[Reading time: 5 minutes]
Written by Elena Casaleggi and Siv Izzo
The word alien comes from latin “alienus”, which means “other”, “stranger”. The first thing that pops up in our head when we hear the word “alien” is a small green guy with a very big egg-shaped head, who looks a little like Humpty Dumpty. This is just a conventional image that our minds are used to. Through the years, many different ideas as to what aliens look like have come and gone.
However, with the arrival of new technologies it has been easier to collect information on the phenomena in space, and this has helped to provide us with an even more different idea of extra-terrestrials. In a survey of teenagers that we conducted (54 responses) 55.6% believe in aliens, 37% are non-believers and only 7.4% have never thought about it. This shows us that a vast majority of young people do wonder about the existence of alien beings. Although our scientific knowledge has significantly grown over the past hundred years, mankind still likes to daydream about what goes on “up there”. Surely a big proportion of what we imagine is influenced by how literature and cinema represent the concept of extraterrestrial life. For instance, throughout Hollywood’s history, especially in american pulp magazines, aliens were always pictured as terrible creatures with sharp teeth and claws, who were hell bent on taking over the world. Their role in the story was to be enemies of human beings. Conventionally, they were quite often said to be from Mars. As the awareness of the Universe increased, their origins were pushed further away, even beyond our solar system.
During the 60’s and 70’s aliens started to be analysed psychologically, often becoming protagonists of the story. Some years later with Steven Spielberg and his movie E.T. the picture of the alien changed into a small, sweet but not particularly smart creature that is somehow anthropomorphous. Not only does this alien have human-like shape, but also human feelings: in fact his goal is to find his mother and go back home, just like a child would do! When aliens are presented with human feelings and characteristics, people can easily identify themselves with them. This helps to foster curiosity about these creatures, and it is interesting that our survey shows that only 18.5% declare to be scared rather than intrigued.
In more modern times (2009) there has been another important interpretation: in Avatar, aliens are these ten feet tall blue creatures that live peacefully with nature, on their planet Pandora. Their lives change with the arrival of humans, who settle near their homes to mine a precious material found there. Some scientists manage to move the human mind into the body of the aliens (Na’vi). The result of this is that humans and aliens bond, and even fall in love, demonstrating that they are so similar to us and that we could learn something from them. Since they are not defined as aliens, but rather as aboriginals of Pandora, Avatar is not the first movie that pops up in your head when you are asked to think about a movie about extraterrestrials. In our survey, out of 36 answers, only 1 person mentioned Avatar after being asked what his favourite science-fiction film was.
In the movie Jupiter Ascending (2015), extraterrestrials have the same physical appearance as human beings. Instead of being considered as aliens, they’re more like humans who come from another planet. Their differences could be compared to those between two people living in different continents. The inhabitants of this other planet face the same problems that a human being would have to deal with, such as the succession to the throne and seeking to gain power. The greatest difference between them is their technological development, which is far more advanced than ours.
To sum up, there has been a fascinating evolution in the representation of aliens – from maleficent beings to cute little creatures, and nowadays there are all sorts of models. Nonetheless, there is an overriding tendency to portray them with human features, even though they may have supernatural powers or superior intelligence. In contrast to the past, the trend of “good” or “bad” alien has died down, and now simply depends on personal opinions and choices. Given the extraordinary advance of technology and scientific discoveries, we hope that, over the course of our life span, we just might be lucky enough to find real answers to this timeless question: Do aliens exist? Now that would be something to savour!