Encounters with Aliens in Cinema and Answering the Fermi Paradox

An alien spacecraft over New York City, as depicted in the 1996 film Independence Day.

Science fiction cinema has for some time depicted our first interactions with aliens. Whether it is an invasion of Earth conducted by beings from another planet or working through communicating and understanding an alien species, cinema gives us an opportunity to speculate about what the first encounter with aliens will entail. It also exposes difficulties that we might have to one day work through should aliens end up in our domain of the universe, whether curious or aggressive.

Our curiosity of what might exist elsewhere in the universe and why we have not yet already encountered aliens are questions that a moviegoer might be left with after watching one of these films. Academics have also asked themselves these questions. Back in 1975, Michael H. Hart published a paper entitled: An Explanation for the Absence of Extraterrestrials on Earth.

Within this paper, Hart explains a paradox. The universe seems populated with large quantities of stars, even within our neighborhood of the universe. A portion of these stars should come with planets that could be inhabited by intelligent life. And yet, we have not encountered aliens as of yet. The evidence suggests life should be plentiful in the universe and the fact we have not been contacted seems incompatible with each other. Hence a problem that Hart named the Fermi Paradox after Enrico Fermi, a scientist who discussed widely this exact problem. How have cinematic accounts of our first interactions with aliens suggested an answer to this paradox?

Invasion from Above

Footage from the film War of the Worlds (2005) with the aliens beginning their invasion of Earth.

The idea that aliens will make their first encounter a violent invasion seems unplausible. If you are an alien race with the ability to travel vast differences in space and build an army of spaceships, it seems like you would be capable of living happily amongst the stars. They should be able to find a planet that wasn’t already occupied and turn it into one that could be lived on.

This perhaps contributed to recent films that focus on alien invasion like Independence Day: Ressurance (2016) failing to capture large audiences, amongst other things. Audiences find it difficult to take the premise of a movie like this seriously. Having said that, stories of alien invasion have hinted at an answer to why aliens have not visited Earth.

War of the Worlds (2005) builds a character-focused account of an alien invasion. Ray Farrier (played by Tom Cruise) goes for a casual walk following a seemingly freak lightning storm to witness an alien tripod arrive from out of the ground. The scene quickly turns to panic as the aliens begin killing off and destroying the entire neighborhood. Ray and his two children leave New York City and travel to Boston.

When they finally get to Boston towards the end of the film, the alien machines have begun to malfunction. Ray ends up pointing out that the shields on the alien tripods are now inactive, apparent only because birds can be seen sitting atop the large three-legged machines. Soldiers on the ground exploit the lack of defenses. We later learn that the aliens inside have grown sick due to their exposure to Earth.

Soldiers finally witness the aliens weak and sick at the end of War of the Worlds (2005).

In the film’s closing scene, the narrator (Morgan Freeman) explains that “from the moments the invaders arrived…they were doomed. They were undone, destroyed, after all man’s weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures that God and his wisdom, put upon this earth”.

Although Morgan Freeman’s final narration at the end of The War of the Worlds (2005) seems like it might be plucked straight from H. G. Wells’s classic text, it is instead only inspired by the original. H. G. Wells thought long and hard for a twist for what was to become a classic piece of science fiction literature. The idea that visitors from another world will fall sick due to their exposure to Earth is discussed in H. G. Wells original text here:

Cover of the classic text by H. G. Wells, The War of the Worlds

I had scrambled up the earthen rampart and stood upon its crest, and the interior of the redoubt was below me. A mighty space it was, with gigantic machines here and there within it, huge mounds of material and strange shelter-places. And, scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians—dead!—slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth. (H. G. Wells (1898), War of the Worlds, Pg. 278)

The conclusion that aliens visiting Earth would always get sick can be, in part, debunked for a few reasons. For starters, it is difficult to know for certain how alien life would react to the environment of Earth and whether human viruses and earthly organisms would make them sick. Ken Stedman (2013) discusses in an article for New Scientist how the prevalence of viruses on Earth suggests that scientists should look for them on other planets as well as signs of life. Stedman is an academic at Portland State University in their department of biology.

Stedman goes on to explain why he thinks viruses will exist elsewhere in the universe. One of the reasons is that “evolution as we know it wouldn’t be possible without viruses” and viruses “drive evolution by the introduction of new genes to the organisms they infect” (Ken Stedman, 12.21.2013, New Scientist). This suggests that where there is life out in the universe, there are also likely to be viruses. Whether aliens from another planet get sick may depend on how long it takes for viruses on Earth to adapt to take aliens as hosts. This might take longer than a road trip from New York to Boston.

Seth Shotak, a senior astronomer for the SETI Institute, explains that further uncertainty exists in the case of bacteria. The conclusion that bacteria would gravely influence the presence of alien life on Earth depends on their biological makeup. Shotak explains that “Alien life forms wouldn’t come here only to be done in by our bacteria, unless they were related biochemically to humans. Bacteria would have to be able to interact with their biochemistry to be dangerous, and their ability to do that is far from a sure thing” (6.6.2012, IEEE Spectrum). Uncertainty about whether visitors to Earth from elsewhere in the universe would get sick may still explain why aliens have not visited Earth, although viruses seem the more likely culprit for concern.

Communicating with Aliens

The team of specialists in the film Arrival (2016) using a whiteboard to communicate with the aliens.

Hollywood classics have gotten caught up on our first encounter with aliens as an invasion, obsessed with aliens as pirates of the universe. But is it really safe to assume that all encounters with aliens that turn bad will involve aliens that have harsh intentions? It is worth noting that meeting beings from another part of the universe could be a dangerous affair because of the inability to clearly communicate with an alien. This predicament is explored within the recent first contact film Arrival (2016).

This film set a new gold standard for films about aliens as it focuses on how a team of scientists and specialists might establish a conversation with aliens who have made the long trip to Earth. Within the film, a number of countries have strange orb-like crafts that arrive from outer space. After figuring out how to enter the floating orbs, each of the teams around the globe begins the arduous task of communicating and finding out why the aliens are here and what exactly they want.

Whether the intentions of the aliens are pure or not becomes a focal point within the film as different countries come to different conclusions after interacting with the aliens they encounter in the orbs. China, for example, has resorted to a game-like method of communicating with the aliens, which has led them to the conclusion that the aliens are adversarial. Difficulty in translating the alien word for ‘tool’ from ‘weapon’ also adds to the difficulty in figuring out why the aliens have made the long trip to Earth.

The linguist, played by Amy Adams, inspects the circular alien language in the film Arrival (2016).

Assuming that methods of human translation would work with aliens, misunderstandings are still likely and could quickly shape a dispute unintentionally. However, methods of human translation are not likely to easily prevail when it comes to starting a conversation. For starters, the use of language grammatically is linked to our genetic makeup in some way. Children learning a language make too few mistakes. They also don’t make a whole bunch of mistakes they should potentially make. This is referred to as the ‘poverty of the stimulus’ thesis (Chomsky, 1989). How language is linked to genetics is still a hotly disputed topic for academics.

Secondly, methods of translation, like the use of demonstration, are not social conversations aliens will be able to interpret and figure out how to interpret. It is too easy for words to be given multiple meanings due to the lack of shared context, even when demonstrating ‘running’ and displaying the word ‘running’. Quine, a philosopher, discusses this kind of problem as the indeterminacy of reference (Quine, 1970). The act of running could instead be misunderstood for a broad word for different kinds of motion.

Aliens who only see thermal radiation may interpret the word as meaning increased body temperature. Differences in physical makeup will have grave impacts on translation in ways that may not be apparent to both parties. This makes the business of starting a conversation with an alien more difficult than it is depicted in the movie Arrival. Conversing with aliens may well turn out to be impossible. Even if communicating is not impossible for the reasons I have stated above, the large likelihood of misunderstandings may explain why aliens have not made contact with us.

However, if I am correct, and communicating with aliens is an impossible task, this would likely explain why aliens have not made contact with us and are perhaps actively avoiding having to do so. Misunderstandings and an inability to translate would entail too much likelihood of conflict breaking out, particularly when it comes to the more primitive and adolescent of the two species involved in the first encounter like us.

Navigating the Encounter

Alien spacecraft above the site of an extra-terrestrial refugee camp in the movie District 9 (2009)

It is often suggested that earthlings will be the more primitive of the two parties involved in our alien encounter. This is in part suggested by the fact that the universe is a lot older than the Earth. Aliens could have been around vastly longer than we have to entail that they are the more advanced. This poses an interesting challenge for the first encounter for those who want to contact us from elsewhere in the universe.

Within the film District 9 (2009) we are given an opportunity to think a little bit more about what it would be like for a more advanced race of aliens to interact with a less advanced. Although the prawns depicted in the movie arrive on a technologically advanced ship, their behavior throughout the movie suggests that they are from a primitive society. In particular, the prawns’ inclinations towards anarchy and disruptive behavior.

The film explores our first encounter with aliens as a refugee type scenario where the aliens end up creating a slum within the city of Johannesburg in South Africa. This poses a unique challenge for the country, as the aliens turn out to be unable to look after themselves and need human support to survive. As the host planet, the earthlings in Johannesburg relocate and attempt to look after the population of alien prawns after locals riot over the presence of the aliens. Things go from bad to worse from there.

The more primitive of the two species involved in the first encounter has potentially far more to gain than the more advanced. This could create a situation where long term interactions with aliens become disruptive for them as we seek their advice constantly and ask them to solve various riddles about the universe, society, and our planet. District 9 hints at this kind of problem as prawns are dependent on the humans to look after them. All this could be avoided for the more advanced alien by resorting to watching and studying rather than introducing themselves. This is not the only reason primitive beings like us make for a difficult encounter.

Poster for the 1997 film Contact

Another potential reason that it might be better for aliens to do nothing more than watch from afar is that exchanges might end up being considered a hoax. We can see this explored in Contact (1997). Within the film, a radio astronomer receives the first radio message from another planet. The aliens make their first message a picture of our first message to them, a picture of a Nazi dictator boasting to a crowd of germans from the distant past. All this fuels conspiracy theories that the aliens are Nazi. Although most of the public quickly realize that the aliens are just sending back the first message they got from us, the conspiracy theory does not go away.

It turns out that the message also includes a map for a machine that could be used to travel to the aliens. Although the machine doesn’t make clear that is what will happen, the earthlings decide to follow the design that has been given to them and invest a lot of money in making the device. In the end, the radio astronomer enters the contraption only to travel to witness an alien in the form of her deceased father. When she returns to talk about the dialogue with the alien, no one believes her and the whole encounter is concluded to be an elaborate hoax.

A machine, as part of the plot of the film Contact (1997), used to travel to visit the aliens.

Even if we are able to interpret an alien message, the fact that we will not be able to make sense of first contact and the various implications that come with it remains a possibility. One of those implications may well be that society here on Earth would rather go about its business as normal, without having to completely rework our understanding of our place in the universe.

It may well be the case that our first contact with aliens can be written off as a hoax where earthlings demonstrate their inability to navigate the challenge of making sense of our first encounter with aliens. Our inclination to embrace this kind of behavior already, along with other primitive civilizations in the universe, may well suggest to an alien that first contact with a primitive people like us is not a good idea. At least, for the moment.

Works Cited

Carroll, C. (2019). Is Communicating with aliens impossible?. Philosophy Now, 131. Retrieved from: https://philosophynow.org/issues/131/Arrival

Chomsky, N. (1986). Knowledge of language: Its nature, origin, and use. Greenwood Publishing Group.

Hart, M. H. (1975). Explanation for the absence of extraterrestrials on earth. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 16, 128-135.

Karlin, S. (6 June 2012). The Aliens Would Win. IEEE Spectrum. Retrieved from: https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/geek-life/hands-on/the-aliens-would-win

Quine, W. V. (1970). On the reasons for indeterminacy of translation. The Journal of Philosophy, 67(6), 178-183.

Stedman, K. (2013). The forgotten extraterrestrials: hunting for viruses in space. New Scientist, 220(2948-2949), 42-43.

Wells, H. G. (1898). War of the Worlds. London: William Heinemann

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  1. There is a great short story (i believe by harry harrison), about a Human thinking they had discovered another intelligent lifeform, being really excited as it as the far side of the galaxy and despite millenia of searching no other non human life had been previously encountered. Only to fin it was the descendants of another Human mission. Looked Alien but share our ancestry.

    I believe there is other intelligent life in the Galaxy (and hence the universe), However unless you can break the light barrier you have practical problems getting around it.

    Maybe their are a few dyson spheres (Not vacuum cleaners) out there but would be luck if we found one.

    Give it 20 years and I think life outside the solar system will be confirmed.
    Give it 100 years and intelligent life outside our solar system will be confirmed.

  2. Someone should make a list of movies that make aliens not want to visit us…

    • Marcell

      Close Encounters of the Third Kind

      The Day the Earth Stood Still



      Flight of the Navigator

      Batteries Not Included

    • Every movie involving aliens, except Contact and The Last Starfighter? Even in ET we chase that little gremlin off this rock at gunpoint.

      • somiano

        Babylon 5 could go on the fairly positive toward aliens list. Yeah we blow up a lot of aliens, but they blow up each other, and we are kinda busy killing other humans for the last 3 seasons. We also try to make peace, it just doesn’t seem to work out well

      • Arrival?

        • The one where we planted a bomb on their ship, mortally wounding one, and nearly went to WWIII over their presence?

  3. You should read Revelations Space. At the start of the book, humans seem to be alone in the galaxy and have found some ruins of alien civilisations.

    Any other recommendations on science fiction novels dealing with this topic?

    • The Ring of Charon and The Shattered Sphere, though the Fermi Paradox is really brought to the forefront in the second book, The Shattered Sphere. Very cool and interesting series with very cool antagonists.

    • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, among other things, is about the division of the galaxy into zones of thought depending on gravity. Humans are alone not because no other civilizations exist, but because Earth was located in a deep gravity well, which some humans luckily broke free of…anyway, check it out, it’s a fantastic book.

    • LordOfBran

      Fiasco by Stainislaw Lem explicitly discusses the Fermi Paradox. Though they’re not alone in the universe, it’s a first contact mission, but there’s a bunch of exposition/speculation on why detecting other civilizations is so rare and difficult.

    • Ruthe Ng

      The Galactic Center series by Greg Benford deals with it.

    • Fallen Dragon by Peter F. Hamilton is fantastic where it is initially implied that Earth is the only place where life can be found before interstellar travel and the rise of planetary colonists but, as it progresses, extraterrestrial life is not necessarily carbon-based and we might be the new kids but we certainly aren’t the first. A very cool read.

  4. Great read. I think Contact shows an interesting view of a world with aliens in it that aren’t abundantly obvious.

    They Live also gives a reason why there are aliens and yet there doesn’t appear to be any aliens.

  5. I think the human race would be better off, If aliens rocked up one day, told us that Religion is all false and to get over it. that way we could stop killing each other over which invisible sky demon is better.

  6. As a biologist, I feel like none of these movies touch upon the most obvious problem with the Fermi Paradox: namely, that the evolution of intelligence (of the type that would be necessary to build advanced spaceships and communication systems that could reach us on Earth) is really, really rare. If you think about it, the most successful and common organisms on Earth are bacteria, and they’re not intelligent at all. So, the universe could conceivably be full of planets that contain life, but we wouldn’t know they exist because their life has no intelligence and therefore no ability to make contact.

    That being said, one of the takes on intelligent aliens that I find most interesting is in the anime “Birdy the Mighty: Decode.” In that series, the planets basically represent different kinds of countries, with Earth being treated as a third-world country and the planet the alien heroine is from seeming more like a first-world country.

  7. There are two possibilities:

    Either we are alone in the universe
    Or we are not

    Either one is equally terrifying

    (Cliff Richard, 1973)

  8. Surrealist

    We came from space just like everything else in the universe. No giant turtles, no flying horses.

    I guess we are the aliens. And someone has to be first.

    • I really doubt we are first. I go for the anhilation theory. I suspect there have been many intelligent species throughout the history of the galaxy, but none has lasted long enough to overlap with another, close enough together, while both are ‘looking’.

  9. Florencio

    Alone or not, it’s high time we started protecting what we have. Whether or not there is life elsewhere, we do know it is here on Earth. We have a moral duty to look after our planet and all its inhabitant species. And the existence or non-existence of life elsewhere has no impact on that duty.

  10. The podcast We Have Concerns has a great episode on this paradox.

  11. Alien Nation made in 1988 is a crime drama about an alien spaceship that crashed in Los Angeles and how they integrated into society, following an alien detective and his human partner on a case. If anyone is interested in delving this further than this article, I recommend this one.

    • Man, Mandy Patinkin is perfect in this. The TV show was good, too. I sat down one afternoon and caught an entire block on Starz of the made-for-tv movies they released during the shows initial run. They had quite a few of them.

      • I loved watching the TV show when I was a kid. I should go back and watch it again.

  12. Treasures

    Just as a way of exploring the human condition, there was a movie made long before Arrival where a man has contact with aliens, and he is given the ability to see things as they do: As a totality, with no beginning or end, an entire life observed in any sequence you choose. The character, Billy Pilgrim, referred to the phenomenon as being “unstuck in Time.”

    The movie: The nifty adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It was directed by George Roy Hill in between his two biggest hits, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. It’s a melancholy, whimsical film that you might find reminds you of something made by Wes Anderson.

    You all need to give this a go!

  13. could this apply to game encounters with aliens such as the covenant?

  14. Interesting analysis. I think one of the things often overlooked, though, is just how vast space is. Even if there is intelligent life out there, the odds of them being able to contact us is made difficult by the fact that there is so much distance to be covered. This is something that Interstellar had to deal with, and why it made sense that the “alien species” that was helping humanity turned out to just be humanity itself; that seems far more likely than another species finding us and being able to provide us with the technology to travel vast distances within the lifespan of humanity.

  15. Emanuel

    I don’t know if aliens exist but I do know we’ll have to colonise other planets because we’re destroying this one. The reason we exist is the (probably) unique attributes of our world and living on some planet without oxygen and trees is really going to suck.

    • We are not destroying Earth, we are changing its biosphere to make it less hospitable to life, ie us. The planet will still be here long after we are gone.

  16. Possibly, intelligent life is just waiting to see whether or not we annihilate ourselves or not first, before they bother trying to contact us?

  17. Prometheus directly relates to the topic and is one of the only movies out there that has anything serious to say on the subject. I know a lot of people out there hate the movie, but an intelligent person who wants to see a movie about first contact will undoubtedly find it entertaining and stimulating.

    It has a unique perspective on the subject I haven’t seen in any of the 400+ sci-fi movies I’ve seen.

  18. Ingeborg

    If an advanced alien species exists with the ability to travel across light years of space, it surely has the ability to conceal itself from us. Even the americans have stealth technology. Thus having studied our species discretely, hidden by their technology, they have wisely decided that it is best to avoid our violent,primitive, destructive race.

    • I reckon the aliens are us. We’ve been dumped on this planet as a sentence for criminal behaviour, in the hope that we will improve…..so far it’s not looking good.

  19. If communicating with life from other planets may prove impossible, what about life from other dimensions? There is a change the could have evolved similarly. I love TV and film that explores these questions.

  20. The best way to describe an “alien” (in the “Extraterrestrial Life Form” sense of the word):
    “It is not like us. It’s unlike us.” (From the 2018 movie “Annihilation”)
    This definition solves once and for all the so-called “Ferni Paradox”.

  21. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    A good essay. An interesting way of looking at potential First Contact (using the Star Trek terminology).

  22. One of Asimov’s books “The Gods Themselves” provides arguments for a variety of the perspectives in this article. While the search for extraterrestrial intelligence continues, we can’t deny the very real possibility of alien existence in the universe. One of my most favorite forms of discussion of such a concept is the Drake Equation. The next step of course would be the subject of the article, assuming we do make Contact, how do we go about it? I feel we are still a long way to becoming fluent in communicating as a species, and so many of the challenges displayed above will certainly be present if we are thrust in said situation.

  23. Dr. Vishnu Unnithan

    I recently happened to check out the Skyline series. Do not go in expecting too much and you will be happy.
    On a side note, Koi Mil Gaya is an Indian film which spawned the Krrish franchise and had strong parallels with ET.

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