The World of the Dystopian Film
What Inside of Me Is More than Myself
- The Thing from Another World by Christian Nyby, 1951
- The Thing by John Carpenter, 1982
Confirming once again that reality can be more horrific than the most horrible horror movie, in London in 2005 an abominable creature was discovered that devours the tongue of a fish and replaces it by its own body. The parasite known as cymothoa exigua was discovered on the tongue of a fish originating from the tropical belt of the American coast. The creature first enters the body through the gills, and then attaches itself by its teeth to the tongue of the fish and feeds on the blood from the artery at first. After a while, less and less blood comes into the fish’s tongue and it eventually disappears, and when the parasite gets big enough (in the case of the London fish it was already 3.5 centimeters big), it completely replaces the tongue and so manipulates the food that enters the fish. The fascinating thing in this bizarre “forced symbiosis” is the fact that the fish can use this parasite as its own, normal tongue. It seems like the parasite is not harming the fish in any way, that it might not even be aware that it has lost its tongue and that it was replaced by the parasite. So far, cymothoa exigua is the only known parasite that can fully replace an organ of some organism and function instead of it. Although the scientists console the public that this parasite represents no threat to humankind, it is difficult not to envision some dystopian future in which this apparently “benign parasite” will also attack people (perhaps thorough its evolution, or its reproduction; probably due to the global warming causing the appearance of some new species).
This parasitic way of life, which through imitation eliminates organs from an organism and replaces it with an identical copy of an organ that even “the host” himself is not aware of was already anticipated in the old Hollywood classic The Thing from Another World from 1951. A scientific crew led by Doctor Carrington, located in a far-a-way basis on the North Pole, notices an unidentified object that fell down in close vicinity. In order to determine the nature of the incident, they call the army for help, under the command of Captain Patrick Hendry, and among them there is also a journalist named Scotty. It turns out the unidentified flying object indeed is of alien origin and that it has a form of a perfect circle, but when the army tries to thaw the ice that caught the spaceship by using some explosives, it gets destroyed. However, they do discover a frozen body close by using the Geiger detector and then bring it to the base in a big ice-cube. A conflict (first verbal, and then an armed one) ensues there between the army and the scientists, since they cannot come to an agreement as to what to do with this newly discovered body. While guarding the ice-cube containing the body, one soldier, torn by a bad feeling and upset by an awful sight, puts on it an (electric) blanket, and without him knowing it, it starts to melt down and the body gets free. After that, we follow a whole series, first unsuccessful and finally successful attempts to stop the Thing…
As it is obvious, the beginning of The Thing from Another World reminds us a lot of another classic dealing with a similar topic – The Day the Earth Stood Still, which, incidentally or not, was also made in 1951. In both movies the main topic is an alien coming to the Earth, but each movie has its own specific attitude toward it. Besides the fact that the alien in the first movie is bad and in the other one good, it can be best seen in the relationship between the army and the science. While in The Thing from Another World, in spite of the scientist who is trying to save the Thing at all costs, the army has the right to destroy the alien since it, being excessively violent, actually represents a threat to the survival of the Planet, in The Day the Earth Stood Still science is in the right, since the alien there indeed is a creature of higher intelligence, even “a pacifist”. Furthermore, these two films also differ in their understanding of the distinction between human and non-human. In The Day the Earth Stood Still the non-human still represents some value, whereas in The Thing from Another World the non-human is simply something worthless, endangering our very survival, and so worthy only of destruction.
However, this relationship is not that unequivocal (or “symmetric”) as it might seem at first sight. We must not forget that in The Thing from Another World there is an interest on the part of science to investigate the unknown and uninvestigated alien creature, although this interest is entirely of a different nature than the scientific interest in the alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still. It is best illustrated in the scene when the Thing runs away from the base and comes into a direct confrontation whit the dogs in the open. One of them chops off its arm, and later on it ends up on Doctor Carrington’s autopsy table. After a short investigation, he soon realizes that the alien is actually a plant, and so concludes that its reproductive system is asexual: “The neat and unconfused reproductive technique of vegetation. No pain or pleasure as we know it. No emotions. No heart. Our superior. Our superior in every way. Gentlemen, do you realize what we’ve found? A being from another world as different from us as one pole from the other. If we can only communicate with it, we can learn secrets that have been hidden from mankind since the beginning.”
So, we see that to a scientist, Carrington, the alien is “ideal” with regard to the system of techno-scientific rationalism. Just as Georg Lukács in his renowned chapter on “The Reification and Consciousness of the Proletariat” in his book History and Class Consciousness+ claimed that in the production process within the capitalistic system the personal qualities of the individual worker were of no importance, but exclusively the quantity (efficacy) of his work, so it is not particularly important to the techno-scientific rationalism whether the object of investigation (in this case: the Thing) has good or bad qualities (whether it is violent or not), but the quantity of knowledge (all the “secrets” that the Thing can reveal to us). Carrington is fascinated with the Thing exactly because it lacks all the individual traits. The alien is simply a replica of itself, and its way of reproducing itself is not only more efficient (“harmonious and balanced”), but it clearly points to the standardization of the mass production that was actually born together with Fordism, and then got its full momentum exactly at the time the original novel was written on the basis of which The Thing from Another World was filmed.
As we have just shown, we come here to the turning point within the standard interpretation according to which “the alien invasion” represents an obvious metaphor for “the invasion of the Reds”. What if, on the contrary, he Thing is actually a subtle metaphor for capitalism itself? Let us remind ourselves that Marx himself, as one of the main characteristics of capital, emphasized its unlimited (asexual, that is completely rational) self-reproduction, self-circulation of Capital with the only purpose of perpetuating itself. Also, the Thing, in spite of its terrible appearance, is a perfectly rational machine whose only purpose is a violent self-perpetuating self-reproduction. An equally significant fact about the Thing is that it needs human blood for further reproduction – Marx often evoked the image of capitalism as a vampire sucking out the blood of the workers; as he says in the first part of The Capital: “Capitalism is dead labor that like a vampire lives on sucking out live labour, and the more it sucks out, the more it lives.”
A component part of this (capitalistic) power of sucking out life – that is the place where it is plainly seen – is exactly the imitation which is also characteristic of the Thing itself. Just as the Thing, by means of imitation, can multiply endlessly, so can capitalism imitate/use even some of its biggest opposites/threats. The peak moment of capitalistic power is the moment when the biggest subversions can be incorporated into its operational system. The best example is given in the documentary by Adam Curtis The Century of the Self (2002). As a founder of PR (public relations), and also a relative of Sigmund Freud, Edward Bernays was hired by the American tobacco industry to spread its market onto the female population, which was then mainly non-smoking. Freud’s relative, knowing perfectly the principles of mass psychology and media, gathered up a group of young (beautiful) women and sent them off to a then very popular street parade in New York City, and he also notified the reporters that a group of “feminist women” would light up “a torch of freedom”. On his sign, all the women lit up Lucky Strike in front of a bunch of reporters, the news went around the world and the cigarette market doubled up. Therefore, what is even today regarded as a feminist act of avant la lettre, is actually nothing but the great PR. What we perceive from the perspective of a historical distance – a shift that apparently makes possible an “objective” approach – as “emancipation” is nothing but a supreme simulation of capitalism, just another step toward accruing more Capital. Apart from this kind of “imitation” of emancipation, that is a direct arousal of the Thing itself (the feminist movement) out of the very core of capitalism, there is another kind of imitation, something that might be called a by-product. This is, for example, what happened after 1968. Although this still unprecedented event in the history of the 20th century took place exactly to stamp out capitalism, the result of 1968, apart from the factual improvements in the areas of (labour, student, sexual) liberation, is the appearance of “life-styles”: revolution is today just another product on the assembly line.
So, we see that The Thing from Another World doesn’t have to be the object of boring and predicable interpretations according to which the Thing is actually communism (the inhuman), and “we” (capitalism) are what still is human as opposed to that. In this context, it is important to emphasize that, generally speaking, most of the SF movies about “alien invasion” did not originate from the Cold War period, but from the SF literature written in the 1930s and 1940s, and so in this sense these movies represent a new/additional meaning of “the invasion”, that is nowadays mostly associated with the Communists and Soviets as the biggest threat to a normal life, although, originally, in the novels that served as the basis for the movies, this was not the case. The same is true of The Thing from Another World, a movie that was made on the basis of the literary work by John W. Campbell entitled Who Goes There? Namely, the original story appeared in 1938, and so much earlier than the beginning of the Cold War. When we compare the first motion picture adaptation, the one done by Nyby, and the second one done by Carpenter, then we see that the second one is much closer to the original idea and the primary meaning of the Thing. Unlike the monster from the first black and white movie, Campbell’s Thing is much more similar to Carpenter’s, a well as to the London parasite that perfectly imitates the tongue of a fish.
Apart from this possible socio-critical nuance of the Thing, John Carpenter brings us back to a much deeper, almost “metaphysical” significance of the Thing. Although the beginning of Carpenter’s movie imitates exactly the original movie by Christian Nyby (the title “The Thing” which slowly fades into flames, and later on we come across an almost identical ice-cube as a hommage to the first movie), everything else is much different. The action is not located at the North Pole, but at the South Pole, and what differs Carpenter’s movie the most from its earlier version is the Thing itself. This is how the movie starts: while flying above the wide spaces of the South Pole, two men in a helicopter are following a dog running in front of them. The dog knows somebody is following it and gives the peaceful appearance (it is even playful), as if it didn’t care and as if it was completely safe. All of a sudden, one of the men starts shooting at it, but fails to hit it in spite of the repeated shots. The dog finally manages to enter an American exploration base operated by about ten men who are totally flabbergasted by the scene they are witnessing: the helicopter lands, out of it comes the man with the gun shooting aimlessly in front of himself and so wounding one of the team members while trying to shoot the dog. They eventually manage to stop him by killing him, and the helicopter explodes. The dog is saved. However, as any horror fan might have guessed, the dog itself is – the Thing. It turns out that the two men are members of the team from a Norwegian base, which found the spaceship and the Thing, and that they, being aware the Thing might destroy all life on Earth, started this unsuccessful chase after the dog into which the Thing turned itself. When the American team realizes that, it is already too late. The Thing is among them already. But, in distinction to the first, Nyby’s movie, the Thing is not so easily recognizable; it can take any form. And that is what makes it so horrible.
The thing is again an asexual entity reproducing itself (it is interesting to notice that there is not one female character in the entire movie!), and its self-reproduction has no other purpose but mere survival. The interesting thing is that we don’t see the Thing throughout the movie, namely its “pure” form, since it – in order to survive – simply imitates/copies things around itself. And this is exactly were Carpenter is true to the original – not to the first movie, but to Campbell’s story. The Thing can be anything at all. Moreover, in the novel it is even more radicalised when one of the team members, Blair, realizes something that no other character could realize both in the first and in the second movie: “I wonder if we ever saw its natural form. It may have been imitating the beings that built that ship – but I don’t think it was. I think that was its true form. Those of us who were up near the bend saw the thing in action; the thing on the table is the result. When it got loose, apparently, it started looking around. Antarctica still frozen as it was ages ago when the creatures first saw it – and froze.”
Although in this statement there is an inherent contradiction (if the Thing really was able to imitate the Antarctica, and so froze, then it is equally plausible that it imitated the entities who had built the space ship, which means it is not really an alien, but something transcending “the alien”), it points to the key characteristic of the Thing: it is eternal. Or as it is put by another member of the team from the literary version: “Nothing would kill it. It has no natural enemies, because it becomes whatever it wants to. If a killer whale attacked, it would become a killer whale. If it was an albatross, and an eagle attacked it, it would become an eagle. Lord, it might become a female eagle. Go back – build a nest and lay eggs!” In this sense, the Thing is a dystopian version of Zelig, a fictional character from the Woody Allen movie bearing the same title. Leonard Zelig is a perfect human chameleon, who has the ability to assume the personality of any person in his vicinity. At an exclusive gangster party he assumes the identity of a gangster; after that, he turns into one of the black musicians playing there. When he is interviewed by the psychiatrists in a hospital, he turns into one of them. Zelig is, therefore, the Thing, only in a “human” shape – he is not the Thing thirsting for human blood, but a Thing in need of acceptance. But the thing that necessarily connects them is the need to survive. Their imitation is the means to perpetuate oneself.
Although Allen’s film was made in 1983 and was presented as a (fake) “documentary” about Leonard Zelig, some Italian psychologists in February in 2007 (as it can be read in the article published in the journal Neurocase from February the 13th, 2007) discovered a real Zelig, the anonymous A.D., a 65-year-old whose identity is determined by the surroundings he finds himself in. This real Zelig has become the Thing (even the real Thing, since he hasn’t got his own identity) due to a heart attack that caused the damage in the frontal and temporal parts of the brain: those parts of the brain lost their blood supply so the cells in them died, and that led to an anterograde (regressive) amnesia, that is the inability to transfer information from the short-term into the long-term memory. In the same way as Zelig, when he was surrounded by doctors, A.D. would take the role of a doctor; when he was around psychologists, he would present himself as a psychologist; and when he was with layers, he would become a lawyer. What is interesting about that is that A.D. would not just claim to be a doctor, psychologist or lawyer – he would really play these roles (successfully). In order to investigate this unusual case, Giovannina Conchiglia and her colleges (after whom, by the way, in one of the episodes from the forth season of the TV show Doctor House – Mirror, Mirror – this illness was named “Giovannina’s syndrome”, although the scientist herself appropriately called it “Zelig’s syndrome”) hired actors and thought out various scenarios. For example: in a café bar an actor orders a cocktail from A.D., which immediately makes him to take up the role of a barman, claiming he is on a two-week trial and hoping to get a permanent job. When brought into a hospital kitchen, A.D. soon adopted the job of the chef, claiming that he must make special dishes for the patients with diabetes. So, he plays a role as long as the situation doesn’t change.
There are two things that this Italian case confirms. The first one is that the social roles really depend to a large extent on “the consensus”, on filling out “an empty spot” in the social structure. We have been shown this by Frank Abagnale Jr. in his story, on the basis of which the movie Catch Me if You Can (Steven Spielberg in 2002) was made. Namely, he behaved almost exactly as the anonymous 65-year-old A.D. while he was still in high school, only he had no brain damage, so he did it consciously: after running away from New York with only 25 dollars in his pocket, Abagnale was a pilot, doctor and lawyer (so, almost the same professions A.D. was “dealing with”), and was not disclosed even by his closest associates and other experts. About the “signified” characteristic of the social roles plainly speaks the fact that Abagnale managed to do his stunts due to the uniforms: he was aware that if one wears a pilot’s uniform or doctor’s overcoat, nobody (at lest not then, in the 1960s) wouldn’t suspect the fact that one might not be a real pilot or doctor. (This was best illustrated by a “background” detail, a cut-off scene left out from the Spielberg movie; namely, Frank Abagnale was dressed as a guard who stood in front of the night deposit box of a bank so that people would give money to him instead of putting it into the deposit box. During the shooting of the movie, in spite of the film cameras all around the place, people were coming to Leonardo DiCaprio, not knowing it was him, and were trying to give him money behaving exactly according to the pattern used in Abagnale’s deception).
The second thing that the Italian Zelig proves is that imitation, mimesis, is the necessary means of survival; furthermore, it is even an undying urge with a large number of people. Frank Abagnale in one of the scenes says: “Two little mice fell in a bucket of cream. The first mouse quickly gave up and drowned. The second mouse wouldn’t quit. He struggled so hard that eventually he churned that cream into butter and crawled out. Gentlemen, as of this moment, I am that second mouse.” In his inspiring book Camouflage Neil Leach even claims that the very imitation/camouflage represents some sort of a wish to belong; moreover, there is something of Leonard Zelig in each and every one of us: “The compulsion to conform underpins all human behaviour. We human beings are governed by trends. We follow fashion in our clothing, our hairstyles, and even in our mannerisms and personal behaviour; we subscribe to dominant ideologies of taste in all aspects of our lifestyle. For to follow fashion – although supposedly an act of individual expression – might be in fact an act of collective behaviour. We are often content to erase almost all of our individuality through subscribing to cultures of conformity, most especially in religious communities, military groupings, sports teams, and corporate identities. Leonard Zelig – the prefect human chameleon – is not unique. The Zelig syndrome is a common phenomenon. We human beings are largely conformist creatures driven by a chameleon like urge to adapt to the behaviour of those around us.”
And this brings us directly to Carpenter’s Thing. Although it is clear in the movie that the Thing is not a nice and lovely creature that only wishes to be loved and accepted, and so camouflages itself and imitates everything, it is useful to remind ourselves of the original Campbell’s story. While both motion picture versions express overtly negative attitude toward the Thing, in the original (literary) version there are two interesting chapters. First, a scientist poses an intriguing question: “And just because it looks unlike men, you don’t have to accuse it of being evil, or vicious or something. Maybe that expression on its face is its equivalent to a resignation to fate. White is the colour of mourning to the Chinese. If men can have different customs, why can’t a so-different race have different understandings of facial expressions?” And Blair gives an equally interesting – something that looks overtly “multicultural” – interpretation of the Thing: “That is just a different development of Nature, another example of Nature’s wonderful adaptability. Growing on another, perhaps harsher world, it has different form and features. But it is just as much a legitimate child of Nature as you are. You are displaying the childish human weakness of hating the different.” Finally Blair reaches the key conclusion: “Just because its nature is different you haven’t any right to say it’s necessarily evil.”
And here, eventually, we reach a real dead-end. Although the Thing is a real example of an organic excess of the organic, and although it is the best example of the still mysterious Lacan’s myth on the lamella, that undead and indestructible, monstrous Thing, a bizarre organ “of a life that needs no organ”, Campbell’s/Carpenter’s Thing is not necessarily evil (it just wants to live like the rest of us). And if we think it through a little – it is exactly that which frightens us so much. Isn’t the London parasite, which eats a tongue and pretends like some cruel version of Zelig to be that very tongue, a perfect example of “a life that needs no organ”, an organ without a body or a body without an organ (whichever way we put it, cymothoa exigua is both, simultaneously)? In other words, how can a fish know whether its tongue is a parasite or simply a tongue? And to bring this matter to its most radical point: Why is that of any importance at all? Namely, as the scientists are trying to convince us, there aren’t any long-term consequences for the fish due to the lack of the “real” tongue, the parasite functions perfectly well as a replacement – it actually is not a replacement, it is the real tongue.
This brings us to the seminal question about the Thing, which again is more explicitly expressed in the original story, and less so in the movie: if something is a perfect imitation of something else, how can we know it is an imitation? Namely, when the Thing once enters somebody, even the people in whom it presently resides may not know that the Thing is inside of them. It is the ultimate paradox: the Thing, through some bizarre process of tautology, becomes the entity that I am, and so I cannot know any longer whether I am a perfect imitation o myself or I am the “real” Me. The Thing, a an idea, and as a creation (the one made by Carpenter, since the first movie indeed fails in this respect), makes one step further than The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which it is more than obvious when an alien occupies someone’s body. The Thing is more like this indestructible substance of life, this paradoxical organ called lamella, something in me that is more than myself.
And finally, let us remind ourselves how Jacques Lacan in his Four Fundamental Notions of Psychoanalysis describes a lamella: “A lamella is something entirely flat, moving like an ameba. It is only a bit more complicated. But, it moves through everything. And since it is something – I will tell you right away – that has to do with what a sexual being loses with sexuality, it is, as an amoeba is in relation to a sexual being, immortal. Because it outlives every division, because it survives every fragmentation. Just imagine what would happen if that covered your face while you are asleep…You would have to fight with such an entity. But this would not be a comfortable battle. This lamella, this organ, whose characteristic is that it is non-existent, but which is no less an organ because of it – I could expound more about its zoological position – it is libido. It is libido as a pure urge to be alive, that is to be immortal, to be indestructible, to be alive without needing an organ, to be alive in a simplified and indestructible way.” We can see that this description perfectly fits to that which the Thing is. Interpreted in this way, the Thing in its desire to be assimilated and to camouflage itself, just as Zelig did it in a more innocent way, actually represents the pure urge to live, or as Lacan would put it: “to be indestructible”. And that is what makes it so frightening.
My Husband Is Not My Husband
- The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Don Siegel, 1956
- The Invasion by Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2007
By paraphrasing the renowned Adorno’s statement, “who does not want to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism”, we could say that the one who does not want to talk about the first adaptation of the novel The Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney should also remain silent about the newest film adaptation of the same story. Namely, exactly by comparing these two stories we can easily detect not only which one of them is of better quality, but also that we should remain silent about politics if we intend to remain silent about love.
So, the story of the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956) seems to be banal first sight: in a small Californian town Doctor Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) suddenly starts receiving patients complaining that they can’t recognize their fellow men – moreover, they seem to be intruders. Bennell’s former girlfriend Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) has similar experiences and so is asking help for her relative. Although the town psychiatrist is trying to convince them it is nothing but “an epidemiological mass hysteria”, Bennell and his companion soon discover that the citizens have really changed, or that they do have some intruders residing inside them who have actually killed off their souls and possessed their bodies.
It turns out they were possessed by aliens, the so called Pod People who are identical to normal people, and are different from them only in one trait – in a similar way as the humanoid robots in Blade Runner by Philip K. Dick seem to lack the ability to empathize with people, so these aliens lack any ability to express themselves emotionally. The aliens are actually working on possessing all people. The only way for people to resist that is not to fall asleep, since the aliens can completely steal the body only in the state of sleep. That is the reason why the main characters are constantly trying, apart from permanently doubting that this or that fellow citizen might be an alien, not to fall asleep. The climax of the movie happens when Becky, while hiding away from the aliens, at one point falls asleep. Bennell notices that and being beside himself starts running toward a motor way screaming at the passing cars that the town was taken over by the aliens, and then in one scene – which can also be regarded as one of the first climbing of the fourth wall, a practice that in the modern film-making was perfected by, say, Woody Allen – he is yelling at the recording camera: “They are already here! You are next!”
What distinguishes The Invasion of the Body Snatchers from most of the SF movies made up to the 1950s is one small, but important detail. While in all other movies aliens were mostly depicted as mutants, giants or monsters, in this movie they look just like us. The first, and today prevailing interpretation of the movie says that The Invasion actually represents the paranoia that got developed during the notorious McCarthy era. Just as our fellow men and neighbours got possessed by an alien in the movie, so did thousands of Americans turn communists during the 1940s and 1950s. As we know, a whole bunch of ordinary and prominent people (including half the Hollywood people) were under suspicion of having thoughts and attitudes that are parallel to the communist legacy and so – just as the aliens are trying to do it in the movie – want to replace the decent American citizens who believe in liberal democracy with new people who will believe in the communist ideals. However, this very interpretation doesn’t give us the explanation why we feel uncomfortable with the idea that our fellow men and neighbours got possessed by aliens or communism for that matter.
As the background that perhaps serves us best here to explain the overriding fear and paranoia present in both the fictional Hollywood product such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the factual historical period of the McCarthy era, we might turn to a very influential Freud’s study entitled Das Unheimliche (1919). It is about the concept of Doppelgänger. Freud in this work, which was directly inspired by the study of Otto Rank’s entitled Der Doppelgänger (1914.), at first sight and quite unexpectedly seems to be claiming that “the uncomfortable” (Das Unheimliche) is not an emotional reaction to what is unknown to us (which would be the literary translation of the adjective unheimlich, derived from the noun Heim, meaning “the house”, and so heimlich designates something known, comfortable), but quite the opposite – that the Uncomfortable always turns us back to something known to us, to something already familiar to us from before.
Namely, Freud is contending that the linguistic difference heimlich/unheimlich gives us the impression that principally the Uncomfortable has something to do with what is unknown to us, and then, in order to prove the thesis that it is actually something connected with the known, he is referring to Schelling who under unheimlich subsumed everything that possesses some secret. And this is where Doppelgänger, or the double, comes into play. Unlike the previous belief according to which the double is a guarantee that Ego will not disappear (since this Other One will survive), Freud is contending that_Doppelgänger_is in fact the suppressed part of the Ego. Therefore, to meet one’s double is frightening: on the one hand, because we might end up disappointed, and on the other hand, because he, that is we ourselves, might get in our way.Doppelgänger_is therefore a figure of _the loss. In other words, the figure of death. Even Otto Rank himself emphasized that: “Originally understood as a guardian angel, securing the eternal existence of selfhood, the double actually figures as the very opposite, as the reminder of the mortality of the individual, that is as the harbinger of death itself.”
The very concept of the double was the topic of numerous literary works, from Dostoevsky and Poe to Kafka and Calvin, whereas in the film-making art it is present in the works such as The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920), The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) or in the recent Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999). One of the best literary examples is definitely Dorian Gray by Oscar Wild, in which the main character is the same man, actually the same man all the time, since he is not getting any older, but he has no soul, just as the citizens from the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
And this, of course, brings to Jung. In distinction to Freud and the dominant discourse that perceives the double as something eerie, Jung recognizes the dark side of the excessively rational Western civilization in the double. Although, of course, this implies his controversial theory of archetypes, in which the so called “the dark double” (dunkle Doppelgänger) is introduced as a term for the shadow that should be attributed to the sphere of the Ego and that represents the suppressed, that is the unconscious, such a Doppelgänger is actually subversive, and it is so, as Jung is saying – while interpreting that using dreams in which the unconscious side of our personality often follows the hero of our dreams (that is ourselves) like a shadow – because it is the suppressed part of our personality that must be reintegrated into that very personality. In this sense, Doppelgänger, no matter how unheimlich it is, can actually represent – as it clearly comes across in all the doubled characters in contemporary literature and film – the element which undermines the image of a stable ego, that is of a stable personality as a pillar of the capitalistic system. Jung himself did not define the double either as good or bad, but merely as “a replica of somebody’s unknown personality”. The double, in this sense, is a personification of desire, the desire that actually tends to compensate for the loss (Jung is here close to Freud, even to Lacan) which results from the shackles of culture. The double from contemporary literature and film is therefore the hero who transgresses the defined limitations, somebody or something (if we bring to mind the characters such as Frankenstein or Kafka’s bug) who deconstructs the very limitations of the human.
Jung’s theory of the double brings us directly to The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Isn’t it, if the phrase “a replica of somebody’s unknown personality” is taken seriously, a perfect illustration of what happens when love ends? Let’s take a relationship that for some time is functioning perfectly: a young man immensely loves a girl, and she immensely loves him back. However, at one point (there is always this need to “rewind the tape” and spot THAT moment when everything went wrong) the young man simply cannot recognize his girlfriend any more. She remains the same “on the outside” (her body is the same, and her habits and her gestures too), but something “on the inside” is wrong: as if somebody else has entered her body. So, the young man can rightfully ask: “You have loved me so far, but how come everything is different now?”
But, while there is the right answer to that question in the movie (the aliens simply entered her, Becky, and so she really isn’t herself any more), in Love it is different. The girl would probably answer: “It is not all different now; things have been changing all the time.” In other words, “you cannot find THAT moment in which everything went wrong”, for the moments and reasons (for the break-up) were simply piling up, and so some kind of hypertrophy came out of it as a result. The first and most common reaction to that argument is “the common sense counterargument”: “So, you have never really loved me.” And in this sense, the young man (or the girl, whichever way you want it) really sees Another in the other – an alien or a “dark double”: it is not the same person any more, the person he could share all his secrets with, the person who would perceive each and every childish gesture of his as sweet and funny, etc. Simply put, it is just a person like any other person: the person from whom we hide what we think, the person we treat in a “mature” and “cold” way while we are returning to the symbolic order of the Norm and politically correct behaviour.
However, the argument that there was no (“real”) love in the first place should be taken seriously for a moment. What if we are aliens all the time, and the very Symbolic order actually is that which is “natural”? Or differently put, what if the other who is not the Other doesn’t really exist? That is, if we properly think it through, the ultimate message of the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If an alien could have entered a person whom we love (and so she suddenly stops loving us), why couldn’t we say then that this person started to love us exactly at the moment when an alien entered her? And that is actually the real excess of Love, that a person hit by the so called “Cupid’s arrow” suddenly stops being what she has been up to that point. The phone calls of the friends become totally irrelevant (to turn off the cell phone becomes conditio sine qua non), family obligations and habits (attending dinners, having conversations, etc.) become a waste of time, and business or professional plans disappear in every embrace. In this sense, the right answer to the question at which moment love ended would be – before it even began. This doesn’t mean it never really existed, only that the very act of “ending love” (or at least love infatuation) might actually be some sort of a defense mechanism of the very organism. The defence against this totally “meaningless”, devoted and unconditional wastage.
On the other hand, the person who keeps up loving somebody in spite of everything as if this very wastage brings to absurdity. Let’s remember that the only way in The Invasion of the Body Snatchers not to be possessed by an alien is not to fall asleep, to be continuously awake. And isn’t this the best possible description of a person loving another person who doesn’t love him back? Refusing to admit that love has disappeared – even the gesture “then there was no love in the first place” is still caught in the loop of love and proves the subject is still in love – means nothing else but “refusing to go to sleep”. If the other has become Another, an alien, it doesn’t mean I have to do it too: I can still keep within myself a dosage of our Love (or in the movie: “humanity”) that will eventually – and again we encounter this “last” hope – save You too.
This is exactly the context within which the newest adaptation of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers should be interpreted. As always, by finding out the differences between the original and the adaptation, it is possible to discover what the general intention of the new movie really is. In accordance with the feminist era, the main character of the new movie is now Nicole Kidman. In distinction to the original, she is now Doctor Bennell, whereas her partner, Daniel Craig, is Ben Driscoll. Why the sexes were changed, and the surnames stayed the same will become clearer later on. The story unfolds like this: Nicole Kidman plays a young psychiatrist who, while doing her job, notices some strange changes in the behaviour of her patients. All this happened after an American spaceship fell to pieces while entering the orbit and some mysterious epidemic has spread changing the behaviour of living things. Predictably, one of the first victims of the epidemic is Tucker (Jeremy Northam), none other than the ex-husband of Carol Bennell. And how does she discover this world conspiracy? Well, in the same way it happened in the first, original movie – one patient comes to see her and says: “My husband is not my husband.” An experienced psychiatrist would probably not pay much attention to a statement like that, but when other patients start coming to her sharing similar experiences, and when she, after browsing it on the Google, realizes that sons, daughters, wives, etc. are also not themselves any more, then the situation becomes alarming. Bennell now must do everything to protect her son, who will eventually, of course, prove to be the key element in stopping the escalating invasion. And this is the point at which we realize the meaning and the failure of the sex change of the main character. Namely, if The Invasion were really a feminist movie, then a male would still be the main character: exactly because the main character is now a woman we are again cajoled by the classical myth of “the loving mother” claiming that only a mother can be capable of unconditional love toward her child. The evil one is of course the male, regardless of whether it is an ex-husband or a potential new partner who will himself, toward the end of the movie, become an alien.
Although The Invasion is a movie in which Oliver Hirschbiegel, a German director known for his solid work Downfall (2004) and even better The Experiment (2001), has unsuccessfully merged the SF genre with the elements of a psychological thriller (throughout the movie one can feel the inability on the part of the director to produce the necessary atmosphere the movies 28 Weeks Later and I Am Legend for example do have), one detail in it deserves to be recognized. In accordance with the dominant interpretation of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, according to which the movie is about screening “the red threat”, we can say The Invasion actually represents the screening of the threat coming from the Middle East – that is the one of terrorism. However, instead of clearly implying that there is a new Enemy (a terrorist instead of a communist) camouflaged in the shape of a Man, Hirschbiegel decided to put emphasis on the “love” aspect that was missing in the first version of the movie.
That The Invasion, instead of offering boring political analyses (in which, according to the times we find ourselves in, we can designate the aliens as terrorists, communists, etc.), really has something to say about love is perhaps most noticeable in its main difference from the original. Whereas in the original movie there was nothing about immunity, here the son of the main protagonist is the one who is immune. In one conversation Carol says to her son: “I thought you fell asleep”, and he responds, “I did fall asleep. I did. Last night and this morning. Does that mean something bad?” However, in distinction to other people who fall asleep, her son remained the same; he still loves his mother – because he is immune. Although Hirschbiegel could be criticized because his version is the only one among the four existing ones that has an optimistic ending, and that the original version from 1956 is more faithful to the factual state of affairs where love often, once it is lost, is lost for ever, this short dialogue is nevertheless instructive. Isn’t the best proof of love that even after we fall asleep, after a relationship ends and the other person continues to live her life as if we had never existed, we still love her? The best definition of love – or pathology, or whatever – would therefore be the following: if you still love after falling asleep, then it means you are immune (to a break-up, deception, etc., etc.). In this sense, the ex-husband of the main protagonist can say, like anybody else who is no longer in love: “When you wake up, you will feel exactly the same way I do.” The right measure of love, metaphorically expressed, is therefore the quantity of awakening and sleeping.
Of course, it would be wrong to say that the newest Invasion doesn’t have political elements. They come clearly to the front in a scene at a formal dinner in a dialogue between Carol and the Russian Ambassador Yorish. Namely, he manages to provoke Carol with a pseudo-Freudian statement: “I say that civilization is an illusion, a game of pretend. What is real is the fact that we are still animals, driven by primal instincts. As a psychiatrist, you must know thirst to be true.” Carol, in a post-structuralist style gives him the following answer: “To be honest, ambassador, when someone starts talking to me about truth, I hear what they tell me about themselves more than what they say about the world.” And this is where a political turn is taken, as one may expect to come from a Russian Ambassador: “Perhaps you are right. Perhaps being a Russian in this country is a kind of pathology. So, what do you think? Can you help me? Can you give me a pill? To make me see the world the way you Americans see the world? Can a pill help me understand Iraq, Darfur, or even New Orleans?” Of course, this question regarding the pill reminds us irresistibly of the third pill from Matrix, so Yorish continues: “All I am saying is that civilization crumbles whenever we need it most. In the right situation we are all capable of the most terrible crimes. To imagine a world where this was not so, where every crisis did not result in new atrocities, where every newspaper is not full of war and violence, well, this is to imagine a world where human beings cease to be human.”
The moral of The Invasion, no matter how much it failed at the performance level (especially when it comes to the script and the dialogues), is actually far-reaching. When the aliens have conquered almost the whole world, conflicts and wars have disappeared everywhere. However, when eventually “a cure” that turned people into people again spread around, the newspapers were once again full of “standard” news (tragedies, humanitarian crises, wars). The moral is the following: if we want to preserve love, perhaps it is necessary to have violence too. For, in a world without violence, love itself would have no meaning whatsoever. In other words, love and hate are two sides of the same coin. And (alien) indifference, as Renata Salecl has brilliantly shown in her book Against Indifference, is exactly the sign that love has disappeared.
Srećko Horvat, philosopher, theorist and translator. Until now he published six books in Croatian language: Against Political Correctness. From Kramer to Laibach, and back (2007.), Signs of Postmodern City (2007.), The Future is now. The World of Dystopian movies (2008.), Totalitarianism today (2008.), Discourse of Terrorism (2008.) and Love for Beginners, or why we can love only in signs (2009.). He was awarded as the best film critic in Croatia in the year 2008. He translated several books from German and English into Croatian, the works of Norbert Elias, Slavoj Žižek, Peter Sloterdijk and others. Apart from these activities, he is a member of the programme board of Pula Book Fair and the Art Director of Subversive Film Festival held in Zagreb, which hosted internationally acknowledged theorists as Slavoj Žižek, Tariq Ali, Samir Amin, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Minqi Li, Wang Hui, Frank Furedi, and others. He is editor of several Croatian journals for theory and culture as Zarez, Tvrđa and Europski Glasnik. He writes a weekly column for the leading Croatian daily Večernji list.
Posted: 31 January 2011
Short URL: http://neme.org/1245
TEXT: Srećko Horvat