The Futility of Action in Science Horror

I recently rewatched a 1967 Christopher Lee film called Night of the Big Heat (aka Island of the Burning Damned), and its ending got me thinking of the connection between nature and the futility of human action in science fiction movies with a horror bent. This one is going to get spoilery about films, so if that bothers you here’s your chance to bail.

When I shared on social media that I’d seen this film and enjoyed its Quatermass-esque story of alien invasion, I received an interesting replay from someone who loved it up until the terrible ending. For me, the ending worked, and it solidified my fairly positive response to the film. I knew what the person meant, though, and I’d heard the same complaint about The War of the Worlds (1953). What both movies share is an ending in which the threat is neutralized despite human effort.

In H.G. Wells’ novel (serialized in 1897 and printed fully the following year), the military, clergy, and scientists all fail to stop the Martian invasion. The only thing that pushes the space aliens back is the onslaught of microbes, against which the opposition has no defense. It’s a sobering conclusion, and one that’s extremely canny. England was the center of a vast empire, and its people embraced the holdings of Social Darwinism, which was the latest re-skin of “might makes right” justification. To have the heart of the empire conquered and only reclaimed through disease is not only an amazing undercutting of national pride but a canny understanding of how contagions have been the some of the greatest weapons against isolated communities.

The influence of Wells’ invasion story cannot be overstated. As one of the first tales of a threat from outer space, and a massive success that has never gone out of print, it is a foundational text in genre of space fiction. More on that later, but returning to the film adaptation of the 1950s–we are discussing movies after all–while abandoning a lot of the bleak tone, it maintained the ending in which victory belonged to the microbes. Admittedly, it feels very abrupt. The conquering Martians open their vessels and… drop dead. A bit of narration explains it, but that’s the big finale. It’s worth noting that this narration implicitly credits God for placing the germs there to defend us, which has a very Signs feel to it. (“Millions upon millions have died from plagues so that the space invaders would be repelled!”)

Similarly, after discovering that the mysterious heat wave and burning deaths have been the doing of globby space creatures, the characters of Night of the Big Heat are unable to repel the invaders through any heroic and self-sacrificing deed. As the humans face defeat in the climactic battle, the skies open, and the creatures melt away in a downpour. The explanation is really more of an observation that it appears to have happened, and it certainly does appear that it did.

I understand the frustration of these endings. They do feel like dei ex machina, resolving the conflict in a way so unexpected as to surpass surprise and evoke feelings of being cheated. It works better in prose, where the time spent on the resolution can be longer and more detailed. Cinematically, it’s rather anti-climactic. I think there’s a deeper feeling at work, as well–a complicated one involving investment in the characters’ struggles and the futility of their heroism. We like to see valor rewarded. A personal sacrifice that contributes to the ultimate victory is one we can accept. (There’s a reason almost every viewer of Arachnophobia complains about the death of Julian Sands’ spider expert. Not only should he have known better, but his death serves no purpose.) To see all of the pain and suffering while gleaning precious scraps of knowledge turn out to be irrelevant is to confront our own fears of our lives amounting to nothing.

Honestly, that’s why I like bleak stories. I’m not a nihilist; I may not believe that morals derive from religion, but I do believe that there are meaningful and supportive ways to live my life. I also love a happy ending. To me, there’s more going on in these stories than the futility of existence. If all they were about was the irrelevance of striving, I’d agree that those endings are bad. Not because they’re downbeat but that there should have been textual support for that meaning. There are a few things going on here that I think are terrific themes.

The first unifying theme is a broad one that stretches beyond endings of this exact mold to a lot of science fiction and horror films in general. At first glance, microbes and rainfall have little in common, but they are both part of the environment in which we live. They’re something that people have learned to mitigate (or build resistance against), but they are beyond our control–forces of nature that we only pay attention to when inconvenienced by them. The world in which we live is our best defense, as the invaders in Signs found out when their greatest weakness turned out to be water.

Vulnerabilities are common in our legends of monsters and supernatural creatures. They’re often so powerful that the only way we can feel any control is to attribute a means to make them vulnerable. Often these weapons came from nature. Silver, iron, garlic, salt: the arsenal at our disposal is largely at our fingertips. There’s also an explicit holiness to these defenses. Whatever religion, there’s a sense that the rules are part of a divine order. The world is provided with tools for us to use, if we only look.

Wells’ novel The War of the World suggests that the Christian God may have created the microbes for our defense against the Martians. The 1953 film adaptation makes this an explicit assertion in the ending narration. When science became our new source of monsters, a strain of the providential solution came with it. In The Day of the Triffids (1963), the threat is destroyed by sea water. The titular creatures of The Monolith Monsters (1957) were stopped by flooding the salt flats that they’d reached. Fire (The Crawling Eye (1958), Caltiki–The Immortal Monster (1959)), light (Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957), The Eye Creatures (1967)), electricity (The Thing from Another World (1951), The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)), cold (The Blob (1958), The Savage Bees (1976))–these may be shaped by human ingenuity, but they are all natural forces harnessed to protect the Earth.

It’s significant that in these films the natural elements are controlled by us. People wield the powers of nature, nearly always through the intermediary of technology. Human craft, knowledge, and ingenuity uncovers the weakness and provides the means of exploiting it. This feels more satisfying to us, because it demonstrates our power over creation. Films like Island of Terror (1966) take it even further. No longer are we dependent on what nature provides but are creating a new nature. In this case, the solution is the radioactive isotope strontium-90, produced as a by-product of nuclear fission.

It feels good to see human ingenuity and effort prevail. It demonstrates our capability to rise to any challenge the universe may throw at us. Of course, we’re now dependent on special individuals who have the knowledge and abilities to control this power. So while I enjoy a more rousing humanist resolution, I also appreciate the ones where people prove ineffective against the menace. The struggle to survive is compelling and encouraging, despite the effectiveness of the effort, and it’s nice to think that every now and then things can turn out okay despite being beyond our control.

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