Last month, Turner Classic Movies ran a series of science-fiction films from the Cold War era. It's easy to look at creature features of the '50s and feel smug about the use of giant irradiated ants as stand-ins for the Red Menace and its associated McCarthyite paranoias.
Looking back to when Levittowns boomed and the Rosenbergs burned, the question arises: What churns our national id now? The summer of 2005 is a cauldron of genre fare thick with anxiety about threats from within and without. These movies are as unique to this moment as were the giant bugs that Oppenheimer played midwife to half a century ago.
Spielberg has said he's trying to tap post-9/11 fear with his War of the Worlds, the same way Orson Welles tapped into the anxieties of the United States just before its involvement in World War II with his 1938 "panic broadcast" adaptation of War. Producer George Pal's 1953 version of War reflects Cold War paranoia.
In the 1950s, special-effects master Ray Harryhausen destroyed New York and Washington in The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. But we saw real apocalyptic attacks on Washington and New York in 2001. Spielberg goes for the throat, evoking memories of those events, dusting survivors of the alien attacks with the ash of incinerated human beings. Plane wreckage has taken on iconic meaning over the past four years; Spielberg includes such wreckage in his film to drive home the idea of this hyperbolic war being fought on U.S. soil.
George Lucas' Star Wars was defined by its era as much as it defined the summer of '77; California pretty boys with feathered hair could only strike the Galactic Empire when Carter was in office. Only in 2005 can Lucas make a Star Wars movie in which General Grievous does not stand with arms akimbo on the bridge of a Star Destroyer, but hides, bin Laden-like, on a rocky, Tora Bora-esque planet honeycombed with caves; if the Republic can only capture Grievous, it will put an end to the war.
Revenge of the Sith, a movie about the descent of a Republic at war into fascism, is loaded with lines that can be read as attacks on Bush's consolidation of power:
"What if the democracy we love doesn't exist anymore? And we've become the evil we swore to fight?"
"So this is how liberty dies ... with thunderous applause."
"You're either with me, or you're my enemy!"
"Only a Sith deals in absolutes!"
Similar abuse of power boils under the surface of Batman Begins, with its pivotal plot device of a Halliburton-like cabal within Wayne Industries that manufactures weapons which violate international law. Morgan Freeman's muttering, with regard to a high-tech body armor prototype, "I guess the bean counters didn't think a soldier's life is worth three hundred grand," takes on a new gravity in an era in which soldiers plunder scrap to improvise armor for their vehicles.
A corporate coup and appropriation of the military is the maggoty backbone of George Romero's Land of the Dead, in which the zombies of Night of the Living Dead have overrun the country. Yet another cabal of Halliburton-style executives use this state of emergency to consolidate their stranglehold over resources. The opening is pretty loaded: Suburban zombies are transfixed by pretty Fourth of July fireworks while the fat cats send working-class grunts to invade their turf and nab luxuries.
Battlestar Galactica's current incarnation on the SciFi Channel (season two begins July 15) is a take-no-prisoners assault on post-9/11 sensibilities. In the new Battlestar, an android is tortured to death in an Abu Ghraib-like setting. After a suicide bombing on the Galactica, PATRIOT Act-like powers are granted to investigators, who haul witnesses and suspects before secret tribunals. Would the Starbuck or Apollo of '78 fit in a series that tackles fundamentalism (either Christian or Islamic) as a pretext for genocidal war?
There's more than just the veneer of the fantastic that buffers us from fears of war. Not one of these genre offerings is entirely of this political and cultural moment. Each work, from the retro-'50s invasion of War (which features cameos by the stars of Pal's 1953 film) to the noir-and-late-'80s-Batman influenced Batman Begins, is a resurrection or continuation of a franchise from a previous, "safer" era. They are postcards from a more comfortable paranoia, when our borders felt so safe that the only non-nuclear assault from the sky we could imagine was flying saucers.
Future generations may look upon us and our genre offerings with the same smugness with which we now look upon the audiences of Cold War-era creature features. But unlike those of the Cold War, we not only muffle our fears in the fantastic, but dress them further still in a past in which we felt safe.
Horror and science-fiction writer Michael Marano reviews genre films for the nationally syndicated Public Radio Satellite Network program Movie Magazine International.