Aliens that look either exactly like humans or like adorable humanoid stuffed animals; mankind foolishly squandering what could have been the key to curing all disease and suffering; enormous arrays of multicolored lights; someone achieving weightlessness while looking wondrously awed; someone touching an alien for the first time while looking wondrously awed; long shots of people looking up at the night sky; an important lesson about the mistrusting and primitive nature of the human spirit.
Alien invaders don't always want to kill us, but when they don't, we usually prove why they should. It all started with the 1951 classic The Day The Earth Stood Still, when an alien named Klaatu and his robot friend Gort came to Earth to save us all from ourselves. They were shot within 10 seconds of landing, imprisoned, escaped, got turned in by a filthy human for the reward, then got shot again ... to death.
But, it's even worse than that: Klaatu wasn't any ordinary interplanetary goodwill ambassador. If you put the pieces of the puzzle together-a mysterious visitor from the heavens, suffering for our transgressions, gets turned in by someone he trusts and is ultimately sacrificed-it becomes fairly clear that we killed Jesus. Again! Way to go, humanity. Real classy.
In humanity's defense, we did treat the Close Encounters of the Third Kind aliens a little better. Though if that film had run another 30 minutes, maybe we'd have seen CIA interrogators hooking electrodes to the aliens' genitals and demanding to know what their ships use for fuel and how we can get our hands on it.
Contact, Stranger in a Strange Land, 2001: A Space Odyssey (or at least the third hour, with, you know, the aliens).
Why it Will Never Happen:
It's an irrefutable scientific fact that a species cannot evolve to dominate its planet unless it is made up of merciless killing machines. Any civilization with access to the resources necessary to reach us, has, by definition, gained that access by slaughtering its biological competitors. If they turn up here tomorrow, it's only because they've found out, say, that our ground-up spleens are an afrodisiac for their women.
Robots who have gained consciousness and are therefore instantly intent on killing all humans; some uncertainty as to who is a robot and who is a human; casual death threats made in calm, emotionless robo-inflection; claims that humanity is either "imperfect" or "a scourge that must be cleansed;" those wicked glowing laser eyes; hands that are also guns; hacking into mainframes; the powering down of a core, destruction of a power cell or other euphemism for the removal of batteries.
Long ago, a gentle man named Isaac Asimov penned some of the first and most well-conceived stories about human-like robots. Endowed with restraint and tact, they were absolutely forbidden from harming humans, or even allowing a human to come to harm. They were the ultimate tools and friends to mankind. Of Mr. Asimov's works, two films have been made: one of them saw Robin Williams prancing around in a rubber suit for 200 years while reenacting Pinocchio, the other saw Will Smith rocking his converse against an army of kill-o-bots.
And while I, Robot is slightly more entertaining than Bicentennial Man insofar as it is roughly four hours shorter, both are an affront to the grandmaster of robotics and both make us wonder if indeed some script-writing robot could have done better.
2001: A Space Odyssey (the second hour, with HAL), Battlestar Galactica, The Terminator, Screamers, The Matrix
Why it Will Never Happen:
There's almost a kind of hopeless optimism hidden here. Besides the whole uprising thing, it still implies that mankind was able to, with hardware and software, create a race of beings that are actually way better than humanity. Think about that the next time Windows Vista stops and asks you if it has permission to run a program you just freaking told it to run 4 seconds ago.
Long stretches of trackless desert; a dearth of liquids, usually gas or water, that are contested by violence; slick references to the time period in which the movie/book came out, so as to assure the audience that this could happen to them; inexcusably clean and unscarred people fighting hideously mutated radioactive nightmares; Christian symbolism; inexplicably plentiful and working weapons; Kevin Costner; societies ruled by the guy who can bench the most.
Before the 1900s, "post-apocalypse" generally referred to the time when God's chosen would ascend to heaven to play pickup basketball and toss back Courvoisier. But ever since a fateful summer in 1980, post-apocalypse has meant Mel Gibson tearing through the outback pursued by homicidal and vaguely homoerotic biker gangs.
For 20 years, Mad Max held the record for the highest profit-to-cost ratio of any film, a testament to the fact that there doesn't have to be a lot of expensive stuff in a movie as long as someone is beating the crap out of someone else, preferably while moving at high speeds. Therefore an entire generation's vision of the future has been shaped by Hollywood's discovery that filming in deserts and abandoned factories is a great way to keep production costs down.
The Stand, The Omega Man, Tank Girl, Planet of the Apes, A Boy and His Dog, The Road, the Fallout series of games.
Why it Will Never Happen:
We make no guarantees about the "nuclear war" part of the scenario. But the pale, paranoid sorts who stockpile food, batteries and gasoline in their basement are the same people who women swear they wouldn't have sex with if they were the last men on the face of the earth. Extinction would soon follow.
An intergalactic "Order," "Federation," "Empire," "House" or "Alliance;" stars whizzing past through a giant glass viewplate while passengers look prosaically on; an appropriately vague method of propulsion such as a crystal, dark matter or hyperdrive; references to spaceships like "aft" or "prow," so as to draw a parallel to nautical exploration; references to "the frontier" or "unsettled lands," so as to draw a parallel to U.S. western expansion; a single language spoken by all sentient beings in the known universe.
When and if man ever breaches the womb of our solar system and is born in earnest as an interstellar being, only one thing will be certain: It will be exactly like sailing. That, or the old West. Ever since Kirk set course by the stars and made way for the final frontier, the space opera's core concepts have been those of the sea: long voyages, a tight-knit crew and the unspoken threat of scurvy.
Universes like those in Dune and Farscape detailed the thousands of races, worlds and cultures all fighting for their existence in the bustling frontier-town of the Milky Way. It's enough to make a merchandiser wet his pants and an Internet message board light up with pointless yet thorough discussion.
Star Trek (when they're flying around), Serenity/Firefly, Stargate: SG-1, Futurama, Dune, Babylon 5
Why It Will Never Happen:
It turns out the universe is mostly frigid, empty space and some rocks. If there are other intelligent life forms out there, they're far more likely to look like quivering mile-wide clumps of algae than British actors with rubber prosthetics glued to their foreheads.
It doesn't help that the only organization claiming to speak for all humans here on Earth can't get a Harrier jet to Prague, let alone a rocket to Proxima Centauri. Plus, it's scientifically impossible for there to ever be a real human being with the grace, good looks and balls of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard.
Michael Swaim writes and performs for the web-based sketch troupe, Those Aren't Muskets!.
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