In retiring after three decades of searching for signals from extraterrestrial civilizations, Jill Tarter recently said: “We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III,’ ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”
For melodrama Hollywood writers swing either toward showing benevolent or evil space aliens.
At the two extremes of the spectrum is the mawkish big-eye little alien in “E.T.” (1980) and the nightmarish creature of artist H.R. Giger’s imagination in the film “Alien” (1979) and its sequels.
Among the lamest aliens to show up in our nation’s capitol was space-humanoid Michael Rennie in the 1951 classic “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” Backed by his Cyclops muscle-robot, Gort, he scolds humans about not being peace-loving. Good luck! (NOTE: Don’t waste you popcorn money on the sappy save-the-squirrels theme in 2008 remake of this classic with Keanu Reeves).
Hollywood-invented aliens are, quite frankly, an abysmal failure of imagination; they are simply a projection of how our little minds think that creatures from the stars would look like and behave toward us.
It’s terribly narcissistic to think that advanced minds out there even would care at all about us, any more than a biologist has empathy for what’s growing in the Petri dish. This is counter to Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel Contact (and 1997 film), where mentoring aliens briefly take on a human appearance and benevolently transport a human crew to the core of our galaxy for a little face time.
Nosy, meddling aliens are common thread that makes the UFO phenomena as absurd as it is. The purported “real” alien encounters are just a 21st century rehash of the ages-old visions of demons and angels. This is even true for the physical description of shadowy alien creatures with big eyes and out-of-proportion heads. It’s a common Gestalt buried in the human psyche.
Some UFO tall tales even flirt with the inane notion of aliens breeding with us — an unabashed steal from ancient mythologies. Regrettably the downright silly UFO legends are intertwined with Hollywood storytelling.
Tarter laments that we still have zero evidence that extraterrestrials are even out there. And even if we do receive a signal someday, it’s doubtful we could phantom the appearance of the senders or understand their cognitive view of reality (unless the transmission were easily decipherable, which I doubt).
Any alien motives for spending a chunk of their GNP to travel here are lacking. First, we don’t have any resources that are so unique that would be worth the freight charge of ship to cargo another star system (the central theme in the 2009 “Avatar”). In the Twilight Zone adopted classic “To Serve Man” (from the 1950 short story by Damon Knight) Trojan Horse aliens just want to eat us. Just imagine the dinner tab.
A pathological civilization that plunders and kills — as depicted in the 1996 “Independence Day” — would have been so aggressive that it would have swept by us by now. But no “Star Wars” Death Stars have ever been detected by our armada of telescopes. (Unless they are the source of some of those mystery gamma-ray bursts!) And astrophysicist Stephen Hawking’s dire warning of evil aliens is meaningless. This is not a threat that anyone can plug into an equation.
Given the 10-billion year age of our galaxy, intelligent life forms could easily be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years more advanced than us. This means there is nothing we have in common to talk about, any more that a child trying to tap Morse Code to his ant colony: “hi ants, what are you doing today?”
What’s particularly silly, and equally clueless, is how alien physiology is illustrated in film and TV. For simplicity of budget and wardrobe, Star Trek aliens are almost all humanoid with funny looking ear and nose prosthetics. This is completely impossible unless a super-civilization played Johnny Appleseed and implanted the entire galaxy billions of years ago with its own DNA — as one “Star Trek: The Next Generation” storyline indeed suggests.
One might cautiously imagine technological species that have bilateral symmetry, appendages for tool-making, and stereoscopic vision if they are descended from predators. But the infinite variation offered by Darwinian evolution makes the details beyond that unimaginable.
It is conceivable that advanced intelligence abandoned the slow genetic crapshoot of Darwinian evolution eons ago, and became artificially constructed entities. Even Tarter’s SETI colleagues acknowledge this dilemma, and it makes searching for Earth-like planets pointless. Space robots could be immortal and could live anywhere there are resources.
The only shining exception to the Hollywood alien circus is the depiction — or rather non depiction — of extraterrestrials in the Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 cinema classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which he co-wrote with Arthur C. Clarke.
Kubrick experimented with illustrating the alien builders of the cryptic black monolith calling card that they left on the moon 4 million years ago. Thankfully Kubrick gave up trying to cinematically pull this off. This would have dated the film even worse than the psychedelic stargate trip at the end.
Nope, Kubrick opted instead for a head-scratching metaphysical ending. This left some critics crying that “2001″ was nothing more than a “Shaggy God” story. And, I certainly hope this isn’t the fate of our SETI program. The ultimate irony, as depicted in “2001,” is that we may stumble across an alien artifact. But unlike the black monolith, it turns out to be an abandoned piece of space hardware from a past interstellar reconnaissance probe, and not an interdimensional gateway to the stars.
Image credits: 20th Century Fox, Paramount