Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Our place in the universe

In the course of writing Alien Visitors I spent a lot of time with Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren’s landmark book on 1950s SF movies. One observation Warren makes is that even when the aliens come in peace, the tone of many films is that we’d be better off if they stayed away.

It Came From Outer Space (1953) has friendly, though wary aliens land on Earth to repair their craft. At the end, as they blast off, Richard Carlson’s astronomer protagonist says it’s a good thing: we’re simply not ready to meet aliens. Klaatu in 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still makes it clear we’re too barbaric and primitive to be allowed among the stars: either we get our shit together or we’ll be annihilated.

Even films that aren’t that hostile often rub in how inconsequential we are in the grand scheme of things. Compared to aliens who can cross light years to reach Earth, our vaunted tech is no more than a savage chipping at flints. In Jerry Lewis’ Visit to a Small Planet (1960) his character’s teacher scolds Lewis for spending so much time on a backwards world like Earth. In 2002’s Lilo and Stitch the galactic union protects Earth but only because we’re a wildlife sanctuary for Earth’s most valuable species, mosquitos.

Other films assert that primitives though we may be, we’re still something special. As the Starman (1984), Jeff Bridges can work miracles, but he envies our species’ music, cooking and sex. In Eternals, Ajak (Salma Hayek) says that despite participating in the destruction of hundreds of worlds, our species is so special she wants to spare us.

The Space Children (1958) doesn’t say we’re special, but it could be inferred. The story involves an alien brain working with human children to avert a nuclear apocalypse. Doesn’t the fact a creature so much wiser and more powerful than we are wants to save us imply we’re exceptional?

Then again, there’s no suggestion the brain wants to stick around or open an embassy for Earth/Brainworld diplomatic relations. Like It Came From Outer Space, it might be inferred we have potential, but we’re not yet ready to achieve it.

Warren cites the difference between Raymond F. Jones’ novel This Island Earth and the film version as a good example of how movies assumed Earth wasn’t ready for prime time. The 1952 novel (which I’m about to spoil, so be warned) opens with radio engineer Cal Meachum discovering a vendor has shipped some strange, glasslike beads instead of the condensers Cal ordered. When Cal tests them, though, it turns out the beads are condensers (a kind of capacitor), but more effective than anything on the market. The vendor, for their part, denies sending them. Cal and his sidekick Joe get a catalog that offers even more amazing products, including the components for building something called an interocitor.

Cal succumbs to temptation, orders the components and after a lot of trial and error, puts the interocitor together. It turns out to be a videophone of sorts that connects Cal to a group calling themselves the Peace Engineers. They offer him a job — putting the device together was the job application — and Cal, intrigued, agrees.

When he arrives, he learns the Peace Engineers are scientists and engineers dedicated to seeing their creations and discoveries used peacefully, rather than militarized. One of them tells Cal that without their work, WW I would have gone nuclear; WW II would have been the apocalypse. Cal, having lived through WW II and now the Korean War, loves their mission but he can’t help feeling there’s more going on.

There is, of course. It turns out the Peace Engineers are just a front for the Llanna, an alien alliance fighting a losing war against the malevolent Guarra. The Llanna’s resources are strained to the point they can’t manufacture interocitors fast enough (it’s a powerful psi-weapon as well as a communicator), so they’ve outsourced it to Earth. One of the aliens compares it to WW II: if you need land cleared and a base built on some Pacific island, you hire the natives. You don’t explain the geopolitics or the ethics of the war, you simply pay them to help you.

This goes pear-shaped when the Guarra realize Earth’s value to their enemies. Our world is now in the Guarra’s gunsights and Llanna compute projections show there’s no point to protecting us — we’re toast. Cal convinces the Llanna that’s why they’ve been losing: the Guarra have their own computer projections but they periodically ignore them, acting at random to blindside the Llanna. They assume the Llanna will do the logical thing and let Earth die so they won’t be prepared if the Llanna fight instead. The Llanna agree; Earth has a chance after all.

Heading home, Cal reflects that even if most of Earth has no knowledge of the Llanna, they’re now tied together. The progress of the war will inevitably affect us so it’s good he, an Earthman, got to weigh in on the outcome. Connecting our island to the vastness of space is a win: “Like it or not, Earth was a member of the community of worlds.”

The movie version is different from the start: Cal (Rex Reason) is a Tony Stark like techtrepreneur, lionized by the press. There’s no Peace Engineers, simply Exeter (Jeff Morrow), the alien front man for what turns out to be the planet of Metaluna. Where the aliens in the novel can pass for human, the Metalunans have huge heads that scream Not Our Kind but nobody notices. In Jones’ book, Cal falls for Ruth, a psychiatrist helping the Peace Engineers manage their workforce; in the film, Ruth (Faith Domergue) is an old girlfriend who pretends she’s never met Cal. Why the subterfuge? As Ruth and Steve (Russell Johnson) explain, Exeter monitors everyone constantly; people who ask too many questions change personalities overnight, becoming docile.

After Steve gets a mind makeover, Cal and Ruth make a break for it in Cal’s plane. A flying saucer appears above them and a tractor beam draws them up into Exeter’s ship. As in the novel, they’ve been working to build weapons for aliens. Unlike the novel, the aliens are not good guys: if they lose their planet, Metaluna, they intend to take Earth as a consolation prize. Instead, Metaluna falls before its people can relocate and a dying Exeter redeems himself by taking the humans home. As Warren says, the subtext is the opposite of Jones’ book. It’s good that we’re living on an isolated island. Space is scary, full of wars and unfriendly aliens who’ll exploit us. Better we stay home.

This is not an isolated example. One character in 2012’s Battleship complains scientists should never be sending messages out into space: don’t they know any civilization advanced enough to respond and visit us will just treat us the way America treated the Native Americans? The dismal 2008 Day the Earth Stood Still comes to the same conclusion. In other movies, even going into space is dangerous. The Andromeda Strain (2001) and Monsters (2010) are among a number of films that imagine monstrous xeno-things hitching a ride back, and then where will we be? Forget about space. Staying on our own little world and keeping Terra for the Terrans is so much wiser.

Working on this book makes me appreciate the optimism of Star Trek — there is a place in space for us, we can join other worlds in friendship — all the more.

#SFWApro. This was another reworked column from my own blog.


  1. I know This Island Earth because it’s the movie they watch in MST3K The Movie. Never knew it was a book first. One favorite line from the MST3K version is where Servo, I think, is saying, like a nosy mother might, “are you doing [such and such] up there?” “No.” “Are you building an interocitor up there?” “No!”

    There’s an episode of Bob’s Burgers where Tina’s doing a science project with another girl and they want to send out signals into space, and the one nerdy boy in class is against it and works with Gene and Louise to trick Tina and the other girl into not sending out signals. (It’s episode 9 of season 9, UFO No You Didn’t.)

    1. There’s a Disney movie “Can of Worms” where the teen nerd protagonist has his worst day ever so he uses his experimental space transmitter to ask for someone — anyone — to take him away from this cruel world. The consequences are unexpected and amusing. I would really love the film if so much of it wasn’t stock teen nerd angst, which is hard to get into at my age.

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