When it comes to close encounters, Hollywood is pretty far off. That’s the take-away from “Alien Encounters,” a pair of one-hour Science Channel specials that begin Tuesday night at 10 p.m.with “Alien Encounters: The Message” and conclude with the March 20 premiere of “Alien Encounters: The Arrival.” Writer and producer Nick Sagan and Jill Tarter of the SETI Institute are among the voices that delve into the discussion of how alien contact might take place and what the scientific, cultural and psychological effects might be for our planet inhabitants. Our Geoff Boucher interviewed Sagan (who is also the son of the famed astronomer Carl Sagan) about the traditional Hollywood spin on flying saucers.
GB: When you watch Hollywood’s portrayals of alien-contact films, what makes you groan?
NS: Humans having any kind of sporting chance against hostile alien invaders armed with superior technology. Good luck. If they’re advanced enough to cross the enormous distances of interstellar space, they’re advanced enough to wipe us out without breaking whatever in their physiology passes for a sweat. Why not just lob a few asteroids at us? How are we going to handle that? The conceit of plucky human underdogs triumphing at the end might make for feel-good popcorn movies but in reality there’s just no “there” there. Seriously, we beat them with a computer virus? Our microbes are their kryptonite? And why do they even want to attack us anyway? There’s no shortage of other planets they could enjoy, and if they really took a disliking to us, why not sit back and allow us to destroy ourselves? We’re certainly capable of it.
GB: We’ve seen full-blown alien arrivals on the screen for decades, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “Close Encounters” to “Independence Day” to “Battle: Los Angeles.” Some of them strive for realistic portrayals of the reactions by government, military and scientific community — tell us a few that ring true even if only in one aspect of their portrayal.
NS: Allow me to surprise exactly no one by singing the praises of “Contact” [written by Carl Sagan] as the best example of how this might unfold. I’ve heard many astronomers laud it as the closest film yet to a realistic portrayal of how the scientific community might react, and likewise, the scenes where members of government express their concerns strike me as highly plausible. That said, short of an actual alien first-contact scenario, no one really knows how we’ll react when push comes to shove. We have ideas, potential strategies, SETI protocols. When we get that signal, though, all bets may be off. Beyond “Contact,” I think there’s something compelling about “District 9.” While over the top in some ways (as many science fiction allegories are), the idea that we might segregate and subjugate the “other” seems true to the human experience, especially if that “other” turns out to be less powerful than ourselves. That gets to the heart of why there are so many scary aliens in science fiction — while we know next to nothing about how actual extraterrestrial lifeforms (should they even exist) are likely to react, we know all too well how poorly we can treat our fellow life-forms down here on Earth.
GB: One familiar thread in sci-fi is the idea that contact with alien life would lead to a closing of ranks here on Earth — that geopolitical rivals and enemies would set aside their divisions in the face of a true “other.” What do you think?
NS: Well, I’d love for this to be the case. We’re so bitterly divided these days, the appearance of a true “other” might be the best chance of bringing us all together. But I wonder. If a fleet of alien ships appeared in the sky tomorrow, how do you think those who now call our president a Kenyan Marxist Muslim atheist would be most likely to react? Sure, they might turn around and say, “Whatever we may not like about Barack Hussein Obama, he’s as human as we are and we better put aside our differences to beat back these damn aliens!” I think the more likely reaction would be, “He’s probably one of them and it’s his fault they’re here!” Likewise, had a flying saucer invasion force descended during the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency, I rather doubt the world community would have happily united behind his leadership. What’s more, these hypothetical extraterrestrials are unlikely to sit idly by as we try to figure out how best to move past our various differences. Human divisions would be child’s play for any reasonably competent alien overlord to exploit — check the masterful Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” for an example of how that might play out. Still, here’s hoping that if and when that momentous first-contact scenario does actually arrive, we manage to join together as humans, and walk bravely into whatever the future holds.
— Geoff Boucher
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