The evolution of the benevolent alien

With a remake of the classic film <i>The Day the Earth Stood Still</i> coming next month, it's time to examine whether depictions of extraterrestrials reflect our hopes, our fears or both.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
A scene from the forthcoming remake of 'The Day the Earth Stood Still,' starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu. The remake portrays Klaatu as less benevolent than in the original, 1951 film. Twentieth-Century Fox

In its bid for our ticket-buying dollars, Hollywood has long sought to reach into our pockets by giving us films that appeal to our current sense of hopefulness or fearfulness.

Over the years, one of the most reliable mechanisms for doing that has been the alien, the evil, destructive invaders hell-bent on laying waste to everything we hold dear (The War of the Worlds, say) or the inquisitive visitors curious to make our acquaintance and see what they can learn from us and our experience (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, maybe).

And to many, the extent to which these film aliens have been friend or foe has had a great deal to do with our general emotional state of mind.

"I think that it goes in waves," said Yair Landau, the former president of Sony Pictures Digital. "There was a wave of benign aliens around E.T. and Starman...Then there was a wave of, 'They're out to destroy us' aliens, like in Indepdence Day and the remake of War of the Worlds. It depends on whether we're looking for fear or reassurance as a society."

In 1951, Twentieth-Century Fox released director Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still. In that Cold War-era film, we meet an alien, Klaatu, who has come to express, in the most soothing terms possible, that if we proceed with our nuclear weapons proliferation and are seen by the galactic consortium Klaatu represents as presenting a threat beyond our own atmosphere, we will be destroyed.

Even as he delivers this mortal threat, Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, comes across as sympathetic, even benevolent, as he really, really wants to give us humans some say in what happens to us. He seems really to care, as expressed by his budding friendship (would it have become romance?) with Helen Benson, played by Patricia Neal, and the urgency with which he strives to deliver--even in the face of a belligerent U.S. military--his message that we have some say in our fate.

Next month, Twentieth-Century Fox will release a remake of the film, this time directed by Scott Derrickson and starring Keanu Reeves as Klaatu.

This time around, Klaatu is here to tell us that the galactic consortium has had it with humans' mistreatment of our own planet, and he has come to explain that, effectively, his colleagues have taken the side of the Earth over the humans. Large-scale explosions and destruction ensue.

Why would these beings from outer space care so much about the health of the third rock from the sun? That's not entirely clear, said Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute who worked for a time as a scientific adviser on the film.

"The (aliens) come down...trying to save the planet, but saving the planet requires them to obliterate the problem threatening the planet," Shostak said, "and in this case, that's not just SUVs and coal-fired plants."

In the 57 years between versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still, aliens covered a lot of evolutionary ground, so to speak, in how they've been portrayed. Some of that ground has had to do with the world's emotional makeup and some has had to do with what has been possible from a technological perspective.

For example, the look and feel of the aliens in a film like the remake of The War of the Worlds have almost nothing in common with those of the original. What originally had to be built using crude models and special effects is now done to exacting detail with computer graphics. And these advances put a lot of pressure on filmmakers today to keep the audience's attention with a story while those in the old days could do so much more with the novelty of on-screen aliens, no matter how rudimentary they looked.

"Anything you can conceive of can be (computer generated)," said Landau. "Just blowing stuff up, or just having an alien creature itself, is not very compelling...We're (now) able to give aliens a much higher complexity, so you can imbue them with character...Now you can make us believe almost any physical destruction you can think of and you can make us believe in any sort of 3D CGI environment. So it's all about whether you can drive compelling story and performance."

Our friends the aliens
Further, as Landau put it, the story has to fill in gaps left by the fact that people view aliens--who have long stood in for foreigners, or the "other"--as less threatening. And while that presents writing challenges to filmmakers, it also opens doors to a whole new era of stories in which aliens can more easily be presumed to be friendlier than in the past.

An example of that might be Contact, the 1997 Robert Zemeckis film in which Jodie Foster plays a scientist scanning the skies for intelligent life. Upon discovering a far-away civilization, Foster interprets messages sent to us as instructions on building a monumental transporter that will allow us to travel to the aliens' distant world. And while the film gives a nod to the inevitable military suspicions of the aliens' motives, it is the optimistic view that carries the day.

"Aliens in fiction are exaggerations of our hopes and fears about ourselves," said Mike Kuniavsky, a co-founder of the ubiquitous computing device company ThingM. "If they were genuinely alien, they wouldn't be particularly interesting because we wouldn't be able to understand them."

To Allan Lundell, a co-founder of the DigiBarn computer museum and a former editor of Byte magazine, the question of how aliens are depicted has very much to do with the financial considerations involved in how people's fears and hopes resonate at any given moment in time.

"Arnold Schwarzenegger was popular as a good Terminator, keeping us safe from the evil sentient machines and the ever-present Skynet," Lundell said. "But soon, he will be facing serious competition from a new hero, Ramona, a sentient cybernetic being hatched from the inventive mind of Ray Kurzweil, in his upcoming feature release, The Singularity is Near. Much cuter than Arnie, she saves the world from a nano grey goo attack while showing us what love beyond biology is all about."

Steven Spielberg's 'E.T.' is a case of a film in which the alien is unequivocally benevolent. Its tone, therefore, was hopeful. Universal Pictures

The question here, Lundell poses, is whether an artificial intelligence construct can be considered an alien. Given that the term "alien" in this context is generally assumed to be a creature from another world, that's open to debate. But his point is a good one, as Ramona, as Lundell described her, is certainly the other.

Yet even as cybernetic others will be increasingly making their way onto the silver screen, it's almost certain that malevolent aliens of a traditional kind will also be making regular appearances, despite the fact that we, as a people, are becoming more and more comfortable around those with whom we aren't familiar.

And why?

"Aliens have a bigger role today as bad guys in film," Shostak, of the SETI Institute, said, "because once the Soviet Union collapses, who are you going to make as bad guys? You can make certain (nationalities be) bad guys, but it's a little hard because everybody's so culturally sensitive. And aliens don't have any advocacy organizations that are going to protest (outside) your theater if you make them the bad guy."

Today, it seems, Hollywood has decided to apply that approach even to well-worn stories like The Day the Earth Stood Still.

For where the Klaatu of 1951 adopted a concerned facial expression as he explained to humanity that he wanted to save us, Reeves' 2008 Klaatu seems content to dispense with us as the only way to save our planet.

And while there might be some truth to that conclusion, it's not very benevolent, at least from the humans' perspective.

Perhaps, suggested Lundell, that's because we haven't been in a very optimistic mood the last few years, an idea backed up by opinion polls showing that vast majorities of Americans, at least, think things have been going very badly. But if things begin to look up, then perhaps the benevolent alien will return in force.

"From my perspective," Lundell said, "ultimately the greatest revelation about aliens is that 'they' are 'us.' It's just that some of us don't quite know that just yet."