Homeys on Film: Homeland Security Lessons from Bad Movies

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)


Film critics Harry and Michael Medved awarded Plan 9 From Outer Space the trophy for “worst movie ever made” in their 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards (a well-thumbed copy of which sits upon my bookshelf). But anyone with an eye (just one) and a heart can’t honestly classify Plan 9 as a bad film. It belongs to another category entirely — a goobad film, a film so bad it is hilariously good. The primary entertainment value comes from the unintentionally campy performances, the over-the-top script, and the lower-than-low budget production values (watch the cardboard gravestones sway back and forth when the actors scurry by! It’s day! It’s night! No, it’s day again! See the pie tin flying saucer set on fire, then flung across the screen on a string!) And the inclusion of famous-for-never-being-right psychic Criswell as the movie’s host was a grace note which gave the film an otherworldly, surreal gravitas seldom achieved by films at this production level.

Our story begins with an old man (Bela Lugosi, in his posthumous final screen appearance — he’d died three years before, just after shooting some test footage with director Ed Wood, who likely wrote Plan 9 in order to capitalize on his few feet of precious, but soundless, Lugosi footage… see the wonderful film Ed Wood for more details) at his wife’s graveside, mourning her death. There’s a sudden shift to the cockpit of an airplane piloted by the redoubtable Jeff (Gregory Walcott), our hero (the cockpit “set” is little more than a pair of chairs for pilot and copilot and a chintzy curtain which supposedly separates the cockpit from the rest of the plane), which is forced off course by the swift passage of what appears to be a flying saucer. The saucer lands in the graveyard, where its occupants resurrect the old man’s deceased wife (Vampira/Maila Nurmi) as a radio-controlled zombie and sic her on the grave diggers, who die a horrible death (off camera). Back to the old man’s house, we see him wandering out in the road in a befuddled daze, where he is hit by a car (again, off camera). At his funeral, one of the mourners discovers the bodies of the murdered grave diggers (repeat after me… off camera), and the police are called in. The law is represented by Inspector Clay (professional wrestler Tor Johnson) and Lieutenant Harper (Duke Moore). This is the only scene in which Inspector Clay speaks, probably a good choice on Ed Wood’s part, since English dialogue was not Swede Tor Johnson’s strong point as an actor. Clay goes off on his own to investigate the graveyard.

Pilot Jeff is chatting with his wife Paula on their patio about the flying saucer which buzzed his airplane, complaining that the Army has sworn him to secrecy, when another saucer, or perhaps the same one, does a low flyover, knocking the surprised couple out of their chairs. Meanwhile, back in the graveyard, Inspector Clay comes upon the deceased old man (no longer played by Bela Lugosi, but rather by a lightly disguised chiropractor friend of Ed Wood’s) and his equally deceased wife, who menacingly surround him. His gunfire is loud but ineffective, and he collapses within the chiropractor’s black cape, never to be seen in human form again.

Matters come to a head. Three flying saucers are seen flying over (stock footage of) Hollywood, then Washington, DC. The Army decides to make a stand, but their missiles fail to hit the saucers, which appear to be protected by some kind of force field (and the fact that distant smoke puffs are easier and cheaper to simulate than impressive explosions). The commanding general mentions to a subordinate that the saucers have destroyed a small town  and have not responded to attempts at radio communications. We transition to the command room of the lead saucer, where Eros (Dudley Manlove) and his second in command, Tanna (Joanna Lee), confer with their Ruler (John Breckinridge), informing him that they have decided to go with Plan 9, the resurrection of the dead (we never learn what Plans 1-8 were or how they got screwed up). Eros and Tanna, the William Powell and Myrna Loy of extraterrestrial invaders, get the green light from the Ruler (who, to judge from his tone of voice, really couldn’t give a damn). Jeff goes off on another flight, leaving Paula alone in their home.  She is soon menaced by the zombie old man and chased through the cemetery, where zombie Vampira and zombie Clay join the chase. She faints just outside the graveyard and is rescued by a local farmer.

The Army belatedly manages to translate Eros’s earlier transmissions, which began as friendly greetings but later degraded into frustrated, bitchy warnings about Earthlings’ warlike ways. Back on the saucer, the Ruler decides it is time for decisive action, so he commands Eros to send the old man zombie on a kamikaze mission to overawe the Earthlings. The old man zombie attacks a police officer, but before he can kill him, Eros remotely fires a disintegration ray, and the old man zombie crumples into a skeleton before the police officer’s stunned eyes.

The aliens prepare for their upcoming confrontation with the Earthmen. Jeff and an Army officer locate the saucer parked in the graveyard. Eros, feeling the need to soliloquize, opens up the saucer’s hatch and lets the two Earthmen enter. When Jeff tries to get manly with his gun, Eros turns on the viewing screen, which shows zombie Clay carrying an unconscious Paula through the cemetery. Eros has his Lady Macbeth moment, expounding at length on the history of humanity’s weapons development and climaxing in a prediction that, should their progress remain unimpeded, humans will inevitably develop solorbonite, an unstoppable weapon which will destroy the entire universe by exploding all rays from the sun and other stars. Because humans are “stupid, stupid!“, they must be destroyed before they can manage to create and test solorbonite. Out in the graveyard, a police officer manages to brain zombie Clay with a two-by-four, rescuing Paula, which frees Jeff to go into hero mode. He shoots up Eros’s equipment, starting a fire aboard the saucer. Eros and Tanna take off, the saucer becomes an inferno (well, actually a pie tin set on fire with a Bic lighter), it explodes (sort of), Criswell intones a brief eulogy, THE END.

Homeland Security Lesson #1: Guns Aren’t Toys (or Pointers, or Forehead Scratchers)

One might be forgiven for thinking a reminder of this sort wouldn’t be necessary, at least not for homeland security professionals. However, throughout Plan 9 From Outer Space, we are treated to the chuckle-worthy spectacle of Lieutenant Harper gesticulating wildly with his service revolver, using it to point at his coworkers and civilians, and, perhaps most egregiously, using its barrel to scratch his forehead while his finger is on the trigger (one involuntary jerk of his index finger and “hello” drain bamage… err, brain damage).

So is this clownishness just the brash, unrealistic theatrics of an amateurish thespian? Unfortunately, no. This March, 2008 article from the London Daily Mail reported that nearly half of all gun-related injuries involving British police officers were due to an officer’s accidental discharge of a weapon, often during training exercises. The article lists examples including a Thames Valley Police firearms officer accidentally shooting a fellow officer while showing off his Glock pistol, not realizing it was loaded; a London-based diplomatic protection officer shooting himself in the leg while getting into a car; and an airport security officer shooting off the top of his thumb while training with his MP5 sub-machine gun. So, officers, be careful out there on the firing range, okay?

Homeland Security Lesson #2: Future Events Will Affect You in the Future

In the immortal words of The Amazing Criswell (psychic Jeron Criswell King, host of Criswell Predicts and part of Ed Wood’s entourage), “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I will spend the rest of our lives. And remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.” A somewhat pithier commentator, physicist Neils Bohr, was reported to have said, “It is very difficult to predict — especially the future.” Well, just because it’s hard doesn’t excuse us homeland security practitioners from making a good faith effort.

As soon as the Army (or civilian pilots like Jeff) first sighted the flying saucers, military and civilian authorities should have begun a contingency planning process — an assessment of risk. What is risk? The likelihood that a future event will occur, considered in conjunction with the consequence of that event once it has occurred. A common formulation is that Risk = Probability of Threat Event Occurring X Vulnerability of Target X Consequence of Threat Event Occurring. Risk assessments differ depending upon the nature of the threat event: is it unmotivated or motivated? In other words, is your threat vector Mother Nature (or a robot which does not respond to a defender’s inputs but simply carries out preprogrammed instructions — no feedback loop) or an intelligent actor (who may opt to change his attack based on a defender’s actions or barriers encountered)?

Risk assessments for unmotivated threats follow the Probability X Vulnerability X Consequence model. If you have a large enough sample size of prior occurrences, you can calculate an exceedance probability curve, a graph which shows you how likely it is that a new event of a particular type (an earthquake, say) will be at or beyond a certain magnitude (for earthquakes, magnitude on the Richter Scale). If military or governmental analysts were to make the decision that alien incursions do not have intelligent motivation behind them — the incursions are by preprogrammed saucer-shaped robots, say, or the saucers themselves are malignant animals capable of destruction but not intelligent reasoning — AND we make the assumption that the Plan 9 universe experienced all the alien incursions from prior movies of the 1950s, the analysts could set up a chart like the one below.  Each film represents an alien incursion, with the magnitude/consequence of the incursions ranked from least to greatest; the cumulative probability, or the likelihood that an event of this magnitude or greater will happen, is listed in parentheses for each:

Invaders From Mars — it’s all a dream, so fuggedaboudit (1.000)
It Came From Outer Space — aliens just want to repair their damaged spaceship; temporarily kidnap a handful of people and impersonate them, later releasing them unharmed (.941)
The Beast with a Million Eyes — an alien lands in a rural hamlet, mind controls a group of animals and humans (.882)
The Man From Planet X — a handful of English folk mentally controlled for a day; threatened invasion of Earth (not carried out) (.824)
Invasion of the Saucer Men — aliens inject a handful of teenagers with alcohol from their fingernails, kill one teenager through alcohol poisoning (.765)
The Thing From Another World — two scientists killed by being drained of blood (.706)
The Monolith Monsters — one man killed, other persons partially petrified, several towns smashed by toppling monoliths (.647)
It Conquers the World — alien turns off all the world’s electrical power, mind controls hundreds, kills two  (.588)
The Day the Earth Stood Still — all electric power shut down, all motorized devices stop working, probably results in at least a handful of deaths (not shown)  (.529)
This Island Earth — scientific facility incinerated from the air, killing all occupants (.471)
Target Earth — alien robots invade Chicago, causing the city to be evacuated, killing at least a couple of dozen soldiers and civilians (.412)
The Blob — alien organism absorbs the substance of about a hundred people (.353)
The Mysterians — a few hundred deaths from an alien-caused earthquake  (.294)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers — aliens impersonate and replace all the inhabitants of a small town, killing them in the process, and spread their plot to surrounding communities (.235)
Earth vs. the Flying Saucers — Flying saucers with death rays attack Washington, London, Paris, and Moscow, likely killing tens of thousands (.176)
The War of the Worlds — alien warships destroy all of Earth’s major cities, presumably killing tens of millions directly, hundreds of millions through secondary effects (.118)
Robot Monster — Ro-Man kills everyone on Earth except for eight survivors, who are immune to his death ray for some reason (.059)

So, if the above list constituted Earth’s prior experience with alien incursions and these incursions were considered as unmotivated events (Mother Nature or robots which do not respond to feedback), then an analyst asked to state the probability of the Plan 9 saucer incursion causing at least one death (or a worse outcome) would list that likelihood at 76.5%. If the threshold were set at a hundred deaths, the predicted likelihood of that number of deaths or worse would be 35.3%, or the likelihood of the deaths of tens of millions, up to the near-extinction of humanity, would be 11.8%. Given those odds, it would certainly behoove the military to put forth a maximum effort to destroy the saucers (more so than launching a handful of ground-to-air missiles and then shrugging their shoulders). However (and this is a big however), our heroes quickly learned that the deadly saucers were guided by active intelligences (not that I’d place Eros, Tarra, and the Ruler too high on the smarts scale, but still). So, pure Risk = Probability X Vulnerability X Consequence estimates no longer apply. The authorities would need to engage in Attacker-Defender analysis. Which leads us into our next Homeland Security Lesson…

Homeland Security Lesson #3: Try to See Events and Situations Through Your Adversary’s Cultural Lens

A key element of red teaming analysis (of which Attacker-Defender analysis is one type) is making an honest effort to see through your adversary’s eyes. What are his motivations and goals? What constitutes success in his world? What are his cultural prohibitions and cultural aspirations?

Had the military done this with Eros and crew, they might have avoided much fuss had they sent a different interlocutor (say, Neils Bohr instead of Jeff & co.), then invited Eros and the Ruler out for a pleasant evening in San Francisco, perhaps visits to a leather bar and a transvestite show. Eros might have decided that Earthmen aren’t actually “stupid, stupid!” (apart from Jeff, Paula, Inspector Clay, Lieutenant Harper, etc. etc.) Had the Plan 9 planners gotten to know our better specimens, they would have realized we would never do anything so risky and self-destructive as invent solorbonite. After all, our physicists would never be reckless enough to test a weapon which might result in a chain reaction that would destroy the world…

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