Alien Movies Foreign Ground to Me
The summer blockbuster season is upon us again like an alien with a bad attitude.
In fact, most of the blockbusters are about aliens with an attitude. By my count, at least five major films scheduled to open this summer are out to wipe out planet Earth — or at least make record profits showing an alien force attempting to do so.
Several weeks ago when mega-hyped “The Avengers” hit the multiplex and my college-boy son invited me to be one of the first to see it with him and his girlfriend, I was oddly touched, but then realized he probably just wanted to revive our long-running movie debate.
Junior and his smart Gen-Y buddies, true children of the digital special effects age, adore these hulking mega sci-fi “save-the-world” epics where all humanity hangs in the balance and only a few witty superhuman heroes can possibly save the day. The booming Marvel Comics canon — Captain America, Ironman, Thor, the Hulk and others — seems to particularly fascinate them, though the brooding existential Batman saga runs a close second.
My problem with these films is they all seem to turn on the same plot line: an ordinary human gains super-human powers by some scientific experiment gone awry and reluctantly comes to the aid of humanity against an alien force that’s come calling hoping to make the world its plaything. In the case of the record-breaking Avengers franchise, it’s a theater troupe of super-hero misanthropes banding together to defend planet Earth against an alien Adolf Hitler.
Why is it, I once asked my son, that the future of the human race is always depicted as so bleak and hopeless in these films — a drifting blue planet that can only be saved in the nick of time by some super-human lab experiment? His answer was that “good” vs. “evil” is perhaps the oldest narrative motif of storytelling, as central to the Old Testament as it is to the new “Men in Black III,” which opened everywhere this past week just ahead of director Ridley Scott’s proto-hyped “Prometheus,” which opens everywhere next week. The hits, the heroes keep coming like a deadly meteor shower.
He’s right, of course. Science fiction has grown like a mutant mushroom since H.G. Wells unleashed “The War of the Worlds” on popular Western culture in 1898, a phenomenon many social scientists initially ascribed to everything from traditional doomsday prophesies of the Book of Revelation to the pervasive social ills of the industrial age.
Following a pair of world wars and the introduction of nuclear weapons and the birth of space exploration, the canon of sci-fi storytelling — pardon the phrase — the sci-fi genre spread from page to exploded mass culture.
Hollywood and science gone awry produced walking zombies and 90-foot Amazons. The first sci-fi flick I recall seeing was “The Blob,” starring Steve McQueen, a movie I had to sneak into the seedy National Theater in Greensboro in order to see. The film’s plot, like its Sci-Fi-for-Dummies name, was touchingly simple. A pair of teenagers are making out in a small town Lover’s Lane when they see a meteorite streak overhead. An amoeba-like substance that resembles mutant Jell-o seeps out of the crater and swallows an old man whole before setting off to consume the rest of rural Pennsylvania.
“Run, don’t walk!” urged the movie’s hyperventilating theatrical trailer. “It creeps! It crawls! It eats you alive!” Upon its release in 1958, “The Blob” was shown on a double bill with the epic “I Married A Monster from Outer Space.” A young Burt Bacharach wrote the movie's theme song, about the time he wrote “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”
I caught the movie on its second or third release, circa 1962, and thought it was the dumbest thing I’d ever seen.
Then again, I didn’t read Superman or Batman comics. My favorite comic books were something called “Classics Illustrated,” a British import series “featuring stories by the world’s greatest authors” that set its owner back 15 cents a copy.
The decidedly Earthbound series included titles like Stephen Crane’s “Red Badge of Courage” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped.” My collection of these classics filled an entire cardboard box beneath my bed and included “The Spy” by James Fenimore Cooper, “Gulliver’s Travels” by Jonathan Swift, and “Macbeth” by Shakespeare. I remember being dazzled by Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” and deeply moved by Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
The first words I ever read from the blind poet Homer were his Classic’s Illustrated version of “The Odyssey.” Ditto Jack London’s “White Fang.”
In retrospect, I think, these Earthbound comics thoroughly ruined me for science fiction. More Greek myth than Geek science, I found the trials that Earthling predecessors faced down and rose above in the troubled past vastly more compelling than mutant Jell-o threatening downtown Wilkes-Barre or a scorned and angry 50-foot woman (hell hath no fury) going after her philandering husband.
Not surprisingly, 40 odd years later, the action movies I find myself hopelessly drawn to — for their poetry and insights into our species’ bumbling evolution — are epics like Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven”; Terence Malick’s ethereal “Days of Heaven” and “The New World”; Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V” and Michael Caton-Jones’s “Rob Roy.” While I find Steven Spielberg’s alien films a thundering bore, I’ve watched his “Saving Private Ryan” and “Band of Brothers” perhaps half a dozen times each.
At a moment when the Internet is teeming with end time prophesies and warnings of impending doom, movies like “The Avengers” strike me as considerably more than escapist summertime fare — but maybe some kind of collective longing for salvation from a test tube or another kinder and gentler galaxy.
Maybe if we frighten ourselves sufficiently with threats of death rays and mutant killers in search of a new planet to colonize, we simply don’t have to fret over growing Earthbound problems like spiraling poverty and politicians with feet of clay, a real world where the darkest threat comes from within.
If science fiction tends to reflect mankind’s growing unease with the world it’s made, perhaps it’s possible to look at the beauty of the nighttime heavens and imagine a very different scenario, one that dazzled ancient astronomers and poets alike.
This week, an item came across my desk from NASA noting that its Kepler Telescope has found more than 750 alien planets and flagged several candidates as potential alternate Earths, worlds that could potentially host human habitation and life as we know it. One lead researcher on the project insists just such an “alien Warth” will be found by 2014.
Meanwhile, Jill Tarter, director of the highly respected SETI Institute, which has conducted scientific research for extraterrestrial intelligence since 1985, announced her retirement with an interesting observation on the summer’s deluge of alien disaster blockbusters.
“Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” she wrote. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth, that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food or other planets.
“If aliens were to come here, it would be simply to explore. Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like ‘Men in Black III’ and ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Battleship’ as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”
“Here’s a crazy thought,” I put to Junior as we waited in line to buy our Avenger tickets. “What if the future turns out to actually be much better than it is now — a better world mentioned in everything from Holy Scripture to Greek mythology wherein the shifting paradigm of civilization means we humans finally evolve to a higher form of life governed by love and justice, making wars a thing of the past. In effect, we humans save our own world.”
He merely smiled and shrugged. “That would be cool if it happened,” he said. “But I’m not sure it would make such a great movie.”
Afterward, he asked me how I liked the summer’s first box-office blockbuster and I admitted it was kind of a kick — like riding a scary roller-coaster at a theme park — though watching New York City get bashed to pieces by alien invaders was a big worry, as his big sister just moved there. I also couldn’t remember much of the plot line. If there was one.
Then again, I added, I thought pretty much the same when I snuck in to see “The Blob” back in 1962. So even if sci-fi flicks have seriously evolved, technically speaking, evidently I have not. I’m still a kid in love with old-fashioned human stories.
I admitted that I’d pinned my best summer hopes on “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” starring five of my favorite actors on an Indian odyssey, which I plan to run — don’t walk! — and see, as soon as it reaches my local multiplex.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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