Watching the Dragon dock with the International Space Station, just in time for “Star Wars Day,” I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever happened to the days when humans were the aggressors in space?
I don’t mean in the actual world.
I mean in the world that matters — our imaginative universe.
From “Flash Gordon” to “Star Trek” to the original “Star Wars,” our popular imagination used to be rife with human beings flying from one end of the galaxy to the other and showing the aliens who was boss. Or at least exploding the occasional planet.
But these days, every time I find myself at the megaplex, the aliens are the aggressors. From “Avengers” to “Battleship” to “Star Trek” to “Thor,” all the way back to “Independence Day,” we can’t catch a break! They have come with their air-swimming ship-fish to destroy Manhattan! They have come with their water-swimming ship-ships to battle our navy in the deep! They are going to drill a hole through the planet and turn us into a black hole! They are going to, er, slightly damage a small underpopulated town, using mythical robot things — but wait for the sequel! They are going to anger Will Smith!
My point is, we’ve spent more than a decade on the defensive.
The few times we do make it off the planet, we are immediately beaten back by aliens who turn out to be bluer, wiser, more cat-like versions of ourselves, with larger stores of unobtainium.
Stephen Hawking said we should be terrified of interacting with our alien brethren.
“If aliens ever visit us,” he said, “I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
If you see aliens, ignore them. Do not make eye contact. Move along, and let them go about their business.
And Stephen Hawking would generally know.
But that’s in real life.
Movies are supposed to offer an escape. And recently the kind of escape they offer human protagonists is the frantic and scrambling kind, away from massively over-equipped extraterrestrial visitors. Sure, we beat back the monsters in the end. But it’s always close, and we lose large chunks of masonry and major cities.
Even “War of the Worlds,” one of the oldest of the alien invasion genre, was pessimistic about our capacity to fight.
The Earth is a fragile teaspoon of blue color in an immense darkness. They come. They have us outmanned, outarmed (sometimes they literally have a higher number of arms), out-technologied. Not a single one of them has ever heard of Weinergate. They are, in a word, ready to take charge.
But I am not ready to let them.
For a while, we could at least imagine ourselves to be masters of the universe.
If we can’t even win and look outward and adventure on film, then we are pretty much stuck. Space program? Leave that to Newt Gingrich. Forget moving onwards and outwards. The watchword of the hour is hunkering down and hoping the Visitors will pass. Still, if I have to watch one more movie where a tiny, plucky band of earthlings is hunted down by savvier aliens with superior technology — I’m sure I’ll pony up my $13, but I won’t like it.
If we can actually get our space station to capture the Dragon by the tail, we should be able to imagine something better. Imagination is the easy part.
At any rate it used to be.