Why do we fear the unknown? In the process of answering this question, science-fiction genre films successfully capture the history of American society at distinct points in time. The genre is so closely linked to social and historical contexts that its development relies solely on this connection. Sci-fi myths and conventions have remained static for decades, and the only measurable change in the genre lies in the films’ themes (Gehring 229-230). For example, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) argues that fear of the unknown is a flaw in human nature and criticizes the social paranoia of post-war, 1940s America. Conversely, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) views the human existence through more positive outlook, wherein society can overcome such fear; this optimism reflects the escapist beliefs of the 70s. When juxtaposed, the films’ themes demonstrate the evolution of the sci-fi genre by expressing different social attitudes towards conventions such as foreign beings, unfamiliar technology, and unusual scientists. The films also represent the genre during two major aesthetic periods in cinema—the post-classical and the late modernist eras, respectively—but nonetheless serve a greater purpose in measuring America’s social progress.
Redefining the Myth: Social and Aesthetic Sensibilities
Both films use the “alien invaders” myth to examine how American society responds to unfamiliar threats. The films contain the same basic plot components—aliens visit Earth, people react in some way, conflict arises from interaction, etc.—as well as the same conventions. As one analyst wrote, generic conventions in science-fiction have no intrinsic meaning and are “fluid and plastic” (Gehring 229). Their significance emerges from the particular film’s themes (Gehring 230). To understand how the films use the same conventions for different purpose, it is worth noting how America's unique cultural attributes shaped the 1940s and 1970s. After all, the social contexts of these eras resonate profoundly with their respective films. Science-fiction films may have emerged as a storytelling medium in 1902 with Méliès’ From the Earth to the Moon, but the genre reached cinematic prominence in the 40s and 50s, when it began to reflect the problems of American society (Anderson 2). Produced in 1951, Wise’s Earth manipulates its myth and conventions to cross-examine the social dispositions of 1940s America (Gehring 231).
Earth’s portrayal of American culture criticizes the social attitudes of the late 1940s, which were plagued by the fallout of World War II, fear of Communism, and preparation for the oncoming nuclear arms race. America’s concerns about the Soviet Union and nuclear war quickly evolved into paranoia and mass hysteria (Hendershot 7). Although some critics have argued that Earth is anti-America and borderline pro-socialist, the film’s antimilitaristic disposition is ultimately motivated by a desire for peace. Earth...