The Aliens Would Win

SETI astronomer and film consultant Seth Shostak weighs in on why correctly depicting alien life wouldn’t work in films

2 min read
Photo of Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the SETI Institute.

Alien invasion is alive and well in Hollywood this season, given Men in Black III, Battleship, which are already in theaters, and Prometheus, which opens 8 June in the U.S. And despite the presence of scientist consultants on most science fiction films, it’ll be years before aliens are portrayed the way the professionals regard them.

Cue Seth Shostak, senior astronomer with the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. When he’s not sussing out the possibility alien life for real, he serves as science consultant for films like Contact, Green Lantern, and Battleship, and will appear at the upcoming SETICon, where science meets sci-fi, in Santa Clara, Calif., 22-24 June.

“The idea is to expose the creative community to more interesting science ideas,” he says. “But Hollywood is in the storytelling business, not the science education business. A lot of kids get interested in science, because of sci-fi films. I did. What grabbed me was the romance of the idea, not whether the science was correct.”

Here, Shostak offers five points about aliens that don't cut it in Hollywood:

1. Your great-great-grandma was probably not from outer space.

“I get emails every week saying that Homo sapiens are the result of alien intervention. I’m not sure why aliens would be interested in producing us.  I think people like to think we’re special. But isn’t that what got Galileo and Copernicus into trouble - questioning how special we were? But if we’re just another duck in the road, it’s not very exciting.”

2. If aliens come, we’re probably toast.

“Whoever takes the trouble to come visit us is probably a more aggressive personality. And if they have the technology to come here, the idea that we can take them on is like Napoleon taking on U.S. Air Force. We’re not going to be able to defend ourselves very well. But if I wanted that to be correct, it would be a very short movie.”

3. They won’t catch our colds.

“Alien life forms wouldn’t come here only to be done in by our bacteria, unless they were related biochemically to humans. Bacteria would have to be able to interact with their biochemistry to be dangerous, and their ability to do that is far from a sure thing.”

4. Aliens don’t look like Screen Actors Guild members.

“Thanks to computer animation, we now have more variety of aliens in films, but they’re still soft and squishy—and big on mucus. Chances are, the first invaders will be some sort of artificially intelligent machinery. But in films, even machinery needs to look like biology, otherwise actors would be talking to a box.”

5. Nobody’s getting lucky.

“The idea that they’ve come for breeding purposes is more akin to wishful thinking by members of the audience who don’t have good social lives. Think about how well we breed with other species on Earth, and they have DNA. It would be like trying to breed with an oak tree.”

This article was updated 7 June, 2012.

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