Seth Shostak is best known for his work as Senior Astronomer at the SETI Institute, but he also works in the movie biz, offering scientific advice to Hollywood filmmakers. While writing my book, Silver Screen Saucers, I interviewed Seth about his activities in Tinseltown and about the role movies play in shaping our perceptions of potential alien life.
Seth told me:
“I think we are ready for ET contact in some sense, because the public has been conditioned to the idea of life in space by movies and TV… I think that Hollywood is by far the biggest term in the equation of the public’s reaction to confirmation of alien life.”
My conversation with Seth was fascinating, but ultimately was never included in my book. I’d significantly overshot my planned deadline for submission and I had insufficient time to weave this material into the established structure of the then near-finished manuscript. Still, I’m loath to let a good interview go to waste. So, here it is, in full…
RG: You’ve advised on a number of Hollywood movies over the years, including Contact, the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, Green Lantern, and Battleship, among others. What’s the general nature of your involvement in these productions?
SS: The producers will call up and they ask me questions or they’ll fly me down to LA and I talk to the director and the writer and things like that. It’s a great deal of fun for me and I hope that it helps. Usually the filmmakers are in problem-solving mode. They already have an idea of what their scenario’s going to be; you’re not going to change that. But sometimes they have a specific problem, like ‘we need some realistic way for the aliens to communicate with us’—something very specific and descript, and they need some scientifically plausible mechanism for that. That’s usually the nature of their enquires. And you can understand that—they’re in the storytelling business; they’re not in the science education business, so if I can help them with that, that’s fine. What I would like to happen, but doesn’t, is for me to get to these people early enough that they incorporate some of the interesting things that are happening in science, rather than just taking the usual scenarios with a variant and them asking you to fix some scripting problems for them.
RG: What was the nature of your advice on Contact?
SS: Several of us at the SETI Institute here were advisors to the film. I was called up almost every day for a while—mostly by the art department at Warner Bros. because they wanted to get the sets right, so I took pictures of things for them, and so forth. But they would also call up and ask, “what does it look like when you fly through a wormhole?” Well, it’s not as if I do that regularly, but I kinda described to them what it would look like if you got close to the speed of light, where the whole universe collapses to a bright point in front of you and behind you. But, again, it was mostly technical details. The premise is that, if you get the science right, the film is somehow more valuable to getting kids interested in science. But I don’t know that it’s such a good premise; I don’t think it matters much. I don’t think kids will ever walk out of a movie theatre and say “well that’s it, mom, I’m not studying chemistry anymore because they got that wrong.” I don’t think that ever happens.
RG: What did you contribute to the remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still?
SS: I was actually much more involved with that film. They flew me up to Vancouver to be on set when they were shooting a scene. That scene when Jennifer Connelly takes the alien, Keanu Reeves, to the home of this physicist, played by John Cleese, and there are all of these equations on the blackboard and the alien finishes one of the equations. Well, to begin with, I was really looking forward to meeting John Cleese, being a huge Monty Python fan, so that was fun for me. And Jennifer Connelly was… very nice. She called me several times here at the Institute, trying to get the jargon and so forth. But the director, Scott Derrikson, he needed those equations and I went through three iterations with him, so those equations on the film are in my handwriting. I was a little concerned actually when Keanu was writing one of the equations; I had written it, but then they traced what I wrote in pencil and then erased the chalk, so Keanu could see the pencil but the camera could not. And so during this sequence he has to trace the pencil with the chalk, and that means he’s writing these Greek letters very, very slowly. So, I said to the director: “No scientist would write them so slowly,” to which he replied “Seth, he’s an alien, of course he writes Greek letters slowly!” I also redlined the script and said “look, scientists don’t talk like this” and I would write suggested dialogue, about a third of which they accepted. But the other two thirds they didn’t take. But there was this whole sequence where someone says something like: “Professor Fudnick! There’s a bolide on a hyperbolic trajectory entering the solar system at three times ten to the seventh meters per second!” And I scratched all that out and replaced it with: “Bob, there’s a goddamn rock headed our way,” because that’s what they would say! But they decided to use their original dialogue instead.
RG: What do you consider to be the most scientifically accurate depiction of alien contact ever in film and television?
SS: Contact. Because, yes, that movie benefited from all the consultancy, but what it really benefited from was the fact that Carl Sagan wrote the book, and Sagan knew about SETI, so that was all going to be right. The middle of the story where she goes off on this big carnival ride to see the aliens, obviously that’s all fiction and maybe not so accurate, but nobody knows. But the depiction of how SETI works and so forth, that was very accurate. In fact, there a lot of in-jokes in the film. So, when they find a signal somebody says “Thank you, Elmer!” I’m sure there weren’t many people in the theatre who understood what that was about, but it was a reference to our Follow-Up Detection Device that we use to verify a signal—the FUDD. So that was a reference to Elmer Fudd. But in any case, that was all accurate.
RG: Were you pleased with the movie?
SS: Yeah. The first time I saw it I thought “God, there’s three endings to this film and it’s soft in the middle.” That was my first reaction. But of course I had to see the film many times, and the second time I saw it I thought, “yeah, this is a pretty good film,” and by the third time I thought “Y’ know, this is really a good film.” So, I have to say thumbs-up to that film.
RG: Did the success of Contact help SETI as an organization?
SS: I don’t know that it brought in additional monies, but it certainly simplifies my task during public lectures. The first thing I’ll ask is, “How many of you have seen Contact?” And if it’s a fair fraction of the audience, that shortens my exposition for how SETI works, because then they know. But in terms of getting people interested in this subject, the thing that movies can do is not educate people about the science, but it can get them emotionally involved, so that they see that this is exciting. It doesn’t have to be 100% scientifically accurate; it just has to be interesting.
RG: Do you think it’s fair to say that entertainment media is the dominant force in shaping popular expectations of life in the universe, and of first contact scenarios?
SS: Yes, I do. I really do. But I think we are ready for ET contact in some sense, because the public has been conditioned to the idea of life in space by movies and TV. And if you go into a classroom with a bunch of 11 year olds and ask them “how many of you kids think there are aliens out there?” they all raise their hands! Why? Is it because their parents have been educating them about astrobiology? No. It’s because they’ve seen them on TV! Now unfortunately these products may give the kids the impression the aliens are going to come here and flatten LA or something like that because the aliens often are hostile in these depictions. But anyway, they have this preconceived notion that we share the universe with lots of company, and, doggarn it, if we were to find it then we’re just proving something they already thought was true. So, yes, I think that Hollywood is by far the biggest term in the equation of the public’s reaction to confirmation of alien life.
RG: Is Hollywood’s influence in this regard beneficial or problematic?
SS: I don’t think it’s problematic. I think it’s okay. I think it’s a good thing, because, think about it, why do the American taxpayers spend a couple of buck a year to support NASA? Is it because they’re interested in the hydrology on Titan, or something like that? No. They’re interested in life in space, and that’s because of movies and TV. In that sense, William Shatner did more for NASA than NASA does for NASA. It’s a fact. People are interested in this because of the emotional appeal, the romance.
RG: If and when humanity makes contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, would the cinemagoing public be able to divorce Hollywood’s alien depictions from the alien reality with which we’re presented?
SS: I think that in the beginning people will imagine things that they’ve seen in the movies. They will probably imagine it in terms that they’re already familiar with, and they’ve been exposed to alien movies for a very long time.
RG: Films depicting benevolent extraterrestrials—Close Encounters, E.T., Avatar, for example—have enjoyed enormous success at the international box office. Despite this, Hollywood prefers to explore the negative impact of alien contact. Why is this so? And would you like to see Hollywood produce more ‘friendly alien’ movies?
SS: Sure. It would be nice to have some more thoughtful films, because you might think about them, that’s all. It’s going to cost you the same to go see them; the popcorn’s stilling going to be outrageously expensive, and you’re still just going for the entertainment. I’m not going to the movies to learn something about extraterrestrial life, right? And, to be honest, I like the action films, too. They’re okay by me. But clearly when you look at films which have become classics, very frequently they have a message that goes beyond ‘here’s a bad guy and we’re going to have to vanquish them.’ Thoughtful films tend to have more endurance. But, hey, we’re not talking about Oxford University here, we’re talking about the motion picture industry and it’s a business, and so whatever succeeds at the box-office is what they’re going to make. Personally I don’t have much of problem with that. I used to have a problem with them getting the science wrong, but I’ve come around to realize that maybe that doesn’t matter. When I was a grad student I wrote Gene Rodenberry a letter and I said I’ll come over and redline your Star Trek scripts for you, and he replied saying he’d already got an organization [RAND] that’s doing that for us. Well, they didn’t do a very good job, I gotta tell you!