Culture

The Gospel from Planet X: Why Aliens Ignite the Imagination

Editor’s Note:

Check out Walter’s previous articles in this ongoing series Thursday mornings exploring video games, cultural villains, and American values at PJ Lifestyle. From May 2: “Beating Back the Nazi “Sickness,” and last week: “What Zombies Teach Us About Human Nature.” And also see Walter’s A Reason For Faith series, reprinted last week here. In these four articles Walter begins to formalize his task of synthesizing the Judeo-Christian tradition with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Tea Party activism.    –  DMS

In one of the most vivid dreams I can recall, I witnessed the landing of a plainly alien spaceship. It came lucidly, dancing on the edge of wakefulness, informed by enough of my rousing consciousness that it felt particularly real. I remember the feeling that my feet were glued to the ground, that I couldn’t move if I wanted to, not on account of some external force, but due to an overwhelming sense of awe and anticipation. The one thought dominating my mind: everything is about to change.

Though it was only a dream, I retain the memory as vividly as though it were of an actual experience and believe I will respond similarly if ever confronted by a true interplanetary delegation. Something about that kind of moment, when the veil lifts upon an existential mystery, produces an irresistible thrill. Perhaps that tops the list of reasons why our popular culture remains ever fascinated by the prospect of extraterrestrial life.

Aliens have become such a prolific device in our entertainment that we sometimes take them for granted. Like a modern deus ex machina, aliens can be relied upon to suspend disbelief in an otherwise inconceivable scenario. (How does Superman fly? Simple, he’s an alien!) Extraterrestrials rank alongside Nazis, zombies, and generic terrorists as the most common villains found in video games. Unlike those others, however, aliens may also be allies. Nothing inherent to extraterrestrial life demands it be villainous. Beings from other worlds often act as mirrors for examining the human condition, when not merely lurking among shadow and neon strobe.

It’s probably no coincidence that the advent of ufology, which is an actual word in the dictionary meaning the study of unidentified flying objects, coincides with the initial proliferation of aviation and the early years of the space age. We began to look up into the sky right about the time we realized there was nothing left to find over the horizon. In times past, when the known world was still defined by the flickering edge of torchlight, we imagined unspeakable monsters much closer to home. Spirits, ghosts, goblins, ghouls, fairies, vampires — all were the alien invaders and abductors of their time. As we have come to dismiss them as infeasible and childish, our imagination turns to the stars, where the realm of possibility remains seemingly infinite.

Certainly, we can see how aliens have stepped in to fill the role of menacing ghoul. Ridley Scott’s original Alien was essentially a horror film, a science-fiction creature feature. While the execution was masterful, the formula proved well-established and has been revisited ever since.

The alien becomes far more interesting, however, when used as a narrative device to convey something more sophisticated than fear. Looking back upon their use in television and film, aliens tend to serve the anti-capitalist theme of the political Left, especially the anti-humanism of the environmental movement. As is often the case in science fiction and fantasy, the messages are typically so subtle as to escape conscious notice.

We can look to a few of the more overt examples to demonstrate an anti-humanist bent. Aliens sometimes appear to conquer, other times to explore, and occasionally to advise or warn.

In the 1951 Robert Wise classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien humanoid named Klaatu dispenses with any preliminaries and boldly lands his flying saucer on the president’s Park Ellipse in Washington, D.C. Finding himself immediately attacked and captured by the trigger-happy American military, Klaatu escapes and fades into earthly society in search of the means to convey an urgent message to all the Earth’s national leaders. The film follows his effort to evade authorities while consorting with sympathetic officials to earn an audience with an international body. In the end, we receive Klaatu’s urgent interplanetary dispatch, a warning that nuclear proliferation presents an interstellar danger which the larger galactic society will not tolerate. If humanity cannot restrain its inherently destructive impulse, it will be destroyed by an invulnerable peacekeeping robot. So the tale reflects the Cold War paranoia and nascent anti-war movement of its time.

In the 2008 remake starring Keanu Reeves as the stoic Klaatu, humanity progresses from nuclear proliferation to the modern apocalyptic boogeyman — environmental degradation. When human political leaders appear unwilling to curb their appetite for consumption, Klaatu initiates a process of preserving non-human life in a form of ark before wiping virulent humanity from the earth.

The message of these and similar films is clear. We human beings are poor stewards of our planet, a danger to ourselves and others, in need of either rapid evolution (i.e., fundamental transformation) or eradication.

Another form of alien arrives to conquer, enslave, kill, or consume. In Roland Emmerich’s 1996 action extravaganza Independence Day, the sentiments of The Day the Earth Stood Still are turned on their head. Reacting to an increasingly evident alien invasion of Earth, politicians and scientists hoping for a peaceful resolution prove to be the suckers of the moment. Upon confronting a live specimen from the invading horde, Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore learns that humanity’s worst fears are true. The beings invading the planet are interplanetary nomads, an exploitative species that finds garden worlds to consume and abandon like locusts.

Unspoken, but certainly implied, is a reference to us. We are the aliens in our own environment, insatiably consuming resources without regard for our impact upon other life or the planet itself.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 remake of The War of the Worlds further develops this theme. As that film’s alien invasion progresses, those human beings who are not immediately destroyed are captured and penned like cattle only to be latter harvested and used as fertilizer. The narrative places us in the role of livestock, evoking a sense of injustice for the way beings of higher technology abuse beings who cannot defend themselves.

All of these films neglect to acknowledge our true human nature, and build their cynical case against humanity upon that flawed foundation. We do not mindlessly consume like locusts, or flaunt intelligence or technology as license to destroy our environment. Such notions take form only as strawmen, windmills for the quixotic Left to tilt at.

Human nature requires deliberate action in pursuit of rationally conceived values which enable us to survive and thrive. While animals propel and propagate on instinct, doing what is in their nature to do without the agency to conceive of or produce new values, human beings cannot survive without applying our minds to the task. It is our nature, not the depth of our intelligence or the reach of our technology, which justifies our exploitation of wilderness. If we did not change our environment to suit our needs, we would quickly and surely die.

Contrary to the notion many alien films suggest, the actions we take to perpetuate our lives are not an unchecked threat to the planet. In a free society, we stand compelled to make the best and most efficient use of our resources so as to maximize our quality of life. No one wants to live in a dirty, toxic mess, or to wind up without the resources necessary to survive and thrive. So we take steps to ensure our environment remains clean and pleasant. We also ration resources through the pricing mechanism of the market. As supply dwindles, prices increase, prompting consumers to purchase less. The key to this process functioning properly is preserving the condition of liberty. State interference in the market retards price rationing and keeps producers and consumers from intelligently managing resources. That’s why there were bread lines and tire piles in the Soviet Union.

It would be fascinating if a storyteller came along to craft a new kind of alien tale, one where the truth of human nature was affirmed. Certainly, we’ve had our fill of aliens preaching against our rampant consumerism and crimes against the environment.

The belief that humanity has a destructive consuming nature rather than a constructive producing nature fuels the imagination of alien enthusiasts like Dr. Steven Greer of The Disclosure Project, who seek evidence of extraterrestrial life with the zeal of a religious believer. They imagine advanced life elsewhere holds the secret to better living. Here’s a sample of Greer’s proselytizing from the introduction to his book Disclosure:

For most people, the question of whether or not we are alone in the universe is a mere philosophical musing – something of academic interest but of no practical importance. Even evidence that we are currently being visited by non-human advanced life forms seems to many to be an irrelevancy in a world of global warming, crushing poverty and the threat of war. In the face of real challenges to the long-term human future, the question of UFOs, extraterrestrials, and secret government projects is a mere side-show, right? Wrong! Catastrophically wrong.

Greer goes on to list the claims his book will evidence, some of which reveal why he and others feel so passionately about pursuing alien liaisons:

  • That significant technological breakthroughs in energy generation and propulsion have resulted from the study of these objects (and from related human innovations dating as far back as the time of Nicola Tesla) and that these technologies utilize a new physics not requiring the burning of fossil fuels or ionizing radiating to generate unlimited amounts of energy.
  • That classified, above top-secret projects possess fully operational antigravity propulsion devices and new energy generation systems that, if declassified and put into peaceful uses, would empower a new human civilization without want, poverty, or environmental damage.

Believing this to be true creates a tremendous incentive to blow the lid off “the truth.” After all, we may never otherwise benefit from the liberating technology waiting in the wings.

The notion that shadowy conspiratorial forces hold back such technologies rests upon the same flawed view of human nature portrayed in many alien films and wholly embraced by the environmental Left, that resources are finite and capitalism is inappropriately exploitative. But this is like imagining a shadowy conspiracy of blacksmiths held back the invention of the horseless carriage. Just as Henry Ford profited enormously from the advent of a new technology, modern entrepreneurs would find ways to profit enormously from antigravity propulsion and superior energy sources. Nothing would be gained by holding back such wonders. Does anyone miss shoeing horses? Who wants to live in a less productive world with a lower standard of living?

Rather than turn to alien benefactors for technological salvation, how about we unleash the creative capacity of our fellow human beings and allow them to profit from their discoveries? That’s how we got to this point, and it’s how we’ll get to the stars.