Monday, December 15, 2008

Yay Us! or, Why Aliens-Visit-Earth Movies Are Like Soviet Propaganda

Look! It's Neo John Constantine Klaatu!

One can have a delightful time riffing on the earnest balderdash at the heart of this remake reworking of the classic Robert-Wise-directed Day The Earth Stood Still. There's more than enough here to give a moderately-talented stand-up comedian a good 90 minutes worth of sure-fire jokes. Only 10 of which would be about Keanu Reeves, who has now achieved the apex of Schwarzeneggerite Acting. Just as Arnold always made his robot roles seem human and his human roles robotic, Keanu can always be counted on to make his aliens seem human and his humans act like fucking weird-ass aliens. As for the other 80 minutes? Where to begin? How about the so-called science? I mean really--casting John Cleese as someone who's won the Nobel Prize for Altruistic Biology? (That must have been the same year Enron won the Nobel for Selfish Economics.) And evidently the study of Altruistic Biology involves writing a lot of equations on a blackboard--y'know, like physics--except it's not physics, it's terrestrial biology, so how could an alien (a) understand the symbols and then (b) correct the errors? At least in the original, it was a problem in interstellar transportation. Here, the equation is never explained; for all we know it could be a recipe for chicken soup. Except that--wait--making soup from chickens wouldn't be altruistic, would it? And think about it: when was the last time you saw a biologist writing an equation? Correct answer: about the same time you saw your boss doing trigonometry during a sales conference. (Which would actually take place if Hollywood decided to make a movie about that sales conference. Count on it.)

One can also expend a Vietnam War's worth of ammunition attacking the so-called plot, in which an alien visitor comes to earth in order to give the UN a warning about how we're selfishly putting ourselves first instead of the planet, only to say, "Screw it, you don't deserve a warning, I'm scouring this planet of you and your stupid civilization," only to say, "Wait--you humans have another side to you, let's see if I can give you another chance," after a ten-year-old kid selfishly wants the alien to raise the kid's dead father from the grave and then cries because he can't get what he wants. Now there's a kid who's going to grow up cherishing the environment.

But the thing that really cheeses me off is something which should not surprise me at all at this point in my movie-going life, since it is a staple of all Hollywood-made science-fiction films (and far too many science-fiction novels)--namely, the not-so-subtle message which proclaims to the entire cosmos that "Being human is the best thing in the universe." Doesn't matter where the aliens are from, or how advanced they are. Once one of them spends five minutes in the company of us earthlings (preferably a human female; Lois Lane, anybody?), all that advanced alien intelligence takes second place to admiration and envy for our unique, incredible, top-notch mortality. It's the first commandment of all sci-fi movies: "We are the Human Race; thou shalt have no other races before us." We get second chances when we don't do anything to deserve them; we get allies and friends when we do nothing but attack them; and we win over everybody (and everything) just because of who we like to think we are when we're at our best. It's sort of like being American, except that it's a species-wide delusion instead of a national one. Like in this movie, where we see an alien agent who's been living among us for 75 years proclaim that he is going to stay on the planet and suffer total annihilation because he's fallen in love with us. The fact that he's played by a Chinese actor sends the not-so-subtle message that just like everyone in the universe wants to be an earthling, everybody on earth wants to be an American.

I don't know about you, but just once I'd like to see a sci-fi movie where an alien impersonating a human for 75 years says "These earthlings suck! Get me out of here!" Just once I'd like to see an alien ambassador tell the United Nations: "We are nuking this fucking planet because if you yahoos ever get space travel, you'll kill us all." Just once I'd like to see Starman turn to Karen Allen and say "This thing you call love is the Stockholm Syndrome of breeding, and how stupid are you not to see it?" But no--I have about as much chance of seeing that in a movie with aliens as I do of seeing someone break the Second Commandment of Sci-Fi, which says: "Anyone who's immortal and could live forever secretly longs to age and die like a normal human being." (I'm looking at you, Hancock .)

Oh yeah, baby--aging and dying is the best. Ask any immortal. Just like being part of the Human Race is the best. Ask any alien. They all want to be us, love us, save us, or protect us. You know what that means humanity is? Not just a state of helpless promise, like a new-born baby; not just something which instills worship, love, and respect in total strangers--but something which compels everything it meets to worship it as the be-all and end-all of universal creation.

In other words, humanity worship is a virus that infects everything it touches. Now that's a sci-fi movie plot.