At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity, asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the execution is strongly reminiscent of the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four, which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario: a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the successful application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances, our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this uncertainty is validated by the fact that the invading force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all aggression.
It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires the loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied, but not demonstrated, that the former are killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.
Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.
Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to find a workable moral basis from which to allow positive freedoms while disallowing their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible that any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.
Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own kind. But when we put an alien or external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually exist, but we’re voiding ourselves of blame. Proportionally, our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as discomforting: that our innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of being human actually a defensible choice?
The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way, it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse, I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.
Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and conceals the fact, then she cannot be trusted, and so – horrifically, in one sense – we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble. After tens of thousands of years of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which our canine companions happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.
In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion for rage, creativity for cruelty. But that, to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been.
Half angel. Half devil. All human.