[25 April 2011]
What is alien about films featuring aliens? Or about HBO’s variety of ‘monsters’ in shows such as True Blood? The unfortunate answer is, nothing. At least not anymore. Whether it’s science fiction films such as Star Trek and Battle Los Angeles or films featuring other types of ‘monsters,’ the featured creatures always conform to human aesthetic values.
Aliens may have more than two eyes—occasionally—but for the rest of their facial shapes resemble those of humans closely. Even between films, there is little variation of the depiction of the alien. Aliens or autobots look awfully from film-to-film, and even the passive spectators among us are starting to notice the unimaginative and standardized visual appearances of what are supposed to be our worst nightmares. As cultural theorist Terry Eagleton remarked in The Idea of Culture (Eagleton, Blackwell Publishers, 2000), “they may have bulbous heads and triangular eyes, speak in a chillingly robotic monotone or emit a strong stench of sulphur, but otherwise they look much like Tony Blair” (59).
Vampires and werewolves, both in film and on television, are another group of characters that is constructed as an alien race. True Blood is the series that most clearly engages models of racial interaction, and its small town inhabitants treat vampires like an alien race, yet at the same time the vampires and other supernatural creatures are aesthetically identical to humans.
Not that the human shapes of aliens are that surprising. In fact, nothing much has changed since John Smith wrote his The Generall Historie of Virginia (London, 1624), the unfamiliar will only find acceptance if it is expressed in familiar terms. We are unable to imagine anything outside our own frame of reference. The American film industry particularly has taken a liking to this John Smith-way of storytelling, which entails the colonization of alien bodies both physically and imaginatively. They look like humans, and are forced to behave like them.
As Eagleton observed, this reveals important tendencies in Western culture. Watching a film featuring aliens is like holding up a mirror, but the irony is that a lot of viewers take the adventure stories at face value. They fail to see the social implication of the lack in imagination. As Eagleton says, “Western culture shows a lamentable failure to imagine other cultures” (49). Film only reflects tensions between cultures in other areas, such as politics.
James Cameron’s Avatar is the most direct spawn of this tradition. The story is a retelling of the classic Pocahontas story, not coincidentally a tale first related by John Smith. Humans colonize a native tribe to profit from the natural resources, but eventually love conquers. The depiction of the Na’vi is more interesting than the Not, but only the title characters are exact replicas of an alien race, this alien race is an exact replica of humans. The addition of a tail and a few extra inches in height doesn’t deter from the fact that even aliens are confined within well-established limits of humanity in their outer appearance. The interracial relationship of Jake Sully with Neytiri can only succeed once he decides to become part of the Na’vi. However, Eagleton would not accept that the Na’vi are in fact aliens; “As immigration officers might do well to note, creatures with whom we can communicate are by definition not alien” (50).
The sacredness of the human shape is once more confirmed by the negative connotations that autobots or robots invoke in all films. In Skyline and Battle Los Angeles, to some extent in the Transformers-series, and in countless other films, the real threat to humanity is its takeover by technology. We are unmade by our very own creations. Because humans have the capacity to extend beyond their specific geographical locations through language and other networks of communication and signifying systems, we have been able to create things that can ultimately destroy our own environment, or can even do so immediately, i.e., nuclear bombs.
Television has seen similar initiatives, as all ‘alien’ races must conform to human standards, and again love between the human race and other race is concern for much policing. While Alan Ball’s hit series True Blood—returning to TV for a fourth season this year and HBO’s most successful program since The Sopranos—runs risk of being marginalized as just another show capitalizing on the vampire-hype sweeping through teenage America, its construction of humans as equally monstrous as the bloodthirsty vampires rescues it from this fate. Set in rural Louisiana, the series repeatedly employs vampires—alternately referred to as fangers, monsters, and rapists—to expose the human race as the real monster in its exclusion along gender, race, class and even sectional lines, and in its abuse of the natural environment. Still, the vampires are physically identical to humans, as are the werewolves, shapeshifters, faires, and a whole host of other supernatural creatures.
Vampires, of course, are not regarded as equal to humans, as is quickly revealed by the institutionalized discrimination perpetuated by state apparatuses such as law enforcement, religion, the educational system, family and social control, and the media (even though AVL, the American Vampire League, tries to correct stereotypical portrayals by engaging in a media offensive of its own). The police are biased against vampires; Bon Temps’ Sheriff Dearborne refuses to file a missing person’s report when Bill is abducted, as “the missing person isn’t even a real person” (s3e1:28), and in measures echoing the one-drop rule in racial discrimination, the reluctance to offer legal assistance extends to “women who have tainted themselves and their race” i.e., women who have sexually engaged with vampires (s1e12:10).
This policing of the human body results in initiatives to prohibit miscegenation, which is perhaps the central theme to all American and world history. The fear of mixing blood pervades until this day, and interracial relationships in films are only slowly losing their taboo-status. John Smith may have exoticized the appeal of ethnically different women—he wrote a similar story about being rescued by a local woman in Hungary after Turks captured him years earlier—but his motivations were always political, and his central characters always ended up leaving the environment of the ‘other’.
Groups in True Blood are also strictly separated along racial lines, and deeply entrenched popular beliefs deprive [both vampires and humans] of any choice in what David Hollinger has termed “ethno-racial affiliation.” The fear of ‘vampirization,’ a word echoing the racist fears of a ‘darkening’ or ‘Africanization’ of America, is again the central theme to American history, i.e., miscegenation, that manifests itself as crucial in negotiating the relationship between the majority and minorities. Jason actively seeks out women with bite marks to have sexual relations with, in what seems an attempt to repossess lost territory, and religious groups distribute information on how to “protect [one’s] sweet little daughter” from roving vampires (s2e2:37).
What makes the case study of the essentialist exclusion of vampires remarkably interesting on a theoretical level, is that there is no biological reason for their exclusion, as all vampires were humans before they were ‘turned’. They come from the entire spectrum of society, yet are seen as an internally uniform race regardless of their human background. Their status as second-class citizens can thus only be explained by assuming that the dominant accounts of race are discursive and historical productions that produce and enforce difference, as the supposed essence that forms the basis for their discrimination does not exist. As Diane Fuss observed in her book Essentially Speaking “body is ‘always already’ culturally mapped,” imbricated in ideological networks that lend meaning to it, and the unwillingness of Bon Temps’ inhabitants to accept vampires as equals is the result of this social conditioning (6). (Routledge, 1989)
Ball espouses a clear argument on the current state of American society, in which humans emerge as the real monsters. Voluntary affiliations are accepted by vampires—i.e., they gladly initiate humans into their group by turning them—but humans are unable to accept even interracial relationships with vampires, as this would “taint the [human] race.” Nevertheless, they themselves engage in behavior that could be termed that of a monster: all characters carry within them the capacity to transcend social conventions, and murder, torture, and discrimination are even committed by the most devout men and women. True Blood thus finds common ground for all groups in the South by redefining the term ‘monster’, from that based on outer appearances, to a ‘monstrous’ mental process and attitude.
Even though the announced reboots of X-Men and Spiderman or upcoming films such as Cowboys & Aliens may lead us to believe that the moment of transcending these boundaries is not all that close yet, the shackles will be broken eventually. When John Smith ran out of familiar objects to compare the vast array of novel species he encountered on the American continent—and Dutch explorer Adriaan van der Donck was equally guilty of this—he simply started numbering the fish.
Film directors will have to find an equally logical solution to putting a halt to the constant reproduction of existing plots. This will be the year of the most film and TV sequels, prequels, parts 3 and parts 4 to date. The year 2012 will not be the end of the world, but if the storytelling trend of the alien isn’t reversed, it could very well be the end of original cinematic productions, and the end of originality on TV. It’s time to decolonize film, and it will take an invasion of aliens in Hollywood to do so.