He does, however, sense an overall increase in alien movies in the last two decades. But this trend may have more to do with geopolitical developments than scientific ones, he said.
"I think that they became popular after the collapse, in 1991, of the Soviet Union," Shostak told SPACE.com. "You still needed bad guys in movies, and all of a sudden your favorite bad guys — who came from behind the Iron Curtain — they weren't available anymore."
Aliens were a natural choice to wrest this role from the Russians, according to Shostak. First of all, aliens won't complain about being caricatured or typecast. [Q&A With 'Cowboys & Aliens' Writer Damon Lindelof]
"There's no anti-defamation league, if you will, for the aliens," Shostak said. "And they have another advantage: They don't ask for residuals. They're cheap. You have to computer-animate them, that's true, but that's a lot cheaper than hiring a big-time Hollywood star."
Indeed, computer-generated imagery (CGI) has matured significantly over the past few decades, roughly paralleling the rise in alien films that Shostak sees. Perkowitz thinks that's no coincidence.
"They can make really spectacular and persuasive aliens now, which they couldn't do 30 years ago," Perkowitz said. "Thirty years ago, you had a guy jumping around in an alien suit. Now it's much more realistic."
Hooking kids on science
Both Perkowitz and Shostak said they're usually happy to see aliens rendered on celluloid, however clumsily or sensationally.
"In general, I think almost anything Hollywood does with science and technology, even if it's not quite right, is a good thing, because it's some level of exposure," Perkowitz said.
Shostak stressed the emotional hold that movies can have on kids. Compelling sci-fi films can plant a seed of curiosity in youngsters, spurring them to investigate scientific issues on their own — and perhaps even become scientists down the road.
"These films can have a big impact," Shostak said.
That impact can extend into the social and cultural arenas, Perkowitz said. Films about aliens can alert moviegoers to issues that would be difficult or controversial to treat in a straightforward fashion.
He pointed to "District 9," a 2009 South African film that many viewers — including Perkowitz — read as a comment on the evils of apartheid.
"You can talk about really serious social issues in a metaphorical way by using aliens instead of people of a different color, a different culture, a different race or whatever," Perkowitz said. "We can use aliens as stand-ins for what humans do to each other."
© 2011 TechMediaNetwork.com. All rights reserved.