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Lights, Camera, Alien InvasionAliens are among us. In the malls, at the shores, on the roads, at the newsstands, even at the local video arcades. Aliens have invaded our toy stores and our grocery stores. They’re on T-shirts, hats and bumper stickers, on the covers of check-out-counter tabloids, and in bubble-gum machines across the country. They may even try to sell you a new car. But nowhere are aliens more at home than in Hollywood.
Alien subjects always have been beloved entertainment fare — from the Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s and ’40s to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to television’s My Favorite Martian. And in the summertime, when the blockbusters arrive in the theaters, films dealing with alien encounters and threats from outer space have led the pack. Hot summertime science fiction releases have included the Star Wars trilogy of the ’70s and ’80s, each with all-time record breaking profits; Alien (1979); E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982); and 1996’s Independence Day. Last summer’s releases were led by Armageddon and The X Files, along with Lost in Space and Deep Impact.
What drives this interest in the genre? Science fiction writer Dorothy (DC) Fontana, AA’59 (R), says UFO sightings and alien encounters “have been part and parcel of our folklore for the last 50 years. I think it’s because we are approaching the millennium. We are so advanced in our technology and communications that we’re crossing into a whole new future with the next millennium. We all want to know what is going to happen to our world.”
Professor of theater and chair of Florham-Madison’s visual and performing arts department Harvey Flaxman thinks it has to do with “our fascination with creation and God. Human beings have always been riveted with the mystery of the heavens. There are references in The Bible interpreted as proof that spaceships landed on Earth. These interpretations from the beginning of recorded time suggest that humankind has always theorized that corporeal life existed some place out there and then came to Earth and populated it. The study of Sumerian and Greek gods are two examples of this theory.”
Belief in life elsewhere in the universe has been bolstered by the scientific community and the media. Two years ago it was announced that fossilized remains of biological matter had been discovered on Mars. Last year, Americans commemorated the 50th anniversary of the “Roswell Incident,” a UFO sighting and supposed crash near Roswell, N.M., complete with reports of alien bodies being taken away by government agents. It is not surprising that, with these real-life news stories, a television series addressing the question of the existence of extraterrestrial life, The X Files, is so popular that it was made into a major motion picture.
“The X Files plays a lot with religion,” comments David Hanson, a professor of art who taught a science fiction film class on the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus last spring. “It bounces back and forth be-tween the supernatural and the alien.” In the series, Special Agent Fox Mulder, a believer in extraterrestrial life, is partnered with Dana Scully, a medical doctor who seeks rational explanations for the strange phenomena they encounter. “Some of the series’ plots are tied directly to religious things. [Scully is a devout Roman Catholic.] In a way, I think everybody wants to have some kind of religious experience. The focus of recent movies on aliens may be a reflection of that.”
The Conspiracy TheoryBernard Dick, professor of communications and English, who teaches several film classes, believes, “The X Files goes further than science fiction; it delves into our obsession with conspiracies. There is a total distrust of the government and politicians.” Such distrust has deep roots in U.S. history, and today’s conspiracy theorists are vocal and passionate. Around the same time tourists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the “Roswell Incident,” the government issued a release on its Roswell findings, renewing its conviction that the crashed object was a weather balloon, as it reported five decades ago, and that the so-called alien bodies were in fact crash-test dummies taken to labs for analysis of the effects of the crash. Could this government statement have been provoked by the often-stated conviction of X Files fans and other skeptics throughout the world that “The Truth is Out There?” Hanson notes, “There are a lot of people who are convinced that the government has never been honest with revealing what their investigations have found.”
Something to FearThis focus on conspiracy demonstrates another point made by Dick. “Hollywood preys on the fears of the public,” he says. “In the 1950s it was fear of the atomic bomb, thus many films — Them (1954), It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) and The Beginning of the End (1957) — involved mutants. Hollywood made no bones about the fact that these mutants were created by atomic experiments.”
While atomic fears still resonate, the end of the Cold War means filmmakers can look more to the sky. For example, two of this year’s most-noted science fiction releases, Armageddon and Deep Impact, prey on a more current fear reinforced by real-life news stories — that a giant meteor or comet may collide with Earth. Armageddon combines swashbuckling adventure with science fiction as a cast of unlikely heroes attempts to blow up a Texas-sized asteroid before it gets too close to Earth. Deep Impact focuses on the selection of one million survivors to be hidden away deep beneath the planet’s surface when an approaching comet strikes.
Perhaps our greatest fear is the fear of the unknown. Thus the entertainment industry’s fascination with aliens and UFO sightings. The existence of alien life may never be proven, but the tabloids, films and many an infotainment program have focused intensely on the topic. Two recent documentaries, UFOs: Stories of Abduction, aired on The Learning Channel, and the Sci-Fi Channel’s series Sightings, in its episode “Alien Abduction,” address this fear. Common to most alien abduction tales are “missing moments,” blocks of time that victims of these alleged abductions are able to remember only through hypnosis. These victims are portrayed on television as anguished by the lack of knowledge of what happened to them during these missing moments — so much so that the knowledge or supposed memory of alien encounters and horrifying experiments performed on the victims seems to be of comfort to them.
Close Encounters“Science fiction can represent both our fears and our dreams,” Fontana points out. And thus aliens have not always been portrayed by Hollywood as evil beings out to destroy mankind. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), directed by Steven Speilberg, “deals with the fact that there are people in this world who are blessed with innocence and who can communicate beyond the known world,” says Dick. “That is why the aliens are communicating with these people. What Speilberg is arguing for is the tearing down of the wall dividing one group from another, one race from another and humans from extraterrestrials.”
This idea was further propagated in producer Speilberg’s mega-hit E.T. The Extraterrestrial, in which a young boy from a broken family finds solace in his friendship with a cuddly alien creature left behind by his mother ship.
The success of 1997’s Mars Attacks, a spoof on the whole alien-invasion phenomenon, shows that the topic has indeed reached a great level of popularity. Other comedic films, such as Men in Black (1997), postulate that aliens are living peacefully among us. And television series such as 3rd Rock From the Sun and Nickelodeon’s Journey of Allen Strange use aliens unfamiliar with our world to create comedic situations. While these programs present aliens as explorers of our world, others have shown humans exploring the far reaches of the universe and encountering many alien species.
To Boldly Go …By nature, human beings are explorers, and our fascination with outer space may be an outgrowth of the desire to learn. “I think it’s basic to our nature to look to the stars,” says Flaxman. “When Man first saw the stars, he had to wonder, ‘What is that? What kind of power does the sky have?’ Why do you think we look to the heavens with our telescopes and space probes? We are looking for answers.”
“We’ve been exploring throughout history,” says Stephen Mummolo, BA’98 (F-M), a graduate of FDU’s bachelor of arts in electronic filmmaking and digital video design program (see page 25). “Space is just the next frontier.” Or the final frontier, as it is termed in the opening credits of one of the most successful science fiction television series of all time, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, which has grown to encompass a universe of eight films and three additional series.
Star Trek explored new frontiers in more ways than one. Fontana, who scripted several episodes for the original Star Trek series as well as the more recent Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space 9, points to a unique feature of the original series. “Star Trek featured a multicultural cast without having to make an issue out of it. We had an African-American woman as a officer. And there was an Asian as well as a Russian at a time when Russia was not very popular. That in itself was a statement.” Other characters rounding out this wide variety of races and backgrounds were a very Scottish chief engineer, the decidedly Midwestern white male doctor and, most notably, a half-alien first officer. The trust and camaraderie among this diverse crew was itself science fiction in the period of racial unrest during the late 1960s, when the series first aired.
“One of the messages Star Trek conveyed was that people of all types can interact positively for the greater good,” notes Fontana. “That message is still found in the Star Trek of today, though it may be presented differently.” Recent Star Trek endeavors feature crewmembers from many worlds, including some deadly enemies from previous episodes, carrying the message for cooperation among nations strongly through the ’90s and beyond.
Cause and EffectsSince Star Trek’s initial run, film and television have changed dramatically with the introduction of new technologies in special effects. “[In the late 1970s] Star Wars opened up a whole world,” comments Hanson. “Older films were built upon one climactic special effects scene, usually having to do with a rocket or something. But director and producer George Lucas had this kind of thing throughout the entire film.”
Hanson credits Lucas with using old film techniques — such as glass shots (where action is seen through a tiny hole in a matte painting, creating a much larger scene), puppetry and stop-action photography — in new ways.
Digital effects also are opening doors in filmmaking. “Until very recently,” notes Hanson, “it was much easier to use effects against a black background, so space lent itself to special effects. With digital effects, we can now film more effects ‘on the ground.’” In this way, “Technology will feed the storyteller,” adds Flaxman.
Filmmakers are not wasting any time taking advantage of this new technology, which has made possible the creation of alien life forms beyond the possibilities that exist with costumes and makeup. With programs like 3-D Studio Max, characters can be created entirely digitally, as was done with the infamous dancing baby on Fox’s Ally McBeal, as well as with the protagonist in the climax of the film Species (1995). “There are no limits in a 3-D animated world,” comments Mummolo. “The more you use your imagination the better.”
“Computer animation is a step into the future,” Fontana comments. “There are strong story elements it can en-hance.” One of Fontana’s most recent endeavors uses computer animation along with the voices of many of the original Star Trek cast in its portrayal of the characters. It is an interactive computer game, called “Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury,” that features mystery, adventure and action in a series of episodes on CD-ROM. “The episodes, which feature a female Romulan commander from an episode I wrote titled ‘Enterprise Incident,’ weave together into one story involving the Romulans and Vulcans,” she says. This innovative venture into yet another area of entertainment emphasizes the prevalence of beings from other worlds in our everyday lives.
Look to the StarsTechnology has enhanced viewing pleasure as well as real life. Star Trek foreshadowed many technological inventions — doors that slide aside when you approach them, computers that can read massive information off of a tiny disk and hospital beds that can read your vital signs. Will today’s science fiction plots involving aliens foresee more of tomorrow’s realities?
“Whether you believe in aliens or not is up to the individual,” says
Fontana. But seeing is believing, and as long as man continues to look
to the stars, he may one day find what he is looking for.
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