Friday, March 26, 2010

Life on Other Worlds - One

[The Martian Ambassador addressing Congress]

I remember bicycling in rural western Marin County years ago and finding that someone had painted, "We are not alone" in huge letters on the pavement. A startling remark, and open to a number of interpretations. One is that Jesus or Allah or Santa Claus or somebody, is with us. Another is that human life works better if we don't cut ourselves off from other people. But the most startling is the possibility of intelligent life on other worlds.

And even that view is problematic because there are so many ways just that one view can be taken. There are no end to cartoons about Little Green Men (LGM's as they are known to those who know all about it.) and "Take me to your leader" and a whole genre of science fiction and horror stories and movies. These range from the thoughtful and lovely "Martian Chronicles" by Ray Bradbury as long ago as 1950, the hokey 'The Blob' of 1958, to the brutal 'Alien' movie of 1979, and all its spawn of 'Predator and Alien', 'Teenage Alien', 'Alien Goes Hawaiian', 'Alien Eats Your Face IV' and my favorite, 'Mars Attacks!' of 1996.

Very much beside the point, 'Mars Attacks!' in spite of being completely ridiculous, had perhaps the best cast ever assembled for a movie - Jack Nicholson, Lukas Haas, Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Pierce Brosnan, Sarah Jessica Parker, Glenn Close, Martin Short, Michael J. Fox, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, Rod Steiger, Tom Jones, and Danny DeVito. I will resist the temptation to recount my favorite scene*.

Somewhere in the middle came 'War of the Worlds'. The 1898 H.G. Wells novel was a socialist parable about what European imperialism must have looked like to its victims in what is now laughably referred to as the the Third World. (The First and Second Worlds have vanished as expressions, only the Third remains. Perennially in terrible shape, who would have thought it would outlive its wealthier kin?)

In the 1950's Hollywood was not about to let a little thing like literary integrity stand in the way of a large scale special effects moneymaker. Especially when HUAC would have had them taking the 5th in droves if they had kept any of the political content - which of course was the whole point of the novel. In my mind's eye I can still see the doomed Martian war machine going out of control and crushing LA City Hall. It was great. I saw it at Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The 2005 remake was Hollywood's attempt to show the public both that a movie with nothing to recommend it but fabulous sound effects could still be a good movie for that reason alone, and that Tom Cruise is all face and no talent. Which, let us admit, no one had doubted anyway.

There are also the various manifestations of the UFO community. Its membership seems to coincide fairly closely with membership in the psychotropic drug community, both prescribed and unprescribed. I was once told in all seriousness by a homeless man that "Them grays is bad news. Stay away from them." Out of an abundance of caution I have taken that advice to heart and have avoided them whenever possible. I remain undevoured to this day.

There are also no end of Flying Saucer narratives many involving abductions, experiments, and probes. These seem to emanate mainly from the social class uncharitably referred to as "trailer trash'. One wonders whether the prominence of fantasies involving probes represent incompletely repressed childhood memories of anal visits by mom's thirteenth new boyfriend. These narratives were unimaginatively assembled into the movie 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'.

Even with all the raillery, the question of other intelligent races in the galaxy or beyond is a serious one.


  1. *Okay, I won't resist the temptation any longer. My favorite scene is the one where the Martian ambassador addresses Congress and, reading from prepared remarks, says "Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack". The subtitles read "Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack".

    Whereupon he pulls out a ray gun and incinerates everybody in Congress including the Republicans.

    The next scene is the liberal President, played by Jack Nicholson, making a statement that "it was all a cultural misunderstanding"

  2. Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack. Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack Ack.

  3. My favorite part was at the end when they discovered the music that would destroy them. I grew up having to listen to that music because my father liked it. It almost had the same effect on me.