If you had been alive on Halloween eve in 1938, you probably would have been scared out of your wits. And for good reason: Ruthless, grotesque Martians were taking over the planet. At least that's what thousands of Americans believed while listening to Orson Welles' infamous radio dramatization of H.G. Wells’ book "The War of the Worlds."
Welles’ clever hoax underscores an essential truth about the entertainment hungry public in the modern media age—that we want to believe in extraterrestrial life, and that the media, which continues to saturate our collective consciousness with science fiction films, TV programs, books and other offerings, is very good at making us believers.
If you want to know how popular extraterrestrials are these days, just open the movie section of your newspaper, take a walk down to the bookstore, stroll down the video game aisle at Wal-Mart, or simply turn on your television. Practically everywhere you look for entertainment these days, a classic Grey alien with those big black oval eyes—or one of his distant cosmic cousins--is staring you in the face.
Why this growing cultural obsession and consumer feeding frenzy over UFOs and their otherworldly occupants? For one, there are more supposed alien encounters and UFO sightings reported today than ever before. Word of mouth, however tabloid-like ridiculous in nature, gets around. And recent outer space explorations and scientific discoveries—including the possibility of life on Mars--are stoking our interest in uncovering the unknown truths of the universe. Hollywood, book publishers, television producers and other savvy media powers that be have their fingers on the pulse of what the public wants: namely, more xenomorphs, interplanetary predators, little Grey men, X-File conspiracies, and brain-eating zombies from outer space.
The evolution of alien life
The flourishing science fiction entertainment industry of today can thank 19th century pioneers of the genre like Mary Shelley, who penned the original "Frankenstein" novel, Jules Verne, author of fantastic tomes like "From the Earth to the Moon," and H.G. Wells, famous for books such as "The Time Machine." It was early literary visionaries like these who sparked cosmic curiosity and intergalactic imagination among the masses and laid the foundation for sci-fi pulp.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, sci-fi magazines first began to appear, including the granddaddy of them all, Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories. It and rival magazines such as Astounding Science Fiction and, eventually, Galaxy Science Fiction, featured short sci-fi works by masterful authors like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The success of these monthlies paved the way for more science fiction books and short story collections by a newer generation of authors, including Ray Bradbury, Frederick Pohl, Harlan Ellison, and "Dune" creator Frank Herbert.
Movies were just as important as the printed page for sparking the sci-fi revolution. In 1902, filmmaker George Melies created a landmark special effects-laden sci-fi short called "A Trip to the Moon," depicting a lunar landing and our first look at fictional aliens on the big screen. Longer feature films like Metropolis and Things to Come followed.
But it wasn’t until the 1950s that sci-fi films came on with a fury, thanks largely to America’s fear of the spread of communism and nuclear annihilation, two themes that perfectly represented themselves in the form of evil aliens and science run amok. "The Thing From Another World," "The War of the Worlds," "The Day the Earth Stood Still," "Angry Red Planet" and other films stirred up the country’s Cold War anxieties and packed movie houses everywhere. Viewers got their first taste of the cerebral sci-fi film a la "2001: A Space Odyssey," in 1968, and in 1977 with the groundbreaking "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (CE3K), which ushered in the era of the friendly alien, portrayed to perfection in "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial."
Television also advanced the image of science fiction, especially early series such as "The Outer Limits" and "The Twilight Zone." "Star Trek" came along in the late 1960s, creating a whole new universe of alien characters and an avid sci-fi fan base. And "The X-Files," which debuted in 1993, brought an unmatched level of realism and credibility to the visual genre, further piquing our desire for contact with aliens and our yearning to unlock rumored secrets being held from us by the government.
Psychologically speaking, why is it that we are so intrigued by aliens and their craft, especially considering we have no proof of life beyond this planet? Dr. James E. Gunn, Emeritus Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas, has his own theories.
“I have the feeling that the ready acceptance over the years of flying saucers and the aliens they involved was a kind of replacement of religion,” says Dr. Gunn. “If God is dead, as some theologians claimed, then we had to look elsewhere for some kind of superior creatures that might save or damn us.”
The notion espoused in popular science fiction that aliens might covet our planet or our women or our bodies is an old one, says Dr. Gunn. “It makes good fiction, but it isn't logical. In fact, it isn't rational that aliens would ever come to our solar system or our planet. The distances are simply too great to make such a trip practical, even if it is practicable. But we like to speculate about such matters because it is a great burden to imagine that we are the only intelligent creatures in the universe, and on our shoulders is the responsibility for understanding it and making our existence matter.”
Believing in UFOs and aliens has a lot to do with our openness to identifying reality and asking the simple question, ‘What is real?’” says Patricia Baker, a psychotherapist and sociologist who has investigated UFO cases and worked with people who claim to have been abducted by aliens. “To think that there is life out there on other worlds is a sign of our culture’s intelligence. It’s also a reflection of our yearning for ‘wholeness,’ the feeling that something—call it a higher purpose or a deeper connection to explain the mysteries of life--is missing in our lives, something bigger than ourselves.”
Baker asserts that the media has the power to influence our image of and beliefs about aliens, and it certainly makes a lot of money off of our enjoyment of sci-fi. “But the consciousness of our culture has created the media’s obsession with science fiction entertainment. Once the media gives us a quality, credible program like 'The X-Files', the public responds and interest in extraterrestrials and making contact with them grows all the more. But the interest was there long before those savvy TV and film creatives introduced their sci-fi products.”
The ever-evolving face of aliens
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.
“Hollywood has difficulty with aliens. To keep audiences watching, aliens are usually either virtually human, or monsters,” says Josh Calder, consultant with Coates & 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. Gunn 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.”
Sci-fi sneak previews
Indeed, the future of the science fiction genre in entertainment certainly appears to be at a crossroads. Does it hold infinite possibilities, or will consumers eventually get bored with it all as sci-fi writers scramble for fresh settings and more fantastic aliens and plots? And, as we learn more about the limits of time, space, and the laws of the universe, will this restrict sci-fi writers from penning creative yarns that science says isn't possible?
“I'd say the future of science fiction is infinite,” says Dr. Gunn. “Every advance in scientific understanding has had two consequences: either people suggesting that science fiction no longer has anything to write about, or the raising of new questions that make for even more dramatic and insightful stories. We have to go with what science says isn't impossible, not what it says is possible, and even the impossible looks more possible all the time, what with the uncertainty principle, quantum physics, nanotechnology, genetic and biological insights and techniques, and new discoveries in space and with advanced instrumentation.”
As for the possibility of alien conceptualizers running out of ideas and sci-fi lovers running out of interest, Crispin says relax. “Consumers, as well as science fiction creators, will continue to have wild imaginations that won’t let the genre suffer.”
When truth is stranger than science fiction
5 must-see movies and the real-life UFO cases they’re based on:
- The UFO Incident (1975) This TV film tells the allegedly true story of Betty and Barney Hill (played by Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones) and their purported abduction by aliens in September, 1961. The E.T.s, who allegedly probed the couple’s bodies (inside and out) on their spacecraft, are depicted as resembling the classic “Grey” alien.
- Roswell: the UFO Cover Up (1994) This film, broadcast as an original Showtime cable movie, is loosely based on the famous Roswell story, which made headlines across the world in July of 1947. Kyle MacLachlan stars as Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer troubled by having been made to lie about having seen the debris of a crashed flying saucer in the New Mexico desert. Rumor has it that four classic Grey alien bodies—originating from the Zeta Reticuli system--were recovered.
- Fire in the Sky (1993) In the American northwest in 1975, Travis Walton and his timber-cutting coworkers claim that they encountered an alien vessel. Walton supposedly was zapped up into the UFO, and his buddies were accused of murdering their missing partner. The abductee returned days later, telling of his experience with blond Nordic and Grey aliens (only the latter are shown in the movie). James Garner plays a skeptical police officer trying to debunk the account.
- Communion (1990) Based on author Whitley Strieber’s alleged encounters with possible alien beings who have been abducting him throughout his entire life—as detailed in his wildly popular book Communion. Christopher Walken portrays Strieber in this choppy adaptation of the bestseller that helped spark a renewed interest in UFOs.
- Alien Secrets: Area 51 A strange two-part documentary that aired on the Learning Channel and is available on video, Alien Secrets explores some of the most intriguing UFO cases of the 20th century. Detailed in depth is Bob Lazar’s famous account of Area 51, the infamous military base outside of Las Vegas that the Air Force continues to deny even exists. Lazar claims to have worked there briefly on an out-of-this-world project: Reverse-engineering UFO propulsion systems. Stanton Friedman, Bruce Maccabee, and Glenn Campbell are among the prominent figures in the field who lend commentary.