Blog Directory CineVerse: Close encounters of the entertainment kind

Close encounters of the entertainment kind

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 1 of a 4-part weekly series that will continue next week.)

If you had been alive on Halloween eve in 1938, you probably would have been scared out of your wits. And for good reason: Ruthless, grotesque Martians were taking over the planet. At least that's what thousands of Americans believed while listening to Orson Welles' infamous radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ book "The War of the Worlds."

Welles’ clever hoax underscores an essential truth about the entertainment hungry public in the modern media age—that we want to believe in extraterrestrial life, and that the media, which continues to saturate our collective consciousness with science fiction films, TV programs, books and other offerings, is very good at making us believers.

If you want to know how popular extraterrestrials are these days, just open the movie section of your newspaper, take a walk down to the bookstore, stroll down the video game aisle at Wal-Mart, or simply turn on your television. Practically everywhere you look for entertainment these days, a classic Grey alien with those big black oval eyes—or one of his distant cosmic cousins--is staring you in the face.

Why this growing cultural obsession and consumer feeding frenzy over UFOs and their otherworldly occupants? For one, there are more supposed alien encounters and UFO sightings reported today than ever before. Word of mouth, however tabloid-like ridiculous in nature, gets around. And recent outer space explorations and scientific discoveries—including the possibility of life on Mars--are stoking our interest in uncovering the unknown truths of the universe. Hollywood, book publishers, television producers and other savvy media powers that be have their fingers on the pulse of what the public wants: namely, more xenomorphs, interplanetary predators, little Grey men, X-File conspiracies, and brain-eating zombies from outer space.

The evolution of alien life
The flourishing science fiction entertainment industry of today can thank 19th century pioneers of the genre like Mary Shelley, who penned the original "Frankenstein" novel, Jules Verne, author of fantastic tomes like "From the Earth to the Moon," and H.G. Wells, famous for books such as "The Time Machine." It was early literary visionaries like these who sparked cosmic curiosity and intergalactic imagination among the masses and laid the foundation for sci-fi pulp.

In the 1920s and ‘30s, sci-fi magazines first began to appear, including the granddaddy of them all, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. It and rival magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and, eventually, Galaxy Science Fiction, featured short sci-fi works by masterful authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The success of these monthlies paved the way for more science fiction books and short story collections by a newer generation of authors, including Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Harlan Ellison, and "Dune" creator Frank Herbert.

Movies were just as important as the printed page for sparking the sci-fi revolution. In 1902, filmmaker George Melies created a landmark special effects-laden sci-fi short called "A Trip to the Moon," depicting a lunar landing and our first look at fictional aliens on the big screen. Longer feature films like Metropolis and Things to Come followed.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that sci-fi films came on with a fury, thanks largely to America’s fear of the spread of communism and nuclear annihilation, two themes that perfectly represented themselves in the form of evil aliens and science run amok. "The Thing From Another World," "The War of the Worlds," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Angry Red Planet" and other films stirred up the country’s Cold War anxieties and packed movie houses everywhere. Viewers got their first taste of the cerebral sci-fi film a la "2001: A Space Odyssey," in 1968, and in 1977 with the groundbreaking "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (CE3K), which ushered in the era of the friendly alien, portrayed to perfection in "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial."

Television also advanced the image of science fiction, especially early series such as "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone." "Star Trek" came along in the late 1960s, creating a whole new universe of alien characters and an avid sci-fi fan base. And "The X-Files," which debuted in 1993, brought an unmatched level of realism and credibility to the visual genre, further piquing our desire for contact with aliens and our yearning to unlock rumored secrets being held from us by the government.

Next week: Media make-believe

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