The renewed fascination with extra-terrestrials says a lot about what is happening here on Earth, suggests Aidan Campbell
Aliens are everywhere, invading both Planet Hollywood (Contact, Men in Black, Mars Attacks!, Independence Day, Event Horizon, and The Fifth Element), and the TV world (X-files, Dark Skies, The Uninvited and a host of documentaries and drama-docs about the 'Roswell incident' of 1947). Some of the more perceptive commentators see it as symptomatic of a fin de siècle millenarianism taking hold of our anxious society. But why have invading aliens become a symbol of this mood?
For the past 50 years, the changing perception of aliens in popular culture has said less about what is going on in outer space than about how people feel about things down here on Earth. The top sci-fi films of the fifties, for instance, (notably Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956) were products of the Cold War climate in which America was searching for Reds under its collective bed. Today's crop of alien films and programmes reflect the different fears of our age.
A leitmotif of the new school of alien movies is the conspiratorial cover-up of the alien presence. UFO aficionados insist that both Washington and Whitehall are run by alien abductees. Whereas racists are slammed for suggesting that immigrant 'aliens' like the Jews control the US government, it is now trendy to imagine that aliens from outer space tread the corridors of power. The theme of the alien-behind-the-throne encapsulates the modern preoccupation with sleaze and skulduggery among the Great and the Good. 'Take me to your leader', requests the traditional alien. 'Trust no-one', is the advice of FBI Agents Scully and Mulder from the X-files, who are pitted against an official conspiracy to assist alien colonists.
When the Pathfinder module landed on Mars in July, there was much speculation that - as prefigured in the film Capricorn One (1978) - the whole event actually took place in the Arizona desert. The New York Times published an item from the Internet, in which 'General Rgrmrmy' of the Mars Air Force reassured Martians who had taken to speculating that life might exist on Earth: 'The object was in fact a harmless high-altitude weather balloon, not an alien spacecraft.' (The mention of a weather balloon is an ironic reference to the official US army air force explanation of what happened at Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947, where a flying saucer was said to have crashed in the desert and alien bodies were supposed to have been recovered. The CIA recently admitted that such UFO sightings were dis-information put out to cloak their spy plane programme from Soviet eyes.)
Those who are most cynical about accepting the denials of the Pentagon or the RAF that UFOs exist are also the most gullible when it comes to accepting any old rubbish as incontrovertible evidence of the alien presence. For a while the existence of crop circles around Britain was ascribed to the impression caused by aliens landing their craft in farm fields. Typically, when the all-too-human pranksters admitted their culpability, their confession was queried as a government put-up job.
In the past, aliens were always fantastic monsters or superior intelligent beings - even the famous 'little green men' arrived in amazingly hi-tech vehicles. They were all big. By contrast, today's aliens are often pictured as disappointing creatures that resemble human babies in embryo. Indeed, there seems to be very little difference left between us and visitors from outer space. As John Lithgow (alien commander Dick Solomon in the TV comedy Third Rock from the Sun), put it: 'We are all aliens now.'
If the cultural representation of aliens consistently reflects both the anxieties and aspir-ations of our society, then these reduced aliens surely represent a more diminished image of ourselves. In Contact (directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame), Jodie Foster does get to travel in an interstellar vehicle, but only to hear a Gump-alike intone an alien version of 'Life is like a box of chocolates'.
Independent film reviewer Adam Mars-Jones has noted how, while 'more and more seem to believe in extra-terrestrials', the new breed of aliens 'hardly offer us the keys to the universe' (31 July). Where once they offered humanity cures for ageing (Cocoon, 1985), they are now more likely to present us with trinkets, like European adventurers trading with primitive peoples in the past.
In Men in Black, Will Smith's character is the only one to shoot down a cardboard cut-out of an eight-year-old girl - instead of a host of alien ones - in a test to enter a training academy that will police aliens on Earth. Smith wins the position in the school when he explains that she was the 'most dangerous' because she was carrying a book on quantum physics. The subtext is clear. After exploding the atom bomb, can humanity be trusted with anything more complicated than knick-knacks from the stars?
With humanity now held in such low esteem, the alien fad seems to me to be slowly but surely shifting from their demonisation to their canonisation. The notion of the UFO as the 'Chariot of the Gods' has become an important part of the ET scene. Some even argue that aliens created humanity through genetic engineering and are now revisiting Earth to inspect the results of their 'experiment'. These arguments can now win a wider hearing than the original anorak-wearing 'trekkies', because they chime in with the diminished view of what we are capable of ourselves.
In days of yore, peasant girls had visions of the Virgin Mary at Fatima or Lourdes. Modern-day St Bernadettes like Scully are more likely to experience an alien abduction (was Princess Diana also abducted?). Just as there has been a steep decline in sightings of UFOs since the late forties, there has been an equally drastic increase in claims of alien abduction since the early sixties. The ordeal of alien abduction has been compared to the spiritual transcendence experienced by a tribal shaman, said to have been seized by the gods and whose bodies are reconstructed according to divine inspiration. Afterwards, the shaman returns to his tribe to serve as the mediator with heaven. Similarly, being implanted by aliens can entitle you to vision-ary status today.
Given the alienation that many expect to experience as the modern condition, the fact that more people look to aliens for inspiration is maybe not so surprising. In the absence of other sources of popular authority, how long before our leaders feel tempted to acquire some celestial approval of the third kind?
The infamous Roswell footage
Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997