If you were to ask a group of scientists what they think the single greatest discovery in human history could be odds are they would say something like: Finding a cure for cancer, successfully cloning a human being, proving the theory of evolution, or proving the big bang theory. However, most would universally agree that the greatest revelation above all these would be discovering that humans are indeed not alone in the universe and that there is intelligent ‘alien’ life out there. Society’s interest of extra-terrestrial life really started around 1951 when “The Day the Earth Stood Still” landed in theatres, an interest that reached new heights during the Space Race between the USA and the USSR. Following this historic era all facets of global media have dabbled in the prospect of human contact with extra-terrestrials and even to this day ‘aliens’ are found in every form of media imaginable from novels to movies and everything between.
With the successful Curiosity landing on Mars interest in what might be out there has started to surface again so I feel it best we take a look at how we have perceived E.T and his brethren up until this point.
The great thing about aliens is since we do not know what they look like or understand their behavior they’re adaptable to what we want them to be. In this respect they have served as the perfect measure of ourselves throughout the years, a means of humans comparing themselves to something hypothetical. In the past aliens have been portrayed in various creative ways, ranging from friendly visitors to bloodthirsty monsters intent on destroying our way of life. The early years of ‘alien’ sci-fi (Science Fiction) saw people take a curious but suspicious stance on aliens, a true reflection of the period, best shown through classic movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In these movies aliens were very much shown to be antagonists or invaders determined to eradicate us from the face of the earth. I feel I should mention the hugely significant message included in The Day the Earth Stood Still as it is a point I will return to later: Is the human race really ready for contact with extra-terrestrial life?
In The Day the Earth Stood Still alien envoys land on earth with a “Mission of Good Will” and to assess our development as a species. Despite the visitors arriving with good tidings in our paranoia we open fire on them which sparks concerns that our species after all this time is still too primitive to comprehend peace. The message of goodwill is offered by the visitors in response to humans taking their first steps into outer space and is intended to be shared by us to our fellow man. However paranoia again gets the better of humanity and we refuse to unite as a species under it’s message of peace. Our violent disposition and inability to live in harmony with our fellow man end up condemning us all to eradication for the safety of other worlds. Still, we are spared total annihilation by the visitors who leave with an ominous warning: “The decision rests with you”.
In the later 1970’s and early 80’s audiences were introduced to the more child-friendly brand of ‘aliens’. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) was Steven Spielberg’s imagining of first contact with aliens gone right, it was peaceful story with a good ending that preached hope for the future. A few years later Spielberg returned to sci-fi and released a movie that became both arguably his best movie and one of the all-time greats of the genre: E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). E.T had a similar message to that of Close Encounters in which first contact with an alien race can be a peaceful encounter, but unlike before curiosity quickly becomes paranoia and E.T is forced to flee Earth for his own safety in one of the most heart-breaking scenes in movie history. The late 70’s also saw another brand of alien sci-fi properly emerge, one I’m sure everyone is rather fond of: sci-fi horror.
The face of sci-fi changed forever when Ridley Scott released Alien in 1979. While E.T was likely to gently touch your fingers the Xenomorph featured in Alien was likely to rip off your head and lay eggs in your guts. It was tense, gory, shocking, and atmospheric to an extreme – and audiences lapped it up. A few short years later audiences saw the ante raised again with the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) which to this day (just pretend the recent movie didn’t happen) remains one of the most terrifying portrayals of alien life in cinema. What made The Thing work so well is that unlike E.T or The Day the Earth Stood Still we never learn a lot about the creature itself, it’s just… well… ‘alien’ to us. Despite never discovering a great deal about it we learn enough to be absolutely terrified of it: ‘The Thing’ is a shape shifting alien capable of taking on the appearance of any living being it encounters by forcibly taking it over from within and grotesquely transforming it into a killing machine. The Thing could have taken over your best friend and could be standing right next to you looking completely normal all the while contemplating how it is going to isolate you from everyone else and kill you. Add to this nightmarish scenario that the creature is uncovered in the middle of the arctic in an enclosed and hostile environment and you have a recipe for sheer terror, it was genius writing and audiences responded great to it. From this point on the immediate future of aliens in movies was decided, they would be our boogeymen, the stuff of our nightmares.
In 1986 the impossible happened as the sci-fi ante was upped yet again with the release of Aliens. James Cameron’s masterpiece and sequel to Alien is widely regarded as one of the greatest movies ever made and is one of the only movies to have ever received a 100% rating on RottenTomatoes. Aliens expanded the mythos behind the Xenomorphs whilst appeasing every kind of viewer from those who wanted great sci-fi storytelling to those who wanted to see burly space marines with big guns fighting serpentine aliens.
This trend continued throughout the 80’s and 90’s as we saw more and more movies featuring humans pitted against ‘evil’ aliens: Predator (1987), Stargate (1994), Independence Day (1996), and The Fifth Element (1997) and many others all followed this trend. Eventually this brand of sci-fi ran itself into the ground with movies such as Species (whichever one, pick your poison) and that god-awful Planet of the Apes remake in 2001 almost burying the entire sci-fi genre. While we had some positive signs on the radar around this time (Star Trek: First Contact in 1996) interest in the genre withered and for the longest time nobody really looked forward to the next big sci-fi movie coming out in theatres. ‘Alien’ sci-fi got its resuscitation in 2009 when James Cameron returned to the genre to show fledgling directors how to do things right and how to once again instil a sense of wonder in audiences. Avatar (2009) was clearly a James Cameron movie in every sense: it had an epic scale, was set in a luscious alien world, had memorable characters, and reintroduced audiences to the forgotten themes of what human contact with extra-terrestrials might mean and the consequences of a lack of empathy. J.J Abrams’ stellar Star Trek (2009) reboot came out in the same year and helped speed the genre along the way to recovery but I’ve saved the real knock-out blow of 2009 for last.
District 9 (2009) is in my opinion one of the greatest ‘alien’ sci-fi movies ever made, right up there with the the classics. When I sat down to watch District 9 in theatres I honestly could not believe what I was seeing, director Neill Blomkamp had made something extremely special. What makes District 9 such a ground breaking movie is that is does a complete 180 turn from what other sci-fi movies had spent the last four decades establishing whilst still conforming to everything audiences want in a sci-fi movie. Historically, humans have always been the ‘good guys’ in sci-fi movies and aliens have been beings we either embrace or fight. Here the role gets reversed, the aliens are the good guys and the humans are downright evil. It is a work of speculative science fiction that I feel accurately predicts how society would react if a race of vulnerable aliens suddenly arrived unannounced. The reality is that, like in The Day the Earth Stood Still, we would not react well at all. We would think only of ourselves and how we could appropriate such advanced technology to get an edge over each other – we finally encounter aliens only to promptly do all we can to exploit them to the fullest. To make things even worse for the aliens, they have a drone mentality and without a leader figure to guide them can only do what they can to survive this bleak situation whilst governments and natives prey on them. I cannot go much further into the plot without spoiling such a good movie but suffice to say District 9 was the real sleeper hit of 2009 and is a movie I feel will be revered for it’s massively important message 20-30 years from now in the same manner The Day the Earth Stood Still or E.T are today.
With the recent success of the NASA mission to Mars it’s clear that the effort and resources diverted to space exploration shows no signs of letting up. Humans are still eager but still no closer to discovering if there really is alien life out there amongst the stars. I feel that we need to take a good look at ourselves as a species and set things straight here on Earth before we even consider trying to make contact with other intelligent species. For lack of a better analogy: We could end up being the young guy who shows up to a formal party wearing nothing but tacky shorts and a wife-beater top. I genuinely think that there is alien life out there but I feel the reason they have yet to make first contact falls under one of two possibilites.
1. Alien life is out there but their civilization and technology is at the same level of development as our own and we therefore cannot make contact with each other.
2. Alien life is out there and has indeed made great technological and social advances that have enabled them to explore the stars. They have already discovered Earth and have studied our people, but are waiting for us to fully evolve before daring to make first contact with us – for both of our sakes.
Some people might say that I am being overly cynical and that I am drawing my opinion from the examples I have seen in movies but I feel these examples are really worth learning from. After all, movies are another art form and art more often than not has tried to educate people and tried to make people think.
I think Arthur C Clarke said it best,
“I don’t pretend we have all the answers. But the questions are certainly worth thinking about.”
Now I return to the question first raised in The Day the Earth Stood Still and echoed throughout the decades through innovative, thought provoking cinema: Is the human race really ready for contact with extra-terrestrial life?