For some reason Bogost’s post today got me thinking about what perfect object-oriented and flat ontological horror would look like. This, in turn, got me thinking about two science fiction/horror films I found particularly unsettling or uncanny: The remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. In fact, to this day I still occasionally have nightmares about War of the Worlds, though oddly I can’t resist watching it whenever it’s on and actually own it (why I derive so much more pleasure from watching a film when it happens to be on rather than simply popping one in my DVD player is a mystery I won’t plumb this evening). Both films, I think, share a common characteristic, hinting at something like a new theme in the science fiction/horror genre. Of the two, War of the Worlds comes closer to embodying this theme, while there are certain respects in which it is more overt in the first half or two thirds of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both cases there’s a way in which humans are ontologically de-centered or ousted from pride of place in these films. And it is this, perhaps, that accounts for the unsettling and uncanny feeling one has when watching these movies. There is a sort of unconscious correlationist assumption that pervades nearly all horror films and alien invasion science fiction films: That humans are the addressee. “Of course”, the narrative seems to say, “any aliens that invaded planet earth would focus on the humans.” The unsettling sense produced by The Day the Earth Stood Still, before it degenerates into the usual pap of how we’re intrinsically worth preserving, is that the aliens are not there for us, but rather to save all other creatures on the planet. The centrality of the human is here deeply devalued. If War of the Worlds is, of the two, the superior film (apart from the obvious reasons… The Day the Earth Stood Still is, overall, a poor showing), then this is because the invading aliens are more or less completely indifferent to us. We, like everything else on the planet, are more or less furniture that has to be cleared away for their occupation. They hold no hostility towards us, nor any particular esteem, and do not see us as arch-rivals to be defeated. Rather, we’re just like cows and trees: something that’s in the way. Indeed, unlike anthropocentric films like Independence Day where the issue is one of establishing the superiority of the human against any other intelligent lifeform, it is bacteria that ultimately defeat the aliens. Much of human import (the father renewing his relationship with his children) occurs in War of the Worlds, but it is certainly not a triumphalist yarn about “man as a prosthetic god”.

There are, of course, precursors to this ontological vision. Readers might recall Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the aliens are destroying the planet in a desperate attempt to communicate with whales. Here we have a similar dethroning of the centrality of the human. I make none of these remarks to suggest that this de-emphasis of the human is a good thing or to imply that the human should be treated like something that’s merely in the way to be cast aside. No. Rather, what interests me is the effect of the uncanny that this quintessentially anti-humanist cinema seems to produce in the viewer (at least, to produce in this viewer). One reels before the jaw-dropping flatness of such a universe, where humans are treated as one other being among others, rather than a privileged center to which all other entities must necessarily address themselves. Who knows, perhaps there’s even the possibility of renewing the genre of horror through the exploration of the flat and a-human, where humans are caught up in events beyond themselves but are not at the center. Yet perhaps there is also an enlightening social and political message in this rejection of any narcissistic comfort and centralization of the human. Can readers cite other films that are structured in similar ways?

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