The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

W.J. Astore

Two weeks ago, I did an interview with TheoFantastique on the military in science fiction. I’d like to thank John Morehead, the site’s creator, for inviting me to answer a few questions on a subject near and dear to my heart.

TheoFantastique: Bill, thanks for making a little time to respond to a few questions related to the subject matter of your article. What are some general observations you have made about the shift in science fiction film depictions of the American military from the post-World War II period to the present?

3175_8dayearth_lgBill Astore: Thanks for inviting me, John. I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s, in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Films of that era were generally critical of the establishment, including sci-fi films. I fondly recall Planet of the Apes with its anti-nuclear message. Also Soylent Green with its warning about over-population, but even more dire was the way in which the authorities hid from the people the true nature of their new food source. Think also of Capricorn One, hardly a great film, but one which exposed a government conspiracy at the heart of the first manned mission to Mars. And Silent Running with Bruce Dern. The basic message was how humans were destroying planet earth, often due to nuclear war or environmental destruction, or both. Finally, Logan’s Run was a favorite of mine, but again the message was how the government of that world hid from the people the true nature of life outside of the bubble.

I remember seeing Alien in the theater and being blown away by the alien “birth” scene. But again the theme of that film was you can’t trust the authorities, who wanted the “alien” at any cost, i.e. the crew was expendable. Think of Outland as well with Sean Connery: yet more corruption among the establishment, this time involving drugs and production quotas in space mining. Here the workers were expendable.

I know I’m digressing from your question, but my general point is this: Sci-Fi films (and stories) are generally questioning (or questing, perhaps). They are usually not pro-military or pro-authority. Put differently, for every Starship Troopers there’s a Bill the Galactic Hero as a counterweight.

Think of one of my all-time favorite films, The Day the Earth Stood Still. The military is completely ineffectual in that film. Worse: the military contributes to the problem. Similarly, in the 1950s lots of films were made about the dangers of nuclear war and radiation. The military usually didn’t emerge in a favorable light in those films, if I recall correctly.

I think this began to change with films like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars could be read as apolitical (“a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”), even if that wasn’t George Lucas’s intent. In Close Encounters, a terrific film that I saw in the theater, the authorities actually know what they’re doing. They greet the alien mothership peacefully, and communicate with music and light instead of guns and nukes. Again, I don’t think Spielberg was making a pro-authority or pro-military film, but I believe he didn’t want to make a political film, a film like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

7ef4082d1After these two films, Hollywood embraced space operas and feel-good movies. There were exceptions, of course. One of my favorite movies is Starman with Jeff Bridges. Again, the authorities only want the alien for the powers he brings with him. Think too of The Man Who Fell to Earth and the way in which his life is corrupted by human excess. Doesn’t he get addicted to television?

The movie that really changed it all was Independence Day, a perfect film in the aftermath of Desert Storm (the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait). Here, of course, the militaries of various countries come together to defeat the aliens, led by an American president who climbs into the cockpit to lead the charge himself. This proved so popular that it’s no surprise George W. Bush tried to replicate the scene in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (his infamous landing on an aircraft carrier, followed by his “Mission Accomplished” victory speech).

TheoFantastique: What represents much of the portrayal of the U.S. and its military, and what does this say back to us by way of reflection on American militarism around the world?

Bill Astore: I think many, if not most, Americans now want to see the U.S. military portrayed in a positive light in films. Since the 1980s, and especially since the 1990s, Americans have been told to “support our troops.” After 9/11, ordinary Americans were taught and told we live in a dangerous world filled with “alien” terrorists, and that we had to submit to authority to combat and defeat those “aliens.”

area51-independence-day-attackSome recent sci-fi films, I believe, have come to celebrate the military, its weaponry, and its can-do spirit of “warriors.” They’ve played it safe, in other words. In some cases, film makers may have curried favor with the Pentagon as a way of securing military cooperation in filming. For example, to secure access to bases, to advanced technologies such as the F-22 and F-35 jet fighters, and so on. It makes their films “sexier” to have such access.

I’m sure some would say, So what? What’s wrong with a summer blockbuster that portrays military action in a favorable light? To that I’d say: reel war is nothing like real war. The best science fiction films — or the memorable ones — inspire us to dream of bettering ourselves as individuals and as a species. And I think the best films still seek to challenge us to be more noble, more benevolent, more compassionate.

TheoFantastique:
How do you feel as a retired Air Force officer about current science fiction’s perspective on the U.S. military?

Bill Astore:
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m glad that films are not universally anti-military. On the other hand, I’m upset that many films tend to glorify battle and war. War often looks very sexy and exciting in today’s crop of sci-fi action flicks. We need to remember that war is bloody awful, and that lasers and light sabers would not make it any less awful.

Check out TheoFantastisque, a meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture.

3 thoughts on “The U.S. Military in Science Fiction

  1. Can we have your email address? We’re Shalom: The Jewish Peace Letter (www.jewishpeacefellowship.org) and from time to time we’ll ask for your 0K to reprint one of your pieces– with credit, of course. For more ID, feel free to Google me. Murray Polner Co-editor, Shalom

    Visit my HNN Blog: There’s No There There http://historynewsnetwork.org/blog/author/40

    Like

  2. A good subject, Bill. In real life the American military can no longer win wars — even against impoveirshed, barely armed Asian peasants or middle eastern poppy farmers — so our generals and admirals have to ask Hollywood to make up some fictional stories about them defeating aliens from somer other part of the galaxy. Pathetic, really. But “war” just means “profitable fighting” these days and so it can go on squandering life and natural resources until national bankruptcy brings the whole bloody show to a grinding halt. But back to the Military Idolatry movies …

    Sheldon Wolin, in his indispensible book, Democracy, Inc., Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, attributes former U.S. President George W. Bush’s now-notorious “mission accomplished” public-relations stunt to a different film inspiration than those usually mentioned. Not Independence Day, or even Top Gun; but one of the propaganda masterpieces of all time:

    The Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstal’s famous (or infamous) propaganda tribute to Hitler, memorialized the 1934 rally of the Nazi Party at Nuremberg. It begins with a dramatic, revelatory moment. The camera is trained on a densely clouded sky. Magically, the clouds suddenly part and a tiny plane glides through. It swoops down, lands, and The Leader, in uniform, emerges and strides triumphantly past the salutes of admiring throngs and the party faithful. As the film draws to a close, the camera becomes riveted on a seemingly endless parade, row on row, of uniformed Nazis, shoulder to shoulder, goose stepping in the flickering torchlight. Even today it leaves an impression of iron determination, of power poised for conquest, of power resolute, mindless, its might wrapped in myth.

    “On May 1, 2003, in another tightly orchestrated “documentary,” television viewers were given an American version of stern resolve and its embodiment in a leader. A military plane swoops from the sky and lands on an aircraft carrier. The camera creates the illusion of a warship far at sea, symbolizing power unconfined to its native land and able to project itself anywhere in the world. The leader emerges, not as a plain and democratic officeholder, but as one whose symbolic authority is antidemocratic. He strides resolutely, flight helmet tucked under his arm, outfitted in the gear of a military pilot. Above, the banner “Mission Accomplished.” He salutes a prearranged crowd of uniformed military personnel. Shortly thereafter, he reemerges in civilian garb but without discarding the aura of anti-civilian authority. He speaks magisterially from the flight deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln, now cleared with the military carefully ringed about him. He stands alone in the ritual circle expressive of a sacrament of leadership and obedience. They cheer and clap on cue. He invokes the blessing of a higher power. He, too, has promised a triumph of the will.”

    Personally, I’ll take Dr Strangelove and Invasion of the Body Snatchers as my all-time science-fiction favorites. I thought of them a lot during the recently concluded Republican and Democratic party presidential nominating conventions. I wonder why?

    Like

    1. I love “Strangelove” but think of it as satire rather than sci-fi. Such a sharp and funny movie, yet so revealing at the same time. A work of genius.

      Yes, “Body Snatchers” is excellent too. That film didn’t pop into my mind, The remake is decent as well. TheoFantastique has an interesting interpretation of the latter as a critique of the “born again” movement. Let’s see if I can find the link:

      http://www.theofantastique.com/2010/12/26/invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-1978-social-and-theological-reflections-of-the-me-generation/

      Interesting stuff.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s