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Hawking, Hollywood, and Alien Invasion

Though it may come as a surprise to many, debates surrounding extraterrestrial invasion are not restricted to the UFO community and Hollywood. In recent years, mainstream science and even the US defense establishment have openly discussed ‘falling skies’ scenarios and what humanity might do to repel potential alien aggressors.

The late, great Sir Stephen Hawking was perhaps the most high-profile individual to warn of the potential dangers of extraterrestrial contact. In April 2010, Hawking made international news by stating his firm belief that humanity should seek to avoid any form of interaction with aliens. In an episode of the Discovery Channel’s Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, the professor said: “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the American Indians.” Hawking suggested that aliens “might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet” and would perhaps be “looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.”

Hawking’s anti-alien comments captured the attention of Hollywood and, later that same year, were incorporated into the marketing campaign for the alien invasion blockbuster, Skyline (2010). The trailer for the film begins with bold text against a cosmic backdrop, reading: “On 28 August 2009, NASA sent a message into space farther than we ever thought possible in an effort to reach extraterrestrial life.”

This is true. On the date specified, the Australian government, through its “Hello from Earth” science initiative, and with the help of NASA, sent some 26,000 carefully vetted messages from the public to the extra-solar Earth-like planet Gliese 581d in a single transmission. This proactive approach to alien contact, known as METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence), differs from the traditional passive approach favored by SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), which devotes its efforts simply to listening for any potential incoming alien signals. Stephen Hawking was not a fan of the METI approach as he considered it unwise to knowingly alert our presence in the galaxy to any technologically superior civilizations.

In a bid to blur fact and fantasy for viral marketing purposes, Skyline made use of Hawking’s comments in its trailer, which featured well known American newsreaders—including Dan Rather—citing the famed professor on the potential dangers of extraterrestrial contact. The trailer then cuts to panoramic views of an American city being obliterated by dozens of the “massive ships” to which Hawking had referred. Against a black screen, and again referring to the professor’s warning, bold text then reads: “Maybe we should have listened.”

Skyline wasn’t the only movie to draw inspiration from METI initiative, or from Hawking’s dire warnings against phoning E.T. The 2012 movie, Battleship, opens with a scene in which NASA prepares to transmit a signal to the Gliese system, exactly as the space agency had done in real life two-years prior. In the movie, a wise-cracking scientist paraphrases Stephen Hawking, quipping, “it’s going to be like Columbus and the Indians—only we’re the Indians.” But the signal is sent anyway, and NASA gives itself a hearty pat on the back. Needless to say, alien contact ensues, and it ain’t pretty.

In April 2012, a month before the release of Battleship in American cinemas, Professor Paul Springer of the US Air Command and Staff College was granted special clearance by his employers at the Pentagon to discuss how the military would respond in the event of an alien invasion. Springer’s comments were aired in a televised interview for Australia’s Channel 9.

When asked by his interviewer exactly how an alien invasion might unfold, Springer replied:

“That really depends on why they are here in the first place. If they are here for the extraction of a specific resource, for example, they might just want to eliminate any resistance that might block them from their objective. If, on the other hand, their goal was actual occupation and conquest, then they would probably have to prioritize anything they perceive as a threat to their own dominance. So, they would probably start by wiping out as many communications networks as possible and eliminating as many weapons that might represent some form of threat either to them, or to the resources they are trying to extract.”

However, any plans the Pentagon may have drawn to fight-off evil aliens are almost certainly in vain. If any aliens out there do harbor plans for invasion, it is probable that their tactics and technology would make any resistance on our part entirely futile. “If they are hostile,” warns Professor Michio Kaku, “it would be like Bambi meeting Godzilla if we ever had to fight them… we would present no military challenge to such an advanced civilization… We would be a pushover for them. Forget all the Hollywood movies.”

In my book, Silver Screen Saucers, I take Hollywood to task for its simplistic, pumped-up depictions of how an interstellar civilization might invade our planet. If aliens should ever decide to attack Earth for its natural resources (water, minerals, human DNA, etc.), it seems unlikely in the extreme that they would opt for the scorched earth approach depicted in the likes of War of the Worlds and Independence Day. Actually, it seems improbable that the aliens would launch air strikes at all, let alone anything so messy as the ground invasions seen in, say, Falling Skies or Battle: Los Angeles. Any tactics that would provoke a military response from Earth’s leaders would probably result in damage to the very resources the aliens are seeking to acquire, especially if weapons of mass destruction are used by either side.

Even if the aliens’ goal is simply to eradicate humanity, direct engagement with our military forces would likely be entirely unnecessary. Many UFO movies depict aliens using psychic forces to harm or control those around them—but if real aliens have developed advanced psychic abilities, might they be able to use these on a mass scale? If so, our psychically puny species would be conquered within a matter of hours, or instantly, even.

Possible psychic abilities aside, advanced ETs might very well have psychotronic and psychotropic weapons with which to attack the mind, or even weapons that target specific parts of the body, both external and internal—even the heart or brain—causing targets to fall down dead en masse, and all without inflicting so much as a scratch on the skin. There would be no resistance from us, and minimal effort on their part. For Hollywood’s purposes, however, such scenarios are utterly lacking in spectacle and drama.

In his later years, Stephen Hawking remained firm in his stance that the universe is likely teeming with life, some of it intelligent, but he was less optimistic about the inherent benevolence of advanced ET civilizations, believing that advanced technology does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with moral and ethical enlightenment.

Jill Tarter, former Director of SETI.

Before Hawking died, former SETI director Jill Tarter (the real-life Ellie Arroway from Contact) voiced her disagreement with the Cambridge professor about the probable nature of any future alien contact scenarios. Tarter also advised the public to disregard Hollywood entirely as an even remotely realistic representation of what to expect on contact day. “Often the aliens of science fiction say more about us than they do about themselves,” Tarter remarked on the SETI website in 2012. “While Sir Stephen Hawking warned that alien life might try to conquer or colonize Earth, I respectfully disagree. If aliens were able to visit Earth that would mean they would have technological capabilities sophisticated enough not to need slaves, food, or other planets. If aliens were to come here it would be simply to explore.”

Tarter added: “Considering the age of the universe, we probably wouldn’t be their first extraterrestrial encounter, either. We should look at movies like Men in Black, Prometheus and Battleship as great entertainment and metaphors for our own fears, but we should not consider them harbingers of alien visitation.”

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Robbie Graham has lectured around the world on the UFO subject and has been interviewed for the BBC, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, Channel 4, and Vanity Fair, among many others. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, and Fortean Times. He holds first class degrees in Film, Television and Radio Studies (BA hons) and Cinema Studies (MA) from Staffordshire University and the University of Bristol respectively. He is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015) and the editor of UFOs: Reframing the Debate (White Crow Books, 2017). Visit robbiegraham.uk
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