For twenty hours on ten consecutive weeknights, the Sci-Fi channel aired what one critic calls "the most ambitious sci-fi epic ever produced" for television: Steven Spielberg Presents Taken.
As the name suggests, the man who brought us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. is revisiting the subject of aliens coming to Earth. While twenty hours may seem a bit excessive, it really isn’t when we understand what lies behind our interest in the subject.
The premise of Taken is one that, by now, is familiar to most Americans: Aliens regularly come to Earth, abduct ordinary people, take them to their ships, and then return them.
The world depicted in Taken is divided into two camps. In one are the true believers: people who claim to have been abducted, their families, and those who believe them. In the other are those who would cover up the truth about aliens.
Spielberg’s longstanding fascination with the question of UFOs and aliens grows out of his conviction that we are not alone in the universe. Spielberg has often wondered publicly why the stories told by alleged abductees are so similar.
One obvious reason is that the people who allege to have been abducted reflect the cultural influence of his own films. But there’s another, more important reason: People hunger for God and the transcendent. And in these science-fiction films and stories, the supposed UFOs fill the role once played by the biblical God.
The aliens on Taken aren’t E.T. As television critic Tom Shales put it, while they’re not monsters, they haven’t exactly come to Earth to borrow a cup of sugar either. They have their own mysterious and presumably higher purposes.
Actress Heather Donahue, who appears in the series, admitted as much when she said that the "desire to have faith in something" is "the main theme of the show."
Modern science has told us to view ourselves as a cosmic accident. At the same time, as philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler has written, human beings want to believe in a providential God, someone or something that cares for us. This longing for God is built into us—the imago Dei.
Stories about alien visitors are a way of dealing with our sense of being alone and our estrangement from our religious and spiritual roots. This isn’t new. The creatures depicted in science fiction and horror have nearly always represented our hopes and fears about ourselves and the world we live in.
The difference is that this time, we’re treating the creatures as if they were real and attaching—literally—cosmic significance to that belief. We depict them as having many of the same characteristics once reserved for God: They’re always powerful, usually peaceful, and have much to teach us about how to live our lives—like E.T.
In the end, of course, our fascination with E.T. and company, on the one hand, proves the longing we have for the real thing. But sadly, Spielberg and company give us only a distraction, a pallid substitute that will never answer our true alienation.
The subject of Taken is especially pertinent this time of year. During Advent, Christians celebrate both Christ’s first coming and anticipate His return in glory. If your friends or neighbors are fascinated with Taken and alien tales, use the occasion to tell them about the real thing—the One who truly did come from heaven, not to abduct, but to save us.
By Charles Colson