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Promise of Science: Alien Life

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Alien life comes in many shapes and sizes, but in almost all films, is superior to humanity in one or more ways. Encounters with alien life (and the events surrounding these encounters) can be representative of a wide range of things, ranging from fear of communism and cold war paranoia to the exploration of consciousness.

Many films make statements about politics and society -- especially those of the 1950's. The Thing From Another World (1951, US) is one of the first films to express a fear of being taken overtaken by unknown visitors. The film begins with the crash of a UFO near an isolated arctic military research base. The saucer's sole inhabitant is a large, humanoid creature, whose frozen body is taken back to the base. Once the creature thaws out and is revitalized, the base's scientists discover that it is nearly impossible to destroy. It is impervious to cold, escapes heat, ignores bullets, and regenerates lost limbs, lacking both an arterial structure and nervous system.

The Thing's real threat lies in that it reproduces asexually using seeds, so only one creature is needed to begin colonization of an entire planet. The base's head scientist grows some of these seeds, creating a group of miniature Things to study. He is forced to destroy them, as their threat to humanity outweighs the value of any knowledge attained by studying them.

War of the Worlds (1953, US) is another invasion film that features a much more immediate threat than The Thing. Alien war machines land on earth and begin destroying everything they can. Despite the military's best efforts, they can not be destroyed -- but eventually they die when exposed to a normal human virus. Like the Thing, these aliens have a weakness and are ultimately defeated.

The martians are weak when removed from their flying machines and exposed to our atmosphere.

The replicants load pods onto trucks for distribution across the country.

A quiet, nonviolent invasion is found in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, US), a film that echoes cold war paranoia, concern about changing values in modern day society, and fear of the loss of individuality. In this film, the alien invasion comes in the form of giant pea pods that hatch into human replicas, silently replacing real humans while they sleep. One man discovers this, and rallies his townspeople against the pods, but as they are assimilated, their interest in destroying the pods evaporates. Soon, all of the town's resources are devoted to the creation and distribution of these pods -- the entire world could be taken over, from the inside out.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, US), Earth is visited by extraterrestrials, but is not attacked or immediately threatened. Instead, the benevolent visitors have come to warn humans about the problems with Earth's society, and the effects that Earth's actions have on the rest of the universe. Mankind is instructed to take responsibility for its actions -- and if it doesn't, other civilizations will intervene (WAV, 40k). A peaceful demonstration of the visitors' power is made to emphasize this point. This film looks towards contact with extraterrestrials as a way of forcing people and society to modify bad behavior, and it's not the only film to carry the message of "clean up or be destroyed."

Klaatu is carried aboard the space ship by Gort.
The Abyss (1989, US) also contains this message, but it comes out in a different manner. Alien intelligence that has not yet been encountered by mankind is found in the depths of the oceans of earth by a dive team. Some members of the team receive the unknown life with curiosity and excitement, and some want to destroy it. The aliens are initially friendly and attempt to communicate with the humans, but soon discover that only some people are friendly in return -- others are outright hostile. The aliens are led to believe by the actions of antagonistic dive team members that humans lack compassion and intelligence, and are therefore incapable of peace. A tsunami, demonstrating the power of the aliens, is unleashed on the planet's surface -- but just before it causes major damage, it is recalled.

First contact with extraterrestrial intelligence is explored in many other ways. Solaris (1972, Soviet Union) examines the communication problems between humans and alien life in a deeper and more complete way. Alien life is encountered light years away from Earth on the planet Solaris, where a research-oriented space station has been erected. A team of researchers is stationed there, charged with learning about this planet and the seemingly sentient ocean that occupies the majority of the its surface. They attempt to establish contact with the ocean, who communicates back by creating physical apparitions from the memories of the researchers. One man, Kris, is haunted by his wife who has been dead for ten years.

This film is one of few to consider the impact of a human encounter on the alien being. Images of Kris' brain patterns are directed into the sea, in an attempt to teach it about humanity. Kris falls into a fever as the ocean probes him. When his fever lifts, the ocean is changed. It ceases haunting the humans with apparitions from their past, and its physical nature changes as islands appear around its edges. Contact between humans and an extraterrestrial intelligence is established, with profound changes to the experience of all concerned.

In Contact (1997, US), first contact with alien intelligence is also an exploration of human consciousness, and is compared to a religious experience or meeting with God. Unlike other films, alien life is not actually physically encountered -- instead, technology is used to launch a single human into some sort of alternate reality where she speaks with a representative from an alien culture. Instead of warning humanity about being peaceful or mending its ways, humanity is told it will be welcomed into the existing intergalactic civilization once it attains the technology necessary to do so.

Extraterrestrial intelligence is also never physically encountered in Forbidden Planet (1956, US). Extensive remnants of an ancient, highly advanced civilization are discovered when space-travelling earth men visit the distant planet Altair IV. There is no direct interaction with alien beings in this film, as they no longer exist. However, enough of their technology is left over to produce a hostile confrontation.

According to Dr. Morbius (AIFF, 5mb), the Krell were a million years ahead of humans, both ethically and technologically. They managed to completely suppress (not eradicate) their "basic" selves, freeing their culture from sickness, insanity and crime. Their music (AIFF, 800k) sounds very different from ours; the film implies that it, too, is more advanced.

The Krell became extinct, virtually overnight. The whole race was collectively working on a project to move themselves into the next phase of evolution when they suddenly disappeared. They were seeking a way to leave their physical bodies behind and cease relying on tools. The underground complex was intended to provide the Krell with the capability of using their mental power to control physical reality, which it did -- all too well. When the Krell fused themselves with the machine, their suppressed animal selves were amplified and destroyed everything on the planet.

The only clue given to the physical appearance of the Krell is the shape of their doors. Unlike most aliens in film, they are not implicitly humanoid.

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. erika . .
. last modified: Feb 5, 2001 .