INVASION FROM SPACE
REALITY: The Promising Prospect of Life in Space
“I want to believe!” I uttered these words—if only to myself—long before they became famous by Mulder in the X-Files (1993-2002). I grew up in the 1960s when space exploration was the hope and promise for the country. I was three years old when NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) became operational in 1958. Of course, I knew nothing about that at the time. I do vividly remember watching with my dad as Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969.
Before that historic event, I had been willingly accepting the possibility of life in space through my own “willing suspension of disbelief” as Coleridge labeled our ability to accept the premise of any work of fiction, no matter how fantastic the story. For years I had been watching My Favorite Martian (1963-1966), Lost in Space (1965-1968) and Star Trek (1966-1969). And I loved the possibilities inherent in those shows.
Invasion from space as well as our invasion into space was a possibility I certainly wanted to be a reality. Still do, in fact. The United States Space Program was showing us we could go into space. Voyager 1 in 1977 even carried with it a message on a golden record to whatever life forms might eventually find it out there in space. It basically said “Greetings from Earth” and gave snippets of music and languages from around the globe. It included this explanation from President Jimmy Carter: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours.” Perhaps this was a futile gesture, but it is also a hopeful one.
This hope, this possibility of life in space is what intrigues me. And I am not alone. Our culture has been fascinated—some would say obsessed—with the thought of invasions from space. The War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1938 had people—for a short time anyway—really believing that we had been invaded by Martians. Then the UFO Story from Roswell, NM, was reported in 1947—and has many still believing there is a cover-up underway over this failed invasion. Add to these stories reports about crop circles, alien abductions, sightings of UFOs, and Area 51, and it is easy to witness the growth of a cultural curiosity about invasions from space.
In 1980, with the broadcast of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, Carl Sagan joined the conversation, noting that the possibility of Earth being the only planet capable of supporting life was unlikely given the vastness of space. Many remember some variation of his words, often in a distorted exaltation about the “billions and billions of stars out there.” But he did champion the possibility of there being life in the universe other than on Earth. As a character in Sagan’s novel Contact says, “The universe is a pretty big place. If it’s just us, seems like an awful waste of space.” In 2008, NBC News reported that findings from space about the presence of water confirms the idea that life of some sort is possible out there, maybe even in our galaxy. But such a report is far from saying little green men will be visiting any time soon.
On a Nova episode in 1996, Sagan reminded folks about this distinction: just because life is possible out there does not mean that visitors from space will actually be dropping by. He goes further and cautions that any report of such an event—such as abductions and crop circles—needed to be held to the highest level of scrutiny and skepticism. As Sagan explained, “I’m frequently written to [to] say how could I search for extraterrestrial intelligence and disbelieve that we’re being visited. I don’t see any contradiction at all. It’s a wonderful prospect, but requires the most severe and rigorous standards of evidence.”
Obviously, such healthy skepticism must be the stance of scientists and leaders of the world. But the skepticism does not undermine all hope; as Sagan says the possibility of life out there is “a wonderful prospect.” The existence of S.E.T.I. (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) is a hopeful sign; this organization looks for some tangible evidence out there in space that we have neighbors. SETI projects are run by such places as Harvard, UC Berkley, and the SETI Institute, and the projects use scientific methods to search for signs in the universe. The government funded SETI until 1995, and then private funds have been used to continue the work. No verifiable evidence has been found yet; however, in 1977 a signal was recorded that has not yet been explained or re-found. It is almost as if a distant radio were turned off.
Sagan supported SETI and used it as part of the story line in the book/film Contact (1997) that he wrote with his wife. The scenes in that movie of the giant telescopes that are poised to listen to the universe are magnificent. As the plot unfolds, a message is received that seems to be from a distant world giving instructions on how to build a ship to reach that world. By the end of the movie, there is confusion over whether the message received was real or a hoax. The role of faith and belief in God as well as the possibility of life out there in the universe is explored. It is not a typical science fiction movie. It does seem to be a dramatic example of one of Sagan’s lines from his Cosmos series: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” The movie’s characters and basic plot offer viewers a lot of hope.
TV SHOWS & MOVIES: Cultural Focus on the Nature of the Invaders
In my view, however, the possibility of some sort of life in the universe vs. actual sentient beings visiting Earth for a variety of reasons is not what fuels our cultural fascination with Invasions from Space. No, this fascination, especially as exhibited in American TV shows and movies, assumes actual living beings are out there; the question is the nature of the invader. Will these invaders be good guys or bad guys? And we seem to want the answer to be bad guys.
This simplistic either-or distinction is clearly expressed in the movie Signs (2002). When his town seems to be being invaded, a little boy buys a book to be informed about aliens and their visits to earth. Although his dad—the main character—is dubious about the book’s credibility, the boy explains that aliens will visit for one of two reasons: to visit and study us or to attack and take over the world. One or the other. Case closed. That either-or mentality seems a part of the cultural fascination with invasions from space.
Most of the early science fiction movies portrayed the aliens as invaders, not visitors. War of the Worlds (1953) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) both had invaders intent to take over the world, and their actions were only thwarted by a small group of humans who saw the truth. An earlier film The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) showed an alien who was himself peaceful, but his world’s concern about Earthlings’ stupidity and potential to destroy our world and hurt the universe meant he needed to destroy us. The “humanity” of the few individuals he encountered helped give Earth a reprieve, so we could learn to be better stewards of our own world.
This need to be afraid of aliens is one of the main messages of most science fiction shows and films. The 1962 Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man” captures this message. The alien visitors who seem so helpful and benign are really taking Earthlings away as food. By the end of the episode, one character finally realizes that their book “To Serve Man” is a cookbook. Oh no! We better be wary of all aliens, perhaps even all foreigners. The TV series V (1983-1985) expands this basic premise with much more advanced technology and offers Earthling heroes who recognize the truth and are fighting against the aliens who can disguise themselves to look like humans. Block busters in the late 1980s include Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Predator (1987). Apparently, the only good alien is a dead alien.
Of course, not all presentations of aliens in entertainment media are negative. Following in the spirit of My Favorite Martian, there were several TV comedies that presented aliens as friendly visitors who were confused by Earthlings. I loved Mork & Mindy (1978-1982) much more than ALF (1986-1990), but both showed friendly aliens. Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) was a funny, loud sarcastic show that offered societal commentary on humanity as much as it showed the personality of the alien visitors. The Coneheads (1977-1979) from Saturday Night Live were so fun and bizarre, it was hard to imagine anyone would not recognize them as strange or at least different. I have not yet watched The Neighbors (2012) in which a human family lives in a community populated with aliens posing as humans. [At least I think I got the premise right.] We seem to like aliens who look like us but need help assimilating—it helps if they are funny.
The Battlestar Galactica series (1978, 2003, 2004-2009) was reminiscent of Star Trek. Human voyagers were out in space encountering other beings, some were evil and some were not. The focus was on humanity and how we/they acted and reacted when faced with new situations, new beings, and new worlds. In the Star Trek TV shows in all its iterations—Original (1966-1969), Next Generation (1987-1994), Deep Space Nine (1993-1999), Voyager (1995-2001), and Enterprise (2001-2005)—humans are out to explore the universe, not conquer it. And these human explorers treat all with dignity and respect. There were bad guys, and humans would fight if they had to to protect themselves and to help others, but they were guided by the Federation’s Prime Directive to not interfere. This same premise is evident in all the Star Trek movies.
The Star Wars trilogies also follow the same basic premise but with a much greater emphasis on the heroes in space fighting for survival against the evil Empire. We learn to trust “The Force” and its positive impact on life. These shows and movies offered an optimistic view of space and the species that inhabit it. The human qualities of courage, integrity, and selflessness will still be around in the future, and good will win over evil, even if there needs to be a struggle. However, these shows are more about the future of humanity than they are about space invaders. Of course, even if some aliens are allies, the bad guys are always aliens.
Typically, as portrayed in films, most aliens are hostile and dangerous.
If humans meet them in space, an extreme battle for survival ensues. Flash Gordon saved the world in movies in the 1930s and in TV shows in the 1950s. His job was to “keep the galaxy safe.” Kirk and Picard as well as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker had help, but they basically had the same job as Flash: protecting the world/galaxy/universe from annihilation as needed. Think Khan, the Borg, Darth Vader, even irritating aliens like Q. We see this same message in the Alien movies, the best of which is Aliens (1986), when Ripley saves the day! Even in comedies like Galaxy Quest (1999) with the nice aliens needing help, there are still evil bad guys out there that need to be destroyed. Of course, there is also Avatar (2009), where the evil invaders tend to be us wanting to exploit another world.
When aliens actually come to Earth, they are rarely like Mork or ALF. Some are friendly, but there are always some who are out to get us, ala the classics from the 1950s. In fact, those classics were actually remade: The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), War of the Worlds (2005), and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). The Men in Black series (1997, 2002, 2012) shows us secret government agents protecting the world as needed, although not all the aliens among us in those films are evil and sinister. Mars Attacks! (1996) is another comedy that lets us laugh as the aliens attack—and (spoiler alert!), mankind wins. One of my favorites is The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension! (1984). The annihilation of the universe is at stake, but Buckaroo—with the help of some good aliens and the Boy Scouts—saves the day from the bad aliens bent on destroying the world. These films confirm that aliens are dangerous and must be fought at all costs.
In Signs (2002), the aliens are not on screen much, and fortunately people of the world find a way to fight them off, but they are still dangerous and offer a genuine threat worldwide. Even the now classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) presents an alien invasion of sorts, confirming that people have been abducted over the years by creatures in space. In this film, the aliens seem friendly, but they have been abducting humans over the years—who they are now returning—but they are also taking more humans with them as volunteer visitors on their spaceship. The realistic nature of this science fiction film gives credence to alien abduction stories just as Signs offers an alien explanation for crop circles. The aliens are not always as scary as those fought by Ripley, Buckaroo, and Agents K & J, but they are different and suspicious.
A popular invasion movie is Independence Day (1996). From my view, the main reason this movie is so popular is that it combines so many of the cultural intrigues society holds about the possibility of invading space aliens. The invasion is sudden and unexpected by dastardly beings out to take over the earth; these beings do not look like humans in anyway and have no redeeming characteristics. The entire world is threatened, and relative commoners take the lead in finding a way to beat the bad guys. The heroic American President gives the orders and the whole world works together to save the day.
The back stories in Independence Day confirm that aliens have visited Earth in the past and that secret work is underway at Area 51. The budget for this secret research is even suggested with a line something like, “You don’t think they really spend $1000 on toilet seats, do you?” Of course, what saves the day is human ingenuity and some useful technology rather than massive weapons. The jerks in government are fired, faith is seen as a way to survive the trauma, heroes give their all, and two couples are together at the end. Oh yeah, the aliens are also destroyed. I love this movie!
These movies present aliens as real but not in the spirit of scientific reality ala Carl Sagan. No, these aliens are—for the most part—mean, dangerous, suspicious outsiders who are out to get us. Even some of those who seem benign have a darker side. The approved reaction is to kill them or study them by capturing them or dissecting them. These are not the aliens I am hoping for. These are not Vulcans or trusted robots or Jedi Masters; they are not typically lost or misunderstood. The bulk of these aliens either abduct us or try to kill us to take over our planet, or they are in disguise and cheat us in some way if we reach out to them in friendship.
The little girl in Aliens asks Ripley, “Why do parents tell little kids there are no monsters?” Our cultural obsession with invaders from space is that they are the monsters, We take comfort, somehow, in being able to protect ourselves from them. But for me, this is not the promise of space exploration or the hope of some sort of life out there.
STILL HOPE FOR WHAT’S POSSIBLE
But I still want to believe. Not in the danger or the threat. Not even in our ability to defend ourselves from scary alien beings. I believe that it is a noble idea to explore our world, our galaxy, our universe. I believe there is much out there to produce wonder and awe. I like the idea of sending a greeting out into the universe, hoping that maybe someone will hear our message and come by to say hello. I hope that if we ever experience first contact that it will be a meeting of mutual respect and curiosity, a friendly gesture between two beings, two cultures regardless of appearances. Fortunately, a couple science fiction movies present encounters closer to what I hope might really happen someday: E.T. (1982), Starman (1984), and Enemy Mine (1985).
These three films offer some of the cultural intrigue about space invasion, but they also showcase positive relationships between species, and they champion the qualities of friendship, curiosity, cooperation, and love of life over senseless violence and protection of self at all costs. The hope in these films comes from the relationships. In Enemy Mine, Humans and the Dracs are at war. But an individual from each side is left stranded in the wilderness on an inhospitable alien planet. Not surprisingly, they need to work together to survive—and they do. Ultimately the Human cares for a Drac child as his own, and a new family connection is born.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is probably the best known of these three films because it caught the heart of many when it was first released. An alien who looks more like Yoda than like Luke Skywalker is stranded accidentally on Earth and needs to hide from those who come searching the site where the aircraft had landed. The little guy seeks shelter in a shed and eventually meets Eliot, a 10-year old who entices E.T. into the house with Reeses Pieces. The two beings form an emotional bond and learn to communicate through friendship, trust and respect. E.T. simply wants to be safe and to go home.
The government officials have been searching for the intruder and have invaded the home where E.T. is hiding at about the time he seems to be dying. In their medical garb and insulated chambers the officials work to save E.T., but only so they can study him. The scientist leading the recovery efforts tells Eliot, “I’ve been waiting for him since I was 10 years old. . . .[but] I’m glad he met you first.” When the kids help E.T. escape and his ship arrives to take him home, there is hardly a dry eye in the audience.
Starman has the same theme, although the alien uses advanced cloning technology to take on the appearance of a specific human, so the woman he is asking for help will “not feel a little bit jumpy.” As the woman gets over her fear of the alien, he expands his use of language and experiences life on earth through human senses. The government uses the military and the police to search for him and eventually to try to shoot him down and capture him before he gets back to a huge space ship that has arrived to take him home.
Throughout the film, it is discovered that the Starman is a mapmaker on his world, who came to visit because he found the golden record sent into space on Voyager I, a record that basically said “Greetings, come and visit sometime.” He had to crash land when his ship was shot down. One government worker—a scientist from SETI—voices the irony of him being an invited visitor here and being tracked down like a criminal. This scientist breaks the rules—and probably loses his job—to help the Starman escape and return home. At the end, the audience is relieved when he makes it aboard the ship that came to rescue him and is heading home. There is also sadness and hope (and a follow-up TV series), because the woman who helped him is now pregnant.
These three films—as well as some of the others—let me stay hopeful. The aliens are friendly caring individuals who are not out to kill us. They reach out in friendship and find some human to make a connection with. They may be visiting in response to our greetings to the universe or have stopped by accidentally, but—once here—they are willing to be friendly and trusting. In these films, the stereotypical reaction of the government and military to shoot first and ask questions later is thwarted by individual humans who see the humanity in the alien and decide to make friends. It is those actions collectively that give me hope in the possibilities inherent in our universe.
I do so still want to believe as I did when I was 12 years old watching Star Trek. Not in alien abductions and conspiracy theories about past invasions. Not in crop circles as landing strips and attacks from space to overtake our world. Oh, I am curious about those reports, and I like all the movies that build on those fears. What I want to believe in is the possibility that the universe will awe and inspire me, that the golden record on Voyager I will be found by someone somewhere, and that first contact might be made by a Vulcan, E.T. or a Starman mapmaker. As Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”
I remain hopeful.
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I am also curious: Do you want to believe? Do you worry about space invaders? Do you like science fiction movies? What are your favorites and why? Even, have you ever been abducted?
LIVE LONG & PROSPER.