Last week, legendary futurist Ray Kurzweil gave us his take on the failings of science fiction cinema. Now Nick Sagan, son of iconic astronomer and Contact author Carl Sagan, has his own bone to pick with sci-fi filmmakers. Unlike Kurzweil, he’s only got one complaint, but it’s big enough to cover just about every alien invasion flick ever made.
Sagan’s not only the son of one of the most famous scientists ever. He’s also got some serious sci-fi cred. He’s written three acclaimed novels as well as episodes of both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager, but that doesn’t stop him from cringing at one very familiar thread that runs through just about every tale of alien contact that’s ever graced the big screen.
“Humans having any kind of sporting chance against hostile alien invaders armed with superior technology,” Sagan said. “Good luck. If they’re advanced enough to cross the enormous distances of interstellar space, they’re advanced enough to wipe us out without breaking whatever in their physiology passes for a sweat. Why not just lob a few asteroids at us? How are we going to handle that? The conceit of plucky human underdogs triumphing at the end might make for feel-good popcorn movies but in reality there’s just no ‘there’ there.”
And in case you were hoping Sagan would support a Signs-style loophole whereby we conveniently defeat the alien invaders through some inherent quality of Earth’s environment, he’s got a rebuttal for that, too.
“Seriously, we beat them with a computer virus? Our microbes are their kryptonite? And why do they even want to attack us anyway? There’s no shortage of other planets they could enjoy, and if they really took a disliking to us, why not sit back and allow us to destroy ourselves? We’re certainly capable of it,” he said.
But Sagan does have some love for alien encounter cinema. He highlights two films that he thinks come closer than others to capturing what the experience would actually be like. Though, admittedly, he does have a vested interest in one of them.
“Allow me to surprise exactly no one by singing the praises of Contact [written by Carl Sagan] as the best example of how this might unfold,” he said. “I’ve heard many astronomers laud it as the closest film yet to a realistic portrayal of how the scientific community might react, and likewise, the scenes where members of government express their concerns strike me as highly plausible. That said, short of an actual alien first-contact scenario, no one really knows how we’ll react when push comes to shove. We have ideas, potential strategies, SETI protocols. When we get that signal, though, all bets may be off. Beyond Contact, I think there’s something compelling about District 9. While over the top in some ways (as many science fiction allegories are), the idea that we might segregate and subjugate the “other” seems true to the human experience, especially if that “other” turns out to be less powerful than ourselves. That gets to the heart of why there are so many scary aliens in science fiction—while we know next to nothing about how actual extraterrestrial lifeforms (should they even exist) are likely to react, we know all too well how poorly we can treat our fellow life-forms down here on Earth.”
So, if that big day finally comes, and we really do establish first contact with an alien race, what’s Sagan hoping for? How does he think it would play out? Well, there are a lot of question marks in any scenario, but Sagan said he’s just hoping for a little unity.
“Still, here’s hoping that if and when that momentous first-contact scenario does actually arrive, we manage to join together as humans, and walk bravely into whatever the future holds,” he said.
For more on Sagan’s take on alien contact, check out the new documentary series Alien Encounters, airing this week and next week on the Science Channel.