By Richard Landes
On a warm summer night earlier this month I sat at the grand opening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in the Sultan’s Pool just below Saladin’s walls, about to see Super 8 projected onto a giant screen. More than a decade after the second Intifada, it seemed a fitting place to see the latest contribution of one of the greatest storytellers of our age, to his work on Extra-Terrestrials. After all, Stephen Spielberg, a great believer in the redemptive nature of Hollywood, was among the first heretics who had challenged the paranoid assumptions pervading all cataclysmic UFO fantasies – they’re coming to get us!
Indeed, Spielberg was the premier master of the film school of peaceful transformation via UFOs, with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Richard Dreyfus (Neery) recalled the film’s spiritual message:
We all felt that this particular project had a noble agenda. This was a big idea that Steven was talking about. It wasn’t just a sci-fi movie, it wasn’t about monsters from the id. It was that we are not only not alone, but that we have relatively little to fear. People don’t realize, or it’s hard for people to remember, that Close Encounters was truly the first cultural iconic moment that said, “Calm down we’re okay. They can be our friends.” That really was a huge statement that I and lots of other people wanted to participate in. (Interview in Special Features of 2001 DVD edition)
UFO-cum-‘60s pop psychology—we’re okay, they’re okay—tells us the monsters in our closet are of our own imagining . . . all we need to do is hug them. “We have seen the enemy,” said Pogo famously on the first Earthday in 1970, “and he is us.” Or in Spielberg’s world, he is “adults.”
Mars Attacks (1996) spoofed this pollyanish view of the cosmos: Prof. Donald Kessler (played by Pierce Brosnan) incarnates the Spielbergian position. Asked by the media-hound president (played by Jack Nicholson) what to make of these creatures, which have just vaporized the general sent to welcome them, along with troops and standers-by, the professor responds:
Logic dictates that given their extremely high level of technological development they are an advanced culture, therefore peaceful and enlightened. The human race on the other hand is an aggressively dangerous species. I suspect they have more to fear from us, than we from them.
Meanwhile, the Mars aliens read a message from the president filled with vapid wishes for understanding and laugh in derision as they plan their invasion.
Of course, 9/11 came down on the side of the spoof and threw a giant wrench in the Spielbergian-Dreyfussian “let’s all calm down and embrace the alien other” scenario. On the contrary, the merciless nature of the attack deliberately on civilians created an intense cognitive dissonance among Americans, so profoundly shaped by that optimism. Indeed, so great was the dissonance for those who dreamed of a world without enemies and war, that some asked “what did we do to make them hate us so?” After 9/11, the “other” became deeply problematic, and generally two major trends emerged: they are terrible vs. it’s our fault.
Spielberg’s 2004 War of the Worlds – with its relentless, genocidal aliens – seems like simple regression. Indeed some viewers found it an affirmation of a kind of paranoia that makes the job of warmongers like Bush and Cheney a whole lot easier. Super 8, on the other hand, restores the dialogue with the hostile alien “other.” In a sense, it’s Spielberg’s first effort to deal with the dissonance between 9-11 and his earlier, cherished ET meme about the “other” as our potential friend.
Thus, the extra-terrestrial in Super 8 is a terrifying “other,” a combination of the reptilian creatures from Aliens and the giant spider Shelob from The Lord of the Rings… merciless, remorseless, immensely powerful.
But not so fast. There’s something strange afoot. Who is the man who teaches the advanced science classes at the High School, who drove his truck head-on into the train, derailing it and releasing the alien? Who are the mysterious government troops who will kill the kids and their families if they’re caught?
Actually, we’re back to E.T., but this time, it’s as if, rather than escape with the help of the children at the end of the 1982 movie, E.T. was taken by the paranoid government plotters who have been experimenting on him, torturing him for the last three decades. In so doing, they alienated the alien (the UFO version of “othering the ‘other’”), turning him into the hateful violent monster he now has become. “Through pain and lack of empathy we have made him an enemy. If we don’t stop this and won’t help him, his hatred will only grow,” explains one of the people who know the story.
In Super 8 the redemptive children from E.T., now pubescent, are again the heroes who, in their purity of heart, can discern reality and transform that terrifying alien. The heroine, saved from its deadly clutches, exclaims: “It’s terrified and it’s hungry, and it just wants to go home. When it touched me I knew.” The child of a drunk abuser can recognize “humanity” in the most terrifying of touches.
The movie climax comes when our intrepid young hero, stops running from the beast (who has just obliterated the chief of police and a teenage girl with rollers in her hair), and faces his fearful enemy. “Go,” he says to the creature who has inexplicably stopped in his tracks, “You don’t want to be here. Go. We understand. Not everyone’s against you. I know bad things happen, but you can still live.”
And in response, the creature’s face morphs from the terrifying face of Alien’s monster to E.T.’s now tragic, but still sympathetic features. Freed by the hero’s empathy to no longer malinger here on this hated planet, the creature makes a decision he apparently could have made before, to constitute his spaceship not from the wondrous cubes the army had kept from him to imprison him, but from all our electronic addictions, microwaves, cars, TVs, computers, and take off in a harmless spray from hydro-powered jets (and the hero’s locket with a picture of his dead Mother inside).
The plot device is shaky: “it” just wants to leave, and we (actually the evil military) are preventing him, even though, it turns out, “it” didn’t need those cubes. But however weak, it permits Super 8 to replay the themes so dear to those of us who want to believe the progressive memes – we can work it out and war is (definitely) not the answer. At its most messianic, this desire for a peaceful world has, in the post 9/11 world, become a kind of masochistic omnipotence syndrome: “It’s all our fault, and if we could only recognize and correct our evil, then even the most hated of enemies will (once again) become benign.” From “we’re okay (at least some of us), you’re okay” to “we’re not okay (most of us), neither are you (but it’s our fault).” The solution, hardly ideal, offers a kind of “great divorce.”
For Israelis, who entered into the Oslo Process on just these pacific premises, and forced in the wake of the second Intifada to deal with a terrifying other (for whose hatred many, including many Israelis at this showing, blame Israel), this might seem like Spielberg’s version of the separation barrier (a.k.a., the “Apartheid Wall”) which one could see in the distance from the highest seats. The best one can hope for is a radical separation. In ramping down their messianic notions of a real peace, these viewers have acquired a sense of the limited (even negative) effects of empathic and self-critical speech acts when made to an unforgiving “other.” So when the hero’s speech turned the monster into ET (who wrote those vapid lines?) a number in the audience, myself included, laughed out loud. Only in Hollywood!
In the case of 9-11, we Westerners in search of a peaceful and diverse global community are dealing with victims of “modernization” at its Spielbergian best: those who resent the loss of arbitrary power and dominion that the principles of equality and human rights represent. These “others” are quick to “other” everyone else, to point the finger at the West for their misery, and to offer the people they oppress the scapegoat of the hated “other,” a projection screen of vengeful hatred to distract from their own deeds. Osama bin Laden and his fellow Jihadis represent precisely that kind of resentment-laden cry of victimization denounced by Nietzsche: the underdogs who cry out about fairness when they are weak, even as they await the time they’re strong enough to be unfair to others. Our fervently generous post-modern millennialists, eager to redeem and transform the world, readily assume that if we only assent to their grievances, they, like the alien in Super 8 will hear our empathy and forgive us.
My guess is that Spielberg’s restless talent is not finished masticating this terrible dilemma of the 21st century. In which case, let me suggest he turn his attention to the problems with his initial redemptive message, the one he is still trying to save from the battering it’s received in the last decade. Lest we resemble Prof. Kessler in Mars Attacks, or the hipsters dancing on the roofs before annihilation in Independence Day, indeed lest we become parodies of ourselves, we need to beware a peculiar new dynamic that has begun to take hold since 9-11. Here we find a disturbing marriage of of pre-modern sadism (“they” say: it’s all your fault) and post-modern masochism (“we” say: you’re right).
Rejecting this approach, acknowledging that the other is not necessarily committed to the same positive-sum values as us, does not mean we need to become remorseless zero-sum like “them,” it just means we have to find a larger repertory for dealing with the “other” than either wiping them out or “I-thou-ing” them to (our) death. It’s the dilemma of the next generation. With this movie, Spielberg has helped no one.
Richard Landes is Associate Professor of History at Boston University and author of Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience. A longer version of this article appears on his blog.