What with black holes, dark energy, and so on, it’s a big strange universe out there. Science fiction films add more strangeness when they include weird and wonderful aliens. The closest we’ve come to real aliens so far is evidence of water that could support life, past or present, at a few sites in our solar system. But we have recently found lots of extrasolar planets and that helps fuel a long tradition of speculating about life in the universe.

Moon creatures appeared in the first science fiction flick ever, the French Voyage dans la Lune (Voyage to the Moon, 1902). In 1924, the Soviet film Aelita: Queen of Marsshowed an intricate Martian society. Since the 1950s, other new and improved models of aliens have appeared in films – literally improved, since the steady development of special effects, especially computer generated imagery, has made even extremely strange aliens look believable on screen.

Plenty has been written about what our fascination with aliens says about ourselves. Some aliens are human-seeming (like the alien emissary in the 1951 and 2008 versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still) but they’re mostly an unsettling lot, which may reflect human paranoia. It’s hard to warm up to the slavering reptilian predator of Alien (1979), the insectoid creatures of Starship Troopers (1997), or the monkey-like bestial aliens of War of the Worlds (2005). With their hostility to humanity, these ugly customers return our repulsion in spades. That’s not to ignore the few appealing aliens that have appeared on screen. Movie viewers found the lost alien in E. T. (1982) endearing despite his funny looks, and the Disney-like Ewoks in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) are cute and fuzzy.

Things get more interesting though when we’re asked neither to exclaim “how cute!” or to blow away an alien, but to actually relate to one, as in the just released film District 9. The film imagines a world in which over a million alien beings have been sequestered for years in District 9 outside Johannesburg, South Africa. This has plenty of parallels with South Africa’s racial history, complete with shanty towns, gang warfare, and military, legal, and quasi-legal maneuvering to control the aliens.

But these tall insect-like bipeds with tentacles around their mouths aren’t just a little bit different; they’re truly inhuman and truly unappealing. Yet they have intelligence, parental feelings, a sense of justice and of loyalty, and a desire to leave their squalid conditions and return home. We discover this as the human in charge of resettling District 9 finds himself more connected to the aliens than he ever wanted to be. He works together with one of them for common goals, and though they don’t exactly become friends, they bond.

This can be read as a parable about black-white interaction or more broadly about how to accept what is unfamiliar to us. Either way, the “alien other” carries messages we need to hear. That’s one reason why I hope that if and when we find alien life, it will be more advanced than a smear of lichen on a Martian rock.

BTW, in my previous post about the Mexican science fiction film Sleep Dealer, I commented that Hollywood science fiction always has the aliens land in New York or Washington, DC, whereas Sleep Dealer brings a different third world perspective. Similarly, the characters in District 9 are surprised to see a spacecraft hovering over Johannesburg rather than NY or DC, and this film likewise enriches the story with its own particular South African background. Both films are examples of what I hope is a growing global approach to science fiction.

For more about Sidney Perkowitz and science in film, visit http://www.sidneyperkowitz.net/

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