It was 1953, three years before I was born. My mother’s family moved from Palmyra, in southeast Wisconsin, to Platteville in the southwest that summer, just in time for her to begin her senior year of high school. No doubt she was not thrilled with the idea of leaving her old Palmyra friends behind, but that would change midway through the year when she met my father, a ’52 grad.
It was a memorable year in Wisconsin for another reason, for it was the year Major League Baseball came to the state. The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee to begin a 13-year tenure in our largest city, one which would bring a World Series title in ’57, a near-miss a year later, and then an ugly divorce eight years after that as the club headed south to Atlanta.
Dwight Eisenhower took up residence in the White House in January, and a few months after his inauguration an armistice was signed that ended the Korean War. The short but brutal conflict had cost nearly 40,000 American lives, and everybody back home, I was told much later, was glad to see it end. Everybody wanted peace; our country had been at war for seven of the previous 11-1/2 years, dating back to our entry into World War II in December 1941. After that war a lot of Americans started worrying about our erstwhile allies, the Russians, who quickly became adversaries. Worse yet, they were adversaries who soon figured out how to build atomic weapons, using technological secrets they apparently stole from us. There was a very real prospect that someday soon, the U.S. and USSR would square off in a war that would make the destruction of WWII look like a middle school playground tussle.
It never happened. Soviet troops never did set foot in America except for a very few officers invited as guests. American cities did not go up in nuclear fireballs, nor did their Soviet counterparts. The missiles of both sides stayed in their launch bays aboard submarines and under the surfaces of lonely prairies. There were one or two close calls–the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 threatened to get very hot over a few tense days–but the leadership of the two superpowers kept their heads and never had to give the launch orders. Soviet tanks did not pour through the Fulda Gap into West Germany, so soldiers like my father in the mid-fifties didn’t have to fight to protect our NATO allies. Bombers never snuck over the North Pole to strike our cities, paratroopers did not float to the hard ground of Alaska to engage us on our own turf. But the United States did indeed get invaded in 1953, and it was a terrifying struggle that left our country on the brink of defeat. Fortunately, it was only a movie.
The wars of the worlds.
With real invasions happening all the time in almost every corner of the globe, one would think humanity would not even want to consider the prospect of being struck by aliens from outer space. But it’s been a popular theme of fiction for more than a century now. Although we now know that life, at least intelligent life, almost certainly does not exist on any of the other planets or moons of our solar system, back in the 19th century and early 20th it was assumed that there were indeed civilizations on worlds other than our own, perhaps as close as Mars or even our own moon. It was a subject too tempting for writers to avoid, and so it was in the latter years of the 19th century we got our first alien invasion novels.
The H.G. Wells classic The War of the Worlds was published in 1898, telling the story of a Martian invasion of Earth that begins in England. I read the novel as a youngster, having already seen the 1953 movie, and was struck by the differences. In both cases, the invaders reach our planet in spacecraft that are little more than controlled meteorites, launched from the Martian surface by huge cannons and crash-landing here. Evidently the occupants had some measure of control over them because none are reported coming down in the ocean. In Wells’s novel, the aliens emerge aboard enormous three-legged machines, which proceed to use heat rays and poison gas to battle the Earthlings. The movie version has the aliens using something like a hovercraft, floating several feet above the ground and moving slowly. The lack of speed of the Martian machines in both novel and movie leaves them wide open to attack by our military forces. In the novel, the Martians are able to maneuver just enough to stay ahead of the British army, which of course at that time had no motorized vehicles and no aircraft, but the invaders prove vulnerable to artillery fire if cornered. The overwhelming Martian advantage in weaponry, however, is enough to ensure their victory. By 1953, the filmmakers understood that having 1898-style adversaries would never do; those Victorian-era Martians would be handled with relative ease by our modern mechanized artillery and tanks and would be sitting ducks for jet aircraft, especially high-altitude bombers, which could operate above the range of the Martian heat ray. So they gave the Martians the advantage of force fields, protecting their floating battlewagons from any kind of earthly weapon, including nuclear blasts.
In between the publication of the book and the premiere of the movie, the story was told on the radio in a memorable production that aired in October 1938, on the day before Halloween, on the CBS radio program The Mercury Theater on the Air. The 60-minute broadcast was produced and narrated by Orson Welles and presented as a series of news bulletins, giving the impression that it was really happening. Although a disclaimer at the start of the show declared that it was a work of fiction, many listeners either didn’t remember that or tuned in just after the start of the show. Legend has it that the show caused a panic across the nation, but ratings at the time indicated the show had very few listeners compared to other shows on competing stations, and there were no confirmed reports of riots or other disturbances, although police departments and radio stations did receive a large number of calls asking what was going on. The panic, it seems, was created more by the newspapers after the fact than by the radio show during the broadcast. One Australian publication said that “never in the history of the United States had such a wave of terror and panic swept the continent.”
The movie was remade, as movies often are, in 2005. In this version, Tom Cruise plays the hero and the invaders revert to their original 1898-style machines, termed “tripods” by Earth journalists. These rigs, though, also have force fields, so once again our military forces, even with 21st-century weaponry much more powerful than what we’d been able to throw at the Martians 52 years before, have no hope of defeating them. Even more terrifying is the realization that these machines have been buried in our soil for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and are now activated by alien pilots who are transported from orbit to the surface by a form of lightning. They are here to harvest us for food, having apparently waited until they have enough of us around to make it worth their while. But in all three versions, the aliens are eventually brought to heel by microorganisms in our atmosphere, from which we have long been immune but against which the aliens’ metabolism evidently has no defense.
There are two things about that which are worth thinking about. First, let’s assume that an alien civilization has decided to target our planet. They want to move here because their own planet is dying (The War of the Worlds), or they want our water (Battle Los Angeles) or even our gold (Cowboys vs. Aliens) or maybe just everything we have (Independence Day). Presumably they would have scouted us, at the very least with telescopes, probably with unmanned probes and even manned reconnaissance missions. One would think, therefore, that they would have at the very least assumed that Earth’s atmosphere might possibly contain microscopic threats against which the invading soldiers would require protection. After all, when we sent our astronauts to the moon they took precautions against contamination, even though we were pretty sure there was nothing alive up there. You can be assured that when we finally send astronauts to Mars or other planets, they will be well-prepared to deal with any viruses or other nuisances they might encounter on the surface.
One would think Wells might possibly have thought of that. A civilization that is technologically advanced enough to cross interplanetary space and wage war against another civilization is not stupid enough to fail to consider something as obvious as potential environmental threats. But maybe not. When European explorers first came to North America, they had tremendous technological advantages over the natives, most prominently firearms and horses. Even with those advantages, they were helpless against something they picked up in contact with Native Americans: syphilis. If Wells had indeed considered keeping the Martians protected from Earth diseases, then how could they possibly be defeated? The good guys had to win in the end, so somehow the Martians had to die.
Forty-three years after the 1953 movie, Independence Day gave us an alien race that was seemingly unbeatable. They are never named and their home planet is not identified, but they have ravaged planets throughout the galaxy and ours is next. They have scouted us for years and know exactly how to hit us and, more importantly, what precautions to take. With mammoth battleships that can destroy entire cities and fleets of agile aircraft that are more than a match for our best jet fighters, the aliens lay waste to the planet’s cities and military forces. They’re also impervious to the microorganisms that felled their predecessors, and are defeated only when they are outsmarted by the crafty humans. With the aliens closing in on the last sanctuary of the American leadership, someone figures out how to use a captured alien fighter to infiltrate their mother ship in orbit, upload a computer virus that takes down the aliens’ force fields and then leave a nuclear weapon behind that destroys the ship. With the force fields gone, Earth’s military forces are able to cobble together enough aircraft to take down the alien battleships.
What a difference a half-century makes.
The second thing worth considering is the difference in tone from then to now. In the 1953 movie, religious imagery is prominent in the film. A courageous pastor takes it upon himself to confront the aliens before the shooting starts, convinced they can be reasoned with as a more advanced civilization like theirs is surely closer to God. Unfortunately for the pastor, his assumption of the aliens’ altruism proves fatally incorrect. As the Martians advance unopposed through Los Angeles, many of the remaining humans congregate in churches, drawing comfort from each others’ presence as their ministers lead them in prayers begging for divine intervention. And their prayers are answered, as the invaders begin to succumb to disease and their vehicles crash to the ground. In the final scene, the narrator gives credit to God and humanity celebrates with adoring praise for the One who delivered them from conquest and slavery.
By the time the movie was remade in 2005, a much more secular America was having none of this religious nonsense. This time the aliens are running roughshod over everything until those handy microbes start doing their work, allowing the humans to finish the job. The closing narration says not a word about the hand of God even taking part in the victory, much less getting all the credit.
The remake was directed by Steven Spielberg and was a box-office hit. Although the critics generally gave the film decent reviews, there was some carping that the ending was flat. There was no triumphant human achievement as there had been nine years earlier in Independence Day, which generated its own criticism for having the intrepid Americans lead the way to victory. Instead, Spielberg’s film had the hero, Cruise, notice that the tripods’ shields were gone, allowing the soldiers on the ground to take them down. The aliens were on their last legs anyway, succumbing to the microbes, as Morgan Freeman’s narration at the end points out. Nothing was said about divine intervention. With no intelligent design behind anything in the evolution of life on earth, as today’s secular thinking goes, it was just pure happenstance that the microbes were around and that the aliens had no defense against them. In other words, we got lucky.
Will it ever happen?
Alien invasion has been a staple of science fiction since Wells put pen to paper for the granddaddy of them all, and there’s no sign it will ever go away. Writers continue to come up with new aliens to pit against us, new ways for them to mount their assault, and tougher odds for humanity to overcome, although eventually we do. Sometimes it takes a long time, as in novels like L. Ron Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth and Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. Most scifi has us finding the aliens first, in deep space or on their own planets. The entire Star Trek franchise, now fifty years old and still going strong with TV series, movies and books, is based on the idea that mankind will find a way to make manned exploration of the stars a reality, and once we get there we will find other sentient species, some of which will be like us in many ways, and some of which will be very different. One thing in common with virtually all these fictional scenarios, though, is conflict between us and the aliens. Maybe not all of them, but enough to cause some serious trouble. Where would the Trek stories be, after all, if not for the threatening presence of Klingons, Romulans and Xindi, to name three alien races that battle the Earth-led United Federation of Planets? Things might be a lot more peaceful, but perhaps a lot more dull, too.
If we are ever attacked by aliens for real, hopefully we will have learned a few lessons from the movies and books that foretold their coming. First, forget about opening any sort of dialogue, at least before we have our defenses set and ready to go. If the British in the Wells novel and the Americans in the ’53 movie had hit the Martians before they could deploy their machines, the war quite likely would’ve been over rather quickly. Nobody in the movie thought that maybe they might lay some mines around the craters, either; the Martian force fields might well have protected the underside of their machines from something coming from underground, but maybe not.
I read once that the Pentagon has war plans on the shelf for the invasion of every country on the face of the Earth, just in case we have to. Presumably somebody also thought about putting together a plan to defend against a space-based assault, too. One thing that might hinder us is the relative lack of spacecraft we have available to confront any alien ship that is approaching Earth with possible hostile intent. We no longer have any operational space shuttles, which in fiction have been modified to carry missiles or even troops, and I don’t think it’s even worth thinking about sending a Russian Soyuz up there to make our collective stand in orbit. The Air Force has developed an unmanned vehicle, the X-37B, which is apparently designed to attack enemy satellites in orbit and perhaps, one might think, to launch a missile or two at targets on the ground, but we probably don’t have too many of these ready to deploy. No, if it came to that, we’d have to try to knock the alien ships down with land-based or submarine-launched nuclear missiles, and if they get past those we’d have to send the Air Force up to take them on in the atmosphere. The last line of defense would be our soldiers on the ground.
What if, someday, we’re the bad guys?
In these politically-correct times, it was perhaps inevitable that after decades of films showing Earth being attacked by aliens or our peaceful explorers encountering dangerous threats among the stars, somebody would make one that turns the tables. Avatar debuted in 2009, giving us the lush alien world of Pandora, inhabited by ten-foot-tall humanoids who have a culture very much like that of pre-Columbian Native Americans. Earth explorers have found that the planet, which is actually an Earth-sized moon of a Jupiter-like gas giant in the Alpha Centauri system, contains a large supply of a mineral that is a room-temperature superconductor, which would revolutionize our technology, especially in terms of energy production. Now we’re the aliens, and the natives have something we want very badly.
The film’s creator and director, James Cameron, admitted that the movie is an implicit criticism of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, although he also denied that it was anti-American. I saw the film in the theater when it was released and was, like so many others, dazzled by the stunning visuals of the film, especially as I saw it in 3D. It was also pretty clear that the film’s “good guys” were the Na’vi, and the bad guys were the Earthlings, led by Americans. In fact, I can’t recall any other nationality being depicted among the “aliens.” Another thing I noticed, when I saw the film again on TV a couple years later: in the theatrical release, the Earth mining officials briefly mentioned the importance of the mineral they’re seeking on Pandora, saying that with Earth’s resources in danger of being depleted soon (this is the mid-22nd century), obtaining this mineral has top priority. But in the version shown on TV, those few lines, providing rather valuable context, were cut.
This raises an interesting question: what if something like that really happened? What if our first interstellar expedition discovers such a mineral, and there’s an indigenous population that doesn’t want to sell any of it to us? Our own history shows that when a technically-superior civilization encounters one that isn’t as advanced, and those natives have something the newcomers want, they’ll take it, one way or another. The early Americans had two things the Europeans wanted: land and gold. The natives did not have the military strength to effectively resist the invaders. In Avatar, they do, with a big assist from some turncoat humans who “go native” and lead the successful resistance.
Avatar was a huge box-office success, eventually exceeding the previous record-holder, Cameron’s own 1997 epic, Titanic. Four sequels are planned, with the first set to hit screens in late 2021. But the trend of Earth-as-alien-invader film didn’t catch on. Maybe it was because Cameron did it so well, anyone else’s effort would automatically be found wanting. Or, it could be that Earth moviegoers don’t really care all that much to see their own kind portrayed as bad guys. Once in awhile, okay, if it’s a good story and skillfully told, which Avatar certainly is. Before this film, the various Star Trek TV series often showed the aliens’ perspective, but the series format allows for that type of in-depth exploration of character. As we learn more about the culture and history of alien races like the Romulans and Klingons, we can start to see things from their point of view. We may not agree with it, but at least we can begin to understand why it is that they’re so prone to be suspicious of us.
When Martians ruled the Earth.
Many observers, both in 1953 and today, say The War of the Worlds was a metaphor for the actual Cold War that was then gripping the planet. There were a few movies and books about a Soviet invasion of America, to be sure, and as recently as the 1980s movies like Red Dawn gave us an America besieged by terrestrial adversaries. But in 1953, our country had fought and won a terribly costly world war just a few years earlier, and was at the time of the film’s release trying to extricate itself from the brutal Korean conflict. Domestic audiences were tired of fighting other nations, and though there would be many movies in the fifties that had WW2 or Korea-based themes, moviegoers were looking for something a little more “out there” for their entertainment, and what better way to get that than to have movies about beings from “out there”? The advent of color film and special effects made science fiction films more plausible and attractive. The 1953 film won an Academy Award for visual effects and was one of the many memorable movies produced by George Pal, a Hungarian-born animator who also gave us classics like Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide and Conquest of Space. Even today, Pal’s effects in The War of the Worlds hold up fairly well, and the sound effects associated with the Martian weapons would show up again on the soundtracks of other movies and TV series. On the original Star Trek series, which made its debut fifty years ago next month, the photon torpedo launchers aboard the starship Enterprise used the same sounds generated by the firing of the Martians’ wingtip disruptor beams from the ’53 movie. The sound effects were so good, in fact, that anybody who saw the movie even many years ago instantly recognizes them today. In this scene from the movie, the first exchange of fire between the Martians and the American defenders is touched off by the courageous pastor’s decision to confront them alone. It remains one of the most gripping scenes in a film that had more than a few of them: Pastor Confronts the Martians
Does intelligent life exist on other planets? Odds are heavily in favor of yes, even though we haven’t found any yet. Someday we will cross interstellar space and find our counterparts. Or maybe they will find us first. Some believe they already have; the aliens have just chosen not to reveal themselves to us yet, or perhaps they’ve crashed here and been captured and our government is holding them at secret bases like Area 51, gleaning all the technological wisdom we can from the aliens and their spacecraft. I think that’s rather unlikely, though. These days it’s hard for the government to keep much of anything secret, much less a secret that would, if revealed, be the most sensational news story of all time.
Let’s hope that when that inevitable confrontation happens, both sides will realize that it’s in everybody’s best interests to shake hands rather than point a gun, to seek the common ground of mutual understanding and cooperation instead of trying to take the other species’ ground. In other words, let’s hope that we will have learned a lesson from what our ancestors did when they discovered less-advanced civilizations on new continents. And especially, let’s hope the aliens learned that lesson, too.