Do you think Alien is one of the greatest sci fi fanchises of all time?
When I think about the Alien movie franchise, the first thing that bursts to mind is alien life forms, in all their face-hugging, acid-bleeding, HR Giger glory.
But here’s a cinematic twist – what actually makes Alien one of the greatest science fiction franchises of all time isn’t the aliens (cue dramatic music).
It’s that Alien movies have everything! Along with the titular creatures, they have robots, they have planetary science, they have space travel, they have evil corporations, and they have diverse casts led by strong female leads to fight them. It looks like the latest, Alien: Covenant, is no exception.
So to celebrate another entry into the canon that keeps on killing, let’s take a look at the latest science on the themes that give Alien its cinematic foundation (and some related sci-fi recommendations, because I can’t help myself).
When scientists look for life on other planets, they don’t waste their time looking for something that walks and talks. They save themselves a bunch of time and trouble by narrowing their search to the conditions conducive to life, like all-important water. So here in our solar system the most likely candidate is currently doing laps of Jupiter. Hopefully it won’t be too long before we confirm that there is a liquid ocean under the icy surface of its moon Europa, and whether there’s anything alive down there. The search is also being cast further afield (what up, SETI) but the universe is a mighty big place. Lots of scientists tend to think that extra-terrestrial life probably does exist, just very far away in a direction we haven’t even looked yet. As for Alien director Ridley Scott? Let’s just say he’s pretty sure there are advanced life forms out there, but he’s not super pumped about it:
“When you see a big thing in the sky, run for it. Because they are a lot smarter than we are, and if you are stupid enough to challenge them you will be taken out in three seconds.”
If you’re keen to check out an extra-terrestrial movie with a slightly more chilled vibe, try Arrival (which will also let you finish your Blade Runner 2049 homework, since both are directed by Denis Villenevue, and the latter is executive produced by Ridley Scott).
Robots in many shapes and forms are here and they’re here to stay. But to get to the android company men that populate the Alien franchise, we’ve got a long way to go in terms of artificial intelligence and synthetic humanoids.
But we’re getting there. Current research and development is about teaching machines how to learn, rather than what to know. So far the practical applications are limited to things like chatbots and game playing, but these stepping stones are definitely getting closer and closer together. Then aside from an artificially intelligent brain, sci-fi style androids also need bodies. In the real world, one of the first hurdles to building a synthetic human is just getting it to do what we can do before our first birthday - walk. Bipedalism is far more complex than it feels, so while some researchers are working hard to perfect it, others are placing their bets on different forms of motion. So the future probably looks like more of a mix of different types of robotics than sci-fi, and the Alien universe in particular, tends to suggest.
When it comes getting your fix of artificial intelligence on the silver screen, you cannot go past Ex Machina. Plus it gives you the chance to pretend that Poe Dameron is a reclusive internet mogul and General Hux is his hapless plaything.
Any long distance space mission is going to start with our intrepid explorers strapping in to a spaceship that's going to keep them alive, get them where they're going, and not make them go crazy in the process. Hopefully they'll be as decked out with amenities (and as much gravity) as they are in the movies, but take a look at NASA's Orion spacecraft to get an idea of what space travel is going to look like in the very near future.
But if we're really going to travel vast distances, we might have to look at an Alien franchise staple - hypersleep. Imagine climbing into bed and not opening your eyes again until you're halfway across the galaxy! The latest thinking is actually a little less extreme, suggesting that astronauts would sleep for about a fortnight at a time. Still, that's a decent nap.
For a potentially realistic look at what space travel (if not its consequences) might look like, you could do a lot worse than the totally underrated Sunshine.
If we are ever going to become a multi-planet species, we’re going to have to be able to take a stroll on the surface of our new planets without suffocating, burning, or freezing. That's where terraforming - engineering features like terrain and atmosphere to make them habitable - comes in. It's fun to picture huge space machines carving out space highways while space colonists plant space forests, but the current thinking is that our efforts will start a lot smaller - at the microbial level in fact. So let's say we do renovate ourselves at least one Planet B - who gets to live there? Astronauts are already selected with congeniality in mind, and there's no reason to think this won't be just as crucial in the future. And current simulation efforts here on Earth, like the HI-SEAS project in Hawaii, are set up to test group dynamics as much as they are technical challenges.
If you want to know what it might look like when we start casting humanity’s net off our globe, check out another Ridley Scott instant classic – The Martian.
Alien: Covenant looks like it builds on the themes of the origin of life and humanity that its precursor Prometheus fumbled its way through. Surprisingly for a science fiction film, Alien: Covenant might ultimately do so from a spiritual angle, but either way it gives us the chance to talk about panspermia. This is basically the idea that life on Earth got started because a little bit of another planet with some life stuck to it got knocked off and flung onto our surface. Whether or not this is even possible is still up for debate, but it's an incredibly thought-provoking theory.
So that’s the latest on all things Alien. Save for one closing thought: why don’t the protagonists carry some form of base to neutralise the Xenomorphs’ acidic bleeding? Sure, in some of the movies the characters are discovering the creatures for the first time. But as soon as they figure out that one of the creatures’ defence mechanisms is acid, why don’t they just base the hell out of them?! Just run down to the mess and grab some freaking baking soda! That would even be useful to sprinkle on the damage to the ship. And then in the movies where they know they’re about to come up against the creatures, why don’t they prepare ahead of time?! Like, you live in the future; just 3D print a fire extinguisher-style weapon!!!
Casey Harrigan (@caseyharri) is a Contributing Editor for The Body and Culture on Australia’s Science Channel. Her academic background is in science communication, and her professional background is in science and factual television. Don’t get her started talking about sci fi movies, comedy, interesting animal facts, or Beyonce because she will never stop.
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