Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Alderaan Effect

In our continuing efforts to explore and enlighten - this blog is, if nothing else, intended first and foremost as source of education - we wanted to discuss a phenomenon of some intrigue.

We call it the Alderaan Effect.

Existing primarily in science fiction and fantasy works, the Alderaan Effect refers to a carefully constructed scenario in which an entire world, culture, or civilization is annihilated without disrupting the upbeat, action-packed flow of the story.

This little understood and largely unstudied phenomenon is of course named for Leia Organa's home world, destroyed in Star Wars with only a few moments of reflection.  Fundamentally, the action had no major emotional effect on the audience, nor was it meant to.  Instead, it was done to make the villains seem more villainous.

Of course, this single act of destruction makes conventional genocide seem civil in comparison: the death of a world should, by rights, be horrific beyond belief.  To play this down in a manner that doesn't enrage or disgust the viewer requires care and balance.

We saw this more recently in last summer's Star Trek reboot.  If you've yet to see this film, you should be aware that spoilers follow.

At any rate, the movie involved the destruction of Vulcan and the deaths of untold billions.  The movie wasted little time grieving, instead moving on to further adventure and excitement.  While there was some sorrow at the loss of Spock's mother, the primary emotions displayed were rage and determination.

It occurs to us that this seems relatively consistent in applications of the Alderaan Effect.  If we are shown the pain that would doubtlessly be caused by such a horrific loss of life, we would likely dwell on that.  If we are instead shown righteous rage, we can instead sit back and enjoy the show.  In addition, there are barriers between the audience and those who perish.  The citizens of Alderaan are never shown, and the Vulcans who die are, by and large, emotionless beings we can disassociate with.

And, in both cases, those responsible get their comeuppance.

Variations of the Alderaan Effect exist in countless movies, such as Independence Day, Zombieland, and even Galaxy Quest, where we learn in a side note that the peace-loving aliens we've been following are the last of their race.  We expect a similar strategy is employed in 2012, but we haven't enough interest in the movie to go find out.

On some level, the Alderaan Effect is deeply troubling, reflecting our ability to overlook the horrors that are just beyond our perspective.  On the other hand, it makes for good movies.

And besides, the films we've discussed have nothing on DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths....


Jennifer said...

Dude - please see "2012" in a theater. Read the Roger Ebert review:

It's not a totally positive review, but he hits the nail on the head. It's the mother and father of all disaster movies ever. It's amazing to behold. I was squirming around in my seat.

Oh yeah - and interesting article/post! :)

Erin Snyder said...

Sorry, I only watch disaster movies when there are aliens and/or monsters. Or when they're made by SciFi. And, since I refuse to recognize them under the name SyFy, it's down to aliens and monsters now.