For the last few years a number of commentators have been speculating on whether we’ve hit “peak-zombie”: a moment when the number of zombie movies being released has reached its apex, and can only decline (see Forbes, Spinoff, i09, and, if you don’t mind boosting the hit count of the vulgar rag, the Daily Mail). While I have my reservations (does anyone really expect the return of The Walking Dead this fall to suffer in the ratings?) the change in the tone of recent zombie films could support this idea.
2014 saw several zombie releases such as Life After Beth, Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead, Burying the Ex, Zombeavers, and I Survived a Zombie Holocaust. All comedies, all tongue-in-cheek homages to a genre whose glory days may arguably be in the past. Besides the bleak Maggie, 2015 was a similar story, with the zombie comedies (zom coms? zomedies?) Night of the Living Deb, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, and Me and My Mates vs. the Zombie Apocalypse.
Instead, in the territory of science fiction, 2015 was very much the year of the reboot, remake, sequel, and adaptation: prominent titles included Mad Max: Fury Road, Terminator: Genisys, Jurassic World, The Fantastic Four, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. With the zombie film seemingly developing rigor mortis (sorry), movies needed a new wave of villains, a fresh stand-in for their heroes’ Other. It appears they have found this in a revival of the alien invasion narrative, a revival which suggests something about the contemporary national mood.
The teaser trailer for The 5th Wave, a film currently in theaters, illustrates this perfectly. A white, nuclear family stands together in front of their suburban home, looking up at the imposing sight of an alien spacecraft, as a voice-over tells us: “we called them the Others.” The metaphor could hardly be any more transparent. White, middle-class, suburban America is shown as being besieged by an unfamiliar, alien horde, which wants nothing more than the entirety of “Earth. … They need the Earth.” The film even employs the word familiar to academic and cultural studies, “Other,” used to refer to minorities who are marginalized and excluded from the dominant narrative of a society.
With these almost too on-the-nose indicators in mind, a look at the other big releases set for this year shows a pattern emerging: in Story of Your Life a linguist is employed to translate for the visiting aliens, in order to determine if they threaten humanity; the aliens of Spectral take over New York City, the historic port-of-entry for immigrants into the United States; and the film sequel Independence Day: Resurgence, the video game XCOM 2, and the TV show Colony all show humanity trying to resist aliens who wish to claim Earth for their own.
One could jump to any of several conclusions about the anxieties reflected in the proliferation of mysterious, insidious Others in this year’s popular culture. In the 1950s, a great many science fiction films depicting the invasion of an indistinguishable alien threat were released, with Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) the quintessential example. The critical consensus on these films for decades was that these films represented the fear of communist ideology taking hold of seemingly “ordinary” Americans. As Mark Jancovich’s excellent Rational Fears (1996) demonstrates, however, this is an oversimplification which excludes “a great many films which simply do not fit with this subgenre,” and “even the 1950s invasion narratives are often markedly different from one another” (2). Trying to establish a theory which explains the invasion scare narratives of today, therefore, is an endeavor which ought to, likewise, be approached with caution. Taking The 5th Wave as an example, however, there are some starting points I would like to posit.
The 5th Wave‘s trailer describes the assault on humanity as follows: “First they took our power, throwing the world into chaos. Then, they took our cities, laying everything to waste. Next they took our lives, with an unstoppable airborne virus. Worst of all, they took control. The Others were already among us…” The antagonists arrive in large numbers on their (space)ship, put a strain on the societal resources, they engulf the urban centers, they bring contagious illness, and, eventually, prevent humanity from controlling its own destiny.
I would suggest these ideas match, unnervingly closely, some of the bombastic but rather widespread rhetoric one can hear in America, Britain, and Europe around the topic of immigration. Immigration has been an especially contentious issue since 2008’s financial crash, when certain politicians connected with big money interests rather cleverly spun the narrative away from banks and towards immigrants (as Sigmund Freud perceived, “It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness” ). In America, a recent Gallup Poll shows immigration as an issue of above average importance for Republicans, though a less important issue for Democrats. Late last year a YouGov poll found three quarters of those polled believed immigration into Britain over the last decade was “too high,” and for the “Leave” side of the Europe referendum debate immigration is proving to be a primary motivating issue.
Adding to this is the fact that countries globally are deeply divided over how to respond to both the protracted Syrian refugee crisis and the continued economic migration of populations from the Middle East. British Prime Minister David Cameron has referred to “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean,” and right-wing groups have grown across Europe in opposition to efforts to grant refugees asylum, particularly in major cities. The refugee camp termed the “jungle” (bringing to mind Bob Marley’s song “Concrete Jungle,” with its lyrics “no chains around my feet, but I’m not free. I know I am bounded in captivity”), near the port city of Calais, France, was aggressively demolished by French authorities in an attempt to prevent what has been seen as an illegitimate city from gaining some permanence.
Opinion is also deeply divided in the US, with many elected officials resisting the resettlement of refugees, and projections suggesting that refugees are likely to primarily settle in major cities. In the 2016 Republican primary race, candidate Donald Trump’s proposals to ban Muslims from entering the US and to build a wall to prevent immigration from Mexico have proven surprisingly popular with voters, who have ensured his presumptive nomination. With misinformation and hyperbole making immigration a divisive issue in the minds of particularly urban populations in Britain and America it seems no coincidence that 2016 should see a resurgence of alien invasion narratives, in which a “swarm” of Others threatens to descend on the city.
While the presence of these anxieties and their amplified rhetoric should certainly bolster the potency of such invasion scare texts, whether these are conscious attempts to channel the issues of today into marketable media or whether this is simply a subconscious manifestation of these issues is not immediately clear. Certainly, I would argue (while still suggesting caution at proposing too over-arching an explanation) this seems to be a compelling correlation.
Is this a correlation others have noted? Have I missed a potential explanation? As usual please do take me to task in the comments section below!