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Miscellanea/Manjula Padmanabhan

Encounters of the third kind

There was a moment early in Independence Day when I thought: This is how it will be, abrupt and catastrophic, combined with a wondering dread at the absolute strangeness of it all. And, following immediately in the footsteps of that thought, the realisation that now that we have imagined them in this form, when and if we do encounter our first authentic aliens, they will be utterly different.

The movie was fun, despite being made in the high tradition of a Hollywood big-budget disaster-film. The messages that were as thick on the ground as pamphlets before a Delhi University student union election were reasonably inoffensive.

There was the race message: one of the two heroes was black. There was the ethnic diversity message: the other hero was Jewish. There was the mandatory feminist message: the President's press advisor was such a fiercely career-minded woman that she divorced her husband to get ahead in life. And the equally mandatory conservative counter-message: none of the female figures plays a significant role in the actual struggle against the alien invaders. There was even a strong element of ecological awareness: the Jewish hero (played by Jeff Goldblum who always looks so endearingly Indian) is a fitness freak. We see him conscientiously recycling Coke cans and bicycling to work in his bid to save the planet from that home-grown great threat otherwise known as human beings. When the option of nuking the aliens out of the earth's fragile eco-system is presented, he goes ballistic and starts punching up the weasel-faced military advisor.

What is it about alien invasion movies which makes them such a hit with audiences? Are there really so many of us feeling lonesome in our humble corner of the galaxy that we must resort to manufacturing our own cosmic companions? Or is the big screen merely a surrogate pulpit, the only place from which moral pronouncements can be made in these godless times?

Remember E T? The little visitor from outer space was a source of distinctly inner-space philosophy about being kind and tolerant towards one another.

Remember Close Encounters of the Third Kind? For all its razzamatazz, it was also a blockbuster-sized reminder to be tolerant towards the visionaries and eccentrics whose premonitions might one day result in a celestial spectacular with glowing wraiths as the hosts.

Remember Star Wars and its sequels? The Universe over which the Evil Empire sought control was a clearly monotheistic one. Satan's emissary was Darth Vader, with his fearsome visor, hissing breath and billowing black cape. God's emissary took the form of Alec Guinness as a divinely suave and eloquent space-age prophet, preaching about the Force which resides in all living beings, the Force with which alone Darth Vader's storm troopers could be vanquished.

The Invasion of the Body-Snatchers (the Donald Sutherland version made in the late seventies) was an altogether different kind of film, dark and despairing, less a morality tale than a doomsday warning about being surrounded by aliens who look and speak like humans. It was a film about paranoia and isolation, about the terror of being engulfed in a tide of nameless otherness, about being made fugitives from one's only home, from one's body itself. It was easy to read many shades of real-life xenophobia into that film, just as it was easy to dismiss the ending of Close Encounters as childishly optimistic.

Alien appeared, at first sight, to be a space movie with no overt messages. It was a horror-adventure film set in space, and it showed us a monster which had very little back-reference to humanity or the human condition. But if you dug just under the skin of the plot, you'd find that the explorers who almost bring the steel-jawed nightmare back to earth had been sent to fetch it by unscrupulous industrialists. So even as the creature drips acid blood all over the ship, there's Sigourney Weaver representing every right-thinking citizen who not only wants to oppose evil monopolies, but is willing to risk her life to do it.

Independence Day is a popular movie, made in the same mood as Star Wars or Close Encounters, but with a sub-text veering towards Alien. At one point, the Prez, having been given a telepathic glimpse of the aliens's development plans for earth, makes a statement about them. He describes the visitors as inter-galactic locusts. "They go from planet to planet," he says, or words to this effect, "laying waste to every natural resources. Until they have to move again."

Sound familiar? Perhaps we should feel fortunate that we do not as yet have the technology to set up our junk-food franchises and nuclear waste dumps on other planets. Or we might find ourselves the subject of some other civilization's horror films.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

Manjula Padmanabhan

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