After watching District 9 last week, I was struck by the allegorical nature of aliens in pop culture. After this realization, I thought of all the “alien” films I’ve seen over the past few decades and began to wonder if each of these movies were actually existential explorations of human issues that need philosophical or theological resolution. Thus, I decided to take a week to look at limited selections of concepts and ideas that aliens can represent in film and literature. What follows is a collection of those ideas…
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Day One: Is There Anybody Out There?
Even before the telescope recast our planet as merely one of many specks of dust flying around in a vast universe of worlds, earth’s thinkers and religious leaders have speculated that there may be life on other planets. But since the moment when geocentricity was dislodged and a more accurate picture of the universe took its place, theories regarding life on other planets have been increasingly common in science, philosophy, religion, and pop culture.
So this week, I specifically want to look at some of these pop culture references to see if there are any philosophical ideas being expressed though the use of extraterrestrial life forms.
One of the earliest stories to include extraterrestrials is a 10th century Japanese Folk Tale called “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” In it, a girl from the moon brings wealth to a family who shelters her. Through a series of misadventures, the Emperor of Japan falls in love with her, but is rejected over and over again. And when the girl’s people return for her from them moon and she leaves an immortality elixir behind, the Emperor refuses to drink it; for life without his love- the girl from the moon- would be worthless to him. Instead, he has his guards set the elixir on fire at the top of Mt. Fuji, thus giving Fuji a name (Fuji means immortality) and also providing an origin story for why Fuji, smokes from time to time.
But whether we’re talking about a fairy tales, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds or films like District 9, ET, and The Day The Earth Stood Still, each of these pop culture references asks the question “…is there anybody out there?”
I think we want to know the answer for a couple of reasons:
1. Our Own Sense of Self Importance
Are we the only ones like us? Given the fact that our universe is as big as it appears to be, it seems unlikely that we’d be the only planet where life abounds. But as we look into the heavens, there’s a tendency to feel both small and huge at the same time.
We see the vast array of planets and star systems and we feel small in the wake of the enormous amounts of stuff out there. How could anything we do or anything we say amount to significance when faced with the reality of our size in comparison with the rest of creation.
At the same time, however the fact that we seem to be the only planet and species that’s capable of interplanetary communication and travel beyond the confines of our own atmosphere leads us toward a sense of pride. It we are truly the top dogs in a universe of fungi and bacterium, then our problems are the most important and significant. Our seemingly insignificant debates about where to eat or what to do with our lives are the pivotal decisions of the universe if we are truly the only highly intelligent beings in the Universe.
2. Our Own Choices as a Species
In The Day The Earth Stood Still, alien invaders come to earth as emissaries from the rest of the galaxy to assess whether or not humans should be allowed to interact with the rest of the universe or be quarantined off into our own solar system.
The reason? Our planet cannot escape warring with each other and the universe wants to protect themselves from our violence and our inherent selfishness.
If others exist- aliens in this case can be representational of other human beings- it follows that my actions cannot proceed purely from an individual perspective. When something or someone other than me is affected by my decisions, I must take this into consideration when I act.
I cannot act as though I am the center of the universe when I am not, in fact, the center of the universe. The Church had a hard time letting go of their own geocentric paradigm during the decades surrounding the Inquisition. Many scientists paid the price through exile, excommunication, and even death.
Aliens often represent the fact that something or someone “other” than us needs to be taken into consideration when we are making decisions.
3. Our Own Loneliness
Probably the most obvious, but understated metaphor that aliens represent, is an answer to our own loneliness. Loneliness is one of the sentiments that all of us share- we live in the reality that we were made for relationship and we hurt deeply when we are cut off from other people.
So taken on a macro-level, is it any wonder that humanity longs for companionship just as individuals do?
Perhaps extraterrestrial creatures represent nothing more than an attempt to reach out to the world around us and know that we’re not alone. We want someone else there along with us so that we can fill the void of emptiness with something meaningful. Even when that something turns out to be terrible- every alien invasion film ever written- it could be argued these references are still an attempt to engage with something or someone beyond ourselves.
In addition to the questions you mention, I'm intruiged by the theological repurcussions. The Vatican recently announced that existence of extra terrestrials would pose no major challenges to belief. While that might be true, there's certainly some important questions to be answered, such as:
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Nathan Key likes to think about faith and philosophy and talk about it with others. He lives with his family in New Hampshire. He doesn't always refer to himself in the third person.