The film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, has come to represent a metaphor describing the dangers of conformity. Working in and with the images and codes of a traditional low budget horror film, the movie offers a particular set of tropes that are distinct to the genre. The film happens, in its original version, in a relatively isolated small town environment. The threat posed is of a loss of emotion and it is suggested that the loss of feelings corresponds with a loss of freedom. That this occurred during the McCarthy era witch hunts and was a rebuke to the neo-fascist hysteria of the era is now taken as a truism. However, the film is never explicit in its condemnations which makes it both more effective and less threatening.
The subsequent remakes were more direct and less successful. The second version, with a bigger budget, bigger names (Donald Sutherland) and better special effects takes place in San Francisco and is far more direct in its anti-corporate anti-Reagan era agenda. There is a scene, to consider one example, where a Jerry Garcia look-a-like, an icon of a period known for social engagement and dissent, is mutated into a soulless man strumming a banjo but utterly devoid of emotion (the actual actor was Joe Bellan but Garcia did play the music).
A third version with Nicole Kidman and a pre Bond Daniel Craig is even more directly anti-corporate and anti-conformist and takes a direct aim at the Bush era “war on terrorism” mass patriotism and mass hysteria in the post 9/11 environment. As a result the film was butchered by the studio and the result was a limp mishmash devoid (ironically) of emotional weight or depth.
Two other films recently deserve mention though neither is a horror film or a monster movie. These are, Star Trek into Darkness and Captain America the Winter Soldier.
The first is part of the attempted reboot of the Star Trek storyline with Benedict Cumberbatch stepping into the role of Khan, originally played in both the original series and the subsequent film (Star Trek 2 The Wrath of Khan) by Ricardo Montalban. In the reboot the story takes direct aim at the post 9/11 era with specific plot points centered on extra-judicial murder, retribution and rendition, as well as secret government operations,(1) and the assorted corollaries taken from traditional spy or thriller films. Among the slightly less obvious talking points there is a shuttle called “Warrant” and the massive dreadnaught, built in secret, is located at coordinates that match the largest oilfield in Libya – a detail that could not have been inserted at random or arbitrarily or without being noticed by the production team. It is also no accident that the film received a concentrated and consistent public campaign of negative press based on claims that it was marketed poorly, that it made poor use of canonical material and was generally just not well done. We believed then and continue to believe that the film’s direct criticism of issues like warrantless search and seizure by the authorities (Starfleet’s Section 31 as a stand-in for the FBI, etc) were the reason for the negative media.
In the case of the Marvel studio’s film the irony is that the anti 9/11 dialogue and plot points flew under the radar while the film itself received the now standard media blitz and praise associated with Marvel films. That the film was well done in all facets (acting, editing, cinematography, plot) and that it successfully blended elements of a traditional thriller and espionage genre with a “superhero film” are all to its credit and the work of the director and the screenplay and the actors.
What went unnoticed or at least undiscussed was that the central conflict between Captain America (Steve Rogers as played by Chris Stevens) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hinged on Roger’s rejection of the post 9/11 justification for executions without recourse to arrest, trial by jury and the standards of habeas corpus. Rogers’ “This isn’t justice, it’s fear” statement of defiance and rejection, followed by the revelation that SHIELD has been penetrated by HYDRA is both a distraction from this issue and also a means to highlight the issue of how the Patriot Act has turned the justice system on its head. But, because of the hype machine and the reluctance of the complicit media to broach complex topics this issue has gone essentially under the radar. With the media frenzy for the next Marvel films at a fever pitch it will be forgotten completely except one assumes inside a few film studies classes.
Which bring us to A Quiet Place. Directed by John Krasinski and staring Krasinski and his wife, Emily Blunt, the film operates within the standard horror genre. A small town, a post apocalyptic or post invasion world taken over or driven to near extinction by violent predatory aliens, and a small group of weary but scrappy humans continues to survive.
The aliens are barely glimpsed at first but their ability to wreck havoc is on full display.
The switch from the traditional to the unique and the culturally significant is the conceit that the aliens are limited in their eye-sight but have acute hearing ability and use noise to draw a bead on their targets. The result of this is that the family (Krasinski, Blunt and their children) must be quiet. Sign language and other adaptations are in place and one of their children is hearing impaired giving the family a plot point that explains their comfort with sign language.
It develops that certain sounds can be harmful if not quite lethal to the aliens.
But what matters here is that clearly, irrefutably the film is the first significant response to mass surveillance.(2) The aliens are the government – the post Edward Snowden collection of the gears that make the Orwellian machine what it is – from the FBI to the NSA to the devastating and deadly impact that mass surveillance has had on the already weakened ability of people to make noise. In this case that noise is the entire spectrum of dissent and subversive creativity – the dangerous sparks that fly off from the collision of different ideas.
I want, says the Boss, in Radio Nowhere, from his anti Bush album, Magic, a thousand different voices speaking in tongues. That cry for mercy and the rapture of the chorus of freedom stands as the cultural origin point for the film in the sense that mass consumerism was already a toxin eating the nation’s soul but when joined to mass surveillance and data-harvesting the result is deadly.
The film, like its ancestor, Body Snatchers, has plausible deniability – it is just a lark designed to scare you and entertain you. And it succeeds as Krasinski clearly is a talented director, screenwriter and actor and Blunt is one of those rare talents able to morph from action to social drama or “rom-com” with relative ease and equally relative success.
But beyond those issues, beyond the obvious plausible deniability that will position the film as either ambiguous or just a fright, lies the obvious truth – the film is not only a direct condemnation of the Patriot Act and the devastating effects of nearly two decades of an Orwellian panopticon, but it is a direct rejection of the entire machine – conformity, false patriotism, and a rejection of dissent as being un-American.
In the end the aliens are betrayed by noise. Noise disables them, and draws them towards an ambush.
The film itself does the same.
The fools, as always, believed their own limited atrophied experience was a guide to developing a strategy. What they have created instead, is a moment in time where suppressed voices will demand to be heard. This is always the way and always the path taken when tyranny demands obedience.
Resistance may or may not be futile but it is inevitable.
1.Section 31, the spy organization inside Starfleet first came into focus during the run of the Deep Space 9 series. Amoral, sinister, ethically flexible, lethal, it was clearly a cutout for every traditional spy thriller story and the wilderness of mirrors that is the US intelligence agencies. It reappears in Star Trek into Darkness and is just as sinister, and amoral. Science Fiction, as always has been ahead of the curve and in large part because it revels in plausible deniability. FBI agents? Don’t be silly, those are just Romulan goons from the Tal Shiar. Government conspiracy? Certainly not, it’s just a rogue Starfleet captain working with the Maquis to smuggle Klingon disruptors to an anti-Cardassian military cell paid for by a Ferengi laundering money in an offshore/off-world account. Why would you think that’s a metaphor describing the CIA?
2. A brief note on the X-files. We have written about the show at length and that article can be found via the link below. However, while the show has directly confronted issues of mass surveillance, it’s impact has diminished as the show has become ossified within its own success. The fact is, it is no longer fresh and we mean that in the cynical sense of the media machine no longer taking the show seriously beyond a few prefabricated and thus predictable reviews. The show has become a product and despite being well done, as a product it has lost its bite.