Considering the endless possibilities you would figure that Hollywood might be able to cook-up some really interesting alien First Contact scenarios. For the most part though, everything has been derivative and predictable. Extraterrestrials are either cuddly creatures or nasty marauders. And in either form they rarely have any understandable motivations or logic behind their actions. The new movie “District 9” is a refreshing change. Sure, there is still plenty of Hollywood melodrama. However, the scenario is unique and the questions it raises are intriguing.
The basic premise of “District 9” is that an extraterrestrial craft arrives and hovers over Johannesburg, South Africa. Over the course of time it is discovered that there are hundreds of thousands of emaciated aliens on board. They have no control over their technology and no one can figure out why they have arrived. Eventually humans decide to stick the aliens in a form of detention, not unlike the shanty towns put up in Florida during the height of the Cuban and Haitian exodus. The alien camp quickly becomes a slum and the bug-like beings take up activities familiar to inner cities: drugs (actually cat food), violence, black market trade, and gang membership.
“District 9” ends up saying much more about how humans treat each other than it does exploring issues surrounding extraterrestrial First Contact. The twist though is important for the discussion of First Contact. We assume that extraterrestrial First Contact will be clean and simple. Whether they are pleasant angels or nasty soldiers we expect extraterrestrial attitudes to be clear-cut and their motivations easy for us to understand. If there is one thing we have learned from the study of human psychology, nothing is simple with sentient beings. We all have complex relationships, unique motivations and individual temperaments. What would make us think that extraterrestrials would be any different? Politics is likely to be an issue for them, just as much as it is an issue for us. They may treat each other poorly. For that matter they may treat us poorly. “District 9” is interesting in that it flips that scenario and shows how quickly humans could end up treating extraterrestrials like trash. We assume that aliens will arrive and shower us with knowledge and technological gifts. What if they are refugees? What if they are a burden?
“District 9” does fall down on occasion in the logic department. It is never explained why the aliens have arrived and despite the fact that humans have learned how to communicate with the extraterrestrials, none of them can explain that history.
We need to expand the range extraterrestrial fiction that reaches the general public. There needs to be a deeper and more provocative discussion of the what-ifs behind First Contact. It is through this popular dialog that perhaps we can better prepare ourselves if First Contact ever occurs. Readers of science fiction have had a wide array of story ideas to choose from for years now. The general population has not been so lucky. It’s time for Hollywood to throw away the old script templates and write new, more provoking plots. “District 9” is a good start.
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