Mike Wall argues in Scientific American that alien movies might be back because we’re at a moment when scientific discoveries make the prospect of extraterrestrial life more plausible:
Just 20 years ago, scientists had yet to find a single planet beyond our own solar system. Now the count of confirmed extrasolar planets tops 550, with many more about to be added to the list. In February, for example, scientists announced that NASA’s Kepler space telescope had detected 1,235 candidate alien worlds in its first four months of operation. Of those, 54 likely orbit in their host stars’ habitable zone — the range of distances that could support liquid water. These candidate planets need to be confirmed by follow-up observations, but NASA researchers have estimated that at least 80 percent will end up being the real deal. And last year, astronomers reported strong evidence that the Saturn moon Enceladus likely harbors a huge and salty ocean beneath its icy crust. Subsurface oceans are also suspected to occur on other moons, such as Saturn’s Titan and Europa, a satellite of Jupiter. In short, the prospect that life exists beyond Earth — and perhaps even beyond our solar system — is becoming more and more likely. This is big news that affects the way many people view our species and its place in the universe.
All of that is true, though I’m not sure how much it penetrates the public consciousness. Our public space program is a policy afterthought, our anxieties about the math and science performance of American students in comparison to their foreign counterparts are more about winning the future on this planet than about building it on another one. If terrorism is our great foreign policy fear, that lends itself less to grand invasion metaphors and more to stealthy, unnerving small invasions and quick strikes. I wonder instead if some of the rise in alien movies comes from a sense of unease about what it means to be human.
One of the few interesting things about Cowboys and Aliens was the prospect, before it became clear how Daniel Craig acquired his nifty, alien-killing bracelet, that in captivity he’d become something other than entirely human, that he was standing between two species and two worlds but part of neither. Whether it’s Jason Silva calling for humanity to embrace the grandness of its ambitions and its potential; SyFy shows like Eureka and Alphas that suggest that rather than dividing us into binary categories of men and superman we’re all somewhere on a continuum; or the increasing integration of technology into our lives, affecting the way we live and think, increasingly, the aliens are us.
I should note that of course Zack is right that alien invasion movies are mostly about giving us an enemy who isn’t the Russians or the Chinese to fight, and that makes us feel like we’re not the big bad invaders that we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. That said, if alien movies are about scientific anxiety, which I think is part of the equation, I think the anxiety’s more about the meaning of humanness than it is about the idea that we’re about to make first contact.