Monday, 18 January 2016

The Consequences of First Contact

In Steven Spielberg's 1977 science fiction movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we see an ordinary man, Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), whose "close encounter" with an alien spacecraft changes his life forever. It is seemingly by total chance that he encounters the craft when he does. Once it has happened, he becomes alienated from his wife, Ronnie, and determined to seek answers, yet when he finds them, it only opens a greater mystery. Who are these aliens? Where did they come from? All we can tell is that they seem to be benevolent, and have apparently made it their custom to take specific people on interstellar voyages, though even that brings up a few more questions, such as how they decide who gets to go. Is there a logical process or do they just choose people at random?

Roy's story represents a much broader idea that has long intrigued writers of science fiction: the question of whether, if we were to make contact, we could truly understand an alien race. It's a perplexing question that has been entertained by numerous writers. Arthur C. Clarke explored this idea in his novel Rendezvous With Rama, in which an alien spaceship of unknown origin enters the Sun's orbit. The expedition into the spaceship, which drives the story, leads to a variety of different theories about who constructed it, what its purpose was, and what happened to the original owners, none of which are ever confirmed or denied.

On film, however, Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains one of the earliest movies to keep the aliens enigmatic. This was not a common trend in 1950's science fiction movies, many of which tried to explain the aliens. The Thing From Another World alludes to these questions with the titular creature, but ultimately it is decided that information on how to kill the Thing is more important. In Forbidden Planet, some mystery is preserved in that the aliens are never seen, but the viewer is still given their history in great detail. Of course, this history ends up mainly being important because it finally explains the nature of the film's antagonist and provides incentive for destroying the city.

Even in The Day The Earth Stood Still, one of the few non-invasion science fiction films of the period, refrains from keeping anything ambiguous. Klaatu does not explicitly name where he is from, but he makes his goals and intentions perfectly clear. He interacts with humans openly, offers valuable information and technology, and in the end makes an entire speech in which he clearly states that he wants the Cold War to stop. One could argue that Gort is a more mysterious character, though he appears to be merely a robot programmed to follow orders.

The film that changed this was undoubtedly Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. When making this classic science fiction film, Kubrick struggled with how to depict the aliens. In the final product, they remain unseen. Only their presence is felt. The novelization provides some insight into their evolutionary past, but beyond that says little more. The only possible appearance they make is in the final act, when Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) finds himself in a strange hotel room. Throughout this sequence, strange voices can be heard, possibly from the aliens (this interpretation is supported by the book, which suggests that Dave has been put into a sort of extra-terrestrial zoo). Still, much like everything else in the film, nothing is known. The only visual representation of their presence is the Monolith, which itself is never definitively explained even in the sequel film 2010: The Year We Make Contact.

Spielberg popularized this idea with Close Encounters of the Third Kind by bringing it into the mainstream and making it more easily accessible. Unlike Kubrick's more abstract film, which leaves much of the story to interpretation, Spielberg produced his take on this material in a more linear and straight forward fashion. The only truly subjective parts of the narrative are in the aliens themselves, while the overall narrative is still reasonably coherent. However, doing so is not without its purposes. By making the story more linear, while keeping the aliens themselves ambiguous, Spielberg is able to explore the consequences of their arrival in more detail.

Another important detail to this narrative is the impact that comes from the aliens' arrival. Whether it is ultimately positive (The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters of the Third KindStarmanThe Abyss) or negative (Forbidden Planet, The Thing, Battle: Los Angeles, Edge of Tomorrow), the world is drastically changed by making contact. This can occur on an small scale with a focus on indvididuals, such as Jenny Hayden becoming a mother or Elliot bringing his estranged family together. In other cases, it can involve a much larger situation, from major political consequences to either the destruction or evolution of humanity as a whole.

This aspect is only alluded to in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) visits the site of the Monolith's discovery, he tells the astronauts that absolute secrecy must be maintained until the government can determine the best way of revealing it to the public. This however, remains the extent of such discussion, with the rest of the film focusing more on the mystery of the aliens and the technological progress of the future. Spielberg is more character-minded in his film, putting a heavy emphasis on how the two central characters are affected by their "close encounters" with the aliens.

Though it is indicated that there were others with similar experiences, the focus is placed on two specific characters. Roy is the first person in the film to experience a "close encounter" by total chance. He sees what appears to be a spacecraft flying over him while he is driving to work. Roy becomes increasingly alienated from his family. He struggles to maintain his old life, but this becomes impossible to balance with his desire to understand what he saw. He does make a genuine attempt to forget about the extraterrestrial presence, but ultimately there is no ignoring the constant images that go through his head of a strange triangular shape he constantly feels the urge to construct.

Meanwhile, Jillian Guiler (Melinda Dillon), watches her only son get taken by the same aliens. Her motivation subsequently becomes very much the opposite of Roy's. She sees that her son has been affected by the aliens in some way, apparently being compelled to go with them. After he is taken, Julian becomes determined to find him. Like Roy, she also becomes obsessed with the strange triangular shape, which she begins compulsively drawing. It is now clear that, like Roy, she has been affected by her own close encounter, and determined to find her own answers.

Both subsequently find their life changed as a result. The mysterious shape eventually turns out to be an important clue, as well as a map. It is in fact a mountain, and more specifically it indicates precisely where the spaceship is going to land at the end of the film. Julian and Roy are the only civilians to make it to the landing site and witness the arrival of the aliens. Here their lives diverge, as they both react differently to this final encounter. Roy moves closer to the spaceship, and ultimately is taken with the aliens, presumably on an interstellar voyage. Jillian prefers to watch from a distance, and after finding her son, stays home to resume her old life. However, while perhaps not as drastically, Julian's future will presumably be affected by everything she has been through, as is evidenced by her taking pictures of the spaceship. She may continue to live a somewhat normal life, but she will never truly leave her experiences behind.

The theme of the aliens' subjectivity also returns in this final sequence, and it is shown in large part through the American government's interference. "Close Encounters" appear to be happening around the world, including one such incident happening in India, yet the American Government tries to take full control. They keep the visitation secret, covering up the entire event by staging a non-existent train accident and using intimidation to bully civilians into staying away. The few people who do make it past the roadblocks simply end up being "evacuated" even after the scientist Lacombe (Fran├žois Truffaut) pleads for them to be permitted entry. While the aliens ultimately land in the heavily-guarded airfield, they ultimately choose to take Roy with them, rather than any of the government-sponsored candidates. This is a small detail, but it serves a simple message: the aliens do not recognize human boundaries.

Contact, based on a book by Carl Sagan, presents a large-scale version of the events depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The "close encounter" is replaced by an extra-terrestrial signal, though there is a slight parallel in the way it is structured. In this case, it is based on mathematics, which Dr. Ellie Arroway (Jodie Foster) identifies as "the only truly universal language." This is obviously meant to be a way of figuring out how to communicate despite an obvious language barrier, not unlike the use of lights and music depicted in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Like Spielberg's film, Contact also emphasizes the way the characters are affected by their experiences. Ellie is changed as a person over the course of the story. She remains a scientifically-minded astronomer but also finds herself enlightened when she gets a chance to meet an extra-terrestrial. Like Close Encounters of The Third Kind, the nature of the aliens is ambiguous, and she is ultimately left with nothing more than her word to share with her skeptical peers. Still, this encounter has presented her with a newfound determination, though it has also changed the world around her.

But these ideas can in fact go both ways. It is not only through the perspectives of humanity that an extra-terrestrial can appear truly alien, and it is not always humanity alone that is changed. It can also happen through the eyes of the aliens themselves, and they too can be affected by their encounters with humanity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Jonathan Glazer's 2014 drama Under the Skin. This particular film offers a subjective narrative centered around an unnamed alien visitor (Scarlett Johansson), who arrives in Scotland and tries to blend in with humanity. This leads to a strange paradox: she is depicted as an alien being, yet she is also the most human character in the film.

To achieve this affect, Glazer takes steps to align the viewer with his unnamed protagonist. He makes her a relatable character while also drawing attention to her discomfort and her uncertainty. Little details often serve to remind the viewer that they are merely looking at a mask, such as the awkward smiles she gives passing travelers. She performs small actions that draw attention to her lack of understanding of human emotions, such as her inability to enjoy comedy or going to a restaurant and ordering cake as a main course (an act which ends with her getting sick).

Much like how Roy, Jillian, or Ellie are affected by their experiences in confronting aliens, the mysterious tragic heroine of Under the Skin is also changed by her time spent among humans. Whereas Roy went off with the aliens, the protagonist here instead finds herself trying to live among humanity. She eventually finds herself changing to the point where she wants to become human herself, even trying to have a relationship. Unfortunately, she remains an outsider, unable to fully comprehend the people around her the same way the viewer cannot fully understand her alien mind.

This ambiguity has proven over time to be an effective way of depicting aliens. It logically makes sense that a species from another planet would be drastically different from humanity, and that first contact would not be without its consequences. This in turn leads back to that very simple question: is it possible to understand something that is truly alien? The answer has long been debated, and likely will continue to be discussed at length until such a time when and if contact is ever made. Nonetheless, it is interesting to look at how this subject has influenced so many filmmakers to explore it in drastically different ways.

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