Wide Angle

The Aliens Are Here, and They Fixed All the Racism

Why do we keep fantasizing that humanity will unite in the face of one great enemy?

Side by side panels of the bloody squid from the Watchmen comic, the gigantic tentacled Tomorrow War alien baring its teeth, and a woman standing in a street watching two spacecraft blaze across the night sky in War of the Worlds.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by DC Comics, Amazon Prime Video, and Epix.

Halfway through the third episode of Apple TV+’s new extraterrestrial epic, Invasion, a Syrian immigrant named Ahmed stands outside a rural New York gas station, arguing with an angry white guy who wants him to move his Tesla so he can charge his own. “We’re all in this together,” Ahmed pleads. “This is our local gas station, Osama,” the white guy responds before giving him a shove. Then Ahmed’s wife steals a car parked nearby, he jumps in, and they drive off to safety.

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The scene is a near-perfect encapsulation of Invasion as a whole, a show that raises important issues in its first three episodes—racism, immigration, homophobia, ableism—only to speed off in a getaway car before it has to confront anything too serious. The series tells the story of five characters from radically different walks of life as their worlds are upended by a global alien attack. We meet a small-town sheriff on his last day of work, a Black soldier in Afghanistan, a Japanese aerospace engineer who pines after her astronaut girlfriend, an epileptic British schoolboy, and an upwardly mobile Syrian family living in Long Island. Yet, despite signaling aspirations to tackle big-picture issues from a global perspective, Invasion’s diversity is largely ornamental, a toothless, paint-by-number multiculturalism of the sort you see on college brochures. It’s as though the show’s creators assumed that simply writing in an immigrant or a person with a disability would magically create compelling television in and of itself—no need for intrigue or conflict or any of the flesh-and-blood details that make an audience care about whether or not a character gets sent off to the alien glue factory.

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Yet, for all that, Invasion remains an interesting cultural document because it is doing something different from the great bulk of science fiction out there about what happens when creatures from another galaxy show up on our doorsteps. Namely, it presents a world in which the arrival of space invaders does not magically fix race or class divides by uniting the human race against a common enemy, a trope that has now been a staple of science fiction for more than a century. From H.G. Wells’ 1897 classic War of the Worlds, in which a Martian attack on London (temporarily) obliterates social hierarchies, to the budding friendship between a Black exotic dancer and a white first lady in Independence Day, aliens have long been imagined as a panacea for prejudice, serving to remind us that—compared with the little green men—we’re not that different after all.

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Yet, although our cultural fascination with bigotry-busting aliens is long-standing, the trope has not remained static. Rather, it has tended to reflect the concerns and anxieties of its historical moment, evolving without ever dying. For example, when Wells wrote War of the Worlds, the granddaddy of all modern alien-invasion stories, he did so at a time of increasing criticism of British imperialism. He saw his alien invasion novel as being partly inspired by the genocidal “Black War” that invading British colonists waged against indigenous Tasmanians earlier in the 19th century. In other words, his heart was in the right place, even if his vision of aliens vaporizing social hierarchies was a little naïve. Decades later, the sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke would repurpose the trope yet again, setting his sights on (among other societal problems) apartheid. In his 1953 novel Childhood’s End, a group of (questionably benevolent) aliens arrives to put an end to political conflict, racism, and animal cruelty on Earth, notably installing civil rights in South Africa.

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At the height of the Cold War, a cosmic cure for racism would reappear as the central conceit of one of the greatest graphic novels (arguably, greatest novels, period) of the 20th century: Alan Moore’s 1987 masterpiece Watchmen. Although the recent HBO series bearing the same name—conceived as a sequel to Moore’s graphic novel—places questions of racial justice and white supremacy at its thematic center, the original comic was far less nuanced in its exploration of race.

[Read: HBO’s Watchmen Is Goofy, Daring, and Packs a Punch]

An alternate history of the Cold War set in New York City, Moore’s Watchmen centers on rising tensions that leave the United States and the Soviet Union on the brink of thermonuclear conflict. In an effort to forestall war—and the potential extinction of the human race—a retired superhero turned business magnate named Ozymandias concocts a brilliant, if megalomaniacal, ruse: He fakes an alien invasion, crash-landing a genetically engineered squid the size of a building into the heart of Manhattan, killing millions in the process. In one of Watchmen’s culminating scenes, a Black teenager and a white newspaper vendor run toward each other as they witness this impending extraterrestrial explosion, falling into each other’s arms just as they are incinerated by the alien’s arrival. As their figures atomize, the comic’s illustration reduces the two to a single human silhouette, rendered in a pointillist style of black dots perfectly integrated against a white background. The message conveyed by the visual is straightforward: racial harmony arriving at a moment of, and ultimately through, absolute catastrophe.

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Indeed, this implicit message is rendered even more explicitly in the full-page panels immediately following this interracial embrace. There, we are presented with a series of images—rendered in wild hues by colorist John Higgins—that portray a ruined New York City full of racially unidentifiable yellow, orange, and pink corpses. As the comic winds to a close, we learn that the United States and the Soviet Union have set aside their differences, uniting to confront this common (and, unbeknownst to them, illusory) enemy. It is worth noting here that, although Moore’s dream of global peace occasioned by alien anxiety seems the stuff of comic book whimsy, it was a fantasy also shared by Ronald Reagan. In 1987, the same year Watchmen was published, the president would stand before the United Nations and surmise that “perhaps we need some outside universal threat to make us recognize this common bond.” Reagan went on to muse about “how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”

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Fast forward a few decades, past Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith becoming buddies to save the planet in Independence Day, and this same aliens-solve-racism shtick remains ingrained in popular culture. Today, it has been reimagined for our new moment in history, one defined by climate change. To find this dynamic at play, one need look no further than the latest adaptation of War of the Worlds.

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Streaming on Epix and recently concluding its sophomore season, Howard Overman’s television series based on Wells’ novel begins familiarly enough when a lonely astronomer in the French Alps notices an odd signal coming from outer space. In a rather on-the-nose allegory for the First World’s all-too-real reluctance to confront the global climate crisis, the scientist’s warnings go unheeded by those with the power to do something before it’s too late. You know what happens next: Aliens invade Earth and wipe out much of the population, leaving behind a ragtag band of human survivors who must come together to thwart our new overlords and take back our planet.

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Initially, the aliens—four-legged and encased in strange machines that make them look like robotic German shepherds—hunt and kill as many human beings as they can, their ultimate goal as inscrutable as their eyeless faces. However, in its second season, War of the Worlds adds a plot twist: The freaky little dog aliens are just the puppets of a more intelligent species. The real “aliens” look just like us. In fact, they are us—long-lost human refugees from another planet. As the viewer learns, things aren’t going so well at home, and their takeover of Earth is a desperate bid to prevent their own extinction. Along the way, the protagonists (human and “alien” alike) are forced to confront their prejudices, asking hard questions about why they’re fighting in the first place.

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This fondness for a kind of cosmic kumbaya—in which the shared extraterrestrial threat distracts from human racial and/or class inequality taking place on Earth—is also apparent in the latest (thoroughly mediocre) Chris Pratt blockbuster, The Tomorrow War. As in War of the Worlds, it is apparent from the very beginning that the intergalactic invasion is intended as a rather ham-fisted allegory for the battle against climate change: We encounter frustrated scientists whose expertise falls on deaf ears, and clashes between progressive voices who argue that it is our moral duty to help future human beings who are suffering under the alien onslaught and reactionary factions who believe that those living in the present have no duty to make hard sacrifices on behalf of the future.

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Pratt’s character, Dan Forester, is a warrior-scientist—a man who did two combat tours as a Green Beret before finding his “passion in the army research lab.” While he watches a World Cup match, the game is interrupted by a handful of soldiers who seem to appear out of thin air. As the viewers watch in astonishment, the leader of the group informs the world that they come from the future to give a warning: In the year 2048, a race of interplanetary intruders will launch an attack on Earth, pushing humanity to the brink of extinction. These battle-hardened soldiers have arrived to deliver time-travel technology, enabling a worldwide draft in the present that will send recruits into the near future to fight the aliens. Moments later, the film cuts to images of a news broadcast in the year 2023, showing the faces of present-day draftees—a multiracial cross-section prominently featuring multiple people of color and a woman in a hijab—who have been killed in the “tomorrow” war.

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The film’s final plot twist—that the aliens have been dormant on Earth for more than a thousand years and only reemerged when global warming thawed the ice caps—attempts to transform a pulpy blockbuster into an even more explicit warning about climate change. However, not only does the film envision a climate change–induced crisis as one that can be solved by a lone white American military hero and his bumbling Black sidekick—rather than radical economic restructuring and international cooperation—like Watchmen, it presents a scenario in which a global crisis ameliorates, rather than exacerbates, the preexisting divides of race and wealth that determine who suffers the most in times of disaster.

[Read: Chris Pratt’s New Movie The Tomorrow War, Explained, Today!]

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As the film winds to a close with an overhead shot of a ritzy suburb and Chris Pratt’s character reuniting with his family, the film once again reveals its true colors: When Hollywood pictures “saving the world” from threats brought about by a planetary catastrophe like climate change (or an alien invasion!), that often means ensuring a return to business as usual for the Western, white, and wealthy.

Of course, not all alien appeals are so myopic. The same year that Alan Moore published Watchmen and Reagan waxed rapturous about a post-alien Eden, the acclaimed sci-fi writer Octavia Butler released Dawn, her brilliant novel about an otherworldly encounter that forces human survivors to navigate lingering racism even as they struggle against an extraterrestrial menace. Yet, for all its insight, Butler’s novel was also squarely a product of the Cold War, a moment when the primary threat to the human species was a sudden, spectacular explosion. The challenge today is to adapt such thinking to the 21st century, for an age when the more gradual effects of warming, rather than an instantaneous nuclear winter, have emerged as our greatest peril.

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Although this summer’s alien installments, War of the Worlds and The Tomorrow War, set their sights on climate catastrophe, both films traffic in the persistent but problematic myth that “we’re all in it together” when it comes to worldwide crises—whether it be an extraterrestrial invasion or global warming. At the very least, Apple’s new series eschews this tendency, acknowledging the ways in which disasters are not experienced equally, and are more likely to bring bigotry to the surface than solve it.

Invasion is, as mentioned, far from perfect. Throughout the first three episodes, prejudice is conceived of as something that individuals do to one another—a homophobic mother, a suburbanite suspicious of the Muslim couple next door, a psychopathic middle schooler who torments an epileptic classmate—rather than something embedded deep in the fabric of institutions, the kind of bigotry that lubricates the gears of polite society. Yet, even if it is not particularly sophisticated, Invasion is valuable insofar as it resists the tendency to imagine planetary crises—whether an alien invasion, anthropogenic climate change, or a pandemic—as universal threats to the species that affect all human beings equally.

For more than 100 years, the alien invasion has remained one of science fiction’s great tools to interrogate crises from colonialism to nuclear catastrophe. At a moment when a pandemic continues to disproportionately devastate the world’s poor people and an accelerating climate crisis intensifies the precarity of those who are already the most vulnerable, it has become increasingly apparent that these plots must be updated for the 21st century. Whether the apocalyptic event is an alien invasion or something far more earthbound, it is clear that our response will be all too human.

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