There is an episode of The Twilight Zone in which a normal American neighborhood is thrown into violent chaos by the appearance of a strange object in the sky. The fear that alien invaders might be masquerading as a human family causes neighbors to turn with suspicion on those they’ve known all their lives.
Like so many Twilight Zone episodes, the true monster here is Man. The lesson is that the enemy’s best weapon is the seed of paranoid doubt we harbor against those closest to us. It is a not-so-subtle commentary on McCarthyism’s hysterical campaign to root out the communist threat by encouraging citizens to denounce their friends and allies.
The communist, like the aliens in The Twilight Zone, is so dangerous precisely because its otherness cannot be easily recognized. Soviet sympathizers can look exactly like everybody else, and the possibility of their presence among us is so terrifying because it challenges our confidence in our own capacity for self-recognition. The identity of friends, spouses, teachers, and politicians cannot be trusted precisely because they look just like us. Familiarity itself becomes suspect as the mask of a dangerous otherness.
With aliens among us, we suddenly inhabit an uncanny Homeland where the foreign not only permeates the familiar, but where the familiar itself begins to look disturbingly foreign. That American narratives of national belonging are always inflected by race renders alien impostors doubly threatening. When familiarity itself is encoded as whiteness, the possibility of a white alien implicates whiteness itself as a tool of the enemy. The white alien, in other words, alienates us from our own whiteness.
This was the crux of the Soviet threat, and it is the terror of alien movies such as The 5th Wave. An alien that can appear as not just human but in the guise of white citizenship challenges our ability to feel at home in our own privileged identities. And it is this possibility that anyone might be an alien masquerading as a citizen which provides the basis for the modern security state.
The word “alien” didn’t acquire the sense of intelligent extraterrestrial until around 1930, but it has denoted foreigner or national outsider since the 14th century. For over half a millennium, in other words, aliens have been imagined in relation to national belonging and geopolitical homelands.
Alien movies tend to collapse these two registers even as they reproduce nationalism in the face of an extraterrestrial threat. The nation is almost always the backdrop of alien invasion stories. Think of Independence Day. A Marine Corp pilot and the President of the United States save the world from alien invaders, transforming a holiday commemorating national origin into one of planetary liberation. America reigns supreme, this time on a galactic scale.
Alien movies allow us to justify nationalism and militarism by imagining an Other whose otherness is so radically threatening that it supersedes geopolitics and race while relying on those same paradigms to make the otherness of the alien legible. We understand the planetary threat because it resembles the national threat. And only the military power we’ve amassed to defend against our racial and national enemies now stands between the citizen and a danger so great that citizenship itself loses meaning.
It is, in other words, the nation the comes to the rescue in the face of a global crisis that transcends national allegiances.
It’s hard for me to see the trailer for The 5th Wave as anything other than a parable of embattled nationalism in the face of modern terrorism. It is the story of a girl militarized against alien invaders who reproduce all of our worst fears about national outsiders.
The iconography of 9/11 is all over this trailer, turning the alien invasion into an uncanny reprisal of national security threats that justify a fundamentally nationalist response in the face of a planetary hazard. A plane falls out of the sky signaling the “last normal day” and the mobilization of the security state as a procession of US military aircrafts ascend into the air.
The “waves” play on our post-9/11 anxieties about possible terrorist plots within the US. Infrastructure is compromised, people begin dying from biological warfare, and, most terrifying of all, it becomes impossible to tell ally from enemy. “The others have the ability to inhabit human hosts,” we are told, “They could be anywhere.” Just as it suddenly seemed possible for any Cold War citizen to be a Soviet spy, or any plane passenger with an Arabic name to be a terrorist, here strangers and friends are suddenly potential hosts for alien invaders. And the only appropriate response is suspicion and militarized security measures.
The kinds of aliens we imagine enable the kinds of responses we’d like to have in the face of radical otherness. And for the most part, our aliens look like those from Independence Day who solicit a good old fashioned American ass-kicking, or even those from the Men in Black franchise who seem to require bureaucratic oversight by a secret government agency.
But do you remember the aliens from Contact? They are not invaders or even planetary guests. And for all the heavy-handed allegorizing about Science and Religion, it is a film about intellectual cooperation that transcends language, species, and even solar system.
Aliens don’t have to be figures that magnetize our worst reactionary national allegiances. They can, in fact, help us tell stories about thoughtful and compassionate responses in the face of radical otherness. But first we need to stop narrating America as an embattled victim under siege by alienated humans.