The James Clayton Column: What to do when aliens visit Earth

Feature James Clayton 24 Aug 2012 - 08:03

If aliens were to arrive on Earth, how should we greet them? As ever, James turns to the movies for advice…

“What do I do when the aliens arrive?” is a question I often ask myself. We know they’re out there, and we know that they are going to come because, hey, why wouldn’t they? Look at our Goldilocks planet! Look at our diverse, divergent cultures! Marvel at this magnificent lump of space rock so rich with life in a universe so sparse!

When they arrive I want to greet them properly and ensure that my behaviour, attitude and actions are all correct. I worry that I’ll get it wrong, though, and commit some pan-galactic faux-pas, cause cosmic offense and potentially start a horrific war that spans the Milky Way. Contact day will be a milestone moment in the universe’s history, and no one wants awkward scenes or unnecessary ill-feeling on what should be a celebration.

Really, we’re utterly clueless here. For instance, is it wrong to look an alien visitor in the eye before you’ve initiated conversation? Should we put on a buffet for the landing party and, if so, should we stick to a kosher or vegetarian menu? Should you offer to shake hands or tentacles or feelers before venturing to embrace them in a hug? Maybe skipping straight to sex might be best in order to exemplify the ultimate expression of Earth love or truly excite and impress them. Are you going too fast if you go further than first base on your first close encounter of the third kind? Is protection necessary for an extraterrestrial tryst?

Our parents and schoolteachers never taught us anything, and the government keeps frustratingly silent, so altogether we’re left grappling hopelessly with a great dark void. At some point, some political or educational authority should have prepared a PSA entitled ‘What to Do When the Extraterrestrials Come to Visit Earth’ so we’d be ready for the occasion.

Unfortunately, we never got that instructional reel with glorious retro graphics, an ominous voiceover and the man who played Darth Vader (suggested title: ‘The Little Green Men Crossing Code’). Instead The Man decided to continually push a ‘keep ‘em in the dark’ policy and poured all energies into clandestine entities like the Men in Black and Area 51 instead. Without a good candid government acting as a guide, the masses have no one to turn to but tinfoil hat conspiracy theorists and filmmakers. I’m reluctant to trust anyone who adopts aluminium turkey wrap as a fashion statement, so the moviemakers are the ones to follow.

Sadly, screenwriters and directors seem to be just as ill-informed as the average Earthling when it comes to comprehending an alien landing. The exception is Steven Spielberg who, as revealed in sci-fi comedy road flick Paul, has the eponymous extraterrestrial on speed dial.

Spielberg allegedly milked his insight during production of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and E.T., though Paul might have been lying and may just be a fictional creature conjured up by Industrial Light and Magic. You can never trust Hollywood, and as we acknowledge that, we become even more aware that we’re operating from a position of ignorance, woefully underprepared for the moment we finally meet non-terrestrial beings.

Still, taking tips from the screen is better than nothing, and I was hoping that The Watch might provide a few pointers, seeing as it’s about a bunch of Average Joes reacting to an outer space arrival. My hopes were smashed when I saw the trailer, though, as I realised that the film’s Neighbourhood Watch four piece - busybody Ben Stiller, lusty Richard Ayoade, psycho Jonah Hill and doofus Vince Vaughn - are a bunch of prime bozos.

Ben Stiller’s Alienbusters (I’m feeling a Ghostbusters vibe eager to imitate the slick sports jacket style of Ryan Gosling in Drive) are simply a bunch of screwball suburbanite drink-driving dumbasses, and they’re clearly out of their depth when they find something strange in their neighbourhood. It’s a good hook for some funny knockabout comedy action, but not for the pressing concern of “how do I prepare for the alien landing?”

(I should point out here, kids, that drink-driving is never funny unless you’re drink-driving a golf cart. Way to go, Bill Murray!)

The Watch also appears to be following the trail blazed by the majority of alien visitation flicks and treats the aliens as an antagonistic force that should be opposed by whatever means necessary. Movies that celebrate peaceful contact, like the aforementioned Spielberg pair, are rarer, and even starry-eyed Steven ditched this affectation in favour of open Martian hostility for his remake of The War Of The Worlds.

Most of the time, terrorised human beings find themselves rallying to resist unsympathetic evil invaders intent on destroying major landmarks, stealing Earth’s resources and obliterating the planet’s native population. The aliens are rudimentary callous enemies, which leads me to another crucial point about the cinematic portrayals of encounters between Earth and non-Terra lifeforms: the films are mainly interested in the human reaction to the arrivals and not the arrivals themselves.

Skyline, Battleship and Battle: Los Angeles are three recent blockbuster examples that offer up one-dimensional portrayals of impersonal alien antagonists. The creatures are simply there to spread terror and wanton destruction, and only deserve return aggression from the earthlings who are the main focus, fleshed out as they are with backstories and character.

The extraterrestrials function chiefly as the threatening cause of special effects carnage and as MacGuffins from beyond the Milky Way. An alien invasion, in truth, is just an opportunity to explore Earthly concerns and resolve human conflicts. Attack The Block is a prime case study, the aggressive assault of the glow-toothed space nasties allowing London council estate kids a chance to bridge racial and generational gaps and heroically salve fractured community spirit.

Storage 24 is similar - the invasion is just a narrative device to make Noel Clarke sort out his failed relationship and personal faults. The same is true for Battleship, with the alien attack providing the conditions in which eternal screw-up Taylor Kitsch can finally take responsibility and transform himself into the strong, adept adult action hero the US Marines (and Planet Earth) need him to be.

Attention on the aliens and attempts at empathy or understanding are not on the agenda, and The Watch will no doubt stick with that tradition. No sage edification here - just hanging with the guys as they blow up a cow with the extraterrestrial tech they’ve uncovered. I’ll just have to go back to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as I watch the stars and anxiously anticipate the landing.

My synthesiser is plugged in, and I’ve built a mountain out of mashed potato. Please, come in peace.

James Clayton has never gone drink driving on a golf cart and hasn’t had a close encounter of the third kind yet (as far as he’s aware). You can see all his links here or follow him on Twitter.

You can read James' previous column here.

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