Monday, July 11, 2011

Aliens among us: An otherworldly season of pop


Zombies I can deal with. They are hungry, relentless and aren’t immune to emotional vulnerabilities, but are dumb and slow witted, and a shotgun, axe or even a bat can dispatch them. Vampires aren’t too much of a concern since they seem mainly occupied with seducing females, acting morose and feeling threatened by werewolves. Speaking of werewolves, their threat level can be monitored via a lunar smartphone app and avoided by simply not wandering any moors just one night a month. Meanwhile ghosts moan a lot and throw stuff, but tend to be attached to old houses, videotapes and the occasional doll.

So what’s scarier than all four? After reading NASA researcher Richard B. Hoover’s Journal of Cosmology article last March, where he states he’s found fossils of bacterial life not native to Earth, the scariest threat out there could be one that can’t be dispatched simply with a shotgun, wooden stake, silver bullet or exorcism: aliens from another world.

Within pop culture, 2011 is a year of intergalactic menaces - and it’s about time. If movies and TV are guides to an alien threat, then humans should unite, get with the program and realize that when we receive visitors from outer space, it ain’t going to be pretty.

First, let's dispel the myth of the good aliens who wish no harm or want to make us better citizens of the universe.

Traditional grey alien
Maybe they exist. In Smallville and the alien-stoner comedy Paul, out on DVD Aug. 9, lifeforms from the stars crash land or breakdown in the bad galactic neighborhood that is Earth. But in the tradition of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and My Favorite Martian, they befriend and assimilate with us puny humans. Like Kryptonian Clark Kent from Smallville, July’s Autobots from Transformers: Dark of the Moon and the Corps from the planet Oa in Green Lantern, some even choose to battle evil and save humanity.

Yet for every good Autobot, Kryptonian and Green Lantern, there is a Decepticon, General Zod or evil Lantern Parallax. For every wisecracking Paul or cuddly E.T. that visits Earth to serve man, there are several variations of visiting aliens who wish to serve man – as dinner.

In June, a really giant, pissed-off alien was caught on film (in the film) in Super 8. That one became ill-tempered because humans imprisoned him for decades, so maybe he had a good reason. No such reason for the spidery “skitters” from TNT’s Falling Skies, starring Noah Wyle. In the summer show, which focuses on a band of surviving humans six months after an alien invasion that wiped out much of humanity, the things from another world just seem to flat-out enjoy kidnapping and enslaving teenagers while killing the adults.

And what aliens wouldn’t want to invade, dominate and dine on us (or even use as incubation vessels for baby aliens after a little face-sucking, ala Alien)? Aside from possibly tasting delicious to interplanetary tastebuds, humans take up valuable real estate.

Plus, we are also apparently pretty fun to dress up as.

On the now-canceled series reboot V, alien lizards wore human skin and have been hanging out on Earth for years until finally making a grand entrance in the skies. They seem pleasant and benevolent enough at first, sharing their energy source and technology until they reveal plans to breed with us Earthies.

From the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1958 (and the ’78 remake) and the schlocky The Faculty, to the September found footage horror Apollo 18 and October’s The Thing prequel, this doppelganger plot is one of the more unnerving aspects to alien flicks. The infiltrating creatures look like us; they make it nearly impossible to trust anyone and inspire paranoia.

Still, at least with the human doppelganger aliens, there is typically a plan in place. The deception happens for a reason and the endgame can take years to be revealed. That gives the human race time to uncover the plot and fight back, but with the nasty beings that show up in our skies and start trashing the joint, there’s hardly enough time to react.

Just like a criminal who doesn’t bother to wear a mask, visiting extra-terrestrials who appear in their natural form have no intention of leaving survivors behind. The aliens of War of the Worlds, Independence Day, Mars Attacks are old-school Galactus baddies only concerned with wiping out human insects. They popped up again in more recent entries Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles.

Other aliens who take time to visit Earth do so just to abduct for experiments, entertainment or forced employment. As seen in the disturbing films Fire in the Sky, Communion and a few scenes in the otherwise shoddy The Fourth Kind – as well as the series and first film installment of The X-Files - abductors are the worst kind of alien threat.

The kid flick Mars Needs Moms features an unsettling plot where the Red Planet dwellers are in serious need of maternal attention. So they just visit human homes and take our mommas much like they nabbed Saint Nicholas in the 1964 movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. What’s more is they even attempt to enslave frontiersman and Apaches in the Jon Favreau-directed Cowboys and Aliens, due out July 29.

The idea that a highly intelligent being will enter a home, paralyze and steal a human away whilst they sleep all so they can satisfy their own pursuits is unsettling. It is so unnerving that even when the abduction is couched in a “good alien” story like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one can’t help but feel icky. Tales of torturous scientific exploration on abductees makes it hard to look at E.T.’s probing, glowing finger.

E.T. courtesy Universal
To wit, even director Steven Spielberg – who gave us the lovable E.T. - has apparently changed his tune and decided aliens are more frightening than exciting. After directing or producing films and TV shows in the 1980s which included only friendly offworlders (*batteries not included), he made a switch to threatening ones in the late ’90s (the Transformers and Men In Black franchises, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Super 8, Cowboys and Aliens).

Maybe the latter-day Spielberg is more accurate when it comes to real visit from alien life. Perhaps our “first contact” won’t be as fun as sharing Reese’s Pieces – at least that’s what renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking thinks.

In his documentary Stephen Hawking’s Universe, the scientist says he believes life is out there, but it may not like us very much. He predicts they may be nomads, conquerors and colonists.

Yet, if our human track record with encountering perhaps we’re sort of asking for some extreme probing as karmic payback.

Let’s face it, in reality, humans are often xenophobic and slow to accept game-changing events. When aliens like Klaatu from The Day The Earth Stood Still land on our rock with a mission of peace, our world is so shaken that we welcome them with weapons, gunfire and dissections.

The Doctor from Doctor Who is often lamenting this childlike response, but Agent K from the incognito alien police force in 1997’s Men In Black said it best: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.”

A look at mankind’s history (ancient to present) shows we’re willing to subjugate the less powerful, and those perceived to be inferior somehow. That’s within our own species, so is it reasonable to expect alien lifeforms to behave any different when we’re clearly less advanced than any beings able to traverse long distances on a space highway?

Hawking says no.

"If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn't turn out very well for the Native Americans," he told the Times of London in April 2010.

Of course, even if humankind can fight off or elude the doppelgangers, destroyers and abductors, we may still fall victim to simple "microfossils of cyanobacteria,” as NASA’s Hoover describes them.

But on the upside, if popular culture has taught us anything, if we get infected by strange bacterium, we’ll likely just turn into vampires or zombies – and those are easy enough to kill.