A Duck For All Seasons
Howard the Duck is, on the surface, a comical romp through Cleveland lead by a cute punk rocker, a clumsy lab assistant, a possessed physicist, and a crass duck from another world; but a deeper look reveals that this film is also an allegorical piece which offers the audience an unprecedented understanding of an outsider’s view of our world. While a plethora of films have come out of Hollywood sporting out-of-this-world characters Howard the Duck is the only film to look at the experience from an alien point of view in a realistic way. By examining the world that title character Howard came from, the world that he literally fell into, and the ways in which he adapted to his new home, the audience is left with a true-to-life look at an outsider looking in.
To fully understand how Howard the Duck differs from silver screen traditional renditions of alien encounters one must first define a “typical” alien encounter. Hollywood alien encounters can be boiled down to a pretty simple formula; the alien is extremely different from humans both physically and emotionally with an often outrageous sense of morality or lack thereof, the alien is either super intelligent or acts like a pet or human child, aliens come with a huge amount of luck and serendipity as evidenced by their ability to always find the right person at the right time, and lastly, the alien can in no way be considered an equal to humans—it is just too different.
Howard the Duck
Chip Zien, Lea Thompson, Tim Robbins, Jeffrey Jones, David Paymer, Paul Guilfoyle, Ed Gale
(Universal Pictures; 1986)
Howard the Duck breaks all of these molds in that it delivers a very “human” character who is neither extremely different nor extremely similar, neither friendly nor violent, neither a genius nor an idiot, and does not offer Earth anything that it didn’t already have—aside from a talking duck. Not only that, but throughout the film Howard is not treated as though he is “too different” due to his “duckyness”. It is worth mentioning that his on screen co-stars do notice that Howard looks different, obviously he is a duck, however the distinction which I am making is that they do not immediately brand Howard as “out-of-this-world” thus they do not condemn him to a status which would not allow him to be seen as human.
Looking at the film one can see that it differs from the traditional blockbuster alien flick early on. The camera work showing Howard’s arrival in his home on Duckworld is of particular interest because it seems to attempt to hide Howard’s obvious “duckyness”. An extreme close up of Howard’s hand throwing keys onto a side table is careful to not reveal much of Howard’s appearance. However, the audience is then shown items which are strewn about Howard’s home; family photos (all ducks), movie posters denoting Duckworld hits (including Mae Nest and W.C. Fowls in My Little Chickadee as well as a Lucasfilm parody Breeders of the Lost Ark) and a postcard from Michelle, who is presumed to be a love interest of Howard’s. In her message, Michelle says that, “I miss your bill pressed up against mine. Flying home soon.” which offers yet more clues that Howard is unmistakably, a duck.
Although the title clearly establishes that Howard is a duck the director of the film, Willard Huyck, saw to it that the audience would not immediately be alienated from him. The scene shows Howard going through the motions of a “normal human experience”. While the director does not hide Howard’s “duckyness” per se, he does make clear that it is not the ‘duck’ that defines Howard but instead Howard that defines the ‘duck’. The director is careful to introduce Howard as a character first; someone that the audience can relate to, and only after the audience has been made comfortable with him is it unequivocally revealed that Howard is a duck.
Creating this Howard-to-audience connection early on proves paramount to the piece in that while it would be easy for an audience to dismiss Howard as an anthropomorphic duck it is far more important for the audience to understand that Howard is not trying to “act human”. He acts as he always has whether in Duckworld, his home planet, or on Earth. This connection between humans and Howard is also played out on screen as Howard encounters human beings for the first time.
When Howard lands in Cleveland he is met by tall leather-clad punks wearing feathered belts that harken to the ornamental scalpings of America’s early culture clashings—they all seem to want nothing more than to make his life miserable. Howard is literally thrown into American pop culture as the punks toss him into a seedy night club. What follows is a montage style sequence showing Howard’s first haphazard minutes on Earth. While much was created for comic relief and action one interaction between Howard and a human stands out as different. Howard falls into the dilapidated “home” of a street woman who doesn’t seem to notice that Howard is a duck but does accuse him of attempting to steal from her and calls him a ‘degenerate’. This is the unique realism of Howard the Duck as it shows the ‘blindness’ of xenophobia, in that the woman doesn’t fear Howard because he is a duck, she fears him because he is different.
Other films have attempted to establish that aliens possess an outrageous sense of morality or lack morals of any kind. MAC, the title alien of the abysmal 1988 family film, MAC and Me, immediately befriends a wheelchair bound tween and the two enter into a journey to reunite MAC (the Mysterious Alien Creature) with his mysterious alien family. MAC never harms anyone, does not seem particulary frightened by being all alone, and generally trusts everyone with whom he comes into contact. Luckily for MAC this is a PG movie and everything works out for him. Conversely the visitors from such films as Alien, Bad Taste, Predator, Battlefield Earth, and countless others are vicious creatures capable of little more than destruction. Howard does not fit into either of these archetypes.
While Howard does seem adorable at first it is soon made clear that he is no Donald Duck. Howard smokes cigars, uses profanity, indulges in pornography, and drinks. Despite his downfalls, Howard is not a villain by any definition of the word. If anything, these imperfections make him more human than any of his Hollywood alien peers.
When analyzing aliens found within Hollywood alien films one can see a recurrent theme of aliens being treated as simpletons or as being ultra intelligent. In The Fifth Element the heroine and main extra terrestrial of the film is an infinitely important and omnipotent being. For all intents and purposes she is perfect and yet is given an almost sickly-sweet childish attitude and persona. While this may be an artistic choice to play against her hand to hand combat skills, “Lelu” is so adorable that she seems more like a pet than a human therefore separating her completely from the human race. Aliens from previously mentioned film MAC and Me, and E.T. also exhibit childish behaviors. Conversely some films depict aliens as being super intelligent such as the pseudo-friendly invaders from the cult classic This Island Earth or the war-bent creatures featured in Independence Day. In both films the alien’s ability to think faster or more broadly than the human race sets them apart from it, this again creates a definite separation between “human” and “not human”.
As mentioned hitherto, Howard is not a “cutesy” or child-like creature. He smokes, drinks, partakes in adult entertainment, etc. Also he demanded respect early on from his soon-to-be-friend and punk rocker Beverly; during his first night on Earth he reluctantly stays with musician Beverly Switzer. Beverly offers Howard a refreshment saying, “Would you like something to drink? I have milk… I could put it into a bowl…” Howard quickly answers, “Do you have any beer?” During a subsequent conversation Beverly woefully points out that she never considered herself responsible enough for pets saying that it would be too hard for her to “...clean up their little poo poos” to which Howard coldly responds, “I’ll try my best [not to make a mess].” Embarrassed, Beverly explains that she wasn’t talking about him though the audience has been made clear of the fact that Beverly did perceive Howard as a traditional cute or pet-like alien. Beverly’s assumption that Howard is childlike or pet like is one that is seen consistently within Hollywood alien encounters.
The difference is that in the case of Howard the Duck the assumption that the alien is naive is incorrect. This misconception of “different” equaling “less intelligent than myself” is often found in our own society when people emigrate to our country. We consider their customs strange (read: alien) and primitive (read: child-like). Here again, Howard the Duck branches science fiction with reality in a way rarely seen on film.
Perhaps the strangest of the alien movie clichés is the amount of serendipity thrown into their plot lines. In Contact we watch as Jodie Foster’s character listens to the stars for years before inexplicably being chosen for the first mission to contact the alien life forms after the tragic and confusing death of the man that was to pilot the mission. In Men in Black leading man Will Smith runs down a cephalopod (on foot!) before Agent K recruits him into the Men In Black task force and, luckily for everyone involved, all of the alien action is taking place in the very city in which MiB headquarters is located. The Fifth Element can boast one of the most far fetched plots—Lelu literally falls from the sky into Bruce Willis’ taxi cab and wouldn’t you know it? He’s a retired army officer who is later contacted by the very people chasing Lelu in the first place and is asked to protect four puzzle pieces that will save the world… guess what? Lelu is the fifth puzzle piece! Such providence is often used to move a plot along but in alien movies it seems to be used in excess. Howard the Duck is an exception in that the scientist Howard meets isn’t a scientist at all (Phil is revealed to be nothing more than a lab assistant working at a museum) and only through several calculated twists and turns does he meet someone adequately versed in science, and Howard’s specific situation, to help him. Lastly the sense that the alien creature can never be considered the same as a human is a recurrent theme in Hollywood alien films. Even in heartwarming classics such as E.T. the creature remains clearly “not human” retaining several of the alien archetypical features as discussed throughout this article. I believe that this is how Howard the Duck differs the most from other alien films.
The entire film is based on the notion that Howard could, and will be, accepted into the human race as one of our own. The way in which Howard came to stay with Beverly is an important sequence to watch in order to understand this point. As she invites him to follow her and the camera shows her glancing over at Howard as he stands in the rain. A look of pity sweeps across her face; she is giving Howard the human emotions which will make him “not alien” to her. If she saw him as a duck surely the rain would not have caused her to pity Howard as ducks are known to get along just fine in the rain. She is not interested in learning more about Howard as an alien; she wants to know more about him as a person. Also when she does invite him along he is genuinely surprised that she is showing kindness to him. Again this goes against the idea of the typical Hollywood alien in that Howard neither feels blind compassion for earthlings (E.T. , MAC and Me,) nor does he feel entitled to their belongings or attention (Independence Day, The Day the Earth Stood Still.) In its most basic sense, Beverly treats Howard like a non-alien and he is therefore able to respond to her as a “non alien”. He can act like a normal “person” or “duck” in the sense that he is not bound by the typical misconceptions placed on creatures from outside of our world.
Rather, Howard’s experiences on Earth more closely mimic those of an immigrant entering the United States during a time in history in which US residents exhibited xenophobia rather than those of a make-believe alien. While it should be noted that an outlandish storyline does eventually emerge in which Howard has to help save Earth from a dark overlord it is important to discern the plot from the sub-plot; the dark overlord is not part of Howard’s story, his story is simply that of a duck trying to make it in a world that he did not create. The sub-plot does however serve as a catalyst through which Howard is able to discover his humanity, (perhaps in his case “duckity”) and see for himself what the audience has been lead to see: that he is no different than the people on Earth.
Truly this is a story less about a space duck and more about a person experiencing what philosopher and poet Adrienne Rich would call, “psychic disequilibrium… as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing” (Blood, Bread, and Poetry Selected Prose). Howard is thrust into a world that he did not create, forced to reconcile his human qualities with those of a duck, and forced to redefine what he considers a “person” to be. While other films have sought to separate the word “alien” from the notion of simply looking different, the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers shows an alien race willing to annihilate mankind’s humanity while maintaining its appearance; few science fiction films have taken the point to the extent that Howard the Duck does.
In one of the more climactic scenes Howard rushes to Beverly’s side and attempts to save her from the evil dark overlord. He looks into her eyes and decides to forego his chances of going home to Duckworld in order to save her life. This oddly touching scene is reminiscent of an ancient Aztec folktale of Quetzalcoatl: when the serpent-like monarch Quetzalcoatl was tricked into looking into a mirror by Tezcatlipoca he is shocked to see the face of a man and is forced to realize his own humanity. Despite his serpentine appearance, Quetzalcoatl was truly “human”. Beverly’s reflective eyes play the part of Tezcatlipoca‘s mirror in this story—with this mirror, Howard was able to become “human” while still looking like a duck and thereby he shed his need to return to Duckworld. By truly integrating into human society while maintaining his original set of mores and his original appearance, Howard does what no other Hollywood alien has done: he has become human.
While Howard the Duck was far from a box office hit, its importance to alien films is undeniable. It created a new way of looking at the alien/human experience by applying the real world attitudes of Americans towards immigrants to the make believe plot of a duck stuck in Cleveland. Perhaps Hollywood alien films best represent a utopian ideal; that if people are friendly we are friendly back and only under provocation would we do harm, but in reality that is not typically the case.
For better or worse Howard is stuck in “reality” wherein he is treated poorly as an outsider, is zealously misunderstood, and is made to feel sub-human. Portraying an alien in this way is both bold and realistic. Most critics dismiss Howard the Duck as a flop. Yes, it is an outrageously impossible story about a duck from space, but it is also a revealing look at the treatment of people different from ourselves and how hard someone is forced to try to enter into our society. Howard is symbolic of immigrants entering into the United States amidst racism and xenophobia, and heroes Beverly and Phil exemplify what we should strive to be: patient, understanding, and willing to change our own perspectives at least as much as we ask those around us to change their own.
Howard the Duck ends on a happy note, with Howard managing Beverly’s band, Cherry Bomb, which has just made their first hit; a song that Howard helped write about his adventures on Earth. While the ending is a bit campy the notion that he was given a ballad a la other American folk heroes such as John Henry or Johnny Appleseed seems fitting and should help to remind the audience that while the story was comical the message was quite serious. Howard the Duck is a fantastic example of how we, as both Americans and humans, treat outsiders and how an outsider may cope with that treatment. As such Howard the Duck should be looked at with as much brevity as can be allowed for a film about a crass duck from another planet running around with a punk rock gal from Cleveland.