Usually, when we think of “scary” in relation to science fiction, we think of “them”. You know, the other guys, the aliens, the bugs, the Grays, the Queen Be-yotch in the ALIEN movies that scares the bejeezus out of us EVERY SINGLE TIME!!! (shudder) After all, they’re pretty scary most of the time. They’re usually advanced technologically and/or evolved genetically. They always seem to want us for our bodies/labor/DNA/planet. And we only seem to defeat them (as someone once said of Jim Kirk’s many triumphs) by the galactic equivalent of “your shoelace is untied.”
Or maybe we think of the misbegotten creatures of the mad scientists of the golden age of ‘Fifties drive-in movies (and their high-tech remakes and derivatives). We remember THE GIANT BEHEMOTH or THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS stirred up by nuclear testing to rampage through our cities before dying spectacularly in a tangle of arcing electrical wires. Or maybe the giant ants of THEM swarming through the Nevada desert (with a very young Leonard Nimoy leading the charge against them). The tortured scientist played by Vincent Price (and later Jeff Goldblum) got his own comeuppance in THE FLY, but not before terrorizing/grossing out his audience as the title creature. And the whole island got out of hand in JURASSIC PARK.
But the wonderful thing about all of these movies, and about science fiction in general, is that the real villain is rarely exclusively THEM. It’s more often, at least to some extent, US. Almost from the very beginning of SF, science was seen as a two-edged sword, something that could bring tremendous benefit to humankind, but also, unforeseen and nearly fatal dangers. The scientists in these movies may be portrayed as unfortunate optimists, arrogant egotists, clear-eyed pragmatists, heroic problem solvers or back-stabbing corporate spies, but they all tend to err on the side of “science for science’s sake”. This leads to trouble, with a capital T. The real hero of the story must then step in to save the day. Cue Everyman or Woman—and don’t be surprised, even now, if that person wears a uniform.
A great example of this kind of thinking can be found in the original version of THE THING (1951), produced by Howard Hawks, directed by Christian Nyby, and based on a short story by one of the great progenitors of SF, John W. Campbell. In a pattern which is repeated in the remake and echoed in ALIEN, the scientists at an isolated polar research station are so intrigued by their sample of an alien lifeform, they defy all common sense and, unbeknownst to the rest of the investigating team, start to replicate the alien using—get this!—human plasma from the station’s stores. (Uh—shouldn’t some kind of alarm be going off in their heads?) Fortunately our hero, aptly named Captain Patrick Hendry, gets the heads-up from his girlfriend, the station secretary (**Neanderthal alert**). The head scientist, still not convinced, tries to communicate with the alien, whom others have described as a “carrot with brains”. He is promptly smacked by said carrot, who apparently DOES have more brains than the scientist. Captain Hendry and the crew commence to fry the alien with electricity and save the day. The audience is then warned in typical ‘Fifties fashion to “watch the skies!” I guess they expected more intelligent vegetables any day.
In its day, the movie was seen as having strong anti-Communist overtones. But viewed by those of us who became the readers of New Age SF and fans of STAR TREK and STAR WARS and ALIEN and so on, the message was somewhat different. Scientific inquiry, without an ethical context, was dangerous in the extreme. Let your technology get out of hand, and there would be grave consequences. The ultimate movie of the time was quite clear on this point. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL was just a taste of what we’d get if we didn’t pay attention. Given the evidence we already had, in the form of nuclear weapons, and the looming dangers of biological or chemical weapons, ecological disaster, genetic engineering, worldwide pandemic, etc., we were certainly inclined to believe that message.
The message these days has been somewhat transformed and reads more like conspiracy theory (bad government) than purely runaway technology (bad science). THE MATRIX, ALIEN/S, SURROGATES, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK suggest we as individuals are just puppets of some gigantic corporate entity whose purposes we can only guess at. Our individual survival doesn’t seem to matter to them, and it can be difficult to determine whether the human race matters to them. Who then becomes “us” and who “them”? What is truly alien?
Now I’m REALLY scared!!