Bright Lights Film Journal

Cylons, Avatars, and Barack Obama: Science Fiction and Hybridity After 9/11

“Veering away from jingoistic portrayals of ‘us’ and the ‘Other,’ these films advocate instead a complex and globally entwined future of hybrid identities along with critical consideration of the political and cultural consequences of advanced technology.”

From Columbus to Joseph Conrad, from cowboys to Captain Kirk, Western literature and film have played on the story of benevolent white forces exploring, invading, conquering, and theoretically civilizing new worlds and the native populations of those worlds. “Science fiction,” writes film scholar Ziauddin Sardar, “employs the particular constellations of Western thought and history and projects these Western perspectives on a pan-galactic scale” (2). Sardar traces the roots of science fiction back to the Crusades, when the Ottoman Empire was the alien Other, the sworn enemy of European Christendom. One account of Pope Urban II’s 1096 speech in which he called for the first crusade quotes him describing the Muslim enemy as “a race from the kingdom of the Persians, an accursed race, a race utterly alienated from God, a generation forsooth which has not directed its heart and has not entrusted its spirit to God, has invaded the lands of those Christians and has depopulated them by the sword, pillage and fire.”1

Pope Urban’s words demonstrate the timeless need for an enemy against which to contrast one’s own worldview. After all, the imperialist experiment could never succeed without an antithetical Other to struggle against.

Sardar goes on to describe how science fiction continued to evolve during the long history of Western society’s interaction and conflict with cultures that did not share its particular science, religion, and worldview. Significantly, although science fiction films are produced and consumed in several prominent nonwestern filmmaking countries such as Japan and China, the genre is virtually nonexistent in India, Indonesia, and most of the Middle East and Africa, suggesting science fiction’s unique relationship to the history of Western imperialism.

Science fiction, in its specifically American form, picked up the imperialist narrative as a successor to the popular films and novels that chronicled the conquest of the American West, the nation’s original frontier. In fact, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his series to network executives as “Wagon Train to the stars” (Internet Movie Database). In his book Future West, William Katerberg frames the frontier myth as a “core element of American culture” (3), which helps to assuage the collective guilt stemming from the conquest of the land and its native peoples as well as the exploitation of natural resources for individual and national gain. The classic Western typically involves a rugged male protagonist starting over in a new place where history and class boundaries are erased in favor of battling against the land and defending that land (ironically) from its original inhabitants. Katerberg writes:

Not surprisingly, when the Western frontier began to close in the 1880s, some Americans argued that the nation should look for new imperialist frontiers abroad — new lands and sources of renewal for strong men to win. The United States soon went overseas, taking Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines and making them American territories and colonies. (22)

Indeed, the manifesto of the frontier experiment is exemplified by the opening narration for the original Star Trek television series: “To seek out new worlds and new civilizations — to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Although the show’s Federation of planets is peaceful, given that its Prime Directive is noninterference with the evolution of primitive species, its main mission is still to bring Western science, law, and morality to the rest of the universe — in essence, manifest destiny in space; further, white, all-American Captain James T. Kirk is the science fiction equivalent of a John Wayne or a Roy Rogers.

As the United States evolved into a major world power complete with superior technological and military forces, science fiction picked up the frontier concept and replaced the American West with outer space. While science fiction had been a popular literary genre since the late 1880s, American science fiction film was predominantly born out of the Cold War paranoia of the 1950s and increased in popularity during the space race — space, as President John F. Kennedy put it in 1960, was America’s “new frontier.” Katerberg writes, “According to the mythology, Americans in every generation leave the past behind for new space and start time over again on the frontier ” (21). It seems that the frontier myth traps Western culture in an endless cycle in which every generation must have its own crusade, its own new territory to conquer, and its own “savage” enemy to battle. Although this concept may appear ideologically simple, even the most patriotic imperialist narrative is not without a subconscious level of guilt and fear. In his book American Fear, Peter Stearns traces the history of American reactions to terror from Pearl Harbor to 9/11. He writes:

[America] has become a militarist society, and, though always with claims that “we’ll get out,” an empire-building one as well. Small wonder that subconscious fears about retaliation and reversal have built up, explaining fear reactions more generally. (61)

As the United States approached the new millennium, its constant adversary, the Soviet Union (Reagan’s “Evil Empire” that he planned to contain using “Star Wars”), had dissolved, and America was enjoying undisputed superpower status and economic prosperity Then on September 11, 2001, American reality was shattered. Passenger planes became terrorist weapons, and the U.S. was forced to confront its vulnerability as a nation. The Twin Towers (along with the U.S. economy) crumbled, as did the idea that technology always serves as the engine of progress. Though no American could have anticipated the methods and scope of the September 11 attacks, cultural critics have argued that dramatic retaliation against globalization and capitalist excess did not come as a complete surprise. In his essay “The Shadow of the World Trade Center,” Murray Pomerance notes that as a culture we have “fetishized” the towers to the extent that we can stand back and view images of its destruction with emotional detachment, just as we might experience scenes of destruction while watching a film. He views detachment as a coping mechanism, observing that the repetition of images from 9/11 through a mediating device such as a television screen causes the paradoxical effect of allowing us to withdraw from the horror:

Then, quickly, we leap into sensitivity for the families of the dead; hero worship of the brave workers who must dig through the rubble; virulent and blind hatred of all aliens everywhere who must be thinking in their unknown abodes how to attack us once again. Manifest Destiny lives. (59)

Pomerances notes that perhaps out of guilt for feeling emotional detachment when watching images of 9/11, the response of many is to increase our resolve and our desire for revenge. Pomerance also comments that New York City is one of the most class-conscious cities in America, a place where corporate elites build higher and higher away from the urban, ethnic poor. The World Trade Center, then, is capitalist excess embodied. While Pomerance views 9/11 as a “monstrous reply” (55) to the U.S.’s imperialist agenda in Asia and the Middle East, he also wonders if the terrorists looked at those monuments to American “progress” and wondered if this was, “a culture waiting to die . . . as though something in those Towers of Babel was calling out for an end all along” (56). Pomerance recognizes the subconscious fear of the consequences of U.S. foreign policy from World War II to the present, especially covert operations in Afghanistan under President Carter. President George W. Bush’s rhetoric, which attributed the attacks to a multinational “Axis of Evil,” demonstrates a general inability to process the motives of the attackers beyond simple divisions of “good” and “evil,” completely disregarding U.S. interference in the region during the decades-long hunt for oil.

If the national discourse took years to unravel the complex political causes and consequences of 9/11 and the resulting wars, post-9/11 science fiction films immediately reflected a change in the nation’s self-image. A few films took the opportunity to critique American ideals of militarism, conquest, and cultural assimilation in order to explore our role in global conflict. Though the didactic rhetoric after 9/11 divided the globe into allies and “enemy combatants,” and patriots and terrorists, it quickly became apparent that these categories were both too simple and too easily manipulated to serve personal vendettas. After 9/11, some science fiction films (and their directors) recognized a perceptible shift in the rhetoric of imperialism. Perhaps because the immediate fear of terrorism had lessened, perhaps in the process of looking back at the events that led to 9/11 and the Iraq War, American artists again recognized the need for art to enlighten and propose alternate ways of moving forward. Veering away from jingoistic portrayals of “us” and the “Other,” these films advocate instead a complex and globally entwined future of hybrid identities along with critical consideration of the political and cultural consequences of advanced technology. Drawing on postcolonial film theory, films that celebrate “mixed” identities blur traditional boundaries between former colonizers and the formerly colonized. In his book Film Theory: An Introduction, NYU film professor Robert Stam writes: “[In postcolonial theory] Colonial tropes of irreconcilable dualism give way to complex, multi-layered identities and subjectivities, resulting in a proliferation of terms having to do with various forms of cultural mixing: religious (syncretism); biological (hybridity); linguistic (creolization); and human-genetic (mestizaje) (295).” This trend is evident in the science fiction films of the late 2000s, films that confront ideas of cultural mixing through allegory and that increasingly feature casts more diverse in ethnicity and gender. A few films and television shows, such as Avatar and Battlestar Galactica, have already begun to question the environmental and psychological impact of colonial politics, though whether they indicate a major shift in the genre remains to be seen.

The term “hybrid” originated in genetics to describe the offspring of two different species, breeds, or varieties of plants and animals. Post-colonial theorists use it more generally to describe any person or group that results from the interaction of two unlike cultures or traditions. The concept of the hybrid does have racial implications, ones that I do not intend to ignore, but it does not necessarily have to describe a person who is multiracial or multiethnic. Rather, a hybrid can be anyone that is a product of two cultures, a child of two worlds. For some, this is an idea with positive associations, a celebration of multiple heritages and identities. On the other hand, hybridization can be a process of homogenization, erasing distinct identities in favor of some sort of blend.

Another issue with hybrid theory is that its mere existence points to a tendency to dichotomize that has long been associated with Western philosophy and religion. Philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that this flaw in Western thinking goes all the way back to Platonic dualism, which divided life into binary opposites: mind/body, good/evil, life/death, etc.2 Such binaries are common throughout the history of colonialism and imperialism, and may even be required for any imperialist agenda to succeed. There must be masters and subjects, enemies and allies, conquerors and conquered. The rhetoric of politics thrives on binaries. In the United States, the two-party system ensures that politicians will always place themselves and their agendas in contrast to those of the opposing party. Obviously, individual political beliefs vary within parties and many do not identify as either Republican or Democrat; however, politicians and newscasters still refer to “red states” and “blue states,” “liberals” and “conservatives.” Political clashes within the United States after 9/11, however, seem paltry in comparison to the way in which the Bush administration employed the rhetoric of nationalism to justify certain foreign policy decisions: “Axis of Evil.” “Mission Accomplished.” “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” “War on Terror.” Each of these phrases is a sound bite that creates a binary. Something is evil, or it is not. The mission is accomplished, or it is not. The Iraqi people are free, or they are not. Take “Axis of Evil,” for example. Note the word “Axis,” a term previously used to refer to Germany under Hitler, Italy under Mussolini, and Imperial Japan during World War II. In addition, what precisely is evil? Whose definition of evil are we using? Is the fact that a nation or its leaders are “evil” enough cause for preemptive military action? In hindsight, perhaps asking these questions is irrelevant. The events in question have already unfolded. I discuss these examples not to lambast the Bush administration but merely to point out the pervasiveness of binary thinking and its power, especially if it emanates from an authority figure. Significantly, several post-9/11 science fiction films concern themselves with cultural blending and the breaking down of binaries.

James Cameron’s Avatar retells a story that is as old as colonialism itself. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a former U.S. Marine, is assigned to a distant moon called Pandora where the military is in service to a mining company run by snide venture capitalist Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). Pandora contains rich deposits of the subtly named mineral “unobtanium,” a new source of energy for a struggling Earth. Sully, paralyzed from the waist down due to war injuries, is to replace his deceased twin brother in the Avatar Program. Run by tough-talking, cigarette-smoking scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the program psychically connects human “drivers” to avatar bodies grown from the DNA of the native humanoid species (called the Na’vi) in an attempt at research and diplomacy. Sully begins as a double agent, gathering intelligence for the hyper-aggressive Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), but then his love for the Na’vi princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) causes him to change sides and lead a full-on revolution against the “sky people.” Though the Na’vi — who are deeply connected to nature and worship a female deity — are for the most part an amalgam of various Native American tribes, Cameron also includes references to imperialist skirmishes from Vietnam to the Iraq War with mentions of “winning hearts and minds” and “fighting terror with terror.”

In Cameron’s update of the Pocahontas story, the humans most sympathetic to the Na’vi plight are those who do not subscribe to the machismo of Quaritch and his “hired guns.” Not coincidentally, they are outsiders in the mission’s military hierarchy: Sully because of his disability and Augustine because she is a woman and a scientist. They are supported by Norm (Joel David Moore), a researcher who becomes envious of Jake’s acceptance by the Na’vi; Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), a spitfire Latina helicopter pilot; and Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao), another scientist of implied East Indian descent.

Part of the effectiveness of Cameron’s political allegory is Pandora’s breathtaking beauty. The film “wins the hearts and minds” of the spectator by contrasting the vibrancy of Na’vi society with the dull colors and sterile rooms of the military base. Cameron and his team create a richly detailed world with moss-covered floating mountains, forests alive with fluorescent plants, and the lithe blue bodies of the Na’vi themselves. For the purposes of discussing hybridity, these bodies are most significant.

To begin with, the avatar bodies are already hybrids: combinations of Na’vi DNA and the DNA of each individual human “driver.” By the end of the film Jake Sully leaves his human body altogether, somehow transferring his consciousness to his avatar so he can inhabit the Na’vi body permanently. In this way, he is literally a hybrid — the mind of one species in the body of another. There are several ways to read this transformation, not all of them positive. At its most utopian, Avatar contains a message of environmental respect and cultural understanding. However, the issue remains that the Na’vi have little agency in the film. Even though Sully takes the physical form of one of the natives, it still takes a white male hero to save the day. In his article “Return of the Natives,” film critic and post-colonial theorist Slavoj Zizek writes: “The film teaches us that the only choice the aborigines have is to be saved by the human beings or to be destroyed by them. In other words, they can choose either to be the victim of imperialist reality, or to play their allotted role in the white man’s fantasy” (45-6). Zizek also points out that Sully’s transformation is merely another form of exploitation: he uses his connection with the Na’vi to regain a vital, functioning body, giving the film “brutal racist” undertones (45).

Christine Cornea comments that the alien Other in science fiction films often corresponds to the colonial European myth of the “noble savage,” in which native peoples are seen as more authentic and “pure” because of their primitivism (184). It is certainly a concept that applies to the Na’vi, who live in close contact with nature, hunt with poisoned arrows, and have not developed advanced technology. Significantly, as Cornea points out, the noble savage myth relies on the body of the native as the projection of a white person’s fantasy. She writes, “In other words, to be white suggests a disembodied positioning which can be placed in opposition to the body of the native. Therefore, the black body can stand in for the displaced body of the white man” (184). This statement is chillingly accurate in reference to Avatar, in which the white man is literally disembodied — Jake’s human body remains in a separate location while he “drives” his avatar — and only finds embodiment through inhabiting the body of a native. The contrast is most striking during a scene toward the film’s end when Neytiri holds Jake’s weakened human body in her arms. Her sinewy strength and giant stature dwarf his pale, emaciated form. The superiority of the Na’vi body, not the values of their culture, is the ultimate reason that Jake abandons his human form. Another recent science fiction film, District 9 (Neill Blomkamp 2009), also features a white protagonist who becomes “infected” with alien DNA and begins to transform into one of them. Even though the film is South African, with obvious parallels to apartheid, it fits into the imperialist fear of miscegenation, of literally becoming the Other.

The cable television hit Battlestar Galactica (BSG), which ran from 2004 to 2008, is a contemporary reimagining of the classic 1970s science fiction series. The show’s creators, Ronald Moore and David Eick, draw multiple parallels to post-9/11 U.S. society. President Laura Roslin inherits, rather than being elected to, the position of president after one of the worst terrorist attacks in history devastates the human race. She also becomes a religious figure who believes that she has a divine destiny. The show contains multiple references to contemporary issues including abortion, prisoner abuse and torture, biological weapons, suicide bombings, military occupation, and religious conflict. Galactica’s narrative revolves around a group of human refugees — led by President Roslin and military commander William Adama — at war against the Cylons, a robot enemy initially created by humans to do their bidding but who rebelled and evolved into “skinjobs” who are virtually indistinguishable from humans. At the series’ opening, Cylons have destroyed the home worlds of humanity (who millennia ago left a mythological Earth to settle on the “12 Worlds” or Colonies, each named after a different astrological sign).

New York Times critic John Hodgeman observes: “In the miniseries Moore wrote to introduce the new ”Battlestar,” the echoes of the war on terror were unapologetic and frequently harrowing: what happens when an advanced, comfortable, secular democracy endures a devastating attack by an old enemy that it literally created (which enemy, in Moore’s version, also happens to be religious fanaticism)?”3

The series accomplishes its brilliant and dramatic political allegory by shifting the context of various events to prevent the spectator from drawing clear boundaries between “good” and “bad” characters. The humans, our heroes, torture Cylon prisoners with rape, beatings, and a form of waterboarding. They also consider using biological weapons against the Cylons. In the show’s third season, the humans settle on a seemingly uninhabited planet, only to fall victim to a Cylon occupation. The episodes surrounding the Cylon invasion directly echo the U.S. occupation of Iraq, only this time the “good” humans are the victims. The Cylons recruit human collaborators to join a secret police force, the “corporeal extension of Cylon authority” (Episode 3:2 “Precipice”), resembling Iraqi police trained by the American military. The human resistance resorts to suicide bombing in a deft twist that allows the spectator to empathize with a young man who straps bombs to his body and blows himself up in a crowded stadium.

The series is also deeply concerned with hybridity and human/Cylon sexual relationships. The Cylons are clear stand-ins for a cultural and racial Other. The humans use racial epithets to refer to the Cylons: “toaster,” “skinjob,” etc. In one episode, a male officer justifies raping a female Cylon prisoner saying, “You can’t rape a machine” (Episode 2:12 “Resurrection Ship Part 2”). One of the primary plot points in BSG revolves around a human man, Lieutenant Carl “Helo” Agathon, who falls in love with a Cylon woman, Sharon, and marries her. Sharon Agathon is taken prisoner aboard the spaceship Galactica, where it is revealed that she is pregnant with Helo’s child. Sharon’s pregnancy becomes a point of contention aboard the Galactica. President Roslin believes that a human/Cylon baby could be a threat and steals the child from her mother after she is born. Roslin gives the girl, Hera, to a human woman to raise, telling a devastated Helo and Sharon that the baby died shortly after birth. Roslin’s suspicious attitude is particularly significant in light of the fact that the unborn child literally saved her life. Roslin, dying of cancer, learns that the baby’s fetal blood has healing properties. Her cancer goes into remission the moment the doctor injects her with the hybrid child’s blood. The theme of blood is particularly important given the racial allegory of the relationship between humans and Cylons. In the United States during slavery, the so-called one-drop rule stated that one drop of African American blood was enough to qualify a person as black, leading to various forms of discrimination and racism. Roslin has literally become part Cylon but is still resistant to the idea of a half-human, half-Cylon child. Others, humans and Cylons alike, believe that the child is a symbol of hope, the “shape of things to come.”

Ultimately, Hera becomes a symbol of a future in which humans and Cylons can live together and interbreed. The dual nature of the hybrid is both utopian fantasy and terrifying prospect. The complex interpretation of the hybrid comes down to issues of identity. As I discussed earlier, the hybrid presents a paradox: the prospect of maintaining several distinct selves or the threat of erasing individual identities in favor of an entirely new creation. In his essay “Hybridity’s End,” Matthew Gumpert writes, “True hybridity is a fantasy of wholeness retrieved: the return to an Edenic world where there are no distinct identities at war with each other” (Cylons in America 151). The benefit of hybridity is peaceful coexistence, but in BSG it also symbolizes the end of human identity, which has been presented throughout the series in contrast to the Otherness of the Cylons. Never a show to create moral absolutes, BSG leaves the question of hybridity open-ended. The series ends with humans and Cylons settling together on an Earth-like planet whose only inhabitants are tribes of pre-lingual humans. A postscript to the final episode reveals a modern-day Earth, where the descendants of humans and Cylons populate a New York-esque metropolis. A newspaper headline declares the discovery of DNA from a “mitochondrial Eve,” with genes from her human and Cylon parents. This “Eve” is presumably the child Hera. A billboard displays the latest innovation in robotics — a human-like robot that dances playfully across the screen. The intimation is that we are destined to repeat the same mistakes, that this new “humanity” is on the verge of another Fall. One of the show’s mantras is, “All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.” The last images of Battlestar Galactica imply that it will.

With the presidency of Barack Obama, who himself has a hybrid identity, American science fiction film may become a tool for sorting through questions of postcolonial politics and cultural integration. In his 2008 speech on race, Obama stated, “I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas . . . I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners — an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.”4 President Obama’s words demonstrate his awareness of his hybrid identity and the ensuing advantages and complications. Many believed that Obama’s election would serve as a symbol to the rest of the world of America’s willingness to accept diverse cultures and ideologies. Not everyone saw him as a positive figure, however: he was castigated by members of his own community for not being “black enough,” and a large portion of the U.S. population still believes that Obama is a Muslim despite the fact that he is open about his Christian faith. Obama, however, remains a leader who cannot think only in binary terms. British author Zadie Smith (herself the child of a black mother and a white father) writes in her article “Speaking in Tongues,” a review of Obama’s autobiography Dreams from my Father: “The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural.”5

Whether or not one agrees with his politics, the Barack Obama story is one that defies traditional dichotomization. As Smith argues, he has not sold out or compromised any part of himself in order to be more acceptable to a particular community. He is not “passing” as anything. Whether we as a society will learn anything from Obama’s example or, as Battlestar Galactica proposes, we will remain trapped in an endless cycle of violence and conquest, no one can say. Perhaps it is enough that we acknowledge that the destiny of every people, every nation, is intertwined, that our actions have consequences. Murray Pomerance, writing about the 1976 King Kong (directed by John Guillermin) and its connection to the 9/11 attacks comments:

If [9/11’s] central icon is the pillar of dark “satanic” smoke rising as the WTC burns, it may serve us to remember that each man’s darkness is in part his own: both Kong and Bin Laden are products of capitalism gone spectacularly wrong. Our mythical alienation of such forces betrays our own historical amnesia. (55)

Pomerance makes an important point, which is not that the United States somehow “deserved” the tragedy that occurred on 9/11. Rather, he argues that attempts to distance ourselves from the “evil” men and women who carry out such acts allow them to happen repeatedly. For no nation is innocent. 9/11 killed over 2,000 people. The dropping of the atomic bomb and the ensuing radiation killed an estimated 64,000 in Nagasaki and 140,000 in Hiroshima.6 It is not a question of blame or who has committed the most terrible acts of violence. The entirety of human history demonstrates that the most basic human instincts, both beautiful and terrible, are shared by all nations and all cultures. The best science fiction films are those that refuse to deal in absolutes. In Battlestar Galactica, Commander William Adama says: “You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore” (Miniseries Part 1). Maybe the goal should not be to hide, but to understand. If we can learn to truly empathize with everything alien, maybe “all this” will never have to happen again.

  1. Internet Medieval Sourcebook. []
  2. “Jacques Derrida.” Leonard Lawlor. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006. []
  3. “Ron Moore’s Deep Space Journey. John Hodgeman. New York Times Magazine, July 17th 2005. []
  4. Barack Obama, “A More Perfect Union” Speech. Philadelphia, March 18, 2008. []
  5. “Speaking in Tongues.” Zadie Smith. New York Review of Books, February 26, 2009. []
  6. “Hiroshima Remembers Atomic Bomb.”, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/MED/med_chp10.shtml []