Blog Directory CineVerse: Close encounters of the entertainment kind: The ever-evolving face of aliens

Close encounters of the entertainment kind: The ever-evolving face of aliens

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

by Erik J. Martin

(Note: This is part 3 of a 4-part series that will conclude next week.)

We’ve seen all manner and species of aliens illustrated in movies, programs and stories over the last hundred years—everything from wet leathery Martians to Klingons to Wookiees. And though their appearances vary wildly and their attitudes range from bloodthirsty to benevolent, we just can’t get enough of their brood, no matter how boring the outer space stereotypes get.

has difficulty with aliens. To keep audiences watching, aliens are usually either virtually human, or monsters,” says Josh Calder, consultant with Coates and Jarratt, a futurist consulting firm. “Most movies depict aliens as funny-looking foreigners with different emotional tendencies. Real aliens will be far stranger to us than Chinese or Inuit, and possibly stranger even than dolphins or elephants. We share a lot of DNA with other animals; we will share no DNA with aliens. Given the course of life on Earth, most aliens should either be primitive life forms or fantastically advanced.”

Dr. James E. Gunn, Emeritus Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, says he liked CE3K because it never once mentioned that the aliens might be dangerous. CE3K also made popular the image of the amiable otherworldly being, as evidenced by the popularity of "E.T." and even "Mork and Mindy." He also counts "2001: A Space Odyssey" as a top sci-fi film favorite.

“Even if the aliens are never shown in 2001, at least we can believe in their theoretical existence. Most other aliens in movies are believable only in fictional terms--that is, they make good stories,” he says.

“The trend in the eighties was definitely more toward the benevolent alien, as you see in movies such as 'E.T.', 'Starman,' 'Brother From Another Planet,' and the 'Abyss,'” says Ann Crispin, science fiction author of many Star Wars and Star Trek novels based on the movies and television series.

In the late eighties and early nineties, Crispin continues, aliens became more malevolent—a la the "Alien" movie sequels and "The X-Files" TV series. Calder argues that the best movies depicting E.T.s show the gulf between humans and aliens.

"'Contact' and '2001' are good, as they both show how bewildering interaction with aliens is likely to be. 'Starman' is a nice representation of how hyperadvanced technologies will appear essentially magical. As depictions of aliens with plausible motivations, 'Aliens' and 'Starship Troopers' aren't that bad. The least realistic are those that have aliens like us in their motivations, emotions, and communication forms," Calder says.

"Star Trek" and "Star Wars" fall into this category, says Calder.

“I think the science fiction genre is constantly redefining itself and going in and out of phases,” says Crispin, whose favorite extraterrestrials are the pug in "Men in Black" and H.R. Giger’s horrific monster featured in the "Alien" movie series. “For a while there, books with fantastic stories set on Mars were all the rage. Today, the focus of science fiction has shifted more inward. Instead of showcasing aliens from strange worlds, the spotlight and setting is more on our own planet and solar system. Movies like "Contact," "The Matrix," and "Mission to Mars"—in which the aliens are dead or not shown--demonstrate that.

Sci-fi trends, says Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine, “depend on what the zeitgeist of the moment is—whether or not we’re feeling nervous or in control as a society. Like westerns, science fiction entertainment tries to plug into the themes of the day. That’s why I believe we’ll see more movies like 'The Matrix' and 'Contact,' which explore virtual alien realities and alternative universes.”

When it comes to sci-fi literature, “books about solar system exploration, robotic missions, and the military are very popular nowadays because their themes mirror the recent news and scientific advancements we read about,” says Crispin. “But the truth of the matter is that fantasy fiction is outselling written science fiction today, and we’re seeing a shift toward more fantasy features in theaters, which is fueled all the more by the 'Lord of the Rings' films.”

Next week: Sci-fi sneak previews

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