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Aliens From the Deep

Ocean creatures have inspired some of the most famous Hollywood extraterrestrials

Widdersbiolumjellyfish-OceanRiver
© Ocean River

Many of us look up to the stars and wonder if there’s life up there. I look down into the deep ocean and while it is on our planet, it is as mysterious, or perhaps even more so. And we know there is life down there—very, very weird life. Every once in a while, a new species is discovered in the ocean that makes you think is this a joke? There are creatures that look like silly string, blobfish and the unfortunately named “Grumpy Cat” of the ocean: the sarcastic fringehead.

It’s not surprising that when humans dream up aliens from far off planets they tend to seek inspiration from those otherworldly weirdos down below. After all, Jules Verne, one of the first science fiction writers, was not only fascinated by what humans might find on the moon but what lurked Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

Kang and Kodos in The Simpsons

Giant red octopus resting on a colorful seafloor.
© Richard Carey/Fotolia
These alien rapscallions appeared frequently in the Halloween episodes of The Simpsons. In their first appearance in a script, they were described as “an octopus in a space helmet with a trail of goo.” Honestly, if I were going to place bets on any ocean animal’s ability for world domination, it would be the octopus. They have large, condensed brain sections entirely dedicated to learning. Could they perhaps be learning things like human weaknesses or Machiavellian political maneuvers? We might never know… until it’s too late.

 

 

Facehugger in Alien

A small, white insect-like crustacean against a black background.
© Eric A. Lazo-Wasem
If you’ve seen Alien, you are all too familiar with the Facehugger. These sneaky creatures inspire fear and make for the coolest mask design I’ve ever seen. These parasites are inspired by a real and, really creepy, ocean creature. Phronima drift through the ocean looking for unsuspecting prey. Once they find a vulnerable creature they barrel in (literally), creating a barrel-shaped hole that kills their host. They then live in their new corpse home, having kids and riding the ocean waves. It’s the white picket fence fantasy that only Buffalo Bill could dream up.

 

The Martians in War of the Worlds

A brilliant red jellyfish with long, stringy tentacles against a black background.
© Ocean River
In his sequel to War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells calls his antagonists “squid-walkers.” In Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens still have those creepy tentacles but they used a different ocean creature as a model for their 150-foot-tall aliens: the jellyfish. Jellies are formidable foes: they can produce toxic venom, emit light and they possibly possess the secret to immortality. If earthling jellyfish ever grow to the size of small skyscrapers and learn how to walk on land, I’m totally happy to let them rule the Earth, you can hold me to that.

The Heptapods in Arrival

A white cuttlefish with brown stripes.
© Ethan Daniels

The director of Arrival looked at all sorts of ocean creatures for the design of the movie’s extraterrestrials, especially cephalopods like squids, octopuses and cuttlefish. Unlike their Earth cousins, the heptapods in Arrival have seven tentacles which is a significant choice. Most animals on earth have some sort of symmetry. Cephalopods are bilaterally symmetrical, which is a big fancy word you can use at parties to say that their left side matches their right side just like us! That symmetry affects how our brain and neural networks work. By choosing to go with an odd number, the heptapod’s designers are signaling that this alien thinks in a way different than us, which is (itty bitty spoiler alert) the central theme of the movie. However, not having two sides means they probably lose their ability to multitask as brilliantly as the cuttlefish. If swimming between an attractive female and a rival male they can transform half of their body into the appealing colors of love while switching the other half to a pattern that will make the other male back off. Sometimes two halves are better than one with seven tentacles, or… something like that.

The wonder of the ocean has been inspiring human storytellers since the dawn of time. Whether they are cast as alien creatures or down to earth heroes, we can thank them for sparking our imagination and delighting audiences everywhere. They might not be in the running for an Oscar, but they each deserve an award all the same.

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