First off a heavy disclaimer here: This post is based upon segments from a chapter of Jim Al-Khalili’s recent book ‘Science Asks: Is There Anybody Out There?’ (2016).
The publication is a spellbinding compendium that summarises the bleeding edge of science’s rapidly evolving hunt for extraterrestrial life and includes contributions from 20 expert minds, each at the vanguard of there respective fields.
If you’re even slightly interested in the scientific approach to ET this simply is a must-read, and offers both tantalising and tangible solutions to one of humanity’s greatest questions – Are we alone in the universe?
Lets then focus on Chapter 15 and introduce you to the superior wit and intellect of British geneticist, author and broadcaster Adam Rutherford.
‘It Came from Beyond the Silver Screen! Aliens in the Movies’
For his contribution Rutherford sets out to explore the way film-makers (and in extension video games) have sought to portray on screen alien lifeforms. It’s a frankly hilarious, yet logical, smackdown of all the most common sci-fi movie tropes. The cornerstone of which, of course, is anthropomorphism, and thus the essay begins with:
“They mostly get it wrong. Mostly. Film-makers have been infusing culture with their visions of aliens for more than a century, and almost all of them have been a lot like us.”
Indeed so much is covered, so eloquently, in such a short space of time, it leaves one feeling like Keanu Reeve’s character Neo in The Matrix (1999) in which, via digital upload, he instantly learns kung-fu. Interestingly that film sits firmly on the more credible end of the SF movie spectrum, (read Simulation Theory).
One particular highlight is a total assassination of the threadbare science that seeks to underpin Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012). As Rutherford quickly points out why (via panspermia) would an alien race seek to seed life that then takes 3+ Billion years to evolve into a slightly shorter, darker skinned and less beach-bodied version of itself? Science shows us that evolution is raw happenchance. Adjust even the slightest variable in our cosmic and planetary evolutionary history and life would be completely different or would not be at all.
Of course, it’s not all negative, there are indeed a handful of films that got it right. They work because they do not seek to anthropomorphize the alien form, it’s behaviour or motives. I shall not list any – you should buy and read the book – though I’m sure you can perhaps guess one or two.
Let’s then move to the main event as Rutherford shifts his attention to the parasitical, razor-tipped nightmare that first terrified viewers with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).
Alien is the absolute definition of a Sci-Fi classic, but how does the science hold up?
Here the perspective takes an astonishing slant, as Rutherford beautifully demonstrates how even the black, blank genius of H.R.Giger’s phallic, biomechanical killing-machine can easily be trumped by the work of ‘mother nature’.
Let’s then introduce you to the Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon). Butterflies are graceful and beautiful things, sugar and light.
Not this one.
The following italicised excerpt is the writing of Adam Rutherford:
The Alcon Blue butterfly (Phengaris Alcon) is very pretty, but appearances can be deceiving for it is a rather wicked creature. It lays its eggs on the Swiss wildflower Gentiana, where the larva feed until they are fatted, and then roll on the ground waiting to be discovered by ants. The grubs secrete a chemical which mesmerises the poor deluded ants into thinking they are their own babies, and bring them into the hive, whereupon the butterfly grubs eat the ant grubs.
Once ready to emerge into the world from its ant-cuckoo brood, the butterfly does have to run the gauntlet to escape, as the ants suddenly realise that this flap-winged thing is not actually one of them at all. However, the newborn butterfly is armoured with flaky scales that the ants struggle to grab hold of, and it bludgeons its way out, hotly pursued by some irate cuckolds.
And if you think all this evolved opportunism is remarkable, consider the wasp Ichneumon eumerus: its main hosts are Alcon Blue grubs! The females scour the ground for the scent of the ant colonies, and will only enter those that have the butterfly larvae in them. Inside, she pierces the belly of the fattest butterfly grub using her very pointy ovipositor, and inserts a single egg. She also marks the nest with a chemical that warns off other ichneumon wasps from doing the same. After nine or ten months of being nurtured by ants inside a butterfly maggot pretending to be an ant, the wasp is ready to burst from its host, and releases a chemical that causes the ants to fight each other and not attack the wasp.
Parasitism like this is very alien to us humans, and yet it abounds in nature, and it’s pleasing to see elements of a parasitic life cycle present in the Alien films; the insertion of an egg into a host; the messy bursting forth; the armour plating; the shed skin. But imagine pitching the story of the Alcon Blue to a Hollywood producer.
Nature is frequently hard to believe, and this butterfly story sounds just a little unlikely. Alongside the original Alien films (of which there were eventually four), there were two horrid spin-offs featuring another filmic alien, the Predator. The best thing about these wretched films was the tagline for the Alien versus Predator poster: ‘Whoever wins … we lose’. That’s how the ants must feel.
Aliens: Science Asks: Is There Anyone Out There? is available from all good bookstores, or as I purchased via Amazon for Kindle
The best five bucks I’ve spent in a long while, I cannot recommend it enough!
Follow Jim Al-Khalili on twitter.
Title Image is, of course, the work of H.R.Giger, other Alien images are renderings from Sega’s Alien Isolation. Also featured prior, a still from Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012).