Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Real Characters: The Mundane and Humdrum

One of my biggest pet-peeves in books and television and movies- lack of humdrum mundane life tasks!

In so many stories the characters don't have to deal with the normal human being annoyances. For example- when was the last time that you saw a character go grocery shopping (especially if they aren't a soccer mom- because apparently they are the only ones who have to buy food?).
Do you ever see characters getting gas, paying bills, doing yard work, washing their car, returning their library books, going to the gym, etc.

The problem for me is that it takes the entire validity of the story out of context. Granted, occasionally the characters are living in a situation which keeps them from having to do these mundane tasks. But, in my opinion most characters could be served by being more fleshed out by dealing with real tasks that everyone has to complete.

Granted, there are historical, fantasy and even psychological thrillers that do not take place within a context of "normal" life tasks, but wouldn't it be fascinating to have the story of a murder mystery in which the detective gets their electricity shut off because they are too busy working overtime to catch the killer? It gives characters dimension and more personality. Or a superhero who has to spend time at the laundromat in order to have clean costumes to wear... Not to mention the obnoxious on-set of a small illness- so annoying and yet real!

Can you imagine the psychotic break that a character could have when they realize they are out of gas at the pinnacle moment in the story, when the pressures of work, family, and a deranged neighbor pile up? There is such an opportunity for not only comedic genius, but also the physical limits of a person's ability to cope. There are so many times when we, as working members of a community, literally don't have time or mental acuity to deal with the day-to-day annoyances

Monday, July 28, 2014

War of the Worlds: The Duality of Power and Weakness in the Concept of the “Other”

War of the Worlds:
The Duality of Power and Weakness in the Concept of the “Other”

Angela Beatie

Master of English Program

College of Liberal Arts and Science

Emporia State University

English 794- Alien Invasion: Critical Studies in Film

Summer 2014, Colson

According to Nagl (1983) in “The Science Fiction Film in a Historical Perspective”, science fiction films employ myths as a method of presenting rational or irrational events to explain human behavior. This is an apt characterization of the place of myth within the film War of the Worlds (1953). Within this film there are numerous examples of the creation of myths demonstrating how humans view power, as well as defining both humanity and the philosophical “Other”. This can be seen as an extension and metaphor for human issues, much as various cultures have created myths to explain their origins, their future, and to define who they are in comparison to those around them. These types of myth provide identity and justification for power structure, which influences how social groups interact. The film War of the Worlds (1953) creates a mythos demonstrating themes of power and domination as fundamental to the human process of defining both humanity and “the Other”, as well as moral justification for violence against “the Other”, all while appearing to privilege religion over science.
Nagl (1983) goes on to discuss his “Global Characteristics of Science Fiction”, including how myth originally reflected man’s unity with life. This can be seen in the many difference creation myths, myths explaining social norms, and providing a shared history for a social group. In Judeo-Christianity this is evidenced in the myths of Adam and Eve, Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the Whale. These stories provide a commonality and an opportunity for people to socially bond through shared understanding and knowledge. These stories define the “good” versus “bad”, the “us” versus “them”, and the concept of the “Other”. (Kelley-Romano, 2006) In many ways, science fiction has taken on this social norm providing stories and myths explaining what it means to be human, and what it means to be in-human, alien or subhuman. Science fiction uses allegories, metaphors and myths to explain the human anxiety associated with the “Other” (often a being from a different planet, an alien) in place of a different race, a different culture, or a different gender.  Within science fiction “themes of menace and destruction, dominate or seen as dominant [can be seen as] an articulation and elaboration of and defense against anxiety.” (Nagl, 1983, p. 269) Some science fiction films negate this anxiety, while others support it. Science fiction and the film War of the Worlds specifically, use the myth of the other to explore how humanity reacts to an overwhelming threat in terms of power struggles, religion and military action.
            Within the concept of the “Other”, understanding the balance of power between the majority and the “Other” is vital. A loss of power and control is one of humanity’s greatest fears. The importance of freedom of choice and personal preservation is one of humans’ most sought after and violence causing aspects. Wars routinely erupt over these issues of choice, as well as often being the motivating factor behind support of political, social and religious movements. War of the Worlds demonstrates the catastrophic effects of a complete loss of power for humanity, a complete helplessness and how various people react and cope with both the unknown assailant and their inability to fight this invader. The film also shows how humanity defines “otherness”, and in the process also defines humanity. (Kelley-Romano, 2006)
The concept of the “Other” is seen both in cinematic and real-life situations. Current events such as the immigration debate, racial violence and the use of moral justification for violence are all situations in which humans classify other groups as "the Other", the enemy, different enough to be cause for violent action towards them. This is in direct contrast to other multicultural, tolerance movements, focusing on the similarities between people and attempting to dispel the myth of the “Other”. These unifying social movements allow cooperation between many social groups and structures (such as the military, science, education, business and religion)

Invasion versus Conquest
            Within the science fiction film genre, there are two major categories that most films fall in, that of an alien invasion film and a space conquest by human film. These categories reflect the contrasting views have humans have about their dominion and power in everything from immigration to scientific exploration. In situations of anxiety about social conditions, a film reflecting an alien invasion illustrates these anxieties as a metaphoric myth. Conversely, films showing space conquest illustrate human confidence in their dominion over not only the earth, but metaphorically their entire universe. Within science fiction films, there are often instance and examples of both this anxiety and confidence, but ultimately the hero usually is aligned to one of these categories, leading the viewers to take away a message about their own place in the world and the associated anxiety.
            War of the Worlds is a film which falls into the first category, that of alien invasion, and creates myths and metaphors for human conditions in which invasion is a source of anxiety and fear. A current human source of anxiety could be associated with possible invasion by a racial social group, a country, an animal species, an ideology, or a technology. Thus this film can be seen as a metaphor about human anxiety and possible reactions to that anxiety. Themes of power and morally justified violence also contribute the myth, informing viewers of possible reactions to their real anxiety and the results of these actions. For example, the character Pastor Collins attempts to approach the aliens, reciting the twenty-third Psalm, holding a Bible, implicitly trusting that his God will protect him against the alien invasion. His trust is not rewarded and he is instantly vaporized by the alien heat-ray. This is in contrast the heroic character of Dr. Forrester, who is the only character who engages in a one-on-one fight with an alien. He is able to wound the alien and from the alien’s blood gain valuable insight into the alien biology. From this comparison, in times of anxiety the superiority of scientific research over blind trust is manifest to the audience.

The Physical Aspects and Motivation of “the Other”
As the first step in creating “the Other” within the myths of power, the aliens in War of the Worlds are characterized by dramatically different appearances and biological processes. These aliens are portrayed as being based on sets of three, as opposed to humanity basic sets of two: two eyes, two ears, two hands, two feet, etc. The aliens in comparison have three eyes, three digits on each appendage and their crafts group in threes. In addition, they do not communicate in an audible manner. This lack of communication is pivotal in the creation of “the Other”. The inability to communicate in order to understand the motivation of the “enemy” inevitably leads to misunderstanding and a lack of empathy, which is vital in human relationships and is thus another way these aliens are distanced from humans and de-humanized.
The narrator of the film informs the viewers that the motivation of these aliens is destruction and subjugation of the earth’s planetary resources, due to the inability of their home planet to support and sustain them by fulfilling their needs. This is the most significant information of the limited insight gained about the alien’s motivation, but is not provided to the characters within the film. They are left to wonder why they have been subjugated to extermination and to blindly fight against their attackers. The characterization of the aliens as invaders, with not only colonizing intentions, but the means for extermination influences the audience’s view of them as unknowable “Others”, beyond any understanding and human desire to understand.

Similarities in Aliens and the Humans
            The key aspect in the creation of the myth of the “Other” is the process of distancing them, in terms of characteristics from the majority group. This focus on the differences rather than the similarities solidifies the social definition of the “Other” and the associated activities, such as prejudice, racism and morally justified violence. Despite this, there are some general similarities between the aliens and humans. Both groups appear to have blood as part of their physiology, are susceptible to environmentally transmitted viruses and are very concerned with sustaining their future (the aliens in finding a new world to support them, and the humans in their attempts to stop the alien invasion). In some science fiction films, the filmmakers reverse the concept of the “Other”, making the aliens more human or humane and the humans unrecognizable in their lack of humanity. This film does not focus on the similarities and defines the aliens as completely inhumane and unworthy of sympathy.

Power in terms of Race, Gender, Religion
Within the human race, there are examples of stereotyped groups, who at one point in time have been characterized as a minority, a class of “Other”. A few of these groups appear within the film War of the Worlds, an interesting addendum to the myth defining humanity. In the sea of Caucasian faces, there is one individual who appears to have a Hispanic heritage, evidenced both by his appearance and his language. He is one of the three men left to guard the “meteor” after the fire has been put out. He is characterized initially as a coward (he doesn’t want to approach the craft), and thenmindlessly conforming to the social pressure of his peers (by joining them in racing toward the craft and being instantly vaporized). This is a very negative portrayal of his race, as part of the film’s overall theme of social power
Interestingly enough, in this same scene, one of the three men argues that “everything human doesn't have to look like you and me." This is a very intriguing comment in the face of the dramatic emphasis that this film places on separating and defining humanity and the “Other”. This comment can be seen as an ironic statement, especially in conjunction with the three men’s quick demise soon after this statement. In the film War of the Worlds, humanity is strictly defined with similar physical traits as one of the ways of identifying the alien who would cause pain with complete apathy.
One insightful contradiction in this film is the contrast between the religious influence and explanation provided by the narrator, as opposed to the lack of religious power exerted within the film. The example of Pastor Collins’ death and the inability of the churches to withstand the attack of the aliens all project the impotence of religion as a powerful saving force, but in contrast to that the narrator uses religion and the power of God as the explanation for the survival of the human race, ending with a dramatic “humanity was saved by the littlest things, which God, in His wisdom, had put on this Earth”, and a ringing chorus of “Amen”. It will be argued below that this correlation of God’s power and the instance of the virus do not necessitate a causal relationship, but in terms of the myth and message of the film, religion is in fact just as impotent and unreliable as the military.
            Ironically, it was their very status as human that saved the people in War of the Worlds. The very biological agents that killed the aliens do not affect humans. It could be interpreted as a naturally occurring part of the earth (of which humanity is a part of and can be identified within) that destroyed the aliens, not a deity reaching down and interfering. The earth and it’s natural processes (as understood by science) protected her inhabitants.
            The instance of casualties in this film also brings insight to the balance of power and dominion within the film. The first interaction with the aliens occurs when three normal local men attempt to make contact with the aliens, waving a white flag and shouting, “We're friends!” Their decision to approach the alien craft shows a distinct lack of self preservation knowledge, and an innocent trust that the alien will understand their benign intentions. The three men are callously vaporized by a heat-ray, as the first casualties of the alien invasion. Subsequently, Dr. Forrester and the sheriff of Linda Rosa investigate the scene and are attacked by the same ray, but survive and escape to raise the alarm. This contrast of the three men’s guileless trust and Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff's experience and knowledge informs the viewer about a myth of superiority within humanity. It is implied that Dr. Forrester and the Sheriff are able to avoid death because to their superior skills, knowledge and associated status, whereas the other three men were not valuable assets to humanity. This speaks to an elevation of the class of scientists that is seen throughout this film.
Another example of commentary on the theme of power and dominion is the military's inability to damage the Martian crafts, even with an atomic bomb. The military bravado, as evidenced by Colonel Heffner’s comment that shooting has “always been a good persuader” is quickly decimated. The military is rendered inefficient and impotent, while the scientists experience some success learning about their enemy, deducing from a blood sample and electronic eye (collected by Dr. Forrester, the most eminent of these scientists) that the aliens are physically weak and anemic. The scientists are the best hope for stopping the alien invasion, and are given six days to come up with a solution. Dr. Forrester’s dedication and focus on finding a solution also give the implication that he really could find a way to stop the alien horde, if not for the rioters who steal the truck and scientific equipment necessary.
The religious tone of this film does present a conflict to the seeming promotion of Science. But in the narrator’s final commentary states, the Martians are destroyed by Earth’s virus and bacteria. It is implied that this was a product of religious intervention, but in the modern understanding of biological science, it is possible for human scientists to create and manipulate bacteria and virus. It was the earth based natural biology of earth that defeated the aliens. An important part of how humanity defines itself is it’s myth of connection to nature. In different cultures and throughout history, the connections between humans and earth/nature have been conflicted and cause for debate, from an ecological to postmodern perspective. It can be argued that “human culture itself (it’s social organization, the built environment, material and artistic productions) belong to an interlinked planetary ecosystem and is therefore every bit as ‘natural’ as a termite mound or a bird’s nest” (Hughes, p. 23). As a result, human identity can be constructed as part of the nature in which humans live in and by which they are shaped, including the associated bacteria.
In War of the Worlds, are humans characterized as part of “nature”? Or are they a separate invasive class who simply take advantage of natural resources? The latter characterization is how the aliens are introduced in this film, while the humans in this film are presented as part of nature, a component of planet earth and one of it’s resources. The success of this earthly and natural infection in destroying the alien race is ultimately another support of the elevation of science in the understanding of the balance of power in this film. A deity may have created the initial bacteria, but it was natural bacteria forces, as understood by science, that were the proverbial nail in the coffin.
The humans are not the only earthlings affected by the alien invasion. There are scenes of horses stampeding, deer running for cover and birds is flight, all emphasizing the idea that the entire earth as a whole is under attack by the aliens. It can additionally be argued that humanity it’s self is “inextricably enmeshed within the biosphere” (Hughes, p. 38)
            Within science fiction, “a pristine natural world… has historically been crucial to our sense of who we [as humans] are”(Hughes, p. 37). Humanity identifies with the earth, as they are part of the interconnectedness of nature. In fact it “no longer makes sense to discuss ‘human’ identity as something distinct from either nature or technology” (Hughes, p. 37). In this way, the alien invasion of the earth is a metaphor for very personal invasion, an assault on the human and earthly collective. Dr. Forrester, as the protagonist of the film is charged with “restoring narrative order and control over [humanity and] their own stories” (Hughes, p. 37), by stopping the alien invasion and infection of Earth.

Power: Human vs. Alien
            In terms of power it is quickly obvious that the aliens dominate the humans in terms of military and technological ability. The aliens quickly use their ships and heat-waves to attack strategic points and inhibit communication between the humans. They are portrayed in the film as powerful beings, until the scientists analyze the alien blood and discover a potentially fatal flaw in their genetics. But in terms of technology and firepower, nothing that the humans do even causes the aliens to pause in the sacking of humanity.
            At the point of no return, both the scientists and the military seem supremely confident that the use of the atom bomb on the alien ships will decimate the invading force. As Booker (2006) comments, this is a bomb that is “ten times more powerful than anything ever used before.” The military even attempts to compensate for the possible effects on the human population, by evacuating people into remote areas, as shown in various visuals of concourses of people interjected into the scene in which the military drops the bomb.They also done protective gear and give specific instructions to those observing the blast. The military fully expects this weapon of last resort to destroy the aliens. The military leaders specifically seem confident in their power, but on the proof that their weapons are completely ineffective they are forced to hand their hope into the scientists and their knowledge of biology as the ultimate offensive weapon. The narrative of the superiority of science over military is of great importance in understanding the seemingly conflicted portrayal of religion in this film as discussed earlier. The happy accident that saves humanity from utter destruction is due to the alien’s misunderstanding of the biological effects of the earth on their bodies. In this comparison, the humans have a superior understanding on the earth’s biological and chemical make-up, which makes them superior in the scientific understanding of earth. This power shift is the pivotal factor which leads to the alien’s demise and defeat.
            In the scene where the scientists are packing up and attempting to escape Los Angeles, in a metaphor for this emphasis on knowledge as the savor of humanity, Sylvia drives the school bus, full of people and scientific supplies and instruments away from the city. This school bus is evidence of the importance of knowledge and scientific exploration that is humanity’s best chance at survival. The vehicle could have been a tank (referencing military domination) or any other number of vehicles, but the choice of the school bus is illustrative of the importance of education and knowledge, in contrast to military action.

Power: Human vs. Human
Another reference to the power structure within humanity is the incidents in Los Angeles, when the human rioters turn on each other. Here is a situation where the dramatic changes in the power structure, caused by the alien invasion have collapsed the social structure to the detriment on the entire human race, destroying their last best chance of defeating the aliens. Those people who do not make it out of the city quickly turn on each other. Violence becomes the norm as the people attack each other for any semblance of advantage, pulling people from vehicles and destroying goods. Interestingly, in these scenes, only men are shown looting and attacking each other. When Sylvia and Dr. Duprey (the female scientist) are attacked, this scene is not shown, and the viewer only hears about it later. In terms of understanding power structure, this is important because the female characters are not given the quality of assertive violence, but are characterized as pure victims, without any complexity of confidence and authority.
In the midst of this scene of chaos, as the looters destroy his instruments and supplies, Dr. Forrester desperately tries to make them understand that he and his knowledge and abilities are the last best hope for human survival. He appeals to the social authority of the police, who once again acknowledge their complete lack of ability to use any social power to control the looters. They simply recommend he join them in escaping the city, running away instead of taking a stand. In anguish, Forrester cries out "Fools, they cut their own throats!"The looters and people left behind have shed their visage of humanity and its associated compassion and “human-ness” to become a seething mass of imaginary “Other” which Dr. Forrester must fight against in his quest. With the dramatic shift in power and the associated panic, even humanity is not enough to bind people together, but often leads to the process of separation and distinction within social groups. These looters not longer see themselves as Californians or Americans, but as individuals each fighting for their survival. At the very moment when the people need to come together against the common enemy, the alien, they splinter into ineffective groups, fighting against each other and against Dr. Forrester: their last, best hope.

Power: God vs Alien…. vs Man
            The influence of the narrator gives the film War of the Worlds a very distinct theme of the power of God versus the power of the invading alien. As discussed elsewhere, it is only the narrator who uses God’s power as the explaining force for the virus that kills the aliens, in contradiction to the other evidences that natural biology as understood by science is the savior of humankind. Putting that explanation aside for a moment, the myth of a powerful creator who is involved in humanity’s preservation is very powerful in creating a myth of human superiority, through the intermediary of their God. In terms of interplanetary conquest, the action of destroying the aliens sends a message that the Earth is protected and will not be easily conquered or colonized. This “superiority” of the human race is read as victory from a human perspective, a proof in the myth that the humans of planet earth are powerful and morally justified in defending themselves, even to the extermination of any invader. This allows them to use every method possible to protect themselves, because the audience identifies with the human heroes or protagonist. (Torry, 1994)

Human Characteristics
In keeping with the understanding of anti-human or “the Other”, this film also creates a myth about the humans and their characteristics. This is especially seen in the treatment of gender relations, as well as character’s economic status. The character Sylvia, despite the invasion and associated panic, never alters from her simplistic identity as the American woman of the 1950s. She has an education and a career, but even that is minimalized in Dr. Forrester's comment about her thesis on modern scientists: "Did it do you any good?", alluding to the worthlessness of education for women, especially education which distracts from her womanly role and duties.
Sylvia’s preoccupation with Dr. Forrester and her romantic intentions toward him are obvious from their first encounter, with a comedic moment of mistaken identity to lighten the moment. Throughout the alien invasion, she depends on him absolutely, deferring to his expertise and judgment without fail. She is one of the few female characters, a character whose purpose seems to be to demonstrate the hero (Dr. Forrester)’s machismo and heroic attempts to save humanity.After crash landing the plane, she even falls asleep in his arms, forgetting for a moment about the aliens, and demonstrating her complete faith in his masculine and scientific abilities. When he is knocked unconscious by the collapsing farm house, she takes on the typically female role of nursing him back to health, waiting for his masculine decision making skills, rather than take on any responsibility herself.
            Nagl (1983) notes that in science fiction, “a love story, although secondary to the plot [can be]... utilized both for emotional relief from the thrills and as a thread by which to hang the plot” (p. 265). In War of the Worlds, this type of emotional relief can be seem in the seemingly random domestic scene in which Sylvia and Dr. Forrester are stuck in an abandoned farm house and play out a relatively normal dinner, Sylvia completing her ‘wifely’ duties preparing food and talking about family, Forrester playing the strong figure. This scene provides an emotional intermission within the film, an opportunity to reflect on what has happened, while imagining the future of these two people whose lives have been so violently interrupted. She even tells the story of being lost and "praying for the one who loved me best to find me", setting up the climactic finale in which Forrester finds her in a church and they wait for destruction together. These types of scenes, the church scene, and the farm house scene all work together to inject reminders of the character's humanity compared to that of the aliens. They do this by using and creating myths about human characteristics that will cause the audience to identify with the human characters.
            The character Sylvia has a few close encounters with the aliens, at one point even coming face to face with one of them. She is terrified and rants about how the aliens seem to “murder everything that moves”. Which brings up the issue, how or why is it that Sylvia survives these encounters? She is not the powerful scientist hero (as depicted by Dr. Forrester) and her primary purpose as a character is to provide him heroic opportunities to display his brilliance. But why is it that she is the character that seems to have the closest interaction with an alien being and yet survives? On the examination of the eye that Dr. Forrester brings back for scientific analysis, one of the scientists comments, “let’s see why they are so interested in you”, referring to Sylvia. The issue is never explicitly resolved, as the escape from Los Angeles takes precedence in the plot.
One explanation for the alien’s lack of interest and assault is her identification as a woman, and therefore an “unpredictable alien in a patriarchal world” (Mitchell, 2006, p. 120). Women have historical and culturally be seen as a threat to the status quo of male domination. Both Sylvia and the alien characters can be characterized as ‘alien’, defined as a “position [of] someone or something at the margins or on the outside, to indicate that they are, paradoxically both powerless and a threat” (Mitchell, 2006, p. 120). It is glaringly evident that Sylvia, as a woman does not have power, either to save herself or anyone else, but also a threat to the patriarchal order, especially with her educational background, independence and career. Thus, while the alien genuinely terrifies her, within the plot of the film she does not come to any physical harm by the alien, because of the social alignment of women as an “Other” similar to the alien “Other”. This is a very intriguing example of science fiction “shift[ing] the scope of the culturally intelligible, revealing the non-naturalness” of the human notion of status and power of females. (Mitchell, 2006, p. 116)

            Science fiction has a role within current culture in exploring gender, culture, race, identity, authority and power, how they are manifest and experienced by humans by creating myths justifying human behavior. “Rather than attempting to posit ideal future worlds, science fiction can help us to grapple with some of the conundrums of our present world by working through their possible conclusions and outcomes” (p.125). War of the Worlds has influenced science fiction films since its release in 1953, as the classic story of alien invasion. Films such as Independence Day (1996) have reflected on many of the same issues, but with different myths and outcomes through the plot of “alien arrival/alien attack/ ineffective human counter-attack/alien defeat through the agency of a virus” (Pirro, 2011, p. 32). In the case of Independence Day, the lack of a religious intervention is blatant, as humanity creates their own virus to defeat the aliens, a computer virus further projecting humanity’s ability to save it’s self and not rely on divine intervention. Defining the enemy as “the Other”, with specific physical traits and motivation, intrinsically defines what it means to be human, for better or worse, especially in terms of power and morally justified violence, as seen in War of the Worlds.

Booker, M. K. (2006). Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture. Westport, Conn: Praeger.
Haskin, B. (1953). The War of the Worlds.Action, Horror, Sci-Fi.
Hughes, R. (2013). The Ends of the Earth: Nature, Narrative, and Identity in Dystopian Film. Critical survey., 25(2), 22–39.
Kelley-Romano, S. (2006). Mythmaking in Alien Abduction Narratives. Communication Quarterly, 54(3), 383–406. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=22898096&site=ehost-live
Mitchell, K. (2006). Bodies That Matter: Science Fiction, Technoculture, and the Gendered Body. Science Fiction Studies, 33(1), 109–128. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=19907611&site=ehost-live
Nagl, M. (1983).The Science-Fiction Film in Historical Perspective. Le film de Science-Fiction sous une perspective historique., 10(3), 262–277. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=24049936&site=ehost-live
Pirro, R. (2011). Luftkrieg and alien invasion: Unacknowledged themes of German wartime suffering in the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day. European Journal of American Culture, 30(1), 19–32. doi:10.1386/ejac.30.1.19_1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

"Ender's Game" Analysis

The film, “Ender’s Game” (2013), based on the novel by the same name written by Orson Scott Card, is a discussion of racial and gender stereotypes within a power context, the concept of the enemy, and isolation in the human condition.
Throughout the film, there is a nod to the multiculturalism within humanity, with Admiral Chamrajnagar an Indian admiral, Ender’s Muslim friend Alai, the Latin Bonzo Madrid, Ender’s European father, the part-Maori Mazer Rackhamand, and Anderson and Dink who are of African descent and dark-skinned. One of the most ironic moments within the film occurs when Alai is saying good-bye to Ender and invokes the Islamic greeting of “salam alaikum”, meaning “May peace be with you”, in direct contrast to their situation and goals of violence, war and destruction at battle school. But despite this reference to the multiculturalism of the human race, the hero and his tutor (Colonel Graff) are both white males, in keeping with the traditional and sexist warrior trope. This, combined with the Ender’s final realization that he has been manipulated into committing genocide make the male authority figures’ actions morally questionable.
In addition, females are conspicuously absent from this futuristic warrior training ground. Petra, is the notable exception, and she comments that she is the only girl in the Salamander Army, “with more balls” than any of her teammates. The only other female at battle school seems to be Major Anderson, who is relegated to the nurturing role in direct conflict with the authority of Colonel Graff. She continually is focused on Ender’s emotional well-being to the point of resigning her post in protest in the way he is treated, which clears the path for the male authority figures (Admiral Chamrajnagar, Mazar Rackhamand and Colonel Graff) to manipulate Ender into fighting their battle for them.
The other female characters, (the queen of the Formics, Valentine and Ender’s mother) continue this emphasis on females as the nurturers of society. The queen specifically demonstrates her non-violence and emotional connection with Ender with her psychic entreating of him to save her people by giving him the last surviving egg. The emphasis on the queen and the visual depiction of the aliens, with big “puppy dog eyes” provides the implication that the aliens in general are feminine, nurturing and the victims of the “masculine” and vicious attack by the humans on their home planet. Valentine is also a figure of emotional comfort and nurturing. In the scene where she and Ender are sailing and discussing if he should return to battle school, she makes the point that he will regret not trying, ironically implying that she is more concerned with his emotional well-being that the actual future battle. This emphasis on the nurturing role of women makes them secondary in humanity’s goal and mission of violence and destruction in their fight against the Formics.
In order to maintain Ender’s view of himself as an outsider, he is continuously isolated from the other trainees, from his family and from his friends. Colonel Graff sincerely believes that maintaining that distance around Ender is vital to his ability to manipulate him into becoming the “savior” of the human race. He deals with this isolation in various ways, but at every instance where he begins to connect with those around him, his sister, his fellow launchies or Petra, Graff continually moves him to an even more isolated situation. This focus on isolation and Ender’s repeated attempts to overcome the isolation is a comment on the human need for social support and interaction. The pinnacle of isolation for Ender occurs when he is taken to “command school” (which is really the front lines of the battle) and placed in a room by himself before his first day of training. Alone on an alien planet, he is completely isolated from all his fellow humankind. The military uses this type of isolation to mold Ender into the perfect weapon, using his innocence and his belief in the moral humane cause of his people to completely destroy his “enemy”. Ironically, despite the human need for social interaction, isolation is also exactly what the humans are fighting for, the isolation of their home planet from alien invasion and colonization. Graff and the other military leaders are convinced that the Formic are a threat to the stability and isolation, the status quo of human existence, and determined to maintain that at whatever cost necessary.
The concept of the enemy is another important theme throughout this film. The Formics are constantly referred to as the enemy, despite the human’s lack of understanding of their motivations, and in fact their lack of any true knowledge about the Formics. They only have a fifty-year-old invasion and the experience of their great warrior Mazar Rackhamand in defining this alien as “the enemy”. Throughout the film, there are many individuals who become classed as Ender’s enemy: the bullies that attack him in the lab, his brother Peter, and Bonzo. But all of these enemies are seen as merely training for Ender’s battle against the socially sanctioned enemy, the Formic. After Ender destroys the planet, when he and Colonel Graff are arguing about the moral justification for this extermination, Colonel Graff explicitly states, “I am not your enemy”, implying that humanity must come together to fight against their common enemy the Formics. Ender’s response, “I’m not so sure about that anymore” shows how his concept of the enemy has collapsed in his experience of the alien’s passisificity. The earlier scene in which Ender is sailing with Valentine also reflects on his understanding of the “enemy”. He says” “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him..” This conflict between love and hate of the enemy is the center of Ender’s  inner emotional and philosophical conflict, the conflict between being the “savior” of the human race and the murderer of the race of Formics.

What is the implication of the games that the trainees play in preparation for war? Think of the battle room’s controlled environment and the childlike glee that the kids first experience in exploring how the battle room works. Is this another way the authority figures are manipulating the children into becoming tools of destruction?

How does Ender’s “innocence” interact with the military’s manipulation of him, as well as the other trainees? Is innocence really a necessary quality for the leader they are looking for? Why couldn’t a leader such as Peter, with all his viciousness be the one to exterminate the Formics? What about the other leaders that are mentioned to have failed in their final test?

"District Nine" Analysis

The film “District Nine” is full of many interesting themes and social commentary, but the most blatant theme that seems to overwhelm the entire film is that of the human propensity towards apartheid and xenophobia. Aliens have long be used cinematically as a stand in for ethnic and non-white populations (from Avatar to Star Trek), and have been a mechanism for discussing the socialized attitudes toward race that affect humanity. “District Nine” had many scenes that reflect on past social movements with a racial justification for violence and murder.
The first clue that this film would have themes of racial injustice is in the setting, that of Johannesburg South Africa, an area of the world that has dealt with institutionalized racial injustice. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “Between 1960 and 1980 close to four million blacks were forcibly relocated, including several hundred thousand from Johannesburg, to remote, desiccated Bantustans”. The second clue is in the race of the protagonist, Wikus Van De Merwe. He, as well as the other authority figures throughout the film are all white South Africans, while the supporting roles such as the soldiers, Wikus’ trainee and the Nigerians are all subordinates with dark skin. The alien themselves of course do not fit in a human racial profile, but they are derogatorily referred to as “prawns”, due to their appearance and implying they are social “bottom-feeders”
After the humans take it upon themselves to be generous and “save” the aliens by bringing them down to earth from their spacecraft, they are given an area to live in, as well as humanitarian aide. Soon after violence breaks out, caused by jealousy from the humans towards to aliens (because of “their” money being spent of these “outsiders”, among other motivations) and the camp becomes militarized and degrades into a slum. Historically the segregating of races has often ended with the subordinate race being pushed into slum conditions. It is reminiscent of the segregation of Jews in Germany, which ultimately lead to Holocaust conditions and the murder of millions of people.
Another plot point which supported to the comparisons between the Holocaust was the government’s use of the relocation of the aliens as cover to collect and confiscate the alien’s assets, primarily weapons. This is ironic, since the humans do not have the ability to use the weapons, until Wikus is infected. In order to use the new technology, they need the very qualities of alienness that are so socially repugnant to them. As seen by the government scientists torture and testing of Wikus after he is infected, they have a vested and vicious interest in appropriating the alien technology. Within this situation, a conflict seems to arise in the understanding of the aliens as both subordinate beings, but also with access to superior technology. They have the potential for great power, but they don’t seem able to or motivated to cooperate together to use that power against their human oppressors.
The use of population control and abortion teams also screams of references to slavery, apartheid and the Holocaust. There are so many historical comparisons to this control over the subordinate social groups’ procreation. In addition, the mingling of the two groups, sexual relations between human and alien are one of the many accusations leveled against Wikus, as a means of degrading and alienating him from his class, the human leaders. He is characterized as dirty, having demeaned himself be contact with the aliens, this degraded class within the social hierarchy.
In the final scene of the film, the audience sees an alien and are lead to believe he is the fully transformed Wilkus. He becomes the very demeaned and lowly being that he has fought against, even to the point of sacrificing himself to give the aliens the future possibility of being saved from their exile on earth. The film ends with the impression that the alien Christopher Johnson will return some day, while in the mean time, Wilkus waits and hopes to be saved and vindicated.

How does the concept of Wilkus being “cured” fit into the discussion of the alien race as a demeaned social class? (a possible similarity being the untouchables of India) Is this film saying that race can be “cured”?

Even after Wilkus is tortured by the scientists, he still wants to “fix” himself and return to his old life, his status as a member of the superior class, despite the knowledge of the atrocities perpetrated by that class. He distances himself from the aliens, even as he is in the process of becoming one, until the very end of the film, in which he dramatically fights to provide Christopher Johnson the chance to escape. Has he changed his mind about the aliens and is sacrificing himself to provide them with a future means of escape? Or is he still acting in his own self interest, his need to be cured of his new “alien-ness”?

"Independence Day" Analysis

In the film "Independence Day”, there is a distinct commentary on human’s use of their resources. The aliens in the film are scavengers, and their intention on earth is to strip the planet of it’s resources. The character of David, the computer whiz who works for a cable television station in New York City is the character who wants to “save the world”. We see him, bucking the norm and riding his bike to work and reminding his colleagues to recycle. Later in the movie, when he is overwhelmed with the seeming impossibility of stopping the aliens from attacking, he gets drunk and complains that humans should have made a bigger ecological mess of their planet, then there would be no reason for the aliens to scavenge the planet. It’s almost as if he is realizing that the very virtue that he had triumphed had become the planet’s downfall. It is only when his father tells him to get off the cold floor, to avoid becoming ill, that David realizes how he can outsmart the advanced alien technology.

All of this emphasis on the earth as a resource makes one wonder about the implications of humanity as exploiters and scavengers of their own planet. This theme of irresponsible overuse of earth resources has become increasingly popular within science fiction and disaster movies, a kind of plot twist half way through the film, implying that the entire disaster and resulting chaos is the fault of the very people who are trying to deal with its earth-shattering effects. This worry and fear of overusing and irresponsible use of earth resources has become more and more prevalent in popular thought, with worries ranging from adequate sources of drinkable water, to responsible food production, and the destruction of needed resources by human action.

This is distinctly opposite of theme of the earth protecting its inhabitants, as seen in “War of the Worlds” and other science fiction films where the aliens are exterminated, or at least halted in their tracks by a virus. “Independence Day” takes that theme of an earth-virus protecting humanity, and cleverly turns it on it’s head, when David employs a computer virus to disable the alien spacecraft and render them defenseless to the attack of the human aircrafts. This is a very cleaver reimagining of an old concept that speaks to a change in the way people, especially Americans of the 1996 view themselves. They no longer need to rely on a deity to save them from a strange alien threat, because they have developed the ability to create their own virus (in this instance a computer virus, but in other disaster movies biological viruses are created as well). This is a dramatic change in how people view themselves and their relationship with deity, from a very dependent relationship to a much more autonomous and “independent” view of their abilities. They don’t sit around and wait for God to send a virus, they proactively find a way to protect themselves, as seen in the character of David in this film. Even his name could be a reference to the biblical David, who went up against Goliath, an apt parallel to the David of the film going up against the alien horde.

In the end, with much bravado, David, who ironically can’t even drive a car, finds a way to 
“save the world” after all and even gets the girl back in the process. His, and the audience find 
their faith in humanity restored, and an increased responsibility to use the earth’s resources responsibly, because they are a gift that could be taken away, by human action or by alien scavenging.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"ET, the Extra Terrestrial" Analysis

The film, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, communicates particularly meaningful commentary on the concept of authority and social status throughout the film. Various characters, as well as some missing characters, as well as the treatment of ET bring to light reactions to social status and authority as well as how people tend to use or misuse their authority.
At the beginning of the film, the viewer can only hear ET, and it is through the sounds he makes that they understand his sense of panic, his distress as he tries to escape from potential danger. The sounds he makes though sound like a mix between a pig’s grunt and a dog’s bark. Then on meeting Elliott, ET is treated more like a pet than an equal. Elliott even makes the comment, “I found him, he belongs to me!”, asserting his ownership of his new friend. Throughout the film, ET is referred to as a goblin, a bald monkey, and and a pig. Another instance demonstrating ET’s status is when he is dressed up by Gertie. When Elliott’s older brother Michael finds him, he comments, “Let him have his dignity!” ET is repeatedly demeaned and belittled, even by the children who become his friends. Even the scenes showing the searchers looking for him are reminiscent of a slave-catcher searching for a slave, digging through the underbrush for tracks.
Another interesting absence of authority is that of Elliott’s father. This lack of authority figure has a dramatic impact on the plot of the story as well as the character development. One of the driving forces in Elliott’s ability to keep ET hidden is his mother’s relative neglect. She does enforce some rules and standards within her home, exerting some authority, but as a result of her husband leaving her and traveling to Hawaii, she seems overwhelmed by her responsibilities as a caregiver and breadwinner. It seems relatively easy for Elliott and Michael to get around and outsmart her. She, as well, as all the majority the adult figure in the film, seem oblivious to the drama unfolding, literally under her nose. Spielberg's use of this universal feeling of alienation from parental figures makes Elliott and his siblings very relatable characters.
The main authority figure present throughout the film is the shadowy government agents and scientists who are searching for ET. For most of the film, they are unsuccessful as Elliott and ET seem to continually outsmart them and his mother. Elliott also makes mockery of his teacher’s authority in the scene where he releases the frogs from death and mutilation by dissection.
If an authority figure, such as a father had been present in the family, the situation would have unfolded very differently and Elliott’s response to ET would have been different as well. Elliott is the quintessential child of divorce, dealing with his parent’s situation and feeling isolated, until ET appears and fills to emptiness that his father’s absence produced. This film is the story of an imaginary friend who has come to life to fill a void in a child’s life.
After ET is discovered and captured, a pseudo-father figure does appear, in the form of the “Keys” a government agent who bonds with Elliott in his weakened condition, by saying “Elliott, he came to me too. I've been wishing for this since I was 10 years old, I don't want him to die.” Keys is a strange character, as the viewer is not given any real background information on his intentions, but he is randomly inserted as a benevolent authority/father figure within the seemingly malevolent group of scientists and government agents. When he appears in the first half of the film, it is always in shadows, not even showing his face and making him appear to be a shady character who is after ET for some nefarious purpose. Even Elliott does not seem to trust him, hiding ET’s resurrection from him. In the end, he joins the family as ET returns to his “family”, seeming to support his escape, despite his intense tracking of the alien earlier in the film.

Questions- How would Elliott’s adventure with ET be different if his father had been present?
What is the role of the government agent “Keys”? Is he an antagonist? An ally?
What does the portrayal of suburbia in this film communicate? Is it positive and uplifting? Or dark and full of unhappy people?

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"Close Encounters of a Third Kind" Analysis

One interesting aspect of the film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is the use of music as both within the plot and in the construction of the film. Throughout the film, both the aliens and the humans use music as a communication method. There is one scene showing the a group of Indian people humming and singing the same five notes over and over again, as communicated to them by the extraterrestrials. There is another scene, in which an elderly man tells the researchers through an interpreter, “He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him”, meaning the aliens had communicated with him through music. The hand signals that Claude Lacombe and aliens both use is a method used by music teachers to teach the sofege scale in the Kodaly curriculum, which is very commonly used in modern education. The notes that the scientists use to attract the alien’s attention are G, A, F, F (an octave lower), and C. This use of music in this way influences the audience of the film to feel that the aliens are more human and less threatening. Even the choice of using a tuba as the voice of the mother-ship in the climactic scene, gives the aliens a much less threatening and frightening feeling than a more harsh instrument voicing, such as a mechanical electric guitar or shrieking string instrument.
In conjunction with the use of music within the plot, the scoring of this film is different than most. Most films are edited and then the score is produced to match that edited film. In this film’s case, the score was written first by John Williams and then the film was edited by Steven Spielberg to match the music. This makes the music much more of a driving force in the pacing of the film, and gives it a more lyrical feeling. Throughout the film, the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star” is incorporated into John William’s score, being played by toys, and when Roy is about to board the mothership. This familiar tune once again, gives the aliens a very magical, and benevolent feeling, at least partially because of it’s association with the Disney Corporation and the many good feelings that many Americans associate with it’s films, parks and merchandise.

Throughout “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, music is important both within the plot and in the construction of the film, effecting the viewer’s comfort level with the aliens, as well as the pacing of the film.