INTERVIEW: The Scientist's Guide to Alien Invasion Movies
With Men in Black 3, Battleship and Prometheus released weeks apart, it seems aliens are once again the preferred agents of apocalyptic events this year. But why the perennial fear of those with whom we share our glorious galaxy? Do we really think that humans—a species that gave Celebrity Fit Club more seasons than Firefly—would be morally superior to aliens?
The short answer is we have no clue, but it’s sure fun brain food! That’s why we talked to SETI astronomer Seth Shostak (who consulted on Battleship) and NASA astrobiologist Kevin Hand (who consulted on Prometheus) to see what experts think about aliens in fiction and in fact.
Mindhut: Do you think depictions of aggressive aliens are more popular than benevolent ones just because it’s fun to see famous cities get blasted apart by death rays?
Seth Shostak: I think that’s just a question of coming up with an interesting storyline. Imagine if aliens came to Earth only to play canasta. There wouldn’t be a whole lot of conflict there. It’s not impossible: Steven Spielberg did it in E.T. Or there’s District 9, in which the aliens are just hanging around Johannesburg and they really just want to go home. But those are exceptions which, I think, prove the rule. Aliens are very handy bad guys, and there’s no anti-defamation league or anything.
Kevin Hand: The short answer is that aliens present the opportunity of technologies far in advance of ours that pose a problem for us when it comes to waging battle. That’s one very practical aspect from a writer’s standpoint. But going deeper, I think in part it’s because the Cold War has ended, so those tensions are gone. You have a limited number of enemies to work with, and aliens are perpetually on that list. I can’t really speak to a deeper psychological reason that well because the alien movies that do resonate with me most are E.T. and Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Mindhut: Do you think real extraterrestrial societies might be this hostile?
SS: Nobody knows! We don’t have any data about alien behavior, about their sociology, their technology—that data set is zero. But a certain level of malevolence is inevitable for biological beings, and I would be surprised if any species has re-engineered itself to be completely lovey-dovey. If you look at, for example, explorers here on Earth, you’ll find that the ones who endeavored to explore tended to be more the aggressive members of society. They were the ones who were willing to take the risk of sailing across the ocean and they were very exploitive in the process.
In the movies, aliens tend to be aggressive in the same way [as in Battleship]. In Prometheus, it’s slightly different because we’re going to them and we find a whole history of how humans arose on this planet. That kind of strikes me as strange given the work of paleontology.
KH: That’s perhaps what Ridley Scott and his writers intended, to be provocative. Part of what I discussed with them was this idea of an advanced civilization conducting experiments on distant planets, and running the course of evolution in different scenarios. If the experiment worked, they extinguished it. That beginning angle of the creator and the destroyer is part of what the movie gets at.
Mindhut: The spaceship Prometheus has an ion drive and cryogenic sleep chambers. Could such advances be the key to interstellar travel?
KH: Ion drives have been around for many decades but we’re just starting to really utilize it in the exploration of distant worlds. For example, the Dawn mission, operated out of JPL, has ion drives. And by the time 2093 comes around, we may have figured out immortality anyway, so the only problem with traveling for a couple of years in space would be boredom, not age.
Mindhut: What do you think alien movies say about our own species?
SS: [Aliens] are always interested in humans as the representatives of Earth. That’s kind of self-centered to the point of not being realistic. If the dinosaurs had made Prometheus 70 million years ago, they would have had the aliens coming to Earth and messing with the dinosaurs. And of course, the aliens would kind of look like dinosaurs.
Masterminds: how badly does this make you want to see an alien invasion movie made by dinosaurs?