Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Global History, Intergalactic War

with 4 comments

by apini

Following weiner’s suggestion, I went to see X-Men: First Class this weekend and really enjoyed it (particularly the parts filmed in Oxford!).  During the previews, we saw one for the Green Lantern movie.  This movie, which I haven’t seen because it hasn’t come out yet over here (not sure if it already has in the states) has a familiar premise: some alien force is going around the universe/galaxy wiping out civilizations and/or taking over planets.  Like Independence Day  (awesome film), War of the Worlds, and dozens of others, the assumption seems to be that humanity will band together as a global community to defeat the invading force.

Now, call me a cynic, but it’s just not going to happen like that.

In Independence Day, nations put aside their differences to fight the alien menace together.  In the previews for Green Lantern, it looks like once again, humanity pulls together – this time with help from other extraterrestrial forces – working to save humanity.  Now it’s probably unfair to judge a movie I haven’t seen yet, but given Independence Day, the way that Earth kind of acted as one country in a UN style Star Trek Federation (yikes, I made a Star Trek reference….) and a conversation I had recently with another historian, it seems that the consensus of film makers and movie goers alike is that the population of earth will put aside past differences and work together to defeat our intergalactic enemies.

More likely, as I pointed out to my historian friend, would be a pattern seen throughout the global history of colonial conquest: collaborators, resisters, beneficiaries, and victims.  Although both Independence Day and (from what I’ve pieced together from the trailer) the Green Lantern do have token ‘collaborators’ (the people holding ‘welcome’ signs on their roofs in ID; the alien ‘host’ in GL), these collaborators are either quickly proven to be naive and dispatched, or are completely taken over by the alien life form, and are therefore acting outside their own free will.

But this is an unrealistic and worrying narrative, as it promotes the idea that people are responsible for their own colonization by virtue of their naivety, lack of resistance to disease, and the inevitabilityof superior technology.  So in opposition to the message the movie thinks it’s sending (that through our combined resistance, we can stave off the Columbian annihilation awaiting us all when the aliens come), the actual message that this sends is that historically people have been colonized because they didn’t try hard enough to defeat the colonizers.    Or because they were culturally or evolutionarily less advanced than their opposition.  In other words, the ‘extinction of the native races’ thesis, reworked for cinema pleasure.  There was a lot of comment about this in historians’ and postcolonialialists’ reactions to Avatar last year.  This has been noted with regard to movies like Dances With Wolves, Last Samurai (or ‘Dances with Wolves in Japan’), and numerous kids movies, like Fern Gully and other specifically historical films in which the environment, the indigenous people, and ‘tradition’ are all under unstoppable threat from the West.  But I think it is equally at play in the first contact message of many of these other scifi/comic book films.

However, there’s another way to view this genre.  These filmic ‘independence’ moments usually revolve around the idea of a small, clever resistance force overcoming the overlarge alien entity by turning some piece of its own technology, knowledge, or language against it. In a more prolonged film, they might even think to use the aliens’ own purported liberal values against it.  A google image search for ‘Independence Day’ has these images on the first page:

Rather than viewing these films as representing first contact and ‘primary resistance’ to colonial rule, these movies could also be seen as metaphors for the overthrow of pre-existing colonial rule: ‘secondary resistance’. By conflating the two historical moments – first contact and primary resistance; secondary resistance and colonial overthrow – film makers fall into what African and imperial/post-colonial historians have identified as a classic trope in nationalist historiography in seeking a teleological trajectory of continuing, ongoing mass resistance to colonial rule.

In this case, the metaphor of resistance fighters banding together, despite deep ideological differences, is apt.  Nationalist independence movements could probably see their global counterpart.  Which means my historian friend could be right about half of it.  But if we’ve learned anything from 200-odd years of US independence, or 60-odd years of Indian independence, or any of the other postcolonial experiences of nationhood, we just shouldn’t expect ideological unity to last too long after that global independence day – except maybe in the writing of a ‘globalist’ resistance history by the global leaders who emerge from the struggle.


Written by apini

June 16, 2011 at 04:14

4 Responses

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  1. “…collaborators, resisters, beneficiaries, and victims” made me think of “V” (not that I’ve watched it in any of its incarnations, but I know it has aliens with more guile than “Independence Day”).
    For some reason, I had an expectation that you would talk about “back bite”, or “the colonizers (eventually) get colonized (in some sense)”. The Romans take Judea as a protectorate (I forget what they were getting out of this, other than taxes…), but soon ruthlessly crush the Jews; then a few centuries later, a heretical Jewish sect (as it were) conquers Rome (destroying its religion). America grabs lots of Mexican territory, and a century and a half later…. I’m sure we could fill in many examples.
    If the invading aliens were Star-Trek-like (humanoid), I can imagine that after they won, they would eventually find themselves hopelessly dependent on, oh, Bordeaux wine, classical music, and other things that we make that they couldn’t…and these dependencies would reshape the alien society. But if they were truly alien (like those in I.D.), this would have no human-history precedent. Those aliens couldn’t drink wine, would hear (if at all) in a different range of the spectrum, etc. and so might be immune to any “back bite”.

    Richard Everill

    June 17, 2011 at 17:55

  2. Okay, way off with the Bordeaux and classical music. 🙂 Let me try again, for something more likely, thinking of the historical examples. Ben-Hur suggests sports gambling (reminding me of Star Wars as well), and (shudder) religion (the aliens are “born again”?). And Mexico?…spice, as in food, and also psychotropic “spice”. That all (religion, “spice”…even worm-riding?) takes us to “Dune”! And of course, in “Dune”, the colony destroys the empire, so…perfect.

    And one more for Mexico: if the aliens were truly alien, maybe our only (tiny) back-bite would be that they’d think we were really cute…like, uh, Chihuahuas.

    Richard Everill

    June 17, 2011 at 18:53

  3. In his more utopian and delusional moments, Ronald Reagan often invoked the specter of alien invasion as exemplifying the possibility of global cooperation instead of national competition. He even once mentioned this in talks with Gorbachev, who obviously thought it strange at best. In case you needed more evidence that Reagan saw the world through lenses crafted in Hollywood.

    Andrew Hartman

    June 18, 2011 at 21:16

  4. Although I haven’t watched it yet, I hear that the recent Battlestar Galactica series actually treats the question of collaboration with and resistance to the alien menace in a fairly sophisticated manner. I’ll let you know once I get around to finally seeing it!


    June 21, 2011 at 09:17

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