Aliens Among Us: Sci-Fi and Ideology


Aliens Among Us: The Case of Body Snatchers vs They Live

One of the recurring themes in science fiction since the fifties was the idea that aliens might somehow be among us, controlling us from within, rather than coming in badass spaceships and pew-pewing everything in their way. This kind of aliens somehow crawls under our skin, a strange but compelling force bending us to its will. This concept toys with the fear that is very political – a fear that humans might be susceptible to being transformed into mindless, emotionless drones. This is why today we clash the titans – Invasion of the Body Snatchers VS They Live!

Don’t touch that veggy, bro – or you’ll become consumed by consumerism!

Ideology of any kind functions in a very similar way as this compelling force and humans reflect it without even being aware of it. An illustrative example of ideology at work is certainly one of the most powerful ones – and that is national pride. This concept has been well deconstructed in one of the routines done by the great George Carlin, where he humorously reflects on why the hell do we feel proud about just being born somewhere?!

National pride is a powerful, rounding image, which can depress, excite and even lead to war for any reasons given by the leaders of a society. Even if the reason is an unjust one, very often much of society cheers because we’re better than them for some reason. How’s that for a compelling force that binds?

This idea is one old as time, even though we have given it fancy names through the ages, but for science fiction the idea was born in the book The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney, who wrote it in 1954, published as a series in Collier’s magazine. The concept quickly became popular, particularly with filmmakers, so it brought about numerous films, especially because this idea was capable of reflecting serious cultural and political questions regardless of the period when it was shot.

Doctor Bonnell and the gang being afraid of darned Commies coming to wash our brains

Doctor Bonnell and the gang being afraid of darned Commies coming to wash our brains

The two films in this article deal with alien imposters who arrived in different ways to planet Earth, but their sinister plot hides a much deeper ideological connotation that one might presume at first.

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The Invasion deconstructs the human need to belong by putting into question what we define as normal or better yet, abnormal; the figure of legitimate authority with regard to addressing one as normal, as well as the terrors of conformity.

Hollywood in the 1950s was a strange time indeed. With the introduction of the producer’s code, a small group of producers was shaping every film to a certain mold. Many screenwriters and actors were, for example, required to be cleared of any charge of being a Communist before they were hired to work anywhere on film.

Political films en masse were thrown out the window, apart from the classic anti-communist propaganda films, which were always welcomed in the American utopia which was Los Angeles of the time. But as with all times, there is always a group of heroes who will take on The Man, steal the princess and slip by unnoticed. Like Super Mario. Or, the fantastic trio named Siegel, Wanger and Mainwaring who created a film which represents one of the greatest indictments of conformity in cinema history.

The story begins in one of those classic towns-you-probably-never-heard-of named Santa Mira in California, which is slowly being taken over by giant alien plant pods who turn into perfect replicas of people. They turn human beings into emotionless, robotic beings, incapable of expressing anything.

Don't be afraid, join us in apathy - we have emotional erosion!

Don’t be afraid, join us in apathy – we have nothingness!

Our protagonist, a local doctor by the name Miles Bonnell is up to the task of figuring out what the heavens is happening to this fair town. After being called back from a medical conference, he notices unusual behavior in town, even though everyone claims that everything is normal. His patients suddenly stop coming in for regular check-ups and all suddenly seems calm. A bit too calm.

The Invasion deconstructs the human need to belong by putting into question what we define as normal or better yet, abnormal; the figure of legitimate authority with regard to addressing one as normal, as well as the terrors of conformity. The film addresses these issues through promoting self-reliance, relying on your intuition, a commonsensical approach to life and a constant suspicion and questioning of authority.

We can see the depiction of how easily ideology seeps in, through alien pods which transform people when they become passive, or in the film – asleep. Through this act, a person is taken into another world devoid of emotions, where emptiness is bliss. Doctor Bonnell, standing on a razor’s edge is the only human who can distinguish between these two realities, thus giving us an insight on how mass society treats the ones it deems different.

They Live (1988)

This will not stand, man! Where's my pack of gum?

This will not stand, man! Where’s my pack of gum?

As The Invasion looks at how a single person can do little to fight the conformist nature of ideology, They Live takes a bolder stance, first by condemning capitalism openly as a system that subtly converts all, as well as by openly calling for a rebellion against it.

Carpenter’s film They Live takes this critique further, by showing us an entire world overcome by an alien threat that has all but destroyed all human resistance from within. In the film, the aliens control the media, sending subliminal messages through ads and all media outlets in order to submit all humanity to its’ will. Sound familiar?

The film has been often disregarded as a rushed film production with a clear political agenda, a sort of an agit-prop piece of a post-Reagan era. They Live has been shamelessly built as a B-movie cult classic, and it lives up to the role. A tramp called Nada (yes, Carpenter went that far) accidentally stumbles upon a box of sunglasses in a church, puts them on and suddenly his entire world flips upside down.

His vision is one of dollar bills saying “this is your God”, billboards saying “marry and reproduce”, magazines saying “obey” and aliens who look like us, but underneath they are fleshy skeletons with glassy eyes. All the wealth and power is under their control, but shotgun surgeon Nada will have none of it. What follows is a classic B-movie reel where he mows down a slew of invaders and manages to take down their tower through which they control human minds.

Why don't you just take a nap and let us take your youngest?

Why don’t you take a nap and let us take your youngest?

As The Invasion looks at how a single person can do little to fight the conformist nature of ideology, They Live takes a bolder stance, first by condemning capitalism openly as a system that subtly converts all, as well as by openly calling for a rebellion against it.

What is the source of horror in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers becomes a target in They Live. Carpenter puts his main character on a collision course with the powers that be and creates a martyr that dies for our sins, kicking ass and chewing bubblegum.

Nada will have none of it. Down with space capitalism!

Nada will have none of it. Down with space capitalism!

There is something that grabs you in the simplicity of the plot in They Live. Even though ideology cannot be destroyed because it exists in the realm of ideas, Carpenter materializes it in front of our eyes and points the finger at the hypocrisy that sits at the core of any political system and demands we face it.

These two films approach the question of how ideology controls our lives from two very different sides, but these films have a way of making one step out of his own skin (pun intended). After them, you can be drawn into observing all the rituals and common practices that we take for granted, questioning how much exactly is built into us that we are not aware of.

At the very end, have you noticed how all SALE, SALE, SALE signs in all shop windows actually say BUY, BUY, BUY?

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I am a security policy expert, working as the Fundraising Coordinator at the Belgrade Security Forum. I have been in love with computer games and writing since I was a kid, when I started writing my first sci-fi short stories about aliens. I am a war nerd, a gun nut and a pacifist. Go figure.

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