[spoiler warning] This reveals key plot points in Ridley Scott’s 2012 movie Prometheus.
A spaceship arrives on an unexplored planet. The crew emerge from hibernation and trek across a wasteland in search of life. In the beginning, they wear space suits which are progressively discarded as they realise the atmosphere is not as toxic as it first appears. Finally, they discover what appears to be an extraterrestrial civilisation.
That is more or less the plot of Prometheus, but it could also describe the original Planet of the Apes (1968). This is one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie. For all its fantastic special effects, Prometheus is old-fashioned sci-fi. The discomfort of interstellar travel feels more ‘real’ than science fantasy in the style of Star Wars.
Like all writers of science-fiction, the film makers come up against a key problem. The humans have to engage with the alien culture. It’s the first contact between two groups who need to find a common language. In Planet of the Apes, it’s easy. Everyone just speaks English. Doctor Who takes the same approach.
Aliens in Star Wars do use other languages with subtitles, but everyone seems to understand each other. Han Solo chats away in English while Greedo jabbers at him, and they never have a communications breakdown (unless blasting your drinking companion with a laser gun counts).
The original Star Trek TV series had numerous examples of first contact. Generally speaking, the god-like aliens spoke English (and sometimes floated around space dressed as Abraham Lincoln). The Klingons were English speakers too, and only developed their own language when the movies came around. In other cases, the crew of the Enterprise had to find more original ways of communicating with aliens. Spock could use the ‘mind meld’: a sort of telepathic communication. This allowed him to understand simple ideas, such as the sense of pain experienced by the rock-like alien in the 1967 episode The Devil in the Dark.
Prometheus gets round this problem in a neat way. The aliens, ‘the engineers’, are believed to be the creators of humanity. So David, an android, is programmed to study earth’s ancient languages in an attempt to learn a sort of universal sanscript. It isn’t clear whether the engineer fully understands David when he uses this Ur-speak. The alien picks the robot up, tears his head off, and then sets off to annihilate the human race. As you do.
It’s very authentic that David’s attempt at communication is apparently unsuccessful, and also that he and the alien speak without subtitles. This is a brave decision on the part of the film makers. It is rare that the audience is left out of the loop in this way. Yet in the hands of a talented director, drama can be generated without using English.
Look at other genres. First contact in sci-fi is just a mirror of the first contact between peoples on earth when they started to explore further afield.
In Westerns, a fascinating example is A Man Called Horse (1970). In this picture, John Morgan, an English aristocrat, is captured by the Sioux and kept as a prisoner by the tribe. Astonishingly, a huge part of the film takes place in the Sioux language, with no subtitles. Morgan is not particularly adept at this himself. By the middle-point of the movie, he barely knows a handful of words. His only point of contact is another captive who speaks a mixture of French and English. For their part, the Sioux never learn any words of Morgan’s language except for his first name. Nevertheless, there is a huge amount of drama throughout the film as the two groups learn about each other’s culture.
Science-fiction film makers rarely go down this route. It runs too many risks of failure. With millions of dollars at stake, no producer is going to risk alienating their audience by using incomprehensible dialogue. So it seems that for the time being, Ridley Scott and his team will remain a brave exception in a universe where otherwise everyone speaks English.