Astronomy

The Search for Extraterrestial Life in Popular Culture and Film



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The realization that there might be, indeed that there probably are intelligent beings on planets around distant stars, is a realization which has already had profound effect on human culture and has certainly not gone unnoticed by science fiction writers and movie makers.

One of the earliest and perhaps most notable of fiction writers who ventured beyond Earth in search of an extraterrestrial intelligence for novel concept, was H.G. Wells. His novel War of the Worlds published in 1898 was nothing less than sensational. While few may have read the H.G, Wells classic about an alien visitation, when Orson Welles used it as a script for an October 30, 1938 radio broadcast by CBS's Mercury Theatre On The Air, it became a part of American folk lore. As far as cultural effect, the program caused mass hysteria in Grover's Mill New Jersey and the surrounding areas. The first movie adaptation of War of The Worlds came out in 1953, but in 2005 Steven Spielberg used all of the cinematographic magic of the 21st century to do justice to the now SiFi antique.

Before War of the Worlds hit the big screen, another film, The Day The Earth Stood Still released in 1951, was probably the first movie to capitalize on the fascination folks had with UFO's and extraterrestrial intelligence. The movie, directed by Robert Wise starred Michael Rennie, Patricia Neil, Hugh Marlowe and a large robot. The Alien saucer lands on the mall in Washington D.C. and the army rolls in tanks to great the visitor. The alien says that he comes from a planet 250 million miles away which would put it somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. If you haven't seen it, its a typical SiFi flick for the period and I won't spoil it for you. You can watch it for free on line at: http://www.classiccinemaonline.com/cinema/sci-fi/thedaytheearthstoodstill.html

The first television series motivated by a search for extraterrestrial intelligence was Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek series. The Enterprises' five year mission is to explore new worlds and civilizations, and by the miracle of Warp Drive the ships crew are able to do it at 9 times the speed of light. In fact, there are a lot of miracles used to support Roddenberry's vision which make for great entertainment, but really stretch reality. A cultural effect of this is a lot of people who go around believing things are possible which simply are not. Say what you want about the show and the spin-offs it continues to generate, Roddenberry's SiFi look at extraterrestrial intelligence has probably had a greater impact on contemporary popular culture than any other single production, so, live long and prosper.

In 1997, Steven Spielberg directed the Movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which he also wrote the script for. Alien space craft are seen flying around and selected people receive a telepathic message of the image of a mountain in Montana. One of them is Roy Neary played by Richard Dreyfuss, who starts off building a replica of the mountain in his kitchen, and then after seen the real mountain on a TV news broadcast, leaves his family and begins a pilgrimage with others to it. These particular aliens communicate through a musical language. When you finally see the aliens they are luminescent little people maybe 3 feet tall with rounded features and those giant eyes that have become a part of standard alien motif since the Roswell incident.

Another movie released a couple of months before Close Encounters in 1977, George Lucas's Star Wars, breached new dimensions of both film making and alien depiction. In the movie we were introduced to lovable cuddly aliens that looked like big teddy bears and grotesque slime covered ugly ones, and of course robots and androids of every imaginable variety. Star Wars was a movie that pretty much established the SiFi space motif that has been embellished on but never exceeded to this day, and its cultural implications have been no less than monumental.

In 1982, Spielberg was back with another movie about extraterrestrial visitation, called by no surprise ET. The story line is about a small lonely boy who befriends and alien. Indeed, its a children's story and the predominance of the cast are children, but the movie was an absolute blockbuster and Americans loved it, young and old.

By the mid 1980's, movies about space and extraterrestrial intelligence's had all but become its own genre, or at least a subcategory of the SiFi genre. Anything depicting the realities of space travel or existence of extraterrestrial beings had long since dissolved into the background, and the space-ET film or TV series was an anything goes potpourri of imaginative resources packaged for pure entertainment value and little more. But audiences loved it and that's what sells tickets at the theater.

But in 1985, the world rebound astronomer, biologist, and perhaps most devoted SETI enthusiast Dr. Carl Sagan, took off his scientists hat and put on a novelists one. Neither the book, nor the movie made from it ten years later by Steven Spielberg, was a stellar success (forgive the pun). In fact, both bombed, but Contact was a story which at least began, grounded to reality. In the movie, Jodi Foster plays the role of Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway a caricature modeled to some degree in the image of the SETI Institutes Dr. Jil Tarter, but even Jill will tell you, its not a biographical account resembling her own circumstances. The setting of the opening scene of the movie at the Very Large Array (VLA) radio telescope is all to real and absolutely believable, but from the point where Ellie first hears the low frequency groaning of an extraterrestrial radio source, the rest of the story descends into the realm of make believe that classifies this film as science fiction. Maybe its got to the point with respect to movies and cultural paradigms that you can't combine reality with fantasy and come up with a winning entertainment formula, although Dan Brown seems to have been somewhat effective with it.

But to leave it at that, with respect to Contact the book or the movie, or any other of the SiFi flicks we've been entertained by over the past 58 years, would be a little bit disingenuous. Beyond entertainment value, these films and TV series may in a way have prepared human consciences, for that eventual day when we do make first contact with some source of extraterrestrial intelligence, and if nothing else, certainly brought an added dimension to human cultural paradigm.

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