After Patrick Samuel saw John Carter this week, online exclaiming “Just for once I would have liked to see alien races dealing with their problems in a way that wasn’t so human!”, we tossed around a term here at Static Mass: genre decay.
The last decade or so has seen a plethora of sci-fi actioners whose Alien stories are anything but alien, and I wonder if the storytellers have given up on their imagination when it comes to a genre that is actually “made for” extraordinary and unexpected perspectives on the human condition — taking a viewpoint that tackles the archetypal overcoming-the-monster plot beyond the clichés of battle and annihilation.
Alas, the more or less sentient beings in or from outer space we’ve seen on screen lately exhibit all too human traits and do anything but inspire to look at ourselves with fresh eyes. Instead they are the personified Evil beamed away from us, and science fiction remains what it has been from the start: a substitute for the monsters of old — for the ancient tales of gods and demons.
Nothing, or not much, has changed then since 1898, the year of the first modern Alien invasion as told by H.G. Wells. Or has it? We know a lot more about the universe, about billions of planets in the Milky Way alone, and life in outer space is not exactly “science fiction” any more either. In other words, the “Alien menace” has considerably more reality potential than some 110 years ago.
Yet, despite a giant leap in cinema technology and special effects, the stories haven’t changed at all. It’s still an all-out war, the them-or-us attitude that guides storytellers and filmmakers. They only seem justified by scientists like Stephen Hawking who don’t think it’s a good idea to seek active contact with extraterrestrial races, bluntly assuming they would per se use their technological advance to enslave or just incinerate humankind.
This mindset, of course, is modelled by human history itself, in particular by the events following the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus, and maybe what the so-called First World is doing to the rest of the planet right now. However, the audience seems to say good-bye to those stories. Flicks like Skyline and Battle LA didn’t hit hard at the box office, and the opening weekend for John Carter doesn’t look promising either.
There are only a few movies that tell the Alien story differently, or at least with a tat more complexity, even if many of them jump right to the other end of the scale and more or less romanticize the subject. Spielberg’s E.T. and maybe Close Encounters are not far away from an ethos of worship conjuring up an atmosphere of anticipation and miraculous happiness.
Certainly, any story we tell ultimately concerns us humans, but is it really too much of a dare to expect beings from other worlds to challenge our perception, if not to question the human condition altogether? James Cameron’s Avatar somewhat turned the tables on that and is maybe a seminal film when it comes to taking the Alien story in a new direction — by making us the aliens on a far away planet who are defeated by the spiritual power of the indigenous population.
Once in a while though we get a glimpse at the potential of stories about contact with extraterrestrials, even if this doesn’t happen on the big screen but rather on TV. In 2002, Stephen Spielberg curated a mini series, Taken, that spans five decades and four generations, and centres on three families who all have their own — literal — encounters.
Under the surface of Alien abductions, government conspiracies and Alien-human hybridisation lies a story that questions modern perceptions of right-or-wrong and good-or-evil, and actually explores the question where human evolution would take us were we to make contact with sentients from other worlds.
Those stories though are becoming rare, if not extinct — no pun intended. Our fascination with extraterrestrials is abused by films that use Aliens to hide conventional, uninspiring plots and pathetic clichés. Even if they build on ancient stories and re-tell of titans and giants, I’m left with the feeling the cinematic mainstream is suffering from a degradation of judgement when it comes to the — not least commercial — possibilities of the genre.
The other extreme would be to assume there is a wider agenda. Conspiracy theorists have long been claiming the kind of Alien movies currently made are to prepare humankind for real contact. Certainly a curious thought, seemingly borne by the fear porn distributed by parts of the UFO community.
However, in terms of the “rules of propaganda”, and seeing that the political elite and the film industry are closely connected, it might be worth pondering this paranoid idea for a minute. After all, it has happened before that political leaders have used the “dream factories” for the purpose of indoctrination.
So let’s fantasize for a moment. Imagine you were the most powerful person on Earth and would know there is an extraterrestrial race approaching the planet (if not here already) planning on making open contact, for whatever reason. This event would reset the clock of civilisation and fatally undermine the power of the world’s elites. If you have enough time, you may try to vilify the unsolicited visitors so no one would trust “them” thinking they are the enemies of humankind…
Maybe this is a whole new story — a movie we are yet to see.
One of the Editors in Chief and our webmaster, Jonahh is a photographer and journalist who has been working in the media industry for over 15 years, mainly in television, design and art. As a boy, he made his first short film with an 8mm camera and the help of his father. His obsession with (moving) images and stories hasn’t faded since.
His passion for intricate stories and the ‘seven basic plots’ (ask him!) often times makes his friends and family put him in the doghouse for "predicting" too many twists and endings.
You can follow Jonahh on Twitter @Resonance_Zero.