Space Childreh


HICHEl FEAY ■ «HM«ihms 'pfmWEBBER' raucaetmiM!MLH ■ mkjöiwh • MMM

This lobby card for The Space Children (1958) clearly shows the suspicion and contempt that many adults have for youth in nuclear-era movies.

tually be used to create the Pentagon A.I. that initiates the nuclear war.7 Amid a firefight with local police SWAT teams, the quartet of saboteurs assemble all of the classified files and materials relevant to Dyson's research and destroy the building in a massive explosion, thereby preventing or forestalling Armageddon. Teenage John Connor is fundamental to these events, succeeding where his mother fails. He averts Dyson's assassination, repro-grams the T-800 to learn (importantly, nonlethal violence), and gains entry into the secure lab through his computer dexterity. It is this adolescent's direct action and command of the T-800 that secures a future for humanity.

As these four brief examples demonstrate, some Cold War movie narratives entertain notions of children as catalysts of revolutionary change, challenging the role of the military-industrial complex. However, the origins of such themes and approaches can be found as early as 1958, with B-movie director Jack Arnold's subversive narrative template, The Space Children. This film sought not only to question the veracity of working Americans (and others internationally) participating in weapons of mass destruction development, testing, and deployment, but to depict children actively engaged in sabotage and subversion. It is a marked departure from much of the postwar, mass entertainment imagery of American youth as subservient to parental authority and/or national security interests.

The Space Children can be usefully approached from the perspective of Jack Arnold's oeuvre and auteurist predilections. Perhaps more than any other American filmmaker throughout the Cold War, Arnold was preoccupied with humanist considerations of atomic energy and society's capacity to effectively harness nuclear power or fall victim to its apocalyptic potential.8 Generally in Arnold's science fiction oeuvre, children are conspicuously absent. The Space Children is the exception—and in its representation of the empowerment of this atomic age generation, it is an exception that sits outside classical Hollywood cinema of the time. As a key countertext to the representation of Cold War children, this critically neglected B-film deserves a close reading.

On their way to the Eagle Point launch facility between San Francisco and Los Angeles—presumably a reference to the U.S.A.F. missile range at Vandenberg—a family of four (the Brewsters) encounter car trouble on a deserted stretch of beachside road. The young boys (Bud and Ken Brewster) hear a weird and otherworldly hum, accompanied by an angular beam of light that diagonally crosses the sky before reaching the seashore. During this brief close encounter, the family station wagon engine stalls as all the electrical systems cut out. The children excitedly describe what they've just seen and heard, but as a fighter jet screeches overhead and the car's battery once again turns over, both parents patronizingly dismiss their story as fanciful.

Upon arrival at the Eagle Point security gate, it becomes evident that the father, Dave Brewster, is a contractor for the Thunderer—a six-stage ICBM which is to carry a ''hydrogen warhead'' into space and orbit indefinitely, capable of sending its destructive payload instantaneously anywhere on the planet. At the military base's trailer home for civilians, self-proclaimed ''city girl'' Anne Brewster, disgruntled at having to leave San Francisco, is unimpressed with her husband's new posting. Significant discursive time is given to the overt marital dissent over the nature of Dave's employment. Anne repeatedly questions her evasive husband about the project, challenging his feigned disavowals with the suggestion that he and his company must have detailed knowledge of the project since he has ''worked on it for months.'' Dave's retort is telling: ''I worked on one part out of thirty-five thousand parts. It's more than just an intercontinental missile.'' The response is evocative of President Eisenhower's famous 1960 televised farewell address to the nation, warning against the ''grave consequences'' of a ''New American experience,'' namely the ''conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,'' one whose ''total influence—economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state, every house, every office of the Federal government":

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.9

After more expository sparring over the nature of the new ICBM, its accuracy, and what the enemy might possess, Anne ironically adds: ''It's almost funny, isn't it, having the kids living here in the middle of all this?" Dave turns in protest, rhetorically challenging his wife: ''Would you have wanted me to say 'no' after the company insisted I go?" Taken together, these statements depict not only an unresolved domestic tension, but articulate a commonplace personal defense designed to minimize, or excuse, Brewster's individual contribution to the arms race while reinforcing the enormous size of the civilian interdependency with the military-industrial complex. It demonstrates the massive fiscal resources and the tens of thousands of personnel directly employed in just one arms race program.

This conversation also recognizes the domestic, economic imperative to maintain such lucrative employment. As a later exchange between the Brewsters and another Eagle Point family demonstrates, being part of the daily production of weapons of mass destruction seemingly requires either the jingoistic certainty of an ideologue or a constant denial and disavowal of being actively complicit in manufacturing weapons systems designed to obliterate millions of families just like theirs. It is precisely this dualism that has been described as a ''Faustian'' bargain by Manhattan Project scientists Frank Barnaby and Freeman Dyson.10 As anthropologist Hugh Gusterson has demonstrated in his groundbreaking study of life inside a nuclear weapons laboratory:

We must partly understand laboratory practices of secrecy as a means of creating a disciplinary distance between weapons scientists and their families. Often working in concert with traditional American notions of appropriate roles in marriage, they open a space between the labo ratory and the domestic sphere that, to some extent at least, insulates weapons scientists from questions and challenges about their work and maintains a seal between the values of the public and domestic spheres.11

Cracks in the façade of routine life for the civilians on the base are reinforced in a scene soon after. While the children play offscreen, the adults of the trailer homes meet for an evening BBQ. The discourse immediately switches to the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and their children's concerns over atomic attack. Gathered around a table with the children out of earshot, the adults articulate distinct positions. Schoolteacher Anne Brewster expresses concern about the impact of her husband's work. Hank Johnson is cheerfully bellicose, advocating preemptive nuclear strikes, while his wife Frieda attempts to diffuse any potential conflict among the couples.

anne: At the parents and teachers meeting they put me on the spot. They kept asking me, ''When is it going to end? We keep trying to find ourselves something bigger and better to blow ourselves off the planet.'' When they ask me these questions, what do I tell them?

hank: Well, you just say that down there stands the Thunderer, and what are we waiting for?

frieda: Hank, dear, let's not be serious tonight. hank: It's your first day here, Dave. What's your viewpoint? dave: Same as my wife's. In all its history, our country's never started a war. The Thunderer is to prevent war.

hank: I still say that when that satellite gets up there with the Thunderer, and it gets into its orbit, we should . . .

frieda: . . . take a vacation! That's what we need Hank, a nice vacation.

Frieda is here both proud wife and domestic peacemaker underplaying her husband's belligerence, an ambiguity that women married to nuclear weapons scientists have demonstrated from the Manhattan Project's Laura Fermi to contemporary, post-Cold War weapons lab wives.12 Similar parental concerns are voiced by the Eagle Point commander, Colonel Manley, and chief weapons scientist, Dr. Wahrman, as the pair relax on the California coast in the late afternoon, while their respective teenage son and daughter return from a swim. The men reflect on their children's youthful affection: ''Life's a wonderful thing, doctor.'' To which Wahrman adds sullenly: ''Let's hope we can preserve it for them.''

Not long after arriving at the coastal space base, the Brewster boys team up with five other children. All witness another beam of light at the beach, this time transporting a small object from the sky into a nearby cave. Once inside, they encounter an incandescent, pulsating extraterrestrial that communicates with the group telepathically. Arnold's mise-en-scène and editing carefully feature the children nodding knowingly, and Bud is shown smiling, seemingly in acquiescence. Convincing their parents that they have found something that fell out of the sky, the Brewster boys and other children take Dave to the cave. After more telepathic exchanges, the alien is secreted back to the Brewster trailer, to the horror of Anne. Dave Brewster realizes that the arrival of the alien and the launching of the Thunderer is not coincidental and tries to warn his superiors, but he is prevented by an unseen alien force. With the aid of the creature's inexplicable power, the children effortlessly slip by security guards and through locked gates. The children are shown to be complicit in the destruction of a supply truck bringing rocket fuel to the site, and cheerily eat ice creams while ensuring a failure in communications occurs between the security gate and the sabotaged tanker.

Later, when Wahrman realizes the children have conspired with the alien force to sabotage his ICBM project, the scientist pleads before the now enormous space organism:

Why have you taken our children and made them do your work? I've spent a lifetime in the search for truth and knowledge, trying to make this world a better place; a world where the very children you are controlling can live in peace instead of fear. I'm their friend. I beg you, tell me what you want of them, what you're making them do. ... Is there no man on this Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?13

His rhetoric betrays the military-industrial mind-set that perpetuates his work in weapons of mass destruction. Wahrman firmly believes in deterrence predicated upon mutual annihilation as a rational process. As Hugh Gusterson has argued, ''No matter how intellectually exciting nuclear weapons work may be, it brings with it moral dilemmas that laboratory employees must either confront or ignore as they go about their work.''14 For Guster-son, these scientists develop a socioideological ''central axiom'' that legitimates their daily work: ''the laboratory designs nuclear weapons to ensure, in a world stabilized by nuclear deterrence, that nuclear weapons will never be used.''15

Unlike Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer, who made the famous remark about physicists ''knowing sin,'' The Space Children's weapons scientist is firmly in denial.16 For Dr. Wahrman, anything that undermines

America's ability to maintain a pronounced strategic advantage against its foe is philosophically untenable. It is precisely this logic and sophistry that the scientist repeats at the film's conclusion. He pleads with the children, who have formed a physical cordon to prevent the colonel and his troops from attacking the creature. His argument is well intentioned but deeply paternalistic and patronizing. Gusterson's description of the nuclear scientists' central axiom is apt here, compounded by their living in ''a different reality,'' isolated within a ''total institution" under secrecy, segregation, and surveillance:

In order for the scientists' central axiom—that nuclear weapons exist to save lives and prevent war—to be believable, nuclear weapons scientists must be convinced in their bones that deterrence will not break down; they must have internalised as an integral part of their feeling and thinking selves the conviction that the weapons really will not be used.17

Dr. Wahrman's seeming rationality is ultimately presented as flawed when he invokes the survival of the species, paradoxically premised upon deterrence from the threat of global annihilation.

Children. I'm your friend. Now I wouldn't ask you to do anything that I didn't feel was necessary. Think of your parents; the people on the project. Your country may be in terrible danger. The Thunderer is useless. I don't think you know what you've done. . . . Colonel Manley has a daughter of his own. I have a son. We wouldn't ask you to do any more than we'd ask our own children. So please get away from that cave so Colonel Manley and his men can move in.

The soldiers begin to advance and the extraterrestrial emerges from the cave. The children collectively lurch forward while the assembled parents reel in horror at the unworldly apparition. As the colonel commands his troops to open fire, the earth shudders and is awash with light. Powerless, the group watches as the giant brain ascends into the heavens, reversing its earlier trajectory. All present look to the sky, following its flight.

colonel manley: I don't understand. Why did it destroy the Thunderer? Why? Why?

bud: It had to, because the world wasn't ready to do it. dr. wahrman: The world? What do you mean, the world?

bud: The children, all over the world, they did what we did, in other countries.

colonel manley: You mean the warheads in Moscow and Prague and London, are all useless?

anne brewster: The world is having second chance . . .

Everyone turns and looks upward. The camera dollies back and cranes upward as the sound track swells with angelic music and a superimposed title displays a biblical passage: ''Verily, I say unto you . . . except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven'' (Matthew 18:3). Hence, the actions of the children are narratively aligned with the typology of New Testament scripture, which provides both a prophetic resonance with and a moral justification for their actions. At the film's conclusion, the alien is discursively read as an emissary and agent of God's divine wisdom, like a mid-twentieth-century angel that delivers a sacred message and acts as a protector of the innocent.18 Nevertheless, the assembled children are shown physically placing their lives on the line to defend the alien and bring about this cosmic harmony. They have become willing saboteurs to ensure global nuclear disarmament.

Twenty-five years later, The Manhattan Project improbably depicted a 17-year-old high school senior, Paul Stephens, challenging the doctrine of nuclear deterrence head-on by constructing his own atomic bomb, to be unveiled at a national school science fair in New York. A decade later, in 1994, real-life Detroit teenager David Hahn accidentally initiated a Federal Radiological Emergency Response Plan when local troopers searched his car trunk and believed he was carrying a homemade nuclear bomb.19 Over a two-year period the 17-year-old boy scout managed to obtain sufficient radioisotopes such as americium, radium, and beryllium, and other nuclear materials, to build in his parent's garage—with written assistance from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency—a homemade neutron gun, and later, a crude breeder reactor. By the time state and federal authorities became involved and a crack counterterrorist Nuclear Emergency Search Team arrived at the Hahn family home in suburban Michigan, geiger counters were running high several hundred meters from the boy's garage. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 40,000 neighborhood residents were potentially exposed to contamination of up to 1,000 times normal background radiation.

David Hahn's backyard experimentation seems the stuff of fiction, blurring the boundaries between narrative film drama and teenage determina-

The Manhattan Project (1986) features high schooler Paul Stephens (Christopher Collet, second from left) building an atomic bomb, mystifying both scientists and the military.

tion and inventiveness. As radiological expert Dave Minnaar from Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality asserted, safety policies and regulations never anticipated such a real-life nuclear drama: ''It's simply presumed that the average person wouldn't have the technology or materials required to experiment in these areas.''20

Unlike David Hahn, who had no ostensible political or ideological motivation for his nuclear hobby, the teenage prankster of The Manhattan Project is spurred into action after discovering a covert weapons laboratory has been established near his bucolic town in Ithaca, New York, which uses laser technology to refine and purify plutonium (Pu), giving it ''twenty times the punch'' of thermonuclear explosions. A visiting nuclear scientist, Dr. Math-ewson, keen to date Paul's unmarried mother, ingratiates himself by inviting the boy to visit the MedAtomics Research Facility. After being given a radiation film badge to wear and scrutinizing the laboratory security system, Paul witnesses green plutonium jelly being processed by robots, but Dr. Mathewson denies the nature of the substance by asserting that the material is the less powerful isotope Americium 231. Outside the facility on his way home, the student notices what appears to be five-leafed clover.

Soon after, at his teenage girlfriend Jenny's house, Paul becomes incensed at the corporate and military deceit:

Paul: There's only two uses for plutonium—in weapons and reactors, right? So if they're making reactors, why would they say it's medical? And if it's medical, why are they fooling around with plutonium? It doesn't make sense.

jenny: Why would he invite you inside? It's crazy. paul: So he's crazy. Look what he does for a living! He's hot for my mother. He figures I'm a dumb kid . . . plus which, he's got all these security clearances. I don't know what they are—Los Alamos, Livermore Labs, Oak Ridge. You know what they make at Oak Ridge? . . . Nuclear warheads!

After Paul shows Jenny a handful of five-leaf clovers, suggesting that the odds of this occurring naturally without chemical or nuclear mutation are more than a billion to one, Jenny demands that Paul tell the press, but Paul is dismissive of his girlfriend's suggestions: ''It's a government lab, they're not going to let you in there. . .. What do you want to do, march on Washington?'' This cynical comment demonstrates the teenager's contempt for both the mainstream media and peaceful protest as ineffective means to usurp the government and military-industrial complex.21 However, Jenny is unrelenting in her disdain and challenges Paul's resigned complacency:

This isn't funny. Do you know what this is about? It's like, I don't know, when you read about Anne Frank, and you say to yourself, Jesus, why didn't they do something? The whole world is collapsing but they just sit around like, as usual. Maybe it will go away. But it doesn't go away. It gets worse! And nobody thinks about the future.

At this point Paul decides to take direct action, spurred on by his girlfriend's passionate evocation of genocide, apathy, and disavowal. After a lengthy series of vignettes depicting Paul studying publicly available nuclear implosion designs and easily acquiring the necessary technologies (including C4 plastic explosives) to make the device, he produces a fissionable metallic ball of plutonium from stolen laboratory gel and takes the unarmed device to New York. When the authorities discover the theft, Dr. Mathewson immediately suspects Paul and, uncannily prophetic of David Hahn's story, a nuclear search team locates traces of the radioactive material at a garage Paul had earlier rented. Initially, the military and FBI capture Paul and attempt to interrogate him, but a gang of science fair geeks help him escape with the bomb, as the national media portray Paul as a terrorist. Returning to Ithaca, he eventually negotiates with Dr. Mathewson, promising to hand over ''the gadget'' if the scientist signs a statement ''about the lab—what it is, where it is, what happens inside—everything.'' Despite Mathewson's concerns over security clearances and prospects of jail for them both, Paul wins his concession. Meanwhile, Jenny uses her local grassroots community networking to spread the news about the lab and muster the locals into descending on the facility.

Surrounded by FBI snipers, Paul assembles the bomb, ready to detonate it, and ironically invokes the logic of deterrence and its binary stalemate in order to buy time. Mathewson finally persuades the teenager to hand over the device, but then surprisingly repeats the boy's earlier strategy by engaging in his own act of subversion, holding the facility hostage unless the boy is granted free passage. Once armed, however, the bomb's mechanism is tripped accidentally by an environmental surge and all present desperately try to prevent it from going critical. Paul, Dr. Mathewson, the military, and the FBI all work cooperatively to disarm the device with seconds to spare as a mass of local community activists, friends, and family swarm about at the facility gates and eventually gain entry, leaving the military to flee in helicopters. Improbably and unconvincingly, the scientists and soldiers abandon the laboratory, leaving its secrets and supplies of purified plutonium to ''people power.''

If the paradoxes of nuclear deterrence are presented through children developing their own weapons of mass destruction to demonstrate the secrecy and undemocratic activities of the military-industrial complex in The Manhattan Project, then a film released the same year, Amazing Grace and Chuck, promotes a pacifist alternative to individuals embracing these annihilating technologies and using them as instruments to force policy change.

Following an elementary school visit to a Montana ICBM silo, local schoolboy and promising Little League baseball pitcher, Chuck Murdock, questions a visiting congressman about why the missile crews are armed. In WarGames the opening sequence depicts the failure of a senior airman to follow orders and fire his missiles, despite the threat of deadly force from an adjacent officer. In Amazing Grace and Chuck, it is the mere concept of two men buried beneath blast-proof doors with handguns in charge of America's nuclear arsenal that disturbs the boy. Neither his father (an air force reserve fighter pilot) nor the congressman can explain to Chuck's satisfaction why such weapons and delivery systems exist.

So perturbed is Chuck by the visit and the implications of global cross-targeting with its associated megadeath that he withdraws from family and friends and suffers from vivid nuclear nightmares.22 One weekend Chuck inexplicably refuses to play in a major ballgame. He explains to all concerned that he will not again play baseball until all the nuclear weapons are gone.

Chuck (Joshua Zuehlke) and Celtics star Amazing Grace Smith (Alex English) form an unexpected friendship in Amazing Grace and Chuck (1986) to promote world peace.

''I'm not sick. But I can't play because of nuclear weapons. It's my best thing and I have to give up something.''

Chuck's story is treated disdainfully by the local newspaper, but the national press picks up on the quirky story. It is one which deeply affects an NBA basketball player, ''Amazing Grace'' Smith, who flies out to visit Chuck. So impressed by Chuck's resilience and strength of character in giving up his favorite thing, only to be pilloried by school friends, teachers, and community, the NBA star joins the boy, withdrawing from the league in order to move closer to Chuck's home town in solidarity.

Soon two of Amazing Grace's NFL buddies come to visit, and after meeting Chuck they also quit pro football mid-season. Like a contagion, sports stars all over the U.S. join the action, refusing to honor their contracts. Chuck's father battles with local contractors and his military peers, who argue that their livelihood is dependent on the current national security posture. So troubling is the protest movement that the president (Gregory Peck) visits Chuck and tries to persuade the boy to change his mind.23 It's a telling exchange, with the elder statesman respectfully goading the child into abandoning his protest, suggesting Chuck's action (or inaction) will make it harder for bilateral arms negotiations to succeed between the superpowers.

But Chuck retains his "principles" and refuses to demur to the leader of the free world.

A mysterious and powerful industrialist, Mr. Jeffries, threatens Amazing Grace's manager, which ends in the basketball hero's murder after his plane is sabotaged. Devastated by the loss of his friend and the failure of the authorities to move on the arms issue, Chuck publicly announces to the assembled media:

I had a friend. His name was Amazing Grace Smith. He was my best friend. I think he was the best basketball player that ever lived. All he wanted was for people to live, and now he's gone. He told me—and I've seen it—that there's death buried in the earth. Amazing said it would be a good thing if everybody stopped pretending the death wasn't there. If we stop playing, he said we could start playing when they took it away. And now he's gone, and the death is still there. ... I don't want to talk any more.

With this he silently raises his left hand in salute and from that point refuses to speak. Like many hibakusha who fell victim to the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, silence is a considered strategy that recognizes the failure of discourse to represent such issues and events.24 Chuck's actions symbolically invoke what psychologists such as Robert Lifton and others have identified as "nuclearism''—denial, disavowal, and numbing—by repressing the consequences of imminent thermonuclear oblivion and maintaining "business as usual.''25

At school the next day Chuck is berated and ostracized by his teacher, yet in solidarity at his treatment, the entire class leaves the room in silent protest to support Chuck's action. After the media reports on Chuck's protest, White House advisors describe the children's movement as global, similar to the conclusion of The Space Children, being repeated all over the world. The officials try various strategic spins to convince the president to intervene while expediently embracing Chuck's popularity. But the president adopts another course of action and secretly travels to Russia for a private summit with the Soviet premier. Together, they use the children's initiative to bypass their arms negotiators and draft a phased weapons reduction with ''an immediate cut of fifteen per cent'' over a ''seven-year program to eliminate all nuclear weapons.'' The president soon greets Chuck, confident that his treaty will win over the boy. But the still silent and canny Chuck refuses to talk, his father suggesting to the president: ''a lot can happen in seven years. You'll be out of office . . .''

Back in Washington, the despondent president is given devastating news:

white house aide: Now the Joint Chiefs are telling us they can no longer guarantee a launch. The guys in the silo might shoot each other, or stick flowers in their guns. Every sign tells us that the Russians have the same problem. We have silent children around the world. Their parents are going on strike. Our allies, our enemies—all blaming us.

president: The people want their children back.

After a final emergency summit, the president once more visits Chuck and shows him a draft joint U.S.-Soviet declaration for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Within a few months, before the world's media, the U.S. president, and the visiting Soviet premier, Chuck stands atop his local baseball mound, ready to pitch. He has won. In a fairy-tale ending, Chuck Mur-dock's nonviolent protest and personal abstinence (silence and sacrificing) bring about what 40 years of international diplomacy could not: the eradication of nuclear weapons from the planet.

In all of these films, the discursive power of persuasion by adults who argue for the continuance of genocidal weapons, deterrence, and mutual assured destruction for the benefit of national security and global peace is undermined by the impassivity, intransigence, direct action, or counterlogic of children who question the very assumptions that maintain such postures. More than 20 years prior to Amazing Grace and Chuck, The Manhattan Project, Project X, and Terminator 2, Jack Arnold's fantasy The Space Children advocated direct action by children in dismantling and destroying the accumulated nuclear arsenals worldwide. This was at the heart of the Cold War and amidst anxiety over atmospheric nuclear testing and the emerging space race. Thirty years on, toward the conclusion of the Cold War, Amazing Grace and Chuck clearly established personal, and then public, dissent by children with acts of individual and collective volition. There is no external (i.e., alien or superhero) catalyst for these determined acts of passive resistance and noncompliance. As such, these films provide a sobering and liberating representation of children and adolescents actively ensuring that a future exists for their generation. By exposing and resisting the complacency, denial, and fatalism identified as intrinsic to the military-industrial complex's cultural and economic hegemony, a small number of Cold War children's films provided alternative paradigms for action in and reflection on the atomic age.

0 0

Post a comment