Hello from the other side: What the aliens on our screens say about us

The US report on UFOs is out and, predictably, adds little of substance to the argument. But our long-standing obsession with ETs has yielded a rich imagined universe anyway. In it are tales of destruction, conquest, love, horror and, ultimately, our greatest hopes, fears and flaws.
An obsession with extra-terrestrial life that dates back to ancient pagan myth got a further boost with the invention of cinema. As technology improved, societies were transformed, and fresh scientific discoveries were added to the mix, the aliens of our making evolved. (Photo imaging: Puneet Kumar) PREMIUM
An obsession with extra-terrestrial life that dates back to ancient pagan myth got a further boost with the invention of cinema. As technology improved, societies were transformed, and fresh scientific discoveries were added to the mix, the aliens of our making evolved. (Photo imaging: Puneet Kumar)
Updated on Jul 03, 2021 03:09 PM IST
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The last time the US government made a significant statement on extra-terrestrial life, it was at Roswell. On July 2, 1947, a craft crashed at a ranch near the town of Roswell in New Mexico. Six days later, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that they recovered a “flying disc” at the site. The statement was then retracted and replaced with what remains the official version: it was a weather balloon that crashed.

The differing official versions sparked an obsession that has permeated popular culture across the decades and around the world, from alternative superhero origin stories to The X-Files, UFO conventions to comic books. It has given UFO observers their heftiest argument. How can we be sure what’s out there, when even the US military isn’t?

Earlier this week, after much build-up, the American government released a fresh take on unidentified flying objects. (Incidentally, hundreds of videos of UFOs, whether manmade or not, have been captured by US military pilots alone, some of which are available in the public domain).

The last time the US government made a significant statement on extra-terrestrial life, it was at Roswell. On July 2, 1947, a craft crashed at a ranch near the town of Roswell in New Mexico. Six days later, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that they recovered a “flying disc” at the site. The statement was then retracted and replaced with what remains the official version: it was a weather balloon that crashed.
The last time the US government made a significant statement on extra-terrestrial life, it was at Roswell. On July 2, 1947, a craft crashed at a ranch near the town of Roswell in New Mexico. Six days later, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release stating that they recovered a “flying disc” at the site. The statement was then retracted and replaced with what remains the official version: it was a weather balloon that crashed.

Defence and intelligence analysts lack sufficient data to determine the nature of mysterious flying objects observed by American military pilots, the report states. It goes on to say that it is unclear whether the craft observed are advanced earthly technologies, atmospheric phenomena or of extra-terrestrial origin. Rather anti-climactically, it adds that the UAP (Unidentified Aerial Phenomena) pose a safety issue to flights and may pose a challenge to US national security.

Between the two statements, entire worlds have formed and dissipated in the popular imagination. An obsession with extra-terrestrial life that dates back to ancient pagan myth got a further boost with the invention of cinema and, as technology improved, societies were transformed, and fresh scientific discoveries were added to the mix, the aliens of our making evolved.

They’ve gone from the strange human-cockroach hybrids of the French silent short film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon; 1902) to the delicate and abstract shapes of Arrival (2016). In between there have been numerous blockbusters inhabited by creatures shaped by some of our deepest hopes and fears, from the hideous and sneaky green beings of Mars Attacks! to the absurd, bobble-headed creatures of Independence Day, the parasitic killers of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Steven Spielberg’s friendly and child-like ET (1982).

Subtler tales cast aliens as humanoids forced to contend with the worst of how we treat each other and ourselves. The less common version of the humanoid tale reminds us of all there is to celebrate about life on this planet. More recently, the aliens have turned out to be, quite simply, a future, kinder, more intelligent us. Take a look.

THE ALIENS IN OUR MIDST

Evil: When they’re bad, we’re really good

Every time we look at an alien in pop culture, we’re essentially looking at ourselves. With no hard evidence that aliens exist, what we see in our books and on our screens is necessarily the workings of the human imagination.

The reason we create them and the reason they attract so much attention, is they allow us to give that imagination free reign. Aliens can be any colour, size and shape, they can help save the Earth or destroy it, they can have magical powers we cannot realistically bestow upon ourselves. They’re a convenient template on which to project our most extreme hopes and fears.

The apex of this sub-genre is arguably Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien, about a space tug attacked by vicious ETs that hatch from sinister-looking eggs, invade the bodies of crew members and burst out of their chests to attack others. Here was an unknown enemy that turned us against ourselves (a trope that would recur time and again).
The apex of this sub-genre is arguably Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, Alien, about a space tug attacked by vicious ETs that hatch from sinister-looking eggs, invade the bodies of crew members and burst out of their chests to attack others. Here was an unknown enemy that turned us against ourselves (a trope that would recur time and again).

But even while reflecting our worst fears — the ugly, evil aliens looking to destroy the planet, crunch it up as a fuel source, enslave humans for eternity — they also reflect our wildest hope: that we will always eventually triumph.

Among the first aliens pop culture conjured, in the French silent film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon; 1902), reflected this hope. In it, men from Earth land on the Moon and are attacked by extra-terrestrials. The aliens were crafted as monsters so the humans could emerge as all-conquering, even when alone, far from home and faced with the unknown.

As filmmaking technology advanced, storytellers were able to manifest that fear and its mirror reflection, the hope for triumph, more expertly. The games of kill or be killed became more graphic. The apex of this sub-genre is arguably Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien, about a space tug attacked by vicious ETs that hatch from sinister-looking eggs, invade the bodies of crew members and burst out of their chests to attack others. Here was an unknown enemy that turned us against ourselves (a trope that would recur time and again). The film was so successful, it spawned four sequels, two prequels, a TV series, a web series and a play, not to mention an entire sub-genre of films about parasitic being from other worlds.

Less than a decade later came Predator (1987), an early Americans-must-save-the-world version of the fear-triumph dichotomy. A muscled Arnold Schwarzenegger fights alongside guerrilla warriors in dense jungles, facing off with a giant ugly creature of protruding eyes and feral claws and teeth. The American wins, of course.

By 2005, Steven Spielberg, creator of perhaps the world’s friendliest alien, ET (1982), was entering the game too, but with a more sophisticated tale. In War of the Worlds, based on the 1897 classic by HG Wells, Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning fight to survive an invasion of otherworldly war machines, a metaphor for our own impact on our planet and civilisation. And so it comes full circle to the evil aliens being us, with our victory over them representing the hope that we will also someday conquer our worst selves.

Funny: Spoofing the spacemen

Gory alien blockbusters such as Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) spawned a slew of me-too efforts that were so absurd, they spawned a sub-genre of their own: the rib-tickler. These were often spoofs, made in the ’80s and ’90s, of alien films made in the same decades.

In Independence Day, for instance, released on July 4, 1996, Roland Emmerich has hillbillies signing up as soldiers to fight and save America (and the world). World leaders fumble about in confusion. The aliens are squishy, bobble-headed creatures that kill at random. Bill Pullman is President. Jeff Goldblum is (once again) intensely trying to save the world with science, and going unheard. Will Smith just wants to smash and kill. There’s romance, giant US flags, killing and sacrifice, and a solution that finally originates in the demented music choices of a largely deaf grandmother.

The mainstream spoof that did it best was Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996). These were malevolent creatures so absurd, you just knew they had to lose. But amid the giggles it invited you to examine what it was about us that allowed them to make it as far as they did.
The mainstream spoof that did it best was Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996). These were malevolent creatures so absurd, you just knew they had to lose. But amid the giggles it invited you to examine what it was about us that allowed them to make it as far as they did.

These spoofs were blockbusters. You could see the satire and laugh along, or earnestly celebrate the all-American win you knew was coming. As in the Men in Black movies. Will Smith swaggers through the universe’s best-kept secrets, this time accompanied by Tommy Lee Jones. The super-secret agency he now works for relies on ferret-like informants from other worlds, treats all extra-terrestrial life with disdain, and nonchalantly invites the viewer into a world where other worlds dangle from cat collars. The first film was so successful there were four sequels, the latest (Men in Black: International; 2019) starring Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson.

But the mainstream spoof that did it best was Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996). Jack Nicholson is an irascible President, Annette Bening a hippie who can’t wait to be airlifted, Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker have one of the strangest love stories on any planet. The green creatures with bulbous heads and protruding eyes start by roasting a dove of peace with their blasters, proceed to mow down anyone who speaks of peace (or war), and casually weaponise our frailties so they can add them to their arsenal. An alien disguised as a vapid blonde bombshell infiltrates the White House thanks to a leery staffer. A hollow and clearly manipulative speech about all worlds and races being one ends with Nicholson’s administration reduced to smoking skeletons. Burton’s spoof of B-grade ’50s films such as Invaders from Mars (1953), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Target Earth (1954) gave the 1990s malevolent creatures so absurd, you just knew they had to lose. But amid the giggles it invited you to examine what it was about us that allowed them to make it as far as they did.

Friendly: Relationships that are out of this world

By the 1980s, the other was no longer automatically a threat. Anti-war protests, Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech, the Stonewall riots and the hippie movement had pushed America towards greater societal tolerance, and aliens gained some affection too.

Steven Spielberg set the trend with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, the 1982 tale of a defenceless alien that bonds with a curious adolescent. When the gentle ET is captured by authorities, one worries about what will happen to the affectionate creature; what will we do to it? When it manages to escape and reunite with its mothership, there is relief.

Steven Spielberg set the trend with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, the 1982 tale of a defenceless alien that bonds with a curious adolescent.
Steven Spielberg set the trend with ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, the 1982 tale of a defenceless alien that bonds with a curious adolescent.

A parody of ET, Seth Rogen’s Paul (2011) had audiences falling in love all over again. The Paranoid Alien Ultra Life-Force is funny, sarcastic, loves a good drink and smoke. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s spoof ended up an extension of the original idea, that it is better to respond with friendship to those who look different, act different or live differently, because beneath the seeming otherness they’re not that different at all.

In Cocoon (1985), the aliens are a peaceful people stuck here on a long-drawn-out rescue mission for others of their kind. They rent a house beside a retirement home and generously offer the seniors access to the life force they’ve mixed into their swimming pool.

The friendly alien offers us a chance to redraw ourselves. What would we be like if the world were new to us, and we could do it all over? What would we want to be like? And how would we view our civilisation as it has turned out?

Humanoid: Are you for real? When we can’t tell them from us

Amid the ennui of the post-modern world, a place of faceless cities, abstract trade and money for money’s sake, aliens began to reflect the darker faces of modern life. In The Man Who Fell to Earth (directed by Nicolas Roeg; 1976), David Bowie plays a humanoid with superior intelligence who uses the advanced technology of his planet to create numerous technological inventions on Earth, and ends up the head of a conglomerate in Arizona. He seemingly has it all, but is soon battling depression and an alcohol addiction.

In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), David Bowie plays a humanoid battling addiction and depression.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), David Bowie plays a humanoid battling addiction and depression.

The humanoid alien is often used to confront the audience more starkly with the worst of how humans treat each other. In The Brother From Another Planet (1984), a former slave tries to outrun a pair of intergalactic slave-catchers. Hiding out on Earth, he takes the form of a Black man. Joe Morton is masterful as he leaps from one marginalised identity to another, facing a new life of struggle, failure (but eventually triumph) as a Black man in 1980s New York. In a masterful touch, his character is mute.

In 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016), the threat of an alien invasion is used to hold a woman captive, allowing for a hard look at patriarchy taken to its extremes. In Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013), Scarlett Johansson is a humanoid alien who turns vicious after an attempted sexual assault. As she seduces men and then holds them in a liquid abyss, it compels the viewer to face their own casualness towards violence against women, by contrasting it with the visceral reaction evoked by similar depravity when the genders are flipped. It was a message perhaps delivered ahead of its time. The film was released to critical acclaim, but was a failure at the box office.

Humans: Intelligent life? It’s us again

Perhaps the most masterful Hollywood take on aliens and identity is K-Pax (2001), directed by Iain Softley. Kevin Spacey plays a man in a psychiatric institution who believes he is from the planet K-Pax. Jeff Bridges is the psychiatrist trying to prove him wrong. There are no real special effects, no grand plot twists. Just a delicate meander through the mind-bending maze of what it is that makes us human.

Perhaps the most masterful Hollywood take on aliens and identity is K-Pax (2001). Kevin Spacey plays a man in a psychiatric institution who believes he is from the planet K-Pax.
Perhaps the most masterful Hollywood take on aliens and identity is K-Pax (2001). Kevin Spacey plays a man in a psychiatric institution who believes he is from the planet K-Pax.

Fifteen years later, Denis Villeneuve would deliver the also masterful Arrival, based on the 1998 Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. It follows a linguist enlisted by the US Army to help them learn to communicate with aliens who have arrived, silent but full of symbolism, on Earth. The answer to saving the world this time lies in redrawing our concepts of time, identity and communication, to unlock their message.

And then there’s Interstellar (2014), where the alien intelligence is just simply a future us. The rather long and complex but ultimately rewarding Christopher Nolan film (so unlike Tenet in that respect) plays with our concepts of time, home and hope. There is no otherworldly saving grace. The human race must be saved, but we’ll have to be the ones to do it. And ultimately, it is love (in this case, between a father and daughter), and once again new ways of communication, that help provide the answer to how.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Madhusree is a feature writer who loves Kolkata, is learning to love Mumbai. She loves to travel, write and bake

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