Movie Critic Robert Horton Discusses Sci-Fi Films, the Cold War and Today

Horton, a member of Humanities Washington’s 2010-12 Speakers Bureau roster, discusses fear, othering and collective wish fulfillment — themes he explores around the state through his Alien Encounters presentation.

Film critic Robert Horton says Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of War of the Worlds recontextualized the film for a post-9/11 audience.

Robert Horton

Robert Horton

Despite their imaginative characters and often unbelievable plots, science-fiction films can reveal much about the political, social and moral climates of the times from which they emerge. As an author, film critic and sci-fi movie expert, Robert Horton has spent more than 25 years studying how these films can be used to examine the underlying fears, anxieties and hopes of different eras.

With a particular interest in the relationship of sci-fi films to the Cold War, Horton explores how themes such as McCarthyism and scientific innovation influenced the movies of the 1950s. He regularly discusses these subjects in Alien Encounters, a presentation he gives around the state as part of Humanities Washington’s 2010-2012 Speakers Bureau.

Spark magazine recently talked to Horton via e-mail to discuss why the genre of science fiction emerged in the post-WWII era, and how sci-fi movies have changed over the decades.

Humanities Washington: What about the post-war era made it the perfect climate for the science-fiction culture and craze to emerge?


What: Robert Horton’s Alien Encounters: Sci-Fi Movies and the Cold War Culture of the 1950s
Where: Renton History Museum, 235 Mill Ave. S., Renton [directions]
When: 5 p.m. Thursday, May 10
Cost: Free

Note: Look for future engagements of Alien Encounters on our calendar.

Robert Horton: The shock of the atomic bomb – this incredible technological advance that carried grave implications – is part of it; suddenly there was no avoiding science and its giant role in our lives (including the more positive scenario of space travel by humans). The sightings of UFOs (many of which could be explained in later years as experimental aircraft being tested in secret programs) helped fuel public interest in the possibility of visitors from outer space. But with the Cold War in full swing in the 1950s, it’s easy to see how these sci-fi scenarios provided an outlet for anxieties and fears about being taken over by the Other – visions of the kind of mass destruction people might fear from the Soviet Union could be safely contained within more fantastical stories. Plus, there was a giant new youth culture that emerged in the 1950s, and those kids wanted different kinds of stories, just for them.

Horton says 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still is an example of “collective wish fulfillment”.

HW: Why was there such a range of extra-terrestrial characters in the sci-fi movies of the 1950s – from the emotionless drones of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the peace-loving alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still?

Horton: I think they speak to different fears – but hopes, too. The alien in The Day the Earth Stood Still is like a collective wish fulfillment on our part: Wouldn’t it be great if some outside entity forced us to put aside our ideological differences and actually work together? In Body Snatchers, where aliens propose a pleasanter world “where everyone’s the same,” the metaphor might be the McCarthy Era pressure to conform and not stray too far outside the social standard. But it might also contain a critique of Communism. The filmmakers wouldn’t say which interpretation was intended, which makes the movie even stronger, I think. The differences suggest the flexibility of the genre.

HW: Do you think pop culture provides a better representation of an era than say, art or literature?

Horton: Not better, but different, and sometimes more revealing, maybe. Sometimes an era can shine through a piece of lowbrow culture in a really startling way, especially when it comes to exploring the cracks in the surface of what appears to be a successful period (and the 1950s were an extraordinary economic boom time for the U.S.).

HW: How have science fiction movies changes over the decades, and what can these changes tell us about the political, social and moral climates of those time periods?

Horton: You don’t want to over-generalize, but it’s intriguing to see how alien visitors have changed through different periods – in the late 1970s and early ’80s, for instance, Close Encounters and E.T. suggested that aliens were not to be feared, but welcomed. And then in recent years, we’ve seen a return of malevolent aliens, coinciding with, I think, a heightened fear of the Other in our culture. It doesn’t seem coincidental that these newer films, often with images of mass destruction, came out in the years after Sept. 11, 2001. You can also trace remakes in different periods: Invasion of the Body Snatchers had a version in the Seventies that could only have been made after the rise of the counterculture. Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds in 2005 was very much a post-9/11 picture.

HW: What do you think the movies of today tell us about our current culture?

Horton: Looking over the list of 2011’s most intriguing movies, it’s hard not to see how many have been about apocalyptic scenarios, as though a failure of hope is being felt in the culture. Or maybe the urge there is to wipe the slate and start over? I have to admit it’s a little easier to draw conclusions when you’re at a distance of a few years.

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