The alien messiah has been such a pervasive figure in science fiction films of the last twenty years as to mark some sort of cultural phenomenon. Its modern origins extend at least back to the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, where an alien visitor warns the inhabitants of Earth to eschew war and violence or suffer destruction. This film followed by seven years the explosion of the first atomic bomb and appeared during the early days of 1950s Cold War nuclear paranoia. It reflected a general public concern over the same historical circumstances that have influenced more recent science fiction films: the fear that civilization has run amok and is about to destroy itself, the individual's consequent despair and sense of unimportance, the inability to find coherent meaning in the modern world. The alien messiah serves to resolve these problems, at least imaginatively, to replace despair with hope and purpose, to provide resolution in a world where solution seems impossible. A wave of popular mysticism in the middle and late 1960s, followed by an outright religious revival in the 1970s and 1980s, has been at least a secondary influence on the theme's recent prominence. (1)
Science fiction cinema often assumes a rather confused attitude toward science and technology. On the one hand, it views them as redemptive forces that can lift humanity out of the muck and mire of its own biological imperfections. On the other, it sees them as potentially destructive forces, inimical to humanity. What small hope there is, here on earth or elsewhere, lies in the human imagination and heart.
A number of films produced in the last twenty years, and especially in the last decade, look beyond the human for salvation. They invoke a messiah figure, an overtly or covertly religious personage, whose numinous, supra-human qualities offer solace and inspiration to a humanity threatened by technology and the banality of modern life.
Ironically, these films do not hesitate to use that technology, both in the stories they tell and the special effects that make them popular. They are, finally, reactionary in their rejection of science and their advocacy of the supernatural, although several of them appear intentionally to confuse the genuinely messianic with extremely advanced technology. The messiah figure's presence in films that at first seem to deify technology thus constitutes quite a paradox.
The alien messiah's appearance usually occurs in two stages. The first establishes the vulnerability and weakness of the human characters. In The Last Starfighter (1984), Star Wars (1976), and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), the protagonists feel trapped in a meaningless, trivial existence. In The Fight of the Navigator (1986) a young boy feels beleaguered by his parents and his spoiled younger brother. In Cocoon (1985) the central human characters are old men approaching death. In E.T. (1982) a young boy is upset over his parents' collapsed marriage. In Starman (1984) a young woman grieves for her dead husband. In 2010 (1984) civilization is threatened by nuclear war.
The second stage brings an alien force that rescues the human characters from the threatening circumstances they suffer. Inevitably, in the first stage human existence is circumscribed by closure. Inevitably, in the second stage closure gives way to openness. Meaningless lives find meaning. Old men are granted immortality. A boy gains a friend. A grief-stricken woman is consoled. Nuclear war is avoided.
The term messiah seems appropriate here not only because of what the alien figure does but also because he hails from a culture whose superior technology makes him appear 'divine' to earthly mortals. Less frequently, the messiah figure acts out a role previously prepared for him, as with the messiah in Dune (1984), based on the Frank Herbert novels. The three Star Wars films revolve around a similar messianism, apparently influenced by the Dune novels and by a fusion of conventional Christianity, Zen Buddhism, Arthurian romance, and 1970s self-help narcissism.
(2) Although the messianic theme lent these films a governing mythology (mainly the first and second films, the third more or less abandoning mythic pretensions entirely), the primary emphasis falls on action and character. In these films, of course, the messiah figure is not alien but human, although from an advanced culture on a planet other than earth. The struggle of good and evil never develops beyond an amorphously defined abstraction, a vagueness reflected in the essential philosophic vacuity of the trilogy. Yet only one or two of the films I have in mind here ever transcend the vacuity to begin with.
Underlying the motif of the alien messiah is the mythos of the
Christian messiah, begotten by the divine Jehovah on a mortal woman, sent to redeem a sin-ridden humanity and to offer immortality. Several recent films have made bald use of this myth. In Starman the messiah figure is an alien who crash-lands on the Earth. In The Terminator (1984) he is a human from a post-nuclear war future. In both films, these characters beget a child on an earthly woman. In each case the consequent male child is destined to be of great service to the human race. In The Terminator he will lead the battle against robots who seek to destroy all human life. In Starman he will become a teacher who imparts the alien wisdom encoded in his genes. Oddly, the films present two messiah figures. In effect, the first messiah acts as Jehovah, impregnating the Virgin with the second messiah, the divine son. The alien of Starman reinforces his messianic identity by restoring the woman to life when she is accidentally killed by pursuing government agents.
Behind the Christian mythic pattern loom other mythic presences. Greek and Roman mythology is rife with accounts of young women molested and impregnated by assorted male deities, usually Zeus (less often Apollo, Pluto, or a lesser god), who appears in a variety of forms, as a shower of golden coins, for example, or a bull. The Psyche myth is another analogue. World mythologies offer many such tales. But these classical sources are not so accessible to the popular mind as Christian myth, which gives the messiah figure in these films the power and attraction it possesses. In whatever form, the messiah is an expression of transcendence, from the first stage of vulnerability and closure to the second stage of transcendence and openness. And it is the desire of popular audiences for transcendence that these films seek to satisfy.
The alien's messianic identity points directly to a fundamental assumption of these films: that alien visitors would be not only benign but benevolent, and sublimely so. Indeed, hostile aliens appear only rarely. (This is a striking contrast to films of the 1950s and 1960s, which usually portrayed the alien as an enemy. War of the Worlds (1953) is a case in point.)
In Stephen Spielberg's Close Encounters aliens seek out disgruntled and depressed middle-class humans and announce their intention to pay Earth a visit. Their reasons for doing so are unclear. What use might we be to them? To the poor humans singled out, they seem inescapably godlike. It is worth noting what Mr Kurtz, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, wrote in his diary about missionaries and natives in the African jungle: 'We [the white Europeans] ... must necessarily appear to them in the nature of supernatural beings - we approach them with the might as of a deity— By the simple exercise of our will we can exert a power for good practically unbounded'. (3)
Although the aliens' desire to do good is usually clear enough, none of the films suggests whether any aliens ever suffered Kurtz's disillusionment, or met his fate (The Explorers (1985) does show their corruption by earthly materialism, and a similar thing occurs in Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)). Kurtz, of course, wants to redeem and civilize the depraved jungle. Most of these films share his naivete. They rest on the premise that advanced technology breeds not only miraculous wonders but moral redemption as well. The aliens of Cocoon and Close Encounters and even 2001 show no sign of corruption or natural imperfection or original sin. (The first two Superman films even make fun of how good and innocent the title character really is.) (4)
Moreover, they often employ their sophistication to warn earthlings against the danger of not using their own technology with sufficient care. This is the overt theme of 2010 and an implied theme in 2001 and Close Encounters.
We find also in Close Encounters a close association between technological sophistication and religious exaltation. The aliens are exalted by their own technological sophistication. They behave as exalted beings. They appear exalted to earthly humans because of that sophistication. Technology has redeemed them from original sin, made them godlike, sent them to us with the best of intentions. In Close Encounters they seem quite eager to play the messianic role. And as if to underscore their mission, they choose to carry up into space a man who has lost his family and job struggling to prove that he actually saw them. He is a man searching for meaning, for a faith, which the aliens provide by carrying him aloft.
The final image of ascension is clearly meant to be inspirational. But why? Is the idea that there are other beings in the universe besides ourselves inspirational? Are we to be moved that the man finally found the meaning he so longed for? What are we to make of the jewel-like alien ship, revolving in the evening sky, credits reeling past?
Are we, like Ezekiel, to take it as proof of a benevolent God's existence, of reason for faith and hope? And if so, haven't we been duped by a very vivid but very imagined and fabricated version of alien visitation cloaked in the unctuous veil of holiness? (5)
Spielberg's E.T.: The Extraterrestrial carries the deception a step further: the benevolent alien personalized in a cute, lovable space creature. Stranded on Earth, he becomes friends with a confused and lonely boy who feels misunderstood by everyone. Moreover, although the alien creature belongs to a superior alien culture, he is neither aloof, superior, nor mysterious.
In fact, he is just like the boy - confused and lonely. He acts out his messianic role by relieving the boy's confusion and giving him a sense of worth. He does this through friendship more than anything else. He also heals wounds, revivifies dead flowers, and levitates fruit and bicycles. Moreover, when he begins trying to contact his own species, and when scientists begin to hunt him, he gives the boy a purpose: to help his friend return home and to protect him from the scientists.
As occasionally happens with alien messiahs (it happens in The Last Starfighter), the creature dies and is then resurrected, a focus of the film's inspirational theme. (6) When E.T. boards his space ship to ascend into the heavens, he touches the grieving boy on the forehead and says, 'I'll be right here', meaning that his memory will remain in the boy's heart and mind in future years, a source of faith and comfort. As the ship rises, it leaves a rainbow in its wake, the symbol of divine blessing and protection. Again we find the image of the good-hearted, kind, loving alien, the cosmic incarnation of Christian myth and doctrine. (7) The film succeeds by stimulating religious emotions in camouflaged form and by its vision of a cosmos where the individual has a cosy and secure place.
Although the alien messiah is usually a benevolent, anthropomorphic being intent on doing good, darker incarnations do occur. In The Day the Earth Stood Still the robot Gort serves as a policeman to the people who created it. He uses his ultimate power to maintain peace, law, and order, his owner assures us, and to destroy those who turn to violence. Yet we are also told that he is capable of destroying the Earth, which he would not hesitate to do if he found it necessary. Given developments of the last thirty-five years, this film's faith in technology is grimly touching.
In The Terminator, much more reflective of contemporary attitudes toward technology, just such a 'race' of robots has taken over the Earth, ravaged by nuclear war, and is determined to wipe out the human species. They are prevented by one man and his band of rebels. To destroy him, the robots build a time machine and send an android back to the past, assigned to kill the leader's mother, preventing his conception. Played effortlessly by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the rapacious android destroys everything in his path, including a police station and forty policemen. He is a 'negative' messiah, an irresistible force intent not on goodness to the human race but on its destruction. Similar examples occur in such films as War of the Worlds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978), Alien (1979), and Aliens (1986).
Usually, although not always, some human agent arises to defeat them. In The Terminator, as we have seen, that force comes as a positive messiah, sent by the future rebels to protect their leader's mother. He succeeds, in the process becoming the woman's lover, and thus the father of the infant whose existence he was sent to ensure. When he is killed, the woman drives off alone into the Mexican desert to await the holocaust and give birth to the messiah who will redeem the humans from the robots. As in Starman, faint reverberations of Christian myth inform this film, especially its second half. The android is evil; the woman and her lover from the future are good. They battle for the fate of an unborn, even unconceived child who will redeem humanity - once again, camouflaged religious impulses and patterns.
The alien messiah's frequent presence in recent science fiction films propels us toward certain conclusions. The first is that contemporary movie audiences and film writers suffer from a terminal sense of inadequacy and insecurity and a parallel fatalistic certainty that the problems of our contemporary world are insurmountable, incapable of solution. The second is that these films suggest that the only satisfactory way of addressing the world's problems is imaginative appeal to super-human agencies, that is, highly advanced aliens eager to do good, or the deities of traditional religion. Humanity itself is impotent, incompetent.
The third is that science fiction films of the 1970s and 1980s serve the same function as the biblical epics of the 1950s and 1960s. What exactly is the difference between King of Kings (1961) and Close Encounters, between The Robe (1953) and £.7.? Except for details of setting and character, there is no difference. The earlier films were more honest, or perhaps less subtle, in their illumination of religious doctrine. If these latter ones are not so open, at least they are better films.
Paradoxically, they invoke the messiah, that overtly or covertly religious personage who renders irrelevant the technological marvels that all the special effects highlight and which science fiction itself in some sense is supposed to concern. Ultimately, they reflect reactionary, defeatist attitudes in their makers and their audiences. If they do not reject science and technology, they at least ignore it. If they regard the future with hope and wonder, they simultaneously discourage the hope that humankind will be more capable in the future of handling the problems that confront it today. Entertaining as they are, these films are escapist fantasies grounded in the patterns of the past instead of the possibilities of the future.
I. Janice Hocker Rushing in 'E.T. as Rhetorical Transcendence', Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 71, no. 2, 1985, asserts that 'It may be that space fiction or fantasy is the most important contemporary genre for presenting and responding to the rhetorical exigency of fragmentation' (p. 200). Bonnie Brain, in 'Saviors and Scientists: Extraterrestrials in Recent Science Fiction Rims', Et Cetera: A Review of General Semantics, vol. 40, no. 2, l983, likewise associates these films with prevailing concerns of their audiences and finds them specifically religious in tone: 'Not surprisingly, the human reaction - and the audience response - [aliens] inspire borders on reverence' (p. 219).
2. Leonard M. Scigaj, in 'Bettelheim, Castaneda, and Zen: The Powers behind the Force in Star Wars', Extrapolation, vol. 22, no. 3, 1981, discusses the influence in the films of Zen Buddhism and the writings of Carlos Castaneda.
3. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, New York: W.W. Norton & Co 1971, p. 51.
4. Superman is obviously an alien messiah figure, too, although he was more a product of the 1930s than of the 1970s or 1980s. The first film emphasizes Superman's messianic character. His father explains that he has sent his 'only son' to do service to the people of Earth. Superman performs miracles, raises Lois Lane from the dead, and more or less dedicates himself to good deeds.
5. See also Tony Williams, 'Close Encounters of the Authoritarian Kind', Wide Angle, vol. 5, no. 4, 1983.
6. Resurrections occur in one form or another in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Superman, Cocoon, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Starman, Star Wars, The Last Starfighter, E.T. and 2010.
7. In this sense Janice Hocker Rushing calls E.T. 'a significant experiment in the rhetoric of mythic transcendence' (p. 200). On E.T., see also Andrew Gordon, 'E.T. as Fairy Tale', Science Fiction Studies, vol. 10, no. 3, 1983.
In: Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema. Edited by Annete Kuhn. London Verso, 1990, p. 32-38.