Reading the red planet; or, little green men at work
It’s not easy bein’ green.
I wrote a great deal of this book at a window that overlooks the house from which, on 13 March 1781, William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. Today, the unassuming Bath townhouse is a popular museum devoted to Herschel’s life and work. For a modest fee, visitors can study his letters and books, inspect a replica of the telescope used to make the discovery, and wander around the garden from which he would have watched the skies.2 While working on early drafts of Alien Chic, I was always aware that the history of the street in which I was living orbits around that of another planet. At the same time, however, I was slightly uneasy about the fact that I still know very little about the reality of the worlds that I so happily study on screen or page. My knowledge of Mars, for instance, is fairly basic: the encyclopaedia tells me that it is the fourth planet from the sun, around which it orbits at a distance of some 141 million miles, but I have consistently failed to commit this information to memory. I am, moreover, somewhat ashamed to admit that I have never even glanced at the planet through a telescope. Fortunately, just as I was rewriting the present chapter for the final time, the red planet found itself at its closest point to Earth in some 60,000 years. Although it was still around 34.6 million miles away, its distinctive light could now be seen with the naked eye.3 On 4 September 2003, from a friend’s garden in Orpington, I finally saw Mars.
I could not, therefore, possibly hope to write about the planet itself; that remains the field of astronomy. As a cultural critic, however, I do have access to the meaning of Mars as it is inscribed in signifying practices at different moments in history. I can, that is to say, read Mars and, moreover, read the changes in its meaning. With this in mind, the present chapter offers a brief and resolutely selective account of the relationship between humans and Martians in Hollywood cinema since the 1950s. I am not for one moment claiming to have written an exhaustive, masterful history. I have, rather, selected several representative films from different moments for analysis. Above all, I want to tell a story about an apparent shift in the meaning of the red planet and its inhabitants. Why Mars? My choice perhaps requires some explanation:
Why Mars? My choice perhaps requires some explanation: this is, after all, a book about aliens in general. I give Mars special attention here simply because it seems to me that western culture has always done so. This may be little more than an accident of history, or it may have something to do with the fact that, more than any other planet, Mars was long thought to be ‘a likely habitat for intelligent life’.4 And this fascination, which dates in its present form back at least as far as the nineteenth-century interest in Martian ‘canals’, is by no means dead, for, while I was writing Alien Chic, Mars regularly featured in the British daily news, particularly when the Beagle 2 spacecraft set off on its historic (and ill-fated) journey.
When Hollywood needed a convenient home for the monsters that cast their alien shadows over the invasion narratives of the 1950s, it regularly turned—perhaps unsurprisingly—to Mars. The planet does not, of course, figure in every such text, but I think that there is a real sense in which Martians stand, and perhaps continue to stand, as the archetypal, most obvious, most alien aliens. While it is certainly possible to talk of ‘Venusians’ or ‘Uranians’, these terms seem slightly awkward, uncommon, forced. ‘Martians’, on the other hand, is a decidedly familiar signifier. The inhabitants of Mars have a name, if not a face, that fits.
‘They’re them, we’re us’; or, Martians? No, thanks!
On the evening of 30 October 1938, the United States of America was invaded by Orson Welles. Or, to be more precise, by his notorious radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds.5 The story, by now, is somewhat familiar.6 What is less well known, however, is that the CBS network did not set out to fool its listeners into believing that the breaking news reports about a Martian invasion of Earth were authentic. The artifice, in fact, was perfectly clear, for the transmission was prefaced by an announcement that stated that ‘The Columbia Broadcasting System and its affiliated stations present Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre on the Air in War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells’.7 This was followed by Welles’s own introduction to the performance, and several further explicit reminders of the fictional nature of the events being described occurred during the broadcast.8
But many listeners—some of whom had apparently tuned in some way into proceedings—took the fiction for terrible fact. Panic erupted across the nation:
In Harlem, a black congregation fell to its knees; in Indianapolis a woman ran screaming into a church where evening service was being held and shouted ‘New York has been destroyed. It’s the end of the world. Go home and prepare to die.’ A woman gave premature birth, and another fell down a whole flight of stairs (her husband, according to Norman Corwin, called CBS to thank them for the broadcast. ‘Geez, it was a wonderful programme!’). In Newark, New Jersey, all the occupants of a block of flats left their homes with wet towels round their heads as improvised gas masks. In Staten Island, Connie Casamassina was just about to get married. Latecomers to the reception took the microphone from the singing waiter and announced the invasion. ‘Everyone ran to get their coats. I took the microphone and started to cry—“Please don’t spoil my wedding day”—and then my husband started singing hymns, and I decided I was going to dance the Charleston. And I did, for 15 minutes straight. I did every step there is in the Charleston.’9
Before long, the moving news sign in New York’s Times Square was reporting ‘Orson Welles frightens the nation’. CBS, meanwhile, took to issuing hourly disclaimers, assuring its millions of listeners that what they had been hearing was fiction. One outraged individual threatened to bomb the network’s building, which soon found itself besieged by reporters.
Orson Welles was shocked and annoyed by the whole affair, which was widely covered in American and European newspapers. He is even rumoured to have fired a Mercury employee for eating a Mars bar in his presence on the day following the broadcast.10 But, as one of his biographers has pointed out, ‘[f]or Welles in October 1938, the immediate result of the broadcast was notoriety’.11 Three years before the release of Citizen Kane, the text for which he is now most readily remembered, Orson Welles had become something of a household name. Terror is difficult to repeat; surprise is its closest ally. Indeed, fifteen years to the very month later,12 Byron Haskin’s cinematic adaptation of The War of the Worlds failed to provoke the same kind of mass hysteria. The newspapers reported no cases of deaths, premature births, interrupted nuptials, or even dampened towels. Cinema audiences, in fact, had been well prepared for this particular invasion of H.G.Wells’s tale by a spectacular trailer that had announced ‘It’s coming!’. And yet, even without the element of surprise at its disposal, there remained a fundamental sense in which Haskin’s film set out to terrify its viewers. Unlike many of the alien invasion B-movies of the period, The War of the Worlds was a decidedly polished product. Paramount Studios had spent both time and money on the film, which, after more than a year in development, boasted state-of-the-art special effects and a distinctive use of Technicolor.13 The result was the creation of an army of eerie, memorably malevolent aliens. The terrible extent of the invaders’ power becomes apparent soon after one of their spaceships lands on the out-skirts of a small town that lies not too far from Los Angeles. When three amiable local men set out to investigate, they witness a strange object emerging from the craft. Wanting only to be friendly, to establish peaceful interplanetary contact, the men advance, bearing a makeshift symbol of peace. ‘Everybody understands when you wave the white flag,’ one of them confidently reasons, ‘you want to be friends’. They are, however, instantly evaporated by a Martian energy beam. If this were not enough to convince the audience of the sheer evil facing the human race, the scene is echoed later in the narrative, when Pastor Collins—who has convinced himself, in a strange piece of theological deduction, that the aliens are closer than humans to God—advances towards the Martian stronghold. ‘We should try to make them understand we mean them no harm’, he says, clutching a copy of the Bible and reciting Psalm 23. He is quickly destroyed. Goodness and mercy seem not to be concepts recognized by the alien invaders.
‘They seem to murder everything that moves’, remarks one of the human characters, and the film duly relays images of mass destruction from around the world. ‘It was’, as the solemn voice-over puts it, ‘the beginning of the rout of civilization, the massacre of humanity.’ Those lucky enough to escape death have been driven from their houses. Humans are no longer at home in the world, their world, and no amount of military might can halt the Martians’ advance. ‘They haven’t even been touched!’, cries one of the soldiers, shortly after an atom bomb, ten times stronger than any previously used, has been dropped on the invaders.
In order to tell its tale, the film sets up a clear opposition between an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’. One of the ways in which this ‘Versus’ is established is with an insistence upon groups and crowds of human beings. Throughout the film, Haskin tends to frame humans in numbers, often creating a noticeably cluttered mise en scène. There are, in fact, just 82 shots that feature a sole and uninterrupted human presence, and many of these occur in sequences that deliberately emphasize individual characters for dramatic effect.14 In The War of the Worlds, humans come together in order to fight for their future (or, as one reporter puts it, ‘future history’). More precisely, the sudden invasion of the other brings human beings together, and this unity, this creation of an ‘Us’ to resist the terrible ‘Them’, is played out even at the level of filmic composition. The age of conflict between races and nations is, as the text’s prologue suggests, a thing of the past. Every human being now stands with every other human being, and the enemy is precisely that which is not human. And even if the mobs that appear towards the end of the movie have descended into atomistic selfishness, there nonetheless remains a clear sense of representable humanity, opposed, of course, to the monstrous invaders. Those riotous crowds are, in fact, quickly transcended. As mob rule descends upon the city, Forester takes refuge in a church, hoping to be reunited with Sylvia. But, as the death of Pastor Collins has already suggested, the Martians have little respect for Christianity, and the building is soon under attack. Suddenly, however, the destruction ceases and the alien machines crash to the ground. The hatch of one of the fallen craft opens, and a slimy hand reaches out, only to fall limp. ‘We were all praying for a miracle’, says Forester, and, as he looks towards the heavens, church bells begin to ring.15 The invaders have, it transpires, been defeated by ordinary human bacteria, to which they had no resistance. ‘After all that men could do had failed’, concludes the narrator, ‘the Martians were destroyed and humanity was saved by the littlest things which God, in His wisdom, had put upon this Earth.’ The war of the worlds is over, the aliens have been eradicated, and humans will live on. To the choral sound of ‘Amen’, the credits begin to roll. Earlier that year, however, God was nowhere to be found. In Invaders from Mars (dir. William Cameron Menzies, 1953), the struggle between the human and the alien is allowed to run its course without interference from above. There is only an ‘Us’ versus a ‘Them’. In spite of this textual difference, Invaders from Mars nonetheless shares with The War of the Worlds a belief in an ordinary (which is to say, human) order of things, which is disturbed by hostile and unexpected alien invaders. The film begins in the safe space of the family home, where, as Patrick Lucanio points out, ‘[b]y avoiding open spaces and allusions to vastness (and preferring tight shots), Menzies visualizes the closeness of the family’.16 But this peaceful existence is soon shattered when David—the young hero of the film—witnesses the crash landing of an alien spacecraft near his family’s home. His parents dismiss his story as merely a dream (an irony upon which the whole film will eventually turn), but before long, families across the small town are falling apart as humans are captured and converted into soulless workers for the Martian cause. The ‘warmth and security with which Menzies opened the film is’, Lucanio concludes, ‘in shambles’.17
The absolute difference between the Martians, their ‘mutant’ slaves, and the besieged humans is repeatedly asserted. It is both physical (the aliens leave a strange mark on the back of their victims necks) and metaphysical (as soon as a human has been captured by the invaders, he or she changes in manner, in ‘spirit’). ‘That’s the coldest pair I ever saw’, remarks one of the policemen upon encountering David’s alienated parents, and elsewhere the film shows characters both before and after their brush with the invaders, in order to stress the difference of the alien: David’s father, once a loving husband, now happily leads his wife into the arms of the invaders, for instance, while a small girl torches her family home with a horrifyingly cold smile.
As in The War of the Worlds, the human originally has its own space and its own way of being, both of which are subsequently violated by an alien presence. An entirely different order of being crashes, quite literally, into the human world, and the consequences are terrifying. Contact with the extraterrestrial is a source of horror, for it destroys everything that precedes it. Having established this disturbance, the film can proceed to tell its tale of ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. The lines are clearly drawn, the camps determined, and the struggle to which Invaders from Mars devotes most of its narrative is the struggle of the ‘Us’ to conquer and negate the ‘Them’. Mars itself is entirely absent from Menzies’s film. The effects of its inhabitants upon everyday human life are enough to tell the tale. Menzies was renowned within the industry for his visual flair; ‘it was said of him’, reports Christopher Frayling, ‘that he had been born with a two-inch lens instead of eyes’.18 And, as in his earlier science fiction film, Things to Come (1936), he wonderfully shows how the once-familiar landscape of Earth can suddenly become startlingly different, strikingly uncanny: a house is no longer a home, a child no longer innocent, a husband no longer a lover. In It! The Terror from Beyond Space (dir. Edward L.Cahn, 1958), however, there is, as in The War of the Worlds, a brief glimpse of the terrible red planet. This, in fact, is precisely where the film begins. As the opening credits come to an end, the camera tracks across the Martian scenery that had been visible beneath the text, and comes to rest upon a gleaming spacecraft which is poised to return to Earth, having rescued the sole survivor of a doomed mission to the planet. But the survivor—Colonel Carruthers—is no hero; he is, rather, due to stand trial for the deaths of his fellow crew members, and although he claims that his colleagues were ‘killed by something not me’, the rescue party refuses to believe his story about a ‘mysterious creature’. Until, that is, yet more deaths occur during the return flight, for the monster of which Carruthers spoke is stowed away on the spaceship, and, being a ‘terror from beyond space’, it is intent on killing everything in its path.19 ‘There’s enough voltage in these lines to kill thirty human beings’, remarks one of the crew as he inspects yet another trap set for the creature. ‘The only drawback is,’ he continues, ‘the thing isn’t human’. The realization that Carruthers’s fantastic story is terrifyingly true marks a turning point in the narrative, and serves to establish the same binary opposition between the human and the inhuman that informs Invaders from Mars and The War of the Worlds. Once again, the sudden presence of the alien creates a coherent sense of the human (the film’s trailer notes, for instance, that ‘the “Thing” from space threatens all mankind!’, and that, ‘In the silent void of space, puny man matches his cunning against a monster from Mars running rampant’). If there is an ‘It’,20 there must be something that is not an ‘It’, and this, of course, is ‘Us’. The monster, in fact, is so utterly other that it does not even come from outer space, a field partially mapped by humans. ‘It’ comes, rather, as the film’s title somewhat bafflingly declares, from beyond space, from beyond the infinite expanse that human beings have at least begun to explore, to know, to conquer.
The formation of the human ‘Us’ is matched by a change in the composition of the mise en scène itself. At the very beginning of the film, before the creature has made its presence felt, the viewer is introduced to the crew members as they prepare to fire the ship’s engines. As each person speaks his or her name directly to camera, the film cuts, framing every char...