Science Fiction Studies

#66 = Volume 22, Part 2 = July 1995


Rob Latham

Subterranean Suburbia: Underneath the Smalltown Myth in the Two Versions of Invaders from Mars

In his magisterial 1961 study of The City in History, Lewis Mumford summed up the American project of suburbanization in the following grim analysis:

In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced ...: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to the common mold.... Thus, the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible. What has happened to the suburban exodus in the United States now threatens, through the same mechanical instrumentalities, to take place, at an equally accelerating rate, everywhere else—unless the most vigorous countermeasures are taken. (486)

If this dire assessment conjures images of Kevin McCarthy running down the street screaming about the advent of the pod-people, it's not surprising, since many sf film critics have remarked on the dystopic allegory of suburban America conveyed by Don Siegel's classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Charles Gregory, for example, has analyzed that movie's “cry of frustrated warning against the conformity and uniformity of a society that was blissfully living in the best of all possible worlds,” mobilizing terms that critics in the 50s had coined to describe this society: “men in gray flannel suits, the silent generation, the status seekers,” and the “lonely crowd” (3-4). But while Siegel's film has received extensive coverage, William Cameron Menzies' low-budget 1953 effort Invaders from Mars has been neglected, which is unfortunate since this movie offers a pointed commentary on the postwar experience of suburbia. Moreover, reading the film alongside its 1986 remake by Tobe Hooper provides a telling perspective on the enterprise of suburban expansion in its early phases and at its zenith.  

It is perhaps useful to begin with a few statistics that give a sense of the true dimensions of that expansion. Following the war, returning veterans and their families took advantage of government-financed loans to build their own homes in massive subdivisions that sprang up around most major cities, spurring a migration from urban areas that continued for decades. “Single-family housing starts spurted from only 114,000 in 1944, to 937,000 in 1946, to 1,183,000 in 1948, and to 1,692,000 in 1950, an all-time high” (Jackson 233).

By 1950, the population of suburbs was growing ten times as fast as that of central cities; nearly one in four Americans was a suburbanite. Sixty-four percent of the nation's total population increase in the 1960s took place in the suburbs. By 1970, 76 million Americans lived in suburbs.... (Ashton 74)

By 1980 the total had risen to 40 percent of the U.S. population (Marsh 187-8), the baby boom generation having followed in its parents' footsteps in viewing suburban homeownership as an ideal. In the mid-80s, however, this ideal, thanks to declining real wages and burgeoning real estate values, was priced out of the reach of the boomers' children, thus putting a halt—at least temporarily—to the march of suburbia (Newman 29-40).            

The two versions of Invaders are positioned at either end of this trajectory of development. The 1953 film opens with a voiceover solemnly hymning the power of science to subdivide and parcel out the cosmos, work performed by “scientists great universities and in modest homes”; at these last words, a lingering shot of the nighttime sky dissolves to the modest home of the protagonist, David MacLean, thus suggesting typical 50s confidence that middle-class values—in the form, specifically, of the single-family dwelling— were destined to colonize the universe.1 Yet the narrator introduces an element of uncertainty in his evocation of the one lasting “mystery the Heavens have kept secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like our own—or life extremely lower on the scale, or dangerously higher?” In short, the suburban project, for all its “scientific” confidence, is here fraught with concerns about how this new geographical configuration will affect human life, possibly degrading it or accelerating it in some disturbing way—concerns that are crystallized and resolved in the invading Martians.            

These beings take two forms: a disembodied head representing “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence” and huge, hulking mutant slaves—or, brain and brawn. Remnants of a dying race, the Martians have abandoned their decaying underground cities in ships that ply the solar system. When Americans begin firing rockets into space, the Martians grow concerned about the competition and decide to intervene, landing in David's backyard and promptly enslaving his father, who works as an engineer at the plant that manufactures the rockets' engines. Through him they enslave others and proceed to mount an elaborate plan of sabotage and subversion, only to be foiled by David, who manages to persuade Dr. Patricia Blake, a social worker, and Dr. Stuart Kelston, an astronomer, of the danger. The army is called in, and the Martians' ship is destroyed.            

The Martians' bifurcated racial structure suggests, as Barry Grant has pointed out, “the politically loaded division between Eloi and Morlocks in The Time Machine” (80). Grant does not expand on this point, but it seems to me that, in the context of suburbanism, the allusion is a telling one. For Wells's novel culminated a series of Victorian critiques of the effects of industrial urbanization on humankind, its potential division of the species into two vast classes (sometimes imagined as separate nations or races): an enslaved but physically powerful proletariat on the one hand, and a ruling cadre of decadent effetes on the other (Aldiss 90-3). In fact, the initial impetus to suburbanization in the late nineteenth century derived from very realistic fears about the metropolitan concentration of restless workers and “the belief that the alternative environmental setting of a model industrial village might create a contented industrious working class” (Buder 22). Throughout the twentieth century, the suburban project has involved the introduction and exacerbation of “social and cultural divisions among order to dilute [their] power” (Ashton 77). The postwar boom promised a bourgeois style of life to everyone—at least to young working whites who met the requirements of suburban zoning restrictions—in enclaves separate from the inner cities, which were given over to the elderly, ethnic minorities, and the unemployed. With the consolidation of an homogenous (white) middle-class population in an expanding suburbia, the threat of two warring classes tearing society apart seemed to have been averted.

The Martians may therefore be seen to represent a civilization that did not effectively manage its social environment, thus leading to its decay. Several critics have remarked on a Cold War allegory in the film (competition with an alien power involving infiltration, industrial sabotage, etc.), with the Martians standing in for the Soviets; in my reading, this displacement indicates the film's response to traditional Marxist prophecies of class war threatening to tear capitalist society apart. The suburban enterprise has headed off this threat, and the only enemies remaining to the establishment of American hegemony— including the colonization of space itself—are external invaders. Thus, the need for a vigilant military-industrial complex—one which itself strongly undergirds suburban life in its provision of jobs for middle-class professionals like David's father. In fact, the film is quite prescient in its projection of a system of remote-controlled space weapons, a Star-Wars-like fantasy that, during the presidency of Ronald Reagan, would engender an economic boom throughout suburban California.            

However, it is in this very area that the film's ideological façade shows signs of cracking, for it is surely significant that the majority of individuals transformed into emotionless drones in thrall to the Martian intelligence are precisely those most implicated in the military-industrial system. On the one hand, this development is necessary to the Martians' plans, since these individuals have access to restricted areas targeted for sabotage, but on the other hand, their sullen, secretive behavior once under the Martians' control merely underscores their day-to-day immersion in a poker-faced regime of classified information. Even before he is captured, David's father speaks of his work as “secret” and filled with shadowy “rumors,” while Dr. Kelston remarks that David's once-frequent visits to his observatory have been curtailed since “things got so hush-hush.” The Martians' mind-control may thus be seen as merely heightening existing tendencies in the culture, a point reinforced by the remarks of an electronics expert who, called in to examine one of the implanted crystals removed from a victim's brain, points to similar government experiments in behavior modification: “we've made white mice follow directional impulses with high-frequency vibrations.” As Grant has observed, “a noteworthy pair of high-angle shots, the volumes within the frames of both arranged similarly,” links “the observatory of the astronomer, Dr. Kelston, and the spacecraft's inner chamber which houses the machine for robbing people of their will” (80), and there is a similar counterpoint between the “X” on the necks of the Martians' victims and the crossed spotlights illuminating the atomic rocket which is the object of the Martians' plot. In short, the paranoia about alien invasion and takeover may merely serve to deflect anxieties about how seamlessly militarist power has inscribed itself into the suburban American landscape.2           

These anxieties extend to the film's figuration of that landscape itself. The fact that the Martian ship takes refuge underground, exerting its influence unseen, suggests basic and pervasive misgivings about the very ground of the suburban project. Significantly, the ship disappears into a sand pit abutting the lots of the subdivision, an amorphous space representing both the indefinable limit and, perhaps, the ultimate end of the suburban transformation of nature. Following the arrival of the Martians, the fence demarcating the MacLeans' property seems to extend right into the ground, and the family can no longer be confident of the security of its borders, as first father, then mother wander into this waste area and vanish. Perhaps the film's single most disturbing image is the whirlpool of sand that drags human victims beneath the surface of the pit, later to disgorge them as Martian slaves.3 That the suburban environment was itself a psychosocial wasteland deforming its inhabitants into robotic drones is a critique that has been mounted often (for example, by Mumford, cited above); the shivery charge of horror that surrounds the sand pit merely localizes a dread of conformity that hovers over the landscape of neatly clipped lawns and white picket fences.            

If we continue the Cold War allegorical reading of the film, the anxiety about suburbia that gets displaced onto the Martians may bespeak an attentiveness to the inhumanly planned quality of the postwar environment. As Kenneth Jackson, author of Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, has reported:

In 1951 the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists devoted an entire issue to “Defense through Decentralization.” Their argument was simple. To avoid national destruction in a nuclear attack, the United States should disperse existing large cities into smaller settlements. The ideal model was a depopulated urban core surrounded by satellite cities and low-density suburbs. (249)

—recommendations that helped shape national urban policy under Eisenhower. In any case, the film's famous framing device of “It's only David's dream—or is it?” reinforces a reading of suburbia-as-horror; David represents the first postwar generation to be socialized into suburban life, and the readiness with which his homey environment mutates into nightmare does not suggest tremendous confidence about suburbia as a project in moral education.4           

Before proceeding to the 1986 remake of Invaders, we should pause to examine an important intertext that links the two movies: Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). Spielberg's film is essentially a reworking of the foreground story of Invaders: an alien secretly arrives in a suburban backyard, substantially altering a family's life to the point that the military is forced to intervene. Again, the tale is related from a child's point of view, but instead of a dystopic nightmare the narrative is a dreamy vision of childlike communion, with the E.T. integrated into the suburban landscape as just another carefree youth. In essence, the film imagines a colonization and suburbanization of the cosmos in which kids can pedal across aerial bike-trails and the alien's distant “home” is metaphorically accessible by telephone—the culmination of the vision of universal suburbia adumbrated in Invaders' opening voiceover. But why has the critical tone of the vision changed so radically?            

In his article “Suburban Ideology,” Douglas Kellner identifies Spielberg as “film's dominant spokesperson for middle-class values and social roles,” defending the “rising affluence [of] the split-level suburban tract houses with their ever more advanced electronic media, toys, appliances, and gadgets” (5). Kellner has extended this critique in Camera Politica, his book written with Michael Ryan, where Spielberg's rosy vision of suburbia is seen to involve “clos[ing] ears to the sound of suffering elsewhere in the social system, outside the bounds of the suburban tracts his films endow with such a warm glow” (259).5 Yet at the same time, Spielberg's films often cast the military establishment as villain threatening the integrity of the suburban home, an ironic vision given how economically dependent the middle-class had become on military and related spending by the early 1980s. What Spielberg's childlike aliens offer is a transcendence of the specific social conditions—the exclusion of minorities, the imbrication with militarist power—upon which mature postwar suburbia is founded, an illusory but, given the astonishing popularity of his films, obviously compelling transcendence for the contemporary middle-class. I hope it is not too cynical to suggest that the innocent faith that shines on Spielberg's young faces may be viewed as the modern counterpart of the blank stares of Invaders' drones.            

Tobe Hooper's movie is thus connected not only to the 1953 Invaders from Mars but, more proximately, to its ideological reconfiguration in E.T. Hooper has an even more intimate connection with Spielberg, however, since the latter hired him to direct 1982's Poltergeist, initiating a stormy relationship that ultimately resulted in Hooper filing a successful suit with the Director's Guild because MGM gave Spielberg's credit as producer more prominent play in their advertising than Hooper's own role (“Hooper”). Rumors abounded that Spielberg persistently intervened on the set, and he certainly had editorial control over the finished product, making it very difficult to determine how much of the final cut represents Hooper's input and how much Spielberg's controlling vision. Virtually every critic of the film has attributed Poltergeist, on the basis of its animating vision of suburbia, to Spielberg,6 in the process attacking it as, to quote Charles Derry,

a considerably reactionary film that views suburban life and American values as predominantly good and demonic spirits as anomalous and ultimately vanquishable. In Poltergeist parents are loving and nurturing; conventional consumerism is valorized rather than criticized; and the source of the film's violence is unambiguously derived from outside the family and its political structures. (169-70)

Kellner agrees that the movie “celebrate[s] middle-class commodity icons, showing the consumer society's bounty,” and “thus cleverly supports traditional roles and institutions while it presents symbolic threats to the existing order” (5).            

There is no room here to develop a full critique of this view, except to say that I consider the film to be an uneasy alliance between Spielberg's confidence in the suburban project and Hooper's corrosive contempt for bourgeois institutions. More than any other movie in the Spielberg canon, Poltergeist at least suggests the price of exclusion upon which the suburban domestic idyll is based—in the sacred land cynically expropriated from an ethnic minority by the designers of the subdivision, in the legacy of white guilt attendant on this expropriation, and in consequent anxieties about the (literal) firmness of suburbia's moral “ground.” Moreover, the conventional provenance of poltergeists as emerging from within the family structure suggests an altogether less positive vision of the relationship between parents and children than Derry has outlined, and the film's depiction of a whirlwind of “commodity icons” is as much minatory as it is celebratory. Indeed, given the social context of the early 80s, during which uncontrolled speculation in real estate was pricing the family home out of the reach of younger Americans, one can perceive disturbing economic subtexts lurking beneath the film's portrait of a well-meaning boomer couple who cannot protect their children from the social costs of their own affluence.            

Hooper's Invaders from Mars must, in my view, be read as much as a satirical response to Spielbergian values as a straightforward remake of the 1953 original. Without attention to this context, one is likely to find the film's uneasy mix of humor and horror baffling, as did many of the film's reviewers, whose responses ranged from the judgment that it is “surely a spoof...[that] doesn't take itself seriously and acknowledges the absurdity of its plot” (Welsh 483) to the conclusion that it “is so good at mimicking 50s mediocrity, it's bad” (Corliss 62). Perhaps the most doggedly unironic reading the film has received is Barry Grant's, who views it as expousing “militant patriotism along with an emphasis on the traditional values of the nuclear family” and compares it unfavorably with the original which “below the surface may be read as questioning the ideology of Eisenhower's America” as opposed to “completely endors[ing] Reagan's policy” (83), which Hooper's version allegedly does. Given this disparity of reactions, it is hard to believe the critics were watching the same movie.7           

Within the first twenty minutes of Invaders, Hooper offers a compendium of sardonic Spielbergian allusions, especially to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), but also to their controversial collaboration Poltergeist. The very first shot of the movie is a Spielberg signature: a star falling across a brilliant night sky. This reference is soon followed by: a Close Encounters- like play of spotlights as the alien ship lands; a sinister hissing television set à la Poltergeist; several classroom scenes depicting frogs being dissected and otherwise maltreated that caustically respond to E.T.; and the Martian takeover of a man who works for the switching division of the telephone company—like Roy Neary in Close Encounters. More tellingly than these offhand hints, Invaders opens with a scene of cozy suburban domesticity, complete with syrupy music, that strongly evokes Spielberg, so that when the aliens arrive and possess his parents, turning them into druggy creeps who eat raw meat and hug David lovelessly, Spielberg's romanticized vision of the family is given a cynical twist. Indeed, the fact that the aliens' takeover of the parents manifests in gruesome eating habits suggests an allusion to Hooper's own Texas Chainsaw Massacre films, whose vision of the family is unrelentingly savage. Though a caring mom and dad are seemingly restored at the end of Invaders when David awakes from his bad dream, the subsequent “real” arrival of the Martian spaceship proves otherwise, as David flees to his parents' bedroom only to be welcomed by the growling and mumbling of (offscreen) monsters—implying that, even before the arrival of the aliens, the family is essentially bestial and corrupt.8           

Moreover, as in the original Invaders, David's father works for the government—as some sort of shadowy liaison between the local Marine base and NASA's S.E.T.I. (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) division, who have knowledge of an underground civilization on Mars and are sending a probe to investigate. Again, as in the 53 film, the Martians deploy David's father in a plot (successful this time) to destroy the rocket, rousing the wrath of the Marines, who mobilize and blow up the Martian ship. Unlike Close Encounters and E.T., both of which depicted extraterrestrial investigators as benevolent father-figures in counterpoint to grim hordes of military drones, Invaders shows these alien-hunters in a more satirical light, either naively believing the Martians are friendly, like the S.E.T.I. scientist who ecstatically declares that they “do understand me” right before they incinerate him, or else fanatically communing with them, as do David's parents who (à la Close Encounters) try to lure David into accompanying them as the Martian ship prepares to take off: “Hey, little guy, you don't know what you're missing” (“Oh, yes, I do,” David replies). Hooper systematically undercuts the aliens-as-agency-of-transcendence theme of which Spielberg is so fond, disallowing the ideological escape from the social ground of suburban power-relations which Spielberg's E.T.s provide.            

In the first place, Invaders does not present military power as something external to the suburban scene, but literally “based” upon it; as in the first movie, scientific and military forces collude, and most of the local denizens are complicit in this alliance (including even, in an interesting departure from the original, a grade school teacher, suggesting the office of power throughout the process of socialization). The quasi-heroic presentation of the Marines— which misled Grant to label the film “militarist”—is undercut by their cheerful brutality (their commander, General “Mad Dog” Wilson, proudly boasts, “Marines have no qualms about killing Martians”), and by the fact that their imperialistic designs are essentially no different from those of the Martians themselves—a link evidenced by the fact that one of the Martians' drones describes their leader as “the Supreme Martial Intelligence” (thus exploiting the link implicit in the mythological referent). This Supreme Intelligence resembles nothing so much as a giant penis (David calls it “dickbrain”), a literal depiction of the phallocentric violence underpinning both alien and human civilizations.9           

Invaders further undermines Spielbergian transcendence in its refusal to sentimentalize extraterrestrials, its rejection of the “alliance between the middle class and transcendent alien forces” that Kellner identifies as Spielberg's essential ideological program (5). As Ryan and Kellner argue, Spielberg's fantasy films envision, through quasi-divine intervention, “a purely private salvation from economic recessions for which blacks, the poor, workers, and women would be obliged to pay” (260)—a salvation, I would add, that came via Reagan's policy of enriching the military-industrial regime of white suburbia at the expense of those excluded from its historic project.10 These disenfranchised and undoubtedly quite angry others are, in Close Encounters and E.T., displaced into a mythified racial Other who is not only unthreatening but lovable and warm-hearted, obviously not begrudging the suburban bounty from which it is, by reason of its racial origin, necessarily excluded.11 Certainly, Hooper's depiction of suburbia's alien Other is disturbing for its own reasons, but at least it is not a cozy compensatory fantasy apologizing for white affluence. Invaders' Martians are militant and pissed-off—though for all their warfare with the adult white world, their Supreme Intelligence does manage to spare a moment of ironic pity for young David Gardner, murmuring “poor little guy.” Like the aliens, the children of suburbia are also its victims, caught in an historical nightmare from which there is no waking.            

What the displaced “race war” of Hooper's Invaders suggests is that the suburban “solution” to potentially contentious social divisions was only a temporary one. Michael Omi and Howard Winant describe the fallout of the suburbanization process in their Racial Formation in the United States:

whites have moved to the suburbs and abandoned the declining cities. As a result, urban areas have become reservations, with majority black and Latino populations and declining tax bases. Their local governments are less and less capable of addressing the basic needs of their citizens. The nation as a whole is moving steadily toward a politics that will be dominated by the suburban vote. The suburbs allow white and middle-class voters to fulfill communitarian impulses by taxing themselves for direct services...while both ignoring urban decay and remaining fiscally conservative about federal spending. Thus whites shield their tax dollars from going into programs to benefit racial minorities and the poor. (150)

The simmering unrest such a divisive social policy necessarily produces has become all too obvious in recent years—witness the riots following the initial verdict in the Rodney King case (a verdict reached, not coincidentally, in Simi Valley, a wealthy white Los Angeles suburb). If this process continues unabated, the result may be the grim dystopia described so brilliantly by Mike Davis in his study of Los Angeles, City of Quartz. In his analysis, the growing socioeconomic disparity between suburban and city dwellers, and the angers and anxieties attendant upon it, have led to an “enclavization” of gated communities, policed by surveillance technologies and “robocops,” while inner cities are rapidly becoming Blade Runner-style warzones.            

Davis' explicit mobilization of science-fiction films to provide insight into contemporary social reality shows how powerfully the genre taps into our collective dreams and nightmares, condensing complex historical developments into memorable images and suggestive metaphors. As remarked above, Invaders from Mars provides one such haunting image in the whirlpool of sand that funnels its characters into a subterranean hell, a metaphorical displacement of the life-in-death of everyday suburbia, but perhaps also a prophecy of its future. In his book, Davis cites a German exile in L.A. horrified by the spiritual emptiness and wasteful sprawl, by the “dreadful idyll of this landscape, that actually has sprung from the mind of real-estate speculation because the landscape does not offer much by itself. If one stopped the flow of water here for three days, the jackals would reappear and the sand of the desert” (qtd. in Davis, City 50). For contemporary America, this blighted wilderness may be, like the sand pit in the two Invaders, lurking ominously just over the hill.

1. Jackson offers an interesting observation that aligns with my analysis: “By 1961, when President John F. Kennedy...challenged Americans to send a man to the moon within the decade, his countrymen had already remade the nation's metropolitan areas in the short space of sixteen years. From Boston to Los Angeles, vast new subdivisions and virtually new towns sprawled where a generation earlier nature had held sway” (243). More than a decade earlier, Ward Moore's sf novel Greener Than You Think (1949) had offered a clever satire on this presumed manifest destiny of suburbia: a new strain of grass designed to transform desert wastes into habitable territory runs wild and blankets the continent.            

2. Supporting Grant's (and my) reading, Peter Biskind (225) sees the film as more a “left-wing” (his term) critique of the domestic priorities of the Cold War than as a cautionary tract about the Communist menace, which was probably the conventional critical viewpoint until these “revisionist” interpretations in the 1980s. (Biskind, unlike Grant, treats the film only in passing while pursuing a much broader discussion.)            

3. Warren remarks: “For the more imaginative youngsters who saw it, Invaders from Mars became an intensely personal experience. To this day, although the commonplace title evokes few memories, people all over the world brighten up and look interested when the film is described as `the one where the sand opens up,' as that's the most disturbing and elegant image in the film” (119).            

4. Marsh offers an excellent historical overview of the articulation of suburbia as a domestic moral idyll.            

5. Wood also criticizes Spielberg as an ideologue of suburbia, focusing on his recuperation of the bourgeois family as a social and moral ideal (175-182).            

6. Some examples: Poltergeist “clearly belongs to the Spielberg ouevre rather than to Hooper's” (Wood 180); despite the influence of Hooper on the finished film, “there are enough Spielbergian elements in it to justify analysis of the film in terms of Spielberg's ideological problematic” (Kellner 6). These examples could be multiplied, especially if one turns to contemporary reviewers, who almost unanimously treated the movie as Spielberg's.            

7. One of the few critics to grasp some part of the film's intent is Wilmington, who refers to “Hooper's oddball rhythms and cold sendups” (1), though he never mentions Spielberg as a major target of these directorial jabs. Moreover, it is interesting to observe that another director who worked closely with Spielberg during the 80s—Joe Dante—also felt impelled to produce a satire of Spielberg's vision of suburbia: 1989's The 'Burbs (a film which includes a direct citation of Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part II [1986]).            

8. Wood has exhaustively detailed how the scathing critique of the family elaborated in the low-budget American horror films of the early to mid-70s— specifically, in the work of Hooper, George A. Romero, and Wes Craven—was defanged and domesticated in the big-budget science-fiction fantasies of the late 70s and 80s (especially in the films of Spielberg and George Lucas).            

9. A Freudian subtext undergirds the entire film (the final shot, for example, suggests a horrific revelation of the primal scene), but it is beyond the scope of my analysis here.

10. For an excellent discussion of the social context of Reagan's budget policies, see the chapters “The Political Economy of Late Imperial America” and “Reaganomics' Magical Mystery Tour” in Mike Davis's Prisoners of the American Dream.     

11. Thus, I believe Vivian Sobchack's influential reading of E.T.'s vision of aliens as “our familiars, our simulacra...literally alienated images of our alienated selves” (293) needs to be placed in the larger social context of the systematically dichotomous “racial formation in the United States” (on which, see Omi and Winant). Generally speaking, Sobchack's analysis of 80s SF film cannot accomodate movies which continue the 50s trend of competition and strife between “humans” and “others”: hence, her slighting of Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien, John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing, and Hooper's 1985 Life Force (228). (Invaders and James Cameron's Aliens, both appearing in 1986, were too recent for Sobchack to cover, but her take on them would likely have been the same.)

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