Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Subversion Theme

The dogma of Marxist Communism was that it would be an international revolution of the proletariat (workers), so Americans were told (most often by FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover) to be on guard against Communists organizing inside the country and promoting Communist ideas to the unwary. So Communist subversion as well as invasion was to be feared and opposed. The threat of subversion led to numerous excesses and mendacities, like McCarthyism and blacklisting---and to another genre of Cold War cinema.

A 1950s classic straddles the line between invasion and subversion themes is '>"The Thing" (1951), originally called "The Thing From Another World." Because the creature is already here, buried in the Arctic ice and set free by human's digging it up, it has elements of the subversion theme. But this taut drama directed by Howard Hawks with his trademark fast-paced but low-key dialogue also provided the key phrase of the space invasion films: "Watch the Skies!"

'>"The Blob" (1958) was a hybrid of its time: part space invasion, part vampire movie, creature movie, and mostly teenagers versus the system movie, it is remembered mostly for introducing Steve McQueen. Some sci-fi aficionados like this one; I didn't. Maybe it was the silliness of the song.

Steven Spielberg's "'>Close Encounters of the Third Kind" is included in the TCM festival, and can be seen in this context as the antithesis to "Earth vs. the Flying Saucer" and its ilk. It's not just a matter of the aliens being good rather than evil, or even that humans invite them rather than freak out and start shooting at their first appearance.

What's alien about the aliens in these movies is some exaggerated facet of human nature or behavior: often the bestial qualities. In this Spielberg movie, humanity can be seen as going to some lengths to welcome parts of human nature that got frozen out by Cold War psychology--like listening to intuitions and outside-the-mainstream ideas and feelings instead of fearing them, and a willingness to wonder rather than panic in the face of the unknown, all rewarded with a glimpse of the cosmic possibilities.

Finally, the space invasion genre reaches self-parody in "'>Mars Attacks"(1996), though it was based on a set of bubble gum cards from the 1960s. But by the 90s, the Russians were allies and there were clearly no aliens on Mars, so the space invaders were an occasion for social satire of varying effectiveness.Directed by Tim Burton, it stars Jack Nicholson and a host of current and past movie stars and camp icons.

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