The Scientist is the Hero in this One
Last Saturday afternoon, my brother, my dad, and I embarked on a movie marathon of three 1950’s era sci-fi films. They were This Island Earth (1955), The Thing From Another World (1951), and Them! (1954). We all loved science fiction growing up. My dad, being exposed to it at a young age by the aforementioned movies, and many more, he then inspired our love of the genre. We grew up watching television series like Star Trek: The Next Generation and watching movies like Bladerunner or whatever sci-fi blockbuster Hollywood churned out that summer. But you were remiss in our house without a thorough education in movies like the theremin-laden classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Like any era, certain themes and tropes prevail throughout these films. They focus on the benefits and detriments of atomic energy, wild scenarios of space travel and extraterrestrial life, and scientists often donning the mantle of hero. It is the latter that I wish to center on.
In Joseph Campbell’s book, Hero with a Thousand Faces, he writes one of the most beautiful passages I believe ever to be penned to paper.
We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have come before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world (25).
Science fiction, and fantasy for that matter, function as modern-day myth. They, as Campbell puts it, “supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward” (11). The spaceship, the atom, outer space, and extraterrestrials map onto the many tropes and themes of mythology. The spaceship serves as ships of old. They protect the adventurers from the harshness of the elements and serve as the foreground for great and fantastic battles. The atom calls forth images of fire and echo myths of Prometheus and Icarus in equal measure. Outer Space acts as the sea or desolate lands or realm of the gods. They are obstacles for heroes to traverse and explore. And finally, extraterrestrials serve the dual purpose of being both gods and monsters. They possess great knowledge and terrible strength that confront or aid heroes in their journey. Take The Thing in The Thing From Another World. Played by James Arness, The Thing possesses the knowledge for advanced space travel, the knowledge and power of the Gods. Simultaneously, The Thing acts as the monster viciously killing everything in its path. The heroes, then, of these epics of science fiction are oftentimes scientists because they wield heaven’s fire, sail the ship, and slay the monster.
In This Island Earth, scientist Cal Meacham, played by Rex Reason, embodies the hero model in myth. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder” (30). Cal is a nuclear scientist whose work is to make uranium from common materials like lead for limitless energy possibilities. His realm of “supernatural wonder” (30) is the world of science. Science is the realm where limitless potential exists, “ fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from his mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man” (30). Cal’s work eventually attracts the attention of extraterrestrials that need his abilities to save their species and planet Metaluna. The mastery of the atom allows him to bestow his “boons” (30) upon others. Here the common Promethean myth plays out. Cal, acting in place of Prometheus, seeks to bring fire to the planet of Metaluna and save the planet from the wrath of the Zagons, a race of killer aliens at war with Metaluna. By creating enough energy Cal hopes to power a planetary shield long enough to save the people of Metaluna. Although Cal is unsuccessful in his quest, Cal still inhabits the model of the hero. He slays monsters and he pilots ships, albeit Zagons and Fighter Jets. He’s then ready to bestow boons to humanity with the power of atomic energy and other scientific wonders.
I would be remiss in saying that these movies are not rife with problems. The Other is either non-existent or portrayed in a negative light. In The Thing, characters repeatedly refer to Eskimos as frightened cowards or thieves. Women, while often playing doctors and scientists themselves, are often sequestered. Their roles never overshadow their male counterparts. And their role is more often than not reduced to one of three stereotypical roles. They are either damsels in distress, sex objects, or serve as secretaries parroting the male doctor’s thoughts. I say these things not to criticize them. These films are of a different era and to compare them to current social standards is a fallacy. I point these things out in order to ground these stories and heroes in historical realities rather than to deify them.
One recurring thought I had throughout last Saturday’s triple feature was the faith placed in scientists. With the current U.S. administration and attitudes of climate change denial and anti-intellectualism, scientists have somewhat lost their heroic reputation. Dr. Anthony Fauci receives death threats rather than praises for his attempts to combat the real and present danger of COVID-19. Scientists warn, explain, and demonstrate the threat of climate change and their pleas fall on the deaf ears of politicians. Science fiction I think offers a response and that is to treat scientists as heroes. We should listen to them. Whether it’s defending the world from climate change or radioactive ants they are here to bestow boons upon mankind and we would be fools to refuse them.