When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I can still see that marvelous poster ticking off the kinds of encounters one can have, culminating with the third kind: Contact. And I vividly remember those simple, evocative words, “We are not alone.”
I was already what you would call a believer. I had read countless stories of UFO encounters, from Betty and Barney Hill to whatever recent trash was in the National Enquirer. I watched Project Blue Book on television, and I knew every episode of In Search Of…
So when I left the theater after seeing Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) step into that glowing city of a spacecraft and disappear into the heavens, I naturally looked up. The night sky, filled with stars, sang to me, too. I knew that out there, somewhere, intelligent beings were watching us.
The Hollywood Version
Hollywood, ever fickle to the whims of popular opinion, has given us several versions of the alien contact story.
In the 1950s, we saw aliens storming the Earth like the U.S. armed forces hitting the Normandy beaches on D-Day. This theme has never left us, and has been revisited in films like Independence Day.
Starting in the ’60s, we began to meet the kind, benevolent aliens waiting to usher us into their interstellar version of the brotherhood of man in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
The past couple of decades have brought the aggression closer to home with stories of alien abduction. Bordering on horror, films like Communion, Fire in the Sky, and The Fourth Kind suggest something sinister (or at least coldly detached and clinical) in these encounters.
And there have also been films like District 9 and Alien Nation that sought to use alien contact as a metaphor for immigration issues and the devaluation of the Other as a second-class citizen.
On television, aliens have been everything from invaders disguised as friends (as in the mini-series V) to loveable observers (Mork & Mindy). But in the 1990s, America was becoming more skeptical. In The X-Files, FBI special agent Fox Mulder tried to prove to a Scully-esque audience that UFOs weren’t just figments of our imagination. They were real.
Then, in 1997, a show called Dark Skies suggested a sinister, secret history behind UFOs. Set in the 1960s, it drew from various UFO accounts to create a rich mythology of its own: a unified conspiracy theory. The existence of UFOs and the subsequent cover-up were connected to things as diverse as the Kennedy assassination to the Northeast blackout in 1965 to Charles Manson.
Needless to say, I was instantly hooked. This show had been written for guys like me. And it turns out, it was co-written and produced by Bryce Zabel, a guy who would later ask me to be managing editor of this website. Our connection in those days of Dark Skies bonded us with a mutual interest in science fiction and UFO history.
But I don’t think any of these Hollywood scenarios has hit the truth yet.
If I had to pick one that gets closest, I’d choose Alien Nation. It asks some very hard questions about cultural identity and adaptation in the face of a new species living among us. Unlike the “Prawns” in District 9, the Newcomers in Alien Nation are very similar to us physically. They have two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. They speak as we do. They have families. They work jobs.
But there are differences too. And those differences are the catalyst for fear, anger, and resentment. They are stronger than we are. Smarter. They don’t age as fast as we do. They adapt faster than we do — making them evolutionarily superior.
What Comes After Contact?
When we discover that intelligent life from beyond — be it from the stars or the universe next door — humanity will be challenged by the realization that we are no longer the best and the brightest. We will discover others who are, at the very least, our equals. Likely, they will be more advanced.
And how will we cope with this radical shift in their understanding of the universe? In A.D. After Disclosure: A People’s Guide to Life After Contact, Richard Dolan and Bryce Zabel look at some very real possibilities.
First of all, things will change. We will learn about their culture, as they learn about ours. We will be changed forever. I would like to think that it would be for the better. But some will undoubtedly point to the European corruption of Native American culture and warn us of a similar fate.
On that day, we will decide how to react. My guess — some will react negatively. Others will pause in contemplation. Still others will look for guidance.
Gaining a new mindset will be difficult for some. There will be those who will avoid anything to do with the visitors. I firmly believe it will create a new form of bigotry, an “Earth is for Earthlings” kind of movement. We will see new hate crimes, new intolerance, and new language to dehumanize those from elsewhere. (Remember Alien Nation, where Newcomers were called “Slags”?) Unfortunately, this is something we’re very good at doing.
But in the end, assuming that these beings from elsewhere are not invaders, we will eventually adapt to their presence. New ways of thinking will arise, in art, culture, politics, religion, and science.
After a generation or two, old fears will pass away. Those who refused to accept our brave, new world will slowly fade from history.
Our children’s children will be born into a world where we were never alone. And we will discover our place in the universe.