Imagine this scene: Military officials are in a panic over an unauthorized aircraft that is trespassing U.S. airspace in perilous proximity to the New York City skyline. In a last-second decision, dispatched F-16s open fire on the vessel, inflicting sufficient damage to force a crash-landing in the Hudson River. A horrible impact disrupts the water—a gasp of bedlam followed by an eerie silence. From the wreckage come two alien beings, buoying at the water’s surface, the colossal World Trade Center standing triumphantly in the background. Lightning ripples across the black sky, igniting a storm and issuing a warning: You are not welcome.
Surely you’re guessing that this ominous, cinematic description was clipped from a secret screenplay belonging to Hollywood pooh-bah “J.J.” Abrams, but you’re dead wrong! It’s actually the opening scene of Coneheads, a 1993 film featuring the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, still-tolerable Michael Richards, and several hundred SNL players of the time. Critics hated it, dismissing it as a once-amusing television sketch that was unnecessarily brought to the big screen and milked to desiccation. When revisited, though, you get the sense that it’s one of the most bizarre examples of comedic mistiming in film history, a startlingly relevant vivisection of post-9/11 America released a decade too soon.
Lest you’ve forgotten the basics, Coneheads follows two “illegal aliens,” Beldar and Prymaat Conehead (formerly Clorhone; Anglicized for assimilation purposes), who are stranded on Earth and find themselves in pursuit of the American dream. They raise a daughter, start a business, and find an accepting group of friends, all while being relentlessly hounded by “human authority figures.” Also, their heads are cone-shaped, which one could argue played into the title.
Viewed through our 2011 goggles, the Coneheads are in many ways a poignant depiction of life as it’s experienced by some of our country’s eleven million unauthorized residents. Only after acquiring fake documentation and forfeiting the right to their own name (Beldar assumes the less-than-dignified identity of Donald R. DeCicco) can they establish residence and find equitable work. Upon the birth of their daughter, they must endure raising a child in a cultural wilderness where their own cherished customs have no home. They’re seen as problems, not people, by those who persecute them. And perhaps most harrowing, they have to take an interest in golf.
It feels more than coincidental how well the movie’s bad guy fits in with the anxieties that have become so ubiquitous in America over the last ten years. Played by Michael McKean, Gorman Seedling is an agent with the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which since 2003 has been absorbed by the Department of Homeland Security. Like certain public figures cultivating the paranoia over national security and illegal immigration, he has a tendency towards scaremongering and a conviction for the law that overrides his more humane sensibilities. This is most evident in an early scene where he proposes fitting deportees with electric collars that would incinerate them upon crossing an invisible fence at the border, scarily prescient of an actual proposal made by Rep. Steve King of Iowa in 2006. Naturally befitting the Department of Homeland Security, Seedling is also a caricature of bureaucratic waste: In one scene his promotion is stalled when it’s revealed that he’s spent over a quarter million dollars tracking the Coneheads.
A villain like Seedling, who keeps a large portrait of deceased U.S. president Ronald Reagan above his desk, is markedly more recognizable today than in the nineties. Since 9/11, 80% of immigrants have reported stricter enforcement of immigration laws, and far fewer Americans believe immigration is a good thing for the country. What’s more, there’s been a conspicuous increase in those who consider immigration a “very serious problem,” and a greater portion of the country believes immigration is a serious threat to national security. Much of this attitude is potent in President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 rhetoric, where he correlated stemming the migration of non-citizens with “secur[ing] freedom in the homeland,” as if the people picking our fruit might replace the Pledge of Allegiance with Islamic prayer-yodeling or outfit our bikini models with burqas.
Yet the compassionate portrayal of the Coneheads’ alienation juxtaposed with Seedling’s petty tyranny fosters a sort of empathy that dilutes our self-watchful territoriality and makes room in our “blood-valve chambers”* for folks who look and sound and behave differently than us. The movie just gets timelier and timelier, especially now with a growing roster of states pussyfooting Washington with their own solutions to illegal immigration, including Georgia with their recently-passed Illegal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Act of 2011, and Arizona with their constitutionally-iffy antics aimed at routing invading pyromaniacs. Says Seedling: “The United States of America can no longer solve the employment problems of the universe!” True, but we as a nation can still be civil and gracious, like the sons and daughters of refugees once strangers to privilege that we are.
In 1993, the Times said that you’d have to travel outside of the galaxy to “find anyone who really thinks the Coneheads needed to be brought to the big screen.” While this was a fair argument at the time, the distinct and mirthful way Coneheads epitomizes much of the friction of our present culture gives it a fresh case for validity. It’ll always be an SNL film — hardly a candidate for critical acclaim — but the momentum of its comedy has accidentally acquired some of the indicting, reparative heft that can alter outlooks and bring people down to Earth.
* A note must be made on the endearing, hyper-literal vernacular the Coneheads adopt. In itself it’s a delightful examination of the primitiveness of what we accept as mundane and rational. Instead of a lunch break, Beldar takes a “midday cessation of activity for protein-carbo intake.” Prymaat feeds him “re-radiated leftover starch disc” with a stern warning not to “sear the top of your neck hole with the molten lactate extract of hoofed mammals.” Later in the movie, at breakfast, they have “grid-like breakfast slabs,” “extruded mammal fillings,” “seared swine flesh,” and “flattened chicken embryos.” This gives their foreignness an extra shot of charm and lends voice to the strange process of assimilation. It’s a technique that was elevated to an art form by David Foster Wallace in subsequent years, implemented to emphasize domestic exoticness in his “experiential postcards.” A funnel cake becomes “cake batter quick-fried to a tornadic spiral and rolled in sugared butter,” an elephant ear an “album-sized expanse of oil-fried dough” with the “sickly soft texture of adipose flesh,” etc.
Steve Etheridge is a writer living in Chicago. He has written for McSweeney’s, CollegeHumor, and other places that are similar.