Right when the second act of the new Netflix feature Extinction bleeds into the third, a viewer may suddenly realize why Universal unceremoniously dropped the picture mere days before its slated release. The recurring dreams of all-out alien invasion that have been plaguing our man Michael Peña have come to pass, and he’s spent the film’s first hour rushing his family between safe points while interspecies war rages around them. Until, while being pursued by one of the enemy’s ground troops in a dank tunnel, Peña gets the drop on his attacker.
Spoiler alert: Peña then removes the alien’s helmet only to discover the face of a human! Michael Peña and his family are all robots, it turns out, casting homo sapiens as the bad guys instead of the good guys. Really makes you think.
In fact, the soldier turned uneasy ally states, in no uncertain terms, just what we’ve all been really made to think: “They told us you were monsters, savages. But that’s just one side of the story. I know that now. Why am I helping you? Because no one told me I’d be down here killing kids and families. That’s not what I signed up for.” The audience is being subject to a sort of parallel switcheroo, and we’re supposed to share in his change of heart. Just as the soldier is moved after learning that the android “savages” are capable of love, the viewer is likewise surprised to find their empathy usually reserved for humans extended to a humanoid. Perhaps we’re not so different after all, people and cyborgs — a sentiment that readily bridges the gap between the comfortable audience and any subjugated population facing state-sanctioned violence.
That the Extinction script is not written convincingly enough to sell this simple notion as hard-earned wisdom isn’t even the problem. Its “gotcha” moment places it in line with a longer tradition of screen entertainment using sci-fi as a platform for anti-imperialist metaphor without quite sticking the landing. Extinction’s cardinal sin was most recently committed by the Black Mirror episode “Men Against Fire,” but it has precedent all the way back to War of the Worlds (the Tom Cruise movie substantially more so than the Orson Welles radio hoax). Namely, these films presume a streak of basic decency that real life has repeatedly exposed as unreliable if not totally absent. Stories about extraterrestrials juxtapose an Other to highlight our own humanity, but it’s become increasingly apparent that the genre’s most idealistic entries have given us too much credit.
In that Black Mirror episode, military types up against a hellacious foe they refer to as “roaches” are shocked to learn that the little gizmo they allowed inside their brains messes with their perception. The roaches are people, natch, and the government figured it’d be easier to get the armed forces to unleash annihilation if they feel no attachment to the targets in their crosshairs. Black Mirror is never one to shy away from capital-C Commentary, and the so-called “roaches” happen to be survivors of a genocide against a “genetically inferior” race; the apartheid allegory hasn’t been so aggressively present since District 9. The unlikely 2009 Oscar horse took a more direct route to understanding, showing the less-than-tolerant Wikus (Sharlto Copley) that the insectoid “prawns” camped in South Africa deserve dignity by transforming him into one of them.
These human-after-all stories chase the similar insight that dominant societies will breed their constituent citizens to distrust and hate whichever groups the state needs them to, and it’s where the writing takes that concept that separates the successful from the counterproductive. When the Cruise-led War of the Worlds reveals that the hostiles are actually sickly refugees in need of potable atmosphere, we’re meant to feel guilty for having instinctively assumed the creatures were as warlike as America’s initial response proved us to be. As with Extinction, the moral upheaval of “Men Against Fire” comes quickly and decisively; the moment that our hero Stripe (Malachi Kirby) realizes he’s been duped into slaughtering his fellow man, he wants out. While it’s somewhat comforting to believe his ethical calculus would involve such basic addition, the fact of the matter is that back in the real world, swaths of soldiers and voters alike have expressed a distinct lack of concern over civilian deaths in territories from the drone-ravaged Middle East to poverty-stricken Puerto Rico.
More compelling — and more truthful about the dirty mechanisms powering extermination — are the films that focus on the cognitive dissonance required to ignore evident illustrations of the enemy as living, feeling beings. Paul Verhoeven’s hysterical satire Starship Troopers sets this canon’s gold standard, precisely due to his refusal to end on a note occupying even the same zip code as “heartening.” Nobody does cynicism quite like Verhoeven, and here he uses the template of All Quiet on the Western Front (another classic about self-styled patriots learning the hard way that war is a hell seldom justified) to lodge a savage critique of Western colonialist thinking. The film begins with Earth laying claim to a distant planet occupied by indigenous organisms that the military higher-ups brand as “bugs.” Forget spelling out the come-to-Jesus epiphany that nobody should die due to who they are or where they live; there’s a scan indicating that a captured bug feels only fear, and that’s just met by cheers from the kill-crazy intergalactic army. As actual people with ostensibly functional brains chant for our sitting commander-in-chief to establish a “Space Force,” this film has cooled from fantasy into prophetic documentary.
Instead of looking for a core of unshakable goodness that isn’t there, Verhoeven challenges himself not to blink while staring into the gnarled heart of American exceptionalism. Zippy “Why We Fight”–styled propaganda films interspersed throughout Starship Troopers foment a seething combo of hatred and terror for the bugs, who wish only to continue inhabiting their home unmolested by heavily armed foreigners. Under the cover of wartime’s urgency, governments pervert patriotism to racism, knowing full well that atrocities go down much easier when everyone on the home front is braying for blood. The director summed it up best himself, offering “war makes fascists of us all” as his mission statement. He’s not in search of a wisp of nobility in a compromised setting, rather going as far as he can in the opposite direction. Everything’s beer and Skittles on a strong, prosperous Earth, and yet the only thing anyone wants to do is spread destruction. One gets the impression that the kindhearted soldier from Extinction would be laughed out of this society, his mercy looked down on as nothing more than weakness.
Filtering all entertainment through What It Means in the Age of Trump is both exhausting and impossible not to do, but the issues with the misplaced good-faith thinking from Extinction and its ilk date back more than a couple years. Since the nation was born in mass murder of a peaceable native people, America has demonstrated a dark willingness to sanction abhorrent actions; the disassembling and dispersal of immigrant families represents the latest chapter in a long narrative. You’d think it’d be inarguable that the most persecuted population in America loves and feels like anyone else — we’ve pressed play on the screams of lost children — but still, a vocal faction of the electorate remains unmoved. Allegories like Extinction reassure their viewers that they’re good people, able to discern right and wrong when confronted with the true face of suffering. These films picture a better world that could never be. Or, in other words: The movie where incinerating lasers rain from the sky now presents a rosier view of American culture than the evening news.