Friday, September 12, 2014

Invaders of the paranoid

One of the popular themes of science fiction movies is invasion from space. I have been revisiting a few of those movies that on a very basic level affected me.

I bought used VHS copies of a couple of science fiction classics, It Came From Outer Space and Invaders From Mars, both of which I saw originally in the 1950s. Paranoia is a strong theme of the titles I mention. I was too young to understand paranoia when I first saw these movies, but I understood the basic and raw feelings of the characters. They are trying to explain the unexplainable to others and are disbelieved. They watch as loved ones are replaced by alien creatures that look like them. For me this was the recipe for nightmares.

I may not have understood it, but I have plenty of experience with paranoia, in others and in myself. These movies said about my darkest fears what I couldn't have said when I was a child: I'd wake up one morning and no one would be the same; no one would feel love for me, and I would be cast adrift in an emotional, as well as physical, sense. Children have a root fear of being abandoned, and these movies reach into the primal, deep-down stuff we don't like to think about.

In Invaders From Mars the main character is a boy who sees a flying saucer land on a hill behind his house, then burrow into the ground, unseen. The adults who go to investigate return changed. They have been turned into zombies by the invaders. The boy can't make anyone believe him; his fears are from his imagination, from comic books, or television or science fiction movies, according to the very adults who are changing right before him into something alien. Brrrr. What a thing for a kid to have to go through. To a child who depends on adults for everything this is heady stuff. As an adult I can watch this movie and its point-of-view of the young boy, the staginess of the movie filmed on a backlot somewhere in Hollywood, and understand the craft of constructing a nightmare. The sets are fake-looking, crudely constructed, but that adds to the overall surrealistic atmosphere.

[SPOILER ALERT] Anyone who remembers the movie knows that the "invasion" is a dream. But as the boy awakens it has turned out to be a prophetic dream. The events begin to unfold again. His paranoid nightmare has turned real. [SPOILER END]

It Came From Outer Space is a movie I saw in the 1950s in its original 3-D presentation. The sets in many cases are just as phony as Invaders From Mars, showing its low budget origins. The dialogue is written not as people speak, but as actors reading lines which don't sound like human conversation. That also adds to the atmosphere of unreality that the whole theme speaks to.

In the story the aliens are making themselves look like humans, although the human beings they are replacing are still alive. The “real” humans are being used as slaves to rebuild the crashed alien vessel. Although the aliens are out to do no harm to humans--even trying to spare people the horrifying sight of them in their monstrous inhuman form--the idea of someone, a double, walking around imitating you is unnerving. Anyone who ever heard the phrase, “I found out I didn't really know this person,” will recognize that in the movie. Because of its 3-D presentation, It Came From Outer Space depends a lot on gimmicks while telling its story, but on its basic level it tells a paranoid story of being out of control of one’s own destiny, a slave laborer, while the rest of the world remains unaware. The movie was released just nine years after the end of World War II, where millions of people disappeared into slave labor camps. The movie also seems to be at least partially the basis for the very paranoid 1965 novel, Night Slaves by Jerry Sohl, made into a television movie in 1970.

The Arrival is a 1995 update of the theme. A NASA scientist, played by Charlie Sheen, aims radio-telescopes at the stars and receives a short burst of a signal. As he later finds out, alien invaders are already here.

[SPOILER ALERT] They are setting up underground headquarters in countries with no environmental laws. to speed up global warming (from 100 years, which in 1995 was the real-life timetable given for the inevitable, to 10 years for the movie alien purposes).[SPOILER END]

The movie has been underrated as a true paranoid thriller. Charlie Sheen, whose personal life has overshadowed his acting ability, is a driven man who looks and sounds like a paranoid crazy, which plays right into the alien hands. The aliens, who have apparently been here for some time — long enough to build the massive plants to speed up the planet’s heating — also realize something about human psychology. The nuttier a person sounds the less anyone will listen, even if he is telling the truth.

I’m not sure it means we should automatically believe anyone who screams at us that the world is ending, but it is an unsettling thought that maybe, in some instance, that person is correct.

The most paranoid movie of all is probably Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, which is often cited as a reaction to the Cold War.

That could be read into it, but after seeing it a few times over the past 50 years I see it as more of that gut-level fear of not really knowing someone, the fear of being misunderstood, or even ignored. Although the psychiatrist in the movie describes the reaction of the townsfolk who claim a loved one is an imposter as mass hysteria, what the movie shows is a psychiatric disorder called Capgras syndrome. It is named after Dr. Joseph Capgras, who in 1923 described patients for whom a spouse, sibling or child has been replaced by a fake.

Just as in The Arrival, as the heroes rush around trying to warn the populace the general consensus is that those giving the alarm are crazy.

The movies are scary and fun but they are just movies. When the end credits roll we are assured that we have been involved in fantasy. There are no aliens, no sinister plots, no replacing of humans with non-humans to confuse us and terrify us. But that is you and me. We’re rational beings, aren’t we? I hope so. But there are a lot of people who truly believe that there is a mysterious and hidden world out there trying to take control. They might even feel the control over them has already been accomplished. They don't need Hollywood or some low-budget movie to tell them they are surrounded by people or a government manipulating them, their thoughts, their actions. They don't need aliens from outer space who are out to get them, because everyone around them, even their loved ones, are conspiring against them.

And maybe you are one of them who is being persecuted.

People disbelieving you or telling you it's your imagination? Forget it. They're all in on the plot against you.


Kirk said...

There was a very good television show called INVASION that unfortunately lasted only one season. It was on right after LOST. Very similar to INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (I considered it a ripoff at first), it had that paranoid feeling about it at first, then went off in its own original direction. Some of the alien replicates were good, some bad, most in-between, just like the people they replaced.

Postino said...

Kirk, I missed INVASION; I have given up on network television, and the show you mentioned, LOST, had something to do with it. I followed it for about 3 1/2 seasons and burned out on it.