Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Indiana Jones and E.T.

“They’re archaeologists!” says an obviously pleased Henry Jones when he discovers that aliens have an interest in human cultural history.

It’s a throw-away line in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the latest installment of the popular (and lucrative) Indiana Jones franchise. This ongoing cinematic success – in case you’ve been living in a bank vault since 1981 – features a slouch-hatted professor who is as practiced with his fists as he is with off-handedly dishing out Olmec and Mayan history.

The premise of the "Crystal Skull" is that aliens have come to Earth. Jones' mission – which he takes on only under duress – will eventually get them to leave. Lamentably, the story line is less than crystal clear, and credibility is flagrantly absent. But when Indiana mutters “they’re archaeologists,” he's hitting on a possibility that Hollywood has seldom considered.

In nearly every other film in which extraterrestrials have alighted on our planet, their intentions are malevolent or insipid. They either blow the place apart (e.g., “Independence Day”) or help neighborhood kids have fun (e.g., “E.T.”)

But what would motivate real aliens to come to Earth? Detonating the White House – while amusing in its own way, and probably without consequence – hardly sounds like a project justifying a trip of hundreds of light-years. A romp with the local rug rats is similarly implausible.

Equally suspect are scenarios in which the extraterrestrials have come for the water or other natural resources. These are substances they can find much closer to home, thereby ensuring that the transport costs don’t dominate the price tag.

But what the aliens can’t find at home – what is inevitably special in a universe where chemistry and physics are everywhere the same – is culture. Our physics texts will inevitably mirror theirs. But our art works, music, and literature won't.

Most Tinsel Town narratives about invading creatures from far-off worlds are tough to swallow. The latest Indiana Jones piece isn't easy to ingest, either. It's thoroughly preposterous in a thousand different ways. But when it comes to why real aliens might find our world, or the worlds of other sentient species, worth the travel – the whip-wielding professor may have made a discovery.


Roberta in NZ said...

I recall that the Jean-Luc Picard character from Star Trek:TNG was a keen archaeologist when he got the opportunity, so Hollywood (as it were) isn't completely unaware of the potential for spacefarers to be interested in the past. As you suggest, fertile ground for the future perhaps? Hmm - *thinks* there may be an opportunity here ...(chuckle)

Anonymous said...

A fascinating possibility that I had incredibly *never* considered. I always took the HG Wells "we are nothing more than insects to them" approach to interpreting how ET might view us.

But it's true, whatever culture and art ET possesses, ours would be unique and different. ET need not be obsessively interested in humanity but merely have a desire for information to wish to study our cultural history and art...

Ren said...

Someone once said, maybe on your program, that civilizations seem to perish when they stop exploring. Maybe space-faring civilizations that make it all the way out here will do so only because they are explorers, not necessarily conquerors.

Gabriel said...

I think the idea of a well intetioned alien civilization is not quite new. It strongly reminds me of the depiction of the aliens in Carl Sagan’s Contact, with their cooperative, helpful approach. Despite realizing all the iniquities of mankind, they finally share their knowledge due to the creative genius of Beethoven’s music, heard in the 1936 broadcast. So in Sagan’s point of view our culture may be fascinating enough to get E.T. to call. At least, let us hope so.

Lourdes / Hypatia said...

I agree, just wanted to add that the final quote "they treasure knowledge" was inspirational

Futurist said...

I found aliens in Indiana Jones a bit suspect (maybe George Lucas had been writing science fiction for too long) but that's a good way to look at it.
But I bet that culture would be of secondary importance to biology, perhaps Indy would have been more likely to encounter alien palaeontologists than archaeologists.

I enjoyed this particular episode, as I had only seen the movie several days before, it was a pleasant surprise while (all too rapidly) going through your backlog on my mp3 player.