Monday, April 26, 2010

Stephen Hawking Says Aliens Are Real But Probably Dangerous

The hot minute item du jour is that famous physicist and mathematician Stephen Hawking says in his new Discovery Channel TV Show Stephen Hawking's Universe (previews May 9th at 9:00 PM) that aliens are probably real but are probably not friendly.

Hawking bases these opinions--which he admits are speculative--on probability theory and direct observation.

Given the number of possibilities for life beyond Earth, Hawking says that alien races are statistically likely. Given what usually happens when one culture drops in on another for the first time however, Hawking believes an alien visitation is probably not going to result in anything resembling peaceful sharing, space brotherhood, or warm woo woo fuzzies for all.

Hawking cites the arrival of the first white people in the Americas and the effect that exploration had on indigenous peoples as an example. Even if aliens didn't mean to harm us initially, they would likely carry germs and social practices that would detrimental to our health. They'd be looking after themselves, not us. As anyone would, really.

But the greater likelihood is that they'd drop by specifically to steal our natural resources.

After all, that's what we do.

Hawkings asks, why would aliens be any different?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

As I write this, the 1951 landmark alien invasion flick The Day the Earth Stood Still is playing on the American Movie Channel.

Thank God for AMC! We keep getting more and more cable channels for less and less money from our local provider, but we only watch a few, and often AMC is the only one with anything good showing.

It's weird how cinema has access to so much more money and so many more special effects today, and yet movies aren't better.

Anyway, I remember watching this movie again and again as a kid, and just loving it. The Day the Earth Stood Still, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and King Kong versus Godzilla were our all-time favorites, and we were always allowed to stay up late and watch them when they were shown on TV.

The Day the Earth Stood Still is still is rated four stars by reviewers and online movie sources, but watching it now feels oddly disappointing. Hindsight is always 20/20, but it's striking how innocent a time the 1950s was. That time seems so far away now. Not that I'm nostalgic for it (and panty girdles! ack!), but a certain cultural innocence has been lost since then, and I doubt we'll be getting it back anytime soon, if ever.

In 1951 we had just recently exploded the bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and human beings still had the carnage of world war fresh in their memories, but it's clear that people still thought human beings were basically decent and that somehow, some way, things would work out for the best. Aliens were still in their savior phase for the most part. Today's aliens have outgrown that role and moved into darker agendas.

I think we are a lot more cynical these days, and some of us are downright apocalyptic.

Some tidbits floating through my aging brain as I watch:

  • Aunt Bea from The Andy Griffith Show is one of the supporting characters. I'd forgotten that. She lives in the boarding house run by Patricia Neal, the one Klaatu stays in while he's getting to know the human race a little better.
  • Michael Rennie was so hot in those days. I've always had a special attraction to lean dark men who are little cool and a little weird. Hey, I'm only human. 
  • 1950s kids are annoyingly saccharine. God, the kid in this movie make my teeth hurt. 
  • It seems darkly funny that the message of the film is something like, "We come in peace to ask y'all to put down your weapons... otherwise we're blowing your whole planet to smithereens." Although, seriously, that was the message American had just delivered to the Japanese.
  • Aliens today are such bastards compared to Klaatu. Even with the annihilation threat. I mean, they really are jerks. And not half as cute.
I was reading online that the movie was criticized from some quarters when it was first released because of its pacifist message (pacfist, really?) and because actor Sam Jaffe, who plays Professor Rutherford, had openly leftist politics. Even so, the movie now holds an esteemed place in the Smithsonian collection of 100 Hollywood classics and is still highly regarded. 

If only repeating, "Nicto Klaatu barrata!" could save us now.  What a nice Earth Day event that would be. Maybe a saucer will land tomorrow and put a word in for the porpoises.

Gort, where are you when we really need you?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Aliens, True Believers, Debunkers, and Me

I saw a comment on Facebook the other day that sort of snagged my attention. I resisted the impulse to respond to it directly because I've had this discussion before and it never goes well.

The comment went something like this:

"I don't even talk to people who don't believe in alien abductions anymore. They're so boring."

Really? You don't even TALK to people unless they believe in alien abduction? How do you buy groceries? How do you work out problems on your telephone bill? How do you meet girls?

One thing you discover fast when you start to study this topic is that UFO researchers and alien abductees sort into about four general categories and none of them like each other very much:

  1. True believers. This camp includes the ancient astronaut theorists, the New Agers who see aliens as trying to teach us about peace and whatnot, the creepy 'researchers' like David Jacobs and Budd Hopkins who sit on the bedsides of young women and ask them to recount weird alien/human sexual encounters under hypnosis, and pretty much anyone else who takes the phenomena at face value.
  2. Skeptics and Debunkers.  The mirror image of true believers, these guys can ONLY question and discredit, even if their methods of discrediting individual stories are as hypothetical and beside the point as the stories themselves. People like Joe Nickell and magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer (the printed arm of CSICOP) see only hokum and BS in UFO stories and pretty much devote their lives to exposing it. They are the lid to the True Believer's pot.
  3. The Mythologists. This group examines alien abductions in the context of myth, magic, and humanistic psychology. Although few people realize it, psychoanalyst and famous Freudian antagonist Carl Jung wrote a treatise on the psychoanalytical importance of UFO phenomena as early as 1953, so this  group is hardly new. They get no respect and are generally misunderstood. They are scorned by both True Believers and Debunkers. That's because the modern understanding of myth as "dumb made-up story explaining something science has since figured out much more coherently" is not the understanding of myth they deploy, and you can't explain their point of view in a sound byte. So they lose. All the time.
  4. Me. I don't think I fall cleanly into any of these camps (probably because I myself am an alien life form) but also because I am especially personally fascinated by the persistent cultural divide between the realm of the imagination and the realm of intellect. For this reason I am forever getting bludgeoned by all three groups whenever I open by mouth about aliens or UFOs, and I am forever whining a sad response along the lines of, "Why can't we all just get along?" 
 That's right: I am the Rodney King of alien abduction lore.

Seriously though, why can't we use the best of all these perspectives? Why can't we think critically about the phenomena and apply some science while acknowledging that the human imagination is not an annoying vestigal pathology for which science will soon find a cure? When a story takes on this kind of cultural strength and power, why can't we admit that that is, all by itself, kind of a big deal and deserves to be examined carefully and thoughtfully?

Anyway, I just thought for now I'd lay out the cast of characters and explain what role I play in this particular form of Kabuki theater.

Stay tuned for drama!

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Thing From Another World

Yesterday TCM ran The Thing From Another World (1951), one of the very best of the 1950s alien invasion flicks. I hadn't seen it in awhile and noticed the following threads for the first time:

  1. The alien was kind of a cross between a prototypical 'Grey' and Frankenstein. Stockier than a grey but bald, tall, and emotionless with huge creepy eyes and a keen interest in breeding, he was supposedly way smarter than us but spent most of his time staggering around making 'grrrrr' noises whilst looking for blood. 
  2. The snowy, arctic setting was a great visual Cold War metaphor. 
  3. It struck me that when you get megalomaniacal scientist types together with bumbling military types nothing good ever comes of it, and that has not changed in 59 years. 
  4. The tall reporter guy could be Jeff Goldblum's dad. I don't think he is, but he could be.
  5. That woo woo background music during the scene where everybody pokes at the severed alien hand is classic. I can't get enough of that music. I wish I could make that sound here but you can't really even spell it in a blog so I guess you'll have to watch the flick to hear what I'm talking about. 'Woo woo' is as close as I can come to it. 
    I get frustrated by alien talk today. It always sorts into the True Believers versus the Skeptical Debunkers and that whole kabuki argument is so boring.

    I think a LOT is going on with ufos and alien abduction reports, but no one ever is the slightest bit interested in my alien perspective on it. I figure I have enough material, thoughts, links, and news items for a blog on specifically that complaint, so here it is.

    Stay tuned. If you get bored while wating for the next post, go watch The Thing From Another World

    It's still awesome.