I think we can all agree that one of the finest moments of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” is the 1963 episode “To Serve Man.” A race of 9-foot-tall aliens, the Kanamits, arrive on Earth and immediately introduce its citizens to all sorts wonders: Machines that provide inexpensive power, stop war, end famine. While visiting the United Nations, one of the aliens inadvertently leaves behind a book. The title is, when translated from their native language, “To Serve Man.”
But this is “The Twlight Zone,” and so there’s a spectacular twist to the story. Humans are volunteering for the opportunity to visit the world of these benevolent aliens. SPOILER ALERT! As the main character, a U.S. government cryptographer, climbs the stairs to the alien spaceship for his own trip to the Kanamits’ planet, one of his co-workers frantically rushes though the crowd. She’s translated enough of the book to shout a warning to him: “‘To Serve Man’… It’s a cookbook!”
Alas, she’s too late. The Kanamits will be having cryptographer for dinner.
That’s the way it always goes when we look up. Up to the stars. From H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” to Ed Woods’ “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” it’s always bad news for Earthlings. As the late physicist Stephen Hawking said, we need to keep our heads low: “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans.”
Hawking figured if grumpy space travelers in search of minerals to plunder didn’t get us, then we’d die by climate change, viruses, nuclear war or Artificial Intelligence run amuck.
Or Earth getting hit by a comet, causing an extinction-level catastrophe. Hawking was worried about that as well.
What a Gloomy Gus, that Hawking was.
With Hawking in mind, the big news from the cosmos this week is a 3,500-foot wide meteor is heading for Earth at about 47,344 miles per hour. Just to get an idea of what astronomers are talking about, the Empire State Building is 1,454 feet tall, including that big antenna on top made famous by King Kong. So 7482 (1994 PC1), as the astronomers have romantically named this new meteor, is about 2½ times bigger than some of our best architecture.
What a mess that meteor would make if it collided with our planet. Fortunately, when 7482 (1994 PC1) arrives on the afternoon of Jan. 18 – SPOILER ALERT! – it will miss us by a mere 1.2 million miles.
That’s if the astronomers are telling us the truth, of course.
In “Don’t Look Up,” Earth doesn’t get so lucky.
This is the Netflix film that everyone I hang around with is talking about. “Don’t Look Up” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy, a nerdy Michigan State University astrophysicist professor. Working with one of his students, Kate Dibiasky, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, a comet is discovered heading straight for Earth. A certain cosmic collision is just six months away.
That’s time enough for satire. As “Don’t Look Up” unfolds, we watch science and reality corrupted by celebrity and populism. The first opportunity that Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky have to deliver their warning is on a morning television talk show. It doesn’t go well. The airhead hosts are more interested in the troubled marriage of a couple of pop stars than the demise of all life on the planet.
Ignoring the peril, the worst of us try to cash in on this cash cow from space. Politicians eagerly point to the jobs that will be created by mining its valuable comet. Dr. Mindy is hailed as “America’s Sexiest Scientist.”
One of the criticisms I read of “Don’t Look Up” is that President Janie Orlean, played by Meryl Streep and sporting a “Don’t Look Up” baseball cap, is too ridiculously shallow and self-absorbed to be leader of the free world. Really? Does anyone remember that guy in the MAGA cap? I’d say she nailed it.
Interestingly, as “Don’t Look Up” was being created, it was intended as satire excoriating world indifference to climate change. But now, it’s also a direct hit on today’s politics of division over COVID and vaccines. “Don’t Look Up” means pay no attention to the danger closing in on the planet. Our leaders are playing the politics of distraction as a frustrated Dr. Mindy wails, “What we’re really trying to say is get your head out of your ass!”
Don’t Look Up. Don’t believe what you see.
By the way, the nerdy-looking DiCaprio looks a lot like Dr. Peter Hotez. But DiCaprio is merely an actor. Hotez is the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. The guy on all of the cable news shows talking about COVID 19.
What would you do on the day the world will end? Dr. Mindy and Dibiasky choose fellowship with friends and relatives at a dinner party.
The meteor arrives.
SPOILER ALERT… And there, the world as we know it ends.
Yet faced with what appears to be certain death, President Orlean and her smarmy elites have escaped the planet on a spaceship. Locked away in cryochambers, after 22,740 years they emerge from the ship, naked and filled with wonder, to find themselves on a planet that looks like primordial Earth.
What happens next was foreshadowed earlier in the film, when President Orlean is told that an algorithm predicts, “You’re going to be eaten by a bronteroc. We don’t know what it means.”
FINAL SPOILER ALERT! Never argue with an algorithm. A bronteroc turns out to be an emu-like dinosaur creature on the new planet. Kinda cute. With foofy feathers (As a dinosaur enthusiast, I applaud this acknowledgement that paleontologists now believe that some dinosaurs carried a smattering of feathers). After greeting the newcomers with curiosity, the bronteroc suddenly attacks and eats President Orlean, as more of the creatures close in on her devious cohorts.
The good guys didn’t win. The bad guys didn’t win. A very satisfying ending.
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