In this article I will explore Hugh Ruppersberg’s article ‘The Alien Messiah’ (written in 1987) which explores the uses of a messiah figure in science fiction. Ruppersberg asserts that science fiction reflects contemporary fears that ‘civilization has run amok and is about to destroy itself’.(1.) An important contemporary fear is the concern over the increased mechanization of society and the alienation of the individual in the modern world. Ruppersberg notes that in many science fiction films:
the alien messiah serves to resolve these problems, at least imaginatively, to replace despair with hope and purpose, to provide resolution in a world where solution seems impossible.(2.)
The alien messiah figure is ‘an overtly or covertly religious personage, whose numinous, supra-human qualities offer solace and inspiration to a humanity threatened by technology and the banality of modern life’.(3.) According to Ruppersberg the alien messiah has two major functions or stages in a film’s narrative. The first is to establish or highlight the ‘vulnerability and weakness of the human characters’.(4.) Ruppersberg cites The Last Starfighter (1984), Cocoon (1985), E.T. (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) as prime examples of human characters suffering from a weakness or problem beyond their apparent ability to solve (old age, a trivial and meaningless existence, a boy upset over his parents’ collapsed marriage etc.). The second major narrative stage is the resolution of the problems and weaknesses of the human characters (through the alien’s engagement with the humans). In the films Ruppersberg cites trivial lives are made important, the old are granted immortality and everlasting friendship is gained.
Ruppersberg notes that the alien messiah figure is also not always non-human. In The Terminator (1984) the messiah is a human time-traveller sent back in time to stop the termination of humanity’s last hope. The messiah is still alien however, because he hails from a different time zone – and therefore holds vital knowledge which will eventually secure the safety of Sarah Connor. Whether the messiah figure is human, robotic or other is unimportant, the essential element, according to Ruppersberg, is that the figure is portrayed as being from a technologically, and often morally, advanced and alternative society. Ruppersberg notes that this essential element to the messiah figure comes with the implicit assumption ‘that advanced technology breeds not only miraculous wonders but moral redemption as well’.(5.) This is not to say that technology never aids immorality, however the corruption and immorality tends to be just as often in the heart of man, rather than an explicit side-affect of technology. This is seen in WarGames (1983), it is not really the super-computer who is immoral or corrupt, it only calculates the cost of strategic moves, it is humanity’s flaws and inability to accept other’s ideological and social differences that corrupts technology. Even in The Terminator you could argue that the killing machines are a human produced inhuman, a consequence of the drive for efficiency and profit.
Ruppersberg uses Close Encounters of the Third Kind as an example of the messianic nature of technologically advanced beings. Ruppersberg notes that the ‘aliens are exalted by their own technological sophistication’ and that ‘Technology has redeemed them from original sin, made them godlike, sent them to us with the best of intentions’.(6.) The aliens technological superiority makes them both morally superior. Their messianic function is also illustrated in the films conclusion when they carry up Roy Neary who attempted to prove their existence. Ruppersberg explains that the aliens rescue Roy Neary because he is ‘searching for meaning, for a faith, which the aliens provide by carrying him aloft’.(7.) Roy Neary’s belief in what he witnessed, which continues in the face of disbelief and scepticism, is rewarded with ascension to the heavens. This is evidently a direct allusion to Christianity and religion in general.
Ruppersberg also highlights the religious allusions in E.T. Ruppersberg notes E.T.:
acts out his messianic role by relieving the boy’s confusion and giving him a sense of worth. He does this through friendship more than anything else. He also heals wounds, revivifies dead flowers, and levitates fruit and bicycles.(8.)
The allusion to the miracles of Jesus is clear; the alien in E.T. is imbued with the same messianic ability in the film’s narrative. The consequence of the alien’s messianic role, and the interpretation Ruppersberg agrees with, is that it communicates that nothing on earth is able to provide the boy with hope and a meaning in his life and that it is only faith in something otherworldly which produces meaning and hope.
The alien messiah is not always without its darker side. In The Day the Earth Stood Still Ruppersberg notes:
the robot Gort serves as a policemen to the people who created it. He uses his ultimate power to maintain peace, law, and order, his owner assures us, and to destroy those who turn to violence. Yet we are also told that he is capable of destroying the Earth, which he would not hesitate to do if he found it necessary.(9.)
Obviously the robot is intended as a positive force, but the reality of an earth without violence would be remote even in a technologically advanced world – though the film’s assumption is that technology brings reason and peace – and therefore the earth would be under threat. (There is also the possibility that the robot Gort realizes that all organic-organisms are prone to violence and destroy everything but the mechanical.)
Ruppersberg’s survey and exploration of the alien messiah leads him to the position that those films and filmmakers he explored have a defeatist attitude, an ‘inadequacy and insecurity and a parallel fatalistic certainty that the problems of our contemporary world are insurmountable’.(10.) Ruppersberg continues that the alien messiah and the films he explored ‘suggest that the only satisfactory way of addressing the world’s problems is imaginative appeal to super-human agencies’.(11.) Ruppersberg believes the films, which utilize the alien messiah, communicate that humanity is impotent and unable, without the help of higher-beings, to solve their own problems. Ruppersberg concludes by stating that the films:
reflect reactionary, defeatist attitudes in their makers… If they do not reject science and technology, they at least ignore it. If they regard the future with hope and wonder, they simultaneously discourage the hope that humankind will be more capable in the future of handling the problems that confront it today. Entertaining as they are, these films are escapist fantasies grounded in the patterns of the past instead of the possibilities of the future.(12.)
To Ruppersberg, these films cite faith in the metaphysical as the only refuge from the alienating force of capitalism and modernity. Ruppersberg sees this as an attitude replicating reactionary, pre-modern attitudes (accept your lot and you’ll be rewarded after death). Ruppersberg is also arguing that a more positive message would be that it is within humanity’s grasp – if they do x, y or z – to improve and make the world better (without the aid of extraterrestrial deities). Ruppersberg asserts that this would be more in-line with what science fiction should be; films based on the possibilities of the future.
Ruppersberg’s article is interesting and thorough in his exploration of the alien messiah, however he slightly underestimates the prevalence of the messiah figure in Hollywood and western literature. Sometimes sought after [The Magnificent Seven (1960)] or stumbling into the action [Die Hard (1988)] the messiah figure appears in many genres. They facilitate interesting, exciting and action-packed narratives [the antithesis of the messiah-figure narrative can be found in the excellent Umberto D (1952)]. The messiah figure in traditional action films reaffirm humanity’s ability to solve its own problems – and cause them – which appears to be converse to the use of the messiah figure in science fiction. Ruppersberg’s article uncovers this – although there is no mention of the messiah figure in other films than those of the science fiction and biblical genre – and illustrates that a certain mood of despondency, surrounding humanity’s ability to solve their own problems, exists in science fiction films which utilize the messiah figure [whether one agrees with Ruppersberg's conclusion is another matter.] Ruppersberg’s article is important in its exploration of the science fiction genre.
1. Hugh Ruppersberg, ‘The Alien Messiah’, in Annette Kuhn (ed), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, London: Verso, (1990), pp. 32-38, p. 32.
2. p. 32.
3. pp. 32-33.
4. p. 33.
5. p. 35.
6. p. 35.
7. p. 35.
8. pp. 35-36.
9. p. 36.
10. p. 37.
11. p. 37.
12. p. 37.