Revenge of the Pod People

Revenge of the Pod People

Nobody asked me to spend my weekend watching movies about alien invasions–so for all I know, I might have been acting on promptings from an otherworldly force.


Nobody asked me to spend my weekend watching movies about alien invasions–so for all I know, I might have been acting on promptings from an otherworldly force. From which part of the galaxy did it emanate? Maybe the Senate chamber.

An openly extra-senatorial creature had taken possession of that body only days before my glut began, materializing in the form of a “Mr. Hyde.” (Even the name was borrowed from a sci-fi source.) Speaking in strangely robotic cadences, “Mr. Hyde” declared it a grave offense for officials to lie about nongovernmental matters–in contrast to cover-ups of state crimes (such as the illegal prosecution of a war in Central America), which ought to be excused. This assertion was eerie enough, but then came an echoing of news commentators, hypnotically repeating (in robotic cadences of their own) that the Extra-Senatorial had made “a powerful case.”

Clearly, rays of hideous mind control were rippling outward from the Capitol. But then arose evidence of a second transmitter. It was located in a personage who loudly assured us he was human, all too human. Yet when asked where he had come from, this “President” claimed to have arrived from “Hope”–everywhere and nowhere.

As mysterious as the figure’s point of origin was the source of his popularity, which was said (by news commentators) to approach the universal. Such near-unanimity seemed to me suspect, especially when I considered how this “Man from Hope” had received unthinking endorsement for his program of turning Iraq into a firing range. For certain creatures with verifiable origins on Earth, the consequences were painful. According to Reuters, the December bombings had destroyed an agricultural school, damaged at least a dozen other schools and hospitals, blown up a storehouse holding 2,600 tons of rice and left 300,000 people in Baghdad without water. Yet who (other than the Iraqis) had complained of this devastation?

Strange to say, one of the few protests I heard (outside the pages of this magazine) was registered through a network of filmoids. The Reuters report came to my attention via e-mail, forwarded to me and four dozen other movie types under the heading, “All This for a Few Days’ Delay in the Impeachment Vote.” My suspicions deepened. Why should the celluloid-obsessed, of all people, be incited to raise our voices? Maybe we were being used. Maybe, by protesting, we’d give the mind-controllers an opportunity to reassure Earthlings: “See? It’s only a movie.”

Shaken to the core, I went off to watch The Faculty and Virus.

As I’d guessed, the latter turned out to be one of those embarrassments that distributors dump in January, without the risk of advance screenings. It’s a terrible movie: nothing but dark close-ups of Jamie Lee Curtis pretending to be endangered, intercut with shots of a stunt double running down narrow corridors. In hot pursuit of her comes a red light accompanied by clanking noises, which are revealed (at climactic moments) to come from the most menacing contraption ever built with an Erector set. Meanwhile, a toy boat rocks in a tub of water, conveying the impression of a Russian research vessel caught in a typhoon off Australia. It seems that a disembodied force from Outer Space has beamed down from the Mir space station to this ship, where it already has killed off almost all of the crew. Now it mistakenly thinks it can do in Jamie Lee Curtis, who with half a dozen merchant sailors has discovered the ship and boarded her.

But why am I telling you all this? Only because Virus represents an oddly mechanistic version of the threat from Outer Space. I’d even be tempted to call it old-fashioned, except for the existence of far more sophisticated films from the fifties, such as The Thing and Forbidden Planet. In those pictures, when isolated humans had to struggle against a disembodied force, it stayed disembodied. Such were the truly old-fashioned films, in which the alien menace was intangible, malleable, intimate. Virus (directed by John Bruno, based on a comic-book series by Chuck Pfarrer) is actually newfangled. Here, as in the Borg stories from Star Trek: The Next Generation–one of the few precedents I can call up–the instruments of mind control are cybernetic and surgical; the ultimate horror, a blood-soaked marriage between the human body and alien-directed machinery.

Forces from beyond never used to require so much metal–let alone vinyl tubing–just to take possession of a human’s mind and body. The trick used to be done quite readily by mesmerism or (if sterner measures were wanted) through infection, as when a dog passes on rabies. I wonder at today’s need for cruder interventions. Perhaps they’re meant to flatter us, now that we’ve grown so proud of our skepticism. An audience that knows the government lied about Roswell and its aliens is an audience too tough-minded to believe it could be penetrated by mere brainwaves. We want something solid now; we want to see electrodes.

Nevertheless: An older version of alien invasion, involving tentacles, teeth and shape-shifting, still has its place on the screen. You can see it, updated for current demands, in The Faculty.

Since the film was written by Kevin Williamson (best known for Scream), you may be assured the plot is not only traditional but self-reflexively so. At Herrington High School, somewhere in Ohio, are students deeply versed in the literature of extraterrestrial menace. They recognize what’s happening when their elders turn podlike; they understand which story they’re in. Hell, they can even distinguish between the better-known Jack Finney version and the Robert Heinlein original. Given an ounce more self-awareness, these kids might guess how their creator pitched The Faculty to Dimension Films: It’s The Breakfast Club vs. the Body Snatchers.

But that novelty, however modest, is not the distinguishing feature of The Faculty. More significant, the film has imported into this genre the same pleasure in skepticism (or is it cynicism?) that’s served by Virus‘s robotics.

In the past, when high school kids confronted evil (as in A Nightmare on Elm Street), their elders were callous, uncomprehending and useless–the usual flaws, from which your own parents and teachers used to suffer. But in The Faculty, everyday authority figures take on the heartless efficiency of the corporation in Alien. First you smile to see energy and purpose instilled into characters who previously were bumblers. Then you laugh, as the high school misfits learn to combat organized adulthood. Perhaps I won’t spoil too much of the fun if I reveal one of their methods: In The Faculty, it’s good to do drugs, and excellent to force them on your high school’s principal.

So where’s the shiver? It doesn’t come during the icky parts. Directed and edited by Robert Rodriguez (whose last hit was the gloriously tacky From Dusk Till Dawn), The Faculty rejoices in its goriest, most grotesque scenes, which buoy you up with their exuberance. To achieve his high point of tension, Rodriguez resorts to other means: He gives you a scene where the only non-alien kids left in town make their escape from Herrington High by slowly walking down the hall and out to the parking lot. No tentacles, no teeth, no blood and certainly no robotics–just a little masterwork of suspense editing, which creates terror from nothing more than shots of ordinary faces.

It’s as good a sequence as you can find to represent life in the present moment, when we’re so pleased to be cynical and so ready to believe anything. We’re the high school’s perpetual misfits, but we’re also the only “normal” ones left. They are part of an unbeatable conspiracy, but they’re also a bunch of clowns. This is how we think today, with our news commentators droning on about popularity and “Mr. Hyde” keeping the faith and “Hope” still gleaming from a well-practiced smile–and all the while, robotic bombs are making their unmentionable, bloody marriage with human bodies we never see. Tell me it’s all about sex. Tell me it’s only a movie.

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