There is no better way to see a reflection of the human psyche, and all of its hopes, fears, dreams, and warnings than in the fiction genre. And there is perhaps no better genre than science fiction to project all of the fears and dreams onto than science fiction. Science fiction allows people to see a world where the writer has complete control over not only the characters, but the very world it takes place in. And so when the 1950’s rolled around and film first started seeing images of massive bug-eyed monsters with a terrifying presence, the genre was reflecting a very real fear in the hearts and minds of us all. But was it actually fear? Or was it something else?
When HG Wells first wrote his book “War of the Worlds” the idea of an invading force from the planet Mars was a novel premise, but by no means unheard of. Wells had built an Earth where Martians not only existed, but were visiting Earth, and then he brought it to the brink of destruction held back by only the humblest of creatures on our planet , the germ. By the 1950’s the idea of war with an extraterrestrial entity or entities was a concept that was no longer strange on the silver screen. By transforming the idea of foreign invaders with alien invaders cinema could once again allow violence on the screen without making a political statement. Wars waged on other countries elicited guilt from killing another human being , something that goes against a very basic tenet of human morality. But when the invaders were not humans, but rather monsters from space suddenly killing them was simple and without any emotions other than victory.
The monsters themselves were often depicted as very inhuman as well. From the bug-eyed insect-like monsters and the massive brains swelling with inhuman intelligence but devoid of emotion the world looked like the only bastion of good in a universe that was otherwise a cabinet of horrors. And by defending its homestead the human race was partaking in a universal challenge that happened to every world. Not all aliens were depicted as hostile, but often enough they found themselves hungry exclusively for human flesh.
But not all monsters were inhuman in appearance. By the time science fiction had reached the next generation of film making, there were many images of aliens that were very much like us. Often these films would bear a message of warning to humanity. The ideas presented in films such as “The Day the Earth Stood Still” made the monster of the movie not the visiting space man, but rather the myopic views of the inhabitants of Earth themselves. And in showing how the Earth men interacted with the alien we could better understand how we deal with all forms of mystery.
But perhaps most interesting was when these films tried to translate alien interactions on a more personal level with films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extraterrestrial. These films addressed a family or a single person’s interactions with mystery rather than the whole of mankind.