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What We Talk About When We Talk About Aliens

The best possible way for an apocalypse to kick off is probably with Orson Welles’ soothing baritone. In 1938, on the Columbia Broadcasting Company, Welles’ explained that humanity was being watched by “minds that to our minds are to the beasts in the jungle, intellects vast, cool and unsympathetic [that] regarded this earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely drew their plans against us”. It was a prophecy of doom and destruction that was broadcast out to millions of Americans. It was also a work of fiction. The broadcast even opened with credits, namely that of Welles’ Mercury Theatre troupe and the story’s author H.G. Wells. But many listeners tuned in too late, hearing only what sounded like news reporters describe a creature from outer space whose “eyes are black and gleam like a serpent. The mouth is V-shaped with saliva dripping from its rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate”. Panic broke out as real citizens took to the street in an attempt to outrun the fictional aliens. One woman reportedly burst into an Indianapolis church and screamed, “New York has been destroyed! It’s the end of the world! Go home and prepare to die!”

There is a rich history of aliens in fiction.This is likely because aside from the occasional abduction/probing story, we know nothing about them. They might not even exist. So they become a void we fill with our collective psychic baggage, whether that baggage be emotional, political or social. And when we think about aliens as film-goers, it’s telling that our brains often jump to an image of destruction.

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It’s natural to project our global history onto aliens. We figure if they’re coming to our proverbial shores with massive transport ships and superior firepower, their intentions might not be to “come in peace”. A cinematic alien attack can be in the form of the massive spaceships ala Independence Day or the massive, Cthulhu-like beasts of Cloverfield and Pacific Rim that lay waste to iconic skylines. Occasionally movies will flip this dynamic, having the humans invade an alien planet like in Avatar, making the colonial metaphor even more explicit.

The more conspiratorially-minded viewer might prefer the idea that aliens already live secretly among us, like in Men In Black or They Live. The thought that your neighbour might secretly be from outer space evokes an almost Cold War paranoia, creating a tension between what you suspect and what you know that sustained the X-Files across 10 seasons and two movies. It also gets at that weird niggling feeling that we all have that it’s impossible to really know somebody, that for all the things you’ve been through, your best friend might be an alien travel-book writer with the improbable name of Ford Prefect.

Instead of filling the void, some films choose to stare into it. The aliens of 2001: A Space Odyssey are never seen directly. They do not make clear their intentions, or really bother to speak to humanity directly. They become a surrogate God, powerful and unknowable. Likewise the alien of John Carpenter’s The Thing is never really seen, in fact it can’t really be said to have a true form. It is a shapeshifter that hides in plain sight, seemingly only driven by survival as it dismembers human bodies and poisons any sense of collective trust.

The same year CBS broadcasted War of the Worlds Detective Comics bought the rights to another alien story, Superman. In the first few pages of Action Comics #1, an alien baby was sent to Earth, raised in an orphanage, revealed his incredible strength and matured into a superhuman man who decides to “turn his titanic strength into channels that would benefit mankind”. From space orphan to Christ-figure in 12 swift pages, Superman has become an icon for hopefulness in dark times. With all his power he could have taken the violent conqueror route. Instead he was written as a “light to show the way”. He was a correction to society’s darker habits, a beacon of light to turn to.

Wells’ tentacled monsters were sent to us as a kind of fictional atonement for our violent history, but Superman was sent to us because of our “capacity for good”. If films are like dreams, it says a lot whether we have paranoid nightmares or utopian visions.

Independence Day and Independence Day: Resurgence will be playing this Thursday in 2K.

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