It used to be that sci-fi movie heroes and heroines were virtually assured of running into some kind of smart alien creatures. How often did the crew of the starship Enterprise find a planet that was not inhabited by either humanoids or creatures who looked like the prop guy in a monster costume?
Here on Earth, we could at least count on a UFO visit. Some of the visiting aliens, like the pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, wanted to take us over. Others, like the familiar gray-skinned, big-headed, anal-probe fans, seemed only to want to play a game of intergalactic grab-ass. From the messy, endlessly mutating beasts of the Alien series to the insect warriors of Starship Troopers to the CGI irritants of Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace to the guileless lizards-in-disguise of Galaxy Quest, our faraway friends and enemies had something in common with us: They were mobile, curious, and sentient. Science fiction can be scary (as in War of the Worlds), but it’s ultimately reassuring (as in E.T.) to imagine that there may be wise alien beings who can stop us from destroying ourselves. And if the E.T.’s fresh with us, we can always make like Sigourney Weaver and blow it out the airlock.
Now comes a nuclear-strength buzz kill from two scientists who believe that we may well be alone in the universe, aside from the equivalent of pond scum—boring space-cooties who couldn’t possibly build a spaceship, beam out mathematical messages, or bother to lust after Earth women. The “Rare Earth” hypothesis, put forward by a paleontologist and an astronomer in a new book of the same name, holds that certain unusual factors on Earth—such as its distance from the Sun, the right mix of carbon and oxygen, and our relatively large moon—have made biodiversity possible. Nonterrestrial complex life probably isn’t in the stars.
What are science-fiction movies going to do with this idea? Will we have to endure a spate of French existential science-fiction psychodramas, with Gauloise-puffing antiheroes bemoaning our lonely status in the universe? Will one-celled organisms get top billing in big summer blockbusters? As creepy as The Andromeda Strain was, a deadly space germ is no more frightening than any of the devastating plagues—AIDS, Ebola, the Spanish flu—that originated here on Earth.
Space aliens—like the ones in Invasion of the Body Snatchers—ought to have an agenda that goes beyond mere self-preservation. It’s not enough for an alien to be weird; it must be, in the immortal words of Richard Masur in The Thing, “weird and pissed off.”
Some recent movies got around the alien-being issue altogether: Supernova, Sphere, The Astronaut’s Wife, and Event Horizon featured astronauts driven insane by invisible, evil forces. But so what? That happens every day to anyone who uses Internet Explorer. Even if the Rare Earth theory is true, it’s not as though we are completely insulated from the rest of the universe. There are always rogue asteroids—à la Deep Impact and Armageddon. The same day Rare Earth was written about in The New York Times, the paper’s national section ran a report about yet another asteroid that has a chance of colliding with us. But in cinematic terms, the space-rock thing is over: A killer rock is not a plot, it’s an incident. Audiences knew from the moment Bruce Willis appeared onscreen in Armageddon that he’d get things sorted. Yet for two hours, we had to endure innumerable manufactured crises involving Ben Affleck’s fragile self-image.
Movies will probably never give up on the search for intelligent life in the universe. In the next few months, there will be two movies both seemingly inspired by the last big space story, the Mars landers: Mission to Mars, with the always-reliable Gary Sinise, and Red Planet, with the famously strange Val Kilmer. It’s not clear whether these movie astronauts will meet Martians. But Val Kilmer? There are some things even more frightening than monsters from space.