Aliens Have Never Been More Alluring

Why pop culture now flirts with extraterrestrials as much as it fears them.

Article by June Thomas

09-TMAG-EXTRATERRESTRIALS-3Cable Griffith’s “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy II” (2023). Image © Cable Griffith, courtesy of the artist and J. Rinehart Gallery, Seattle.

Every generation gets the extraterrestrial invasion its times demand. In 1938, conflicts simmering in Europe meant that a radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” became a panic-inducing news event in America. In the McCarthy era, manufactured paranoia about Communists led to movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” (1958). The terrors of the Cold War coincided with the skittering xenomorph of “Alien” (1979), a conscienceless creature willing to destroy humanity to ensure its own survival.

Then, in 1982, just a few years before perestroika, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” introduced a different kind of alien — an adorable, empathic being in need of human assistance. This presaged a new attitude — open-minded, quasi-scientific — on shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94) and “The X-Files” (which first ran from 1993 to 2002), leading to comedy, the ultimate dismissal of alien exceptionalism. Sci-fi sitcoms like “3rd Rock From the Sun” (1996-2001) and “The Neighbors” (2012-14) treated visitors from other worlds not unlike the Beverly Hillbillies: just more fish out of water.

Keith Haring’s “Untitled” (1982). Image © Keith Haring Foundation, courtesy of the Eli and Edythe L. Broad Collection.

Nowadays, though, a news topic that was once the exclusive province of tabloids has entered mainstream media. This past summer, a congressional subcommittee heard testimony about the discovery of nonhuman “biologics” at U.F.O. crash sites. In “The Little Book of Aliens” (2023), the astrophysicist Adam Frank argues that we’re closer than ever to being able to look for possible signs of civilisation in outer space — just in time for a population that feels alienated from life on Earth.

The new generation of alien-focused pop culture reflects that shift, in which suspicion and fear have been replaced by something closer to affinity. In Marc Turtletaub’s 2023 film, “Jules,” Milton (Ben Kingsley) feels a sort of kinship with the alien (Jade Quon) whose craft crashes in his backyard. The new arrival ends up being more protective of 70-something Milton and his buddies than local cops ever have been so, when the feds show up, the seniors side with the alien.

From left: Jane Curtin, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ben Kingsley and Jade Quon in the 2023 film “Jules,” directed by Marc Turtletaub. Photograph by Linda Kallerus/Bleecker Street.

There’s been a parallel relaxing in attitudes toward those who claim to have had contact with extraterrestrials, such as David Huggins, the subject of Brad Abrahams’s 2017 documentary, “Love & Saucers,” who’s depicted his decades of supposed encounters — sexual and otherwise — with aliens in a series of unabashed paintings. More recently, the isolation of the pandemic left many of us seeking connection in places we’d never considered before. For Courtney Gilbert, the curator of “Sightings” — a recent show exploring the human experience of the extraterrestrial at the Sun Valley Museum of Art in Ketchum, Idaho — that openness provides one possible explanation for the uptick in sightings of unidentified anomalous phenomena that has occurred since lockdown. The other, she says, is that “we were all outside more, looking up.”

In one work from the show, “Self-Fulfilling Prophecy II” (2023) by Cable Griffith, an abstract alien object, sketched by his 7-year-old son, floats above a neighbour’s house. The effect is disarming — the vast unknown juxtaposed with the achingly mundane surroundings of suburbia. And in “Domestic Visitation I, II, and III” (2023), a dyed-fabric canvas onto which Griffith heat transferred images of famous alleged U.F.O. sightings along with other spacecraft generated by A.I., it’s almost as if aliens were artistic collaborators. “It was important to me that they weren’t my own imaginings,” says Griffith. “The images were everybody’s and nobody’s.” One of the last things we humans have in common, after all, is the lure of the nonhuman: hope from above.