Why is the unbelievable so believable?
In the movies, anything can happen when worlds collide. In films like Star Wars, The Gremlins, and Jaws, the line that separates what's possible from impossible is becomes blurred when humans meet non-humans, whether an alien in space or a creature in the ocean.
Non-humans in movies are identified as 'the others' by NYU Abu Dhabi Film Professor Seung-hoon Jeong, who studies how animals, machines, and ghosts are presented in horror and sci-fi movies. Non-human characters like the shark in Jaws or R2D2 in Star Wars fit into Jeong's otherness category perfectly.
Otherness exists somewhere on the boundary of fiction and human society, Jeong explains, and provides an element of difference that can't be accounted for by humans. It challenges our normal perceptions because it's unfamiliar but somehow seems real. Otherness is not human but provokes very authentic human responses like love, hate, joy, or fear. And it's fascinating.
When animals appear as central figures in mainstream films they tend to stand in for human characters.
"When animals appear as central figures in mainstream films they tend to stand in for human characters," Jeong wrote in a paper titled "A Global Cinematic Zone of Animal and Technology published in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities." He said, "We immediately recognize human characteristics: good or evil, brave or cowardly, generous or greedy."
In Star Wars, creatures like Yoda and the Ewoks represent otherness that is humanized as non-threatening and even adorable. Robots R2D2 and C3P0 tell jokes and screw up just like humans do.
Jeong goes onto explain how otherness in film often transcends individual characters and is represented by a plot line; something non-human that threatens human society like an earth-destroying asteroid or super storm. Think Armageddon. Or Twister.
Who are the "others" in cinema?
The ontological other character is not human and falls into one of three categories: the animal, the machine and the ghost, and each of them relates to a specific genre. Animals are usually represented in animation, machines (cyborgs, robots) are most often seen in sci-fi films (The Matrix, Terminator), and ghosts are found in horror films through figures like Dracula, zombies, and monsters.
Why are we fascinated by the others?
Because it's different and opens a black hole of curiosity, like Alice in Wonderland. We have a desire to know something. What's in there? What is that? Otherness opens a different dimension of reality and you want to go there. Sometimes it's unknown, scary and causes dread but that dread itself is the fundamental motivation for wanting to know more.
In most Hollywood films, the animal is personalized and the interpretation of the animal is framed in our human culture.
Why is otherness in film so believable?
We almost immediately recognize the other (animals, robots, zombies) in a humanistic frame because it's easier for us to understand it and causes less anxiety. In cinema, the animal is essentially an avatar, not a human figure. In most Hollywood films, the animal is personalized and the interpretation of the animal is framed in our human culture. You can connect animals to certain human figures and it's easier to understand. Friendly animal characters are often relatable because we have household pets. Once they're our friends we can love them, but if they're enemies we want to get rid of them. But human interpretation of the others also deprives it of its true otherness, which may always remain incomprehensible to us, to some extent.
How is otherness represented in real life?
Otherness is a power structure between the human and non-human. It is an agent that questions humanity and what we stand for. We have otherness in society in terms of political and social framework: minorities, gender equality, race, and nationality. Otherness can be something catastrophic like climate change, terrorism, or technology that takes over our lives. It's non-human and either controllable or threatening to us. In cinema, otherness could be a super storm or alien invasion that is not driven by states or nations: it's the abject of the whole global community. Otherness on film can also translate into social otherness in real life. The Gremlins, for example, may have represented the oppression minority groups felt in the 1980s. Society wants to tame, accept and embrace the otherness but when it turns harmful you want to destroy it.