E.T. Go Home: Indigeneity, Multiculturalism and 'Homeland' in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema

By Addison-Smith, Helen | Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, March 2005 | Go to article overview

E.T. Go Home: Indigeneity, Multiculturalism and 'Homeland' in Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema


Addison-Smith, Helen, Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature


In Gwendolyn Audrey Foster's investigation of the performance of whiteness in Hollywood cinema, she claims that Science Fiction cinema is 'a zone in which issues of race can be evaded' (2003, p.11). Indeed, both Science Fiction books and cinema have often been seen as escaping the 'reality' of contemporary debates of race, imagining instead a future in which ethnic divisions have given way to a unified 'humanity'. There are two central problems with this understanding of the genre. Firstly, such a formulation of the 'unity' of the human race is most often enacted through an erasure of difference, particularly in the centralisation of white male characters. Secondly, and more importantly for this article, one of the most persistent tropes of the genre is in fact a figure of spectacular racial otherness: the alien.

Previous critiques of Science Fiction cinema, such as Vivian Sobchack's seminal Screening Space, have understood the figure of the alien as reflecting a general interest in difference, collapsing it into a host of uncanny others, such as the robot, the monster and the cyborg. However, unlike the otherness of these creations, the alien's otherness is biological, naturally occurring and has evolved independently of human culture. In 'manmade' figures of difference, anxieties are often reflected concerning humanity's quest for knowledge, particularly scientific knowledge. In contrast, the difference manifested in the imagining of the alien utilises the rhetorics of human cultural difference that have historically involved the reification of the alien through biology as race. The two concerns are not oppositional: 'man-made' technologies of communication and interspatial colonisation often facilitate contact with alien races, just as certain technologies (the rifle, the sailing ship, the telegraph) informed 'real world' colonial actions.

This article, however, will focus on some instances of 'real world' racial discourses available through Science Fiction narratives in their imaginings of inter-species contact, specifically in the most mainstream and widespread aspect of this genre--the contemporary Hollywood Science Fiction film. This article will examine a selection of such films as discursive sites for the expression and debate of contemporary concerns of racial identity, particularly as it relates to the spaces of 'home' and 'homeland'. Key in this investigation is the constantly metamorphosing, over-invested figure of the American 'Indian', a construct far removed from actual Native American culture.

Many of these films, such as E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Wars and Cocoon are family blockbusters and so cater to child audiences, most obviously through the inclusion of children who are centrally involved in their narratives. As Sobchack points out, such films often overtly draw an analogy between the alien and the child, with the 'alien or Other .. somehow implicated in family life'. This, she argues, is a reflection of anxieties concerning the breakdown of the patriarchal domestic order by the 'invasion' of the outside world, whether figured as 'extra-terrestrials, or one's own alien kids' (1986, p.8). Other films examined in this essay, such as the Alien series and Species, while not 'teen films' (in that they do not feature teenager characters) are almost stereotypically of interest to adolescent males. With their high levels of sex and bloody violence, such films in fact draw strongly on generic traditions of horror cinema. As Timothy Shary points out, by the 1980s and 90s, horror made for some of the highest grossing 'teen movies' (2003, p.503), hence there is considerable overlap in the implied spectatorship of the teen movie and the hybrid science fiction/horror movie.

Constructing Alien Race

The most immediate expression of how alien figures function to soothe contemporary anxieties of racial difference is found in the depiction of their corporeality. …

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