Fi Films of the 1950s
Nowhere in all of cinema is metaphor used more brilliantly than in the sub-genre I call “paranoid Sci Fi”, and at no time was it exploited more effectively than in the decade of the 1950s.
Before 1950 Science Fiction films were mostly low budget cheesy clunkers like the Flash Gordon serials of the 30s. But if honed to higher production standards, Sci Fi films can create an other-worldly film genre free of the constraints that tether more conventional films to earthly norms.
In the 1950s two independent cultural cross currents swept through America: an epidemic of flying saucer sightings and The Second Red Scare. Flying saucer mania began in 1947 when private pilot Kenneth Arnold claimed to have observed a formation of ‘slivery flying discs’ performing not-of-this world feats of speed and maneuverability. A few years later The Great Red Scare resulted in HUAC, Senator McCarthy, Roy Kohn and the communist witch hunts of the 1950s. Space aliens above and commies below: delusional paranoia ran amok throughout the land. It was a film maker’s dream.
Clever Hollywood producers smelled opportunity amongst these cultural cross-currents of paranoia: but how to transform fear of space aliens in our skies and commies in our closets into pots of gold? Their answer formed a new sub-genre: Sci Fi B films that would cast loathsome, malevolent space aliens as thinly veiled stand-ins for subversive commies of all castes and colors.
Howard Hawks’ brilliant 1951 production of “The Thing from Another World” was the breakthrough work that raised the bar for Sci Fi and introduced a disturbing subliminal element of gnawing paranoia never seen before in the genre. Hawks was an A-list director who knew how to keep a story moving with rapid-paced action and unexpected appearances of The Thing, an over-sized bipedal carrot creature from another world with an appetite for human blood. The giveaway that The Thing is actually a metaphor for communism arrives at the very end when reporter Scotty broadcasts a frantic warning: “Tell the world. Tell this to everybody, wherever they are. Watch the skies everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!” He didn’t mean UFOs filled with blood-sucking alien carrots, he was warning about Russian bombers flying over the North Pole to drop nukes into the American heartland. Nothing sells movie tickets better than movies that mine irrational fears. The Hollywood Philosopher’s Stone had transformed pure paranoia into box office gold. Ka-ching, ka-ching. Jackpot!
The financial success of “The Thing” was followed by a stream of uninhibitedly paranoid B films from Hollywood studios: “It Came from Outer Space” (1953), “Invaders from Mars” (1953), “The War of the Worlds” (1953), “This Island Earth” (1955), “Earth Versus the Flying Saucers” (1956) and the innovative “Forbidden Planet” (1956). But the pinnacle of the genre arrived with two epic, deliriously paranoid classics: Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and Gene Fowler’s “I Married a Monster from Outer Space” (1958). These films exploited the deep 50s paranoia that commies, err ….. I mean space aliens, live with us and look and act like us but have darkly sinister hidden motives. They want to steal our humanity.
In “Body Snatchers” human replicas from an interstellar communal society who are devoid of all emotion grow from huge peapods and take over the minds and bodies of townspeople when they fall asleep. A chilling moment occurs when the surviving hero’s lover, beautiful Dana Wynter, doses off for a few seconds and is instantly transformed into a pod person commie who beckons Kevin McCarthy to “Join with us. No more pain, no more hunger, no more sorrow, no more need for love”. In the Marxist paradise all wants will be satisfied – the only cost is human individuality, a small price to pay for eternal bliss. Virtually every scene of this low-budget, well-made indie film drips with a chillingly disturbing paranoia.
In “I Married a Monster from Outer Space”, visiting vagabond aliens take over men’s bodies in order to mate with human females and propagate their dying race. It just doesn’t get much more disturbingly paranoid than this: the man in bed next to you is really a closet commie, oops ….. I mean horny space alien. The film simply wallows in paranoid molasses about alien invaders walking among us, stealing our minds, our bodies, our souls. And most frightening of all, our revered American Way of Life ….. and our sacred sperm.
Japanese cinema riffed on this concept with their own film metaphor: Godzilla, the radioactive monster that trashed Tokyo in 1954, was a stand-in for the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Godzilla was no commie.
But by the end of the 50s the genre began to fade from the silver screen. The great failing of epics like the Star Wars and the Alien series lay in the absence of the aliens-as-commies metaphor, neutered by end of the cold war. Even worse examples were “2001”, “ET” and “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind” with their cutesy, caring and lovable aliens. The writers of these space operas didn’t get that in order to be rivet our attention space aliens have to be malevolent, dammit!. A brief, promising revival of the old paranoia occurred on TV with the “X Files” and when Star Trek’s Captain Picard of Starship Enterprise was kidnapped by The Borg. Resistance was futile and in another chilling scene Picard declared his allegiance to the Borg hive. The captain had become a commie through alien transformation!
By the 1970s the era of true Paranoid Sci Fi had ended. Hollywood studios have lost the old touch and cannot figure out how to exploit the new fears of terrorism, global climate change and Islamic immigration nearly as effectively as in the 50s. I really miss the old black and white Paranoid Sci Fi films and wish film makers could rediscover that magic mojo to bring them back.