You know the score: some inhuman creature that looks suspiciously like a puppet, a wireframe model or a digitally created monstrosity pulled from the depth of the uncanny valley, looks at the lead actor as they cry, or beg for mercy, or plead for their lover’s life, or offer to sacrifice themselves in exchange for clemency on the human race, or whatever noble act the writer pulled out of his backside for the climax of act three, and the beast pauses to stare at the frail representative of our species and says
“You Humans Are Strange…”
Whether its a giant tree talking to a child whose mother is dying of cancer in A Monster Calls or the latest Big Grey Monster troubling the handsome-white-men-called-Chris of a superhero team up, it is a trope we’ve heard a million times before. Alien Nation, Age of Ultron, Justice League, Avatar, Dark City, The Matrix, Starman, Terminator 2, War of the Worlds, any of the galaxy of Star Trek movies and TV shows, Transformers, all of them and many, many more feature some variation of this line. It’s a fascination with humanity that typically ‘stays the hand’ or prompts to action an alien or foreign intelligent species (I say ‘foreign’ because, lest we forget, good ol’ Colonialist Brits are often depicted — correctly — as looking at a native tribe as if they were some type of interesting mould scraped from a Petri dish). It implies that whatever type of noble or advanced creature it is: a Navee, a sentient AI, a sentimental tree or a camp, golden droid, our uniquely human foibles are regarded as worthy of interest or at least not worth devouring…. immediately. Charming, isn’t it? Well no, actually, it’s pretty damn arrogant if you think about it. First of all let’s frame the quote correctly. It isn’t an alien or a monster or an AI saying this to a representative of our species it is a writer/actor/director saying the line to another actor and, by extension, the smelly, popcorn-munching prole that sits in the dark to watch their movie. Now you could read that as a screenwriter believing he is above the dregs of mere humanity — and I know I certainly do — or, probably more accurately, it could be read as a human trying to justify his existence in a cold, dark, meaningless universe by endowing humanity a nobility they think it deserves. And this is the problem.
Whenever you tell a story about humanity encountering something larger — literally, in most cases — than itself you come up against what Philosopher Edmund Burke called ‘The Sublime’. Sublime in this context isn’t the word you use when eating Francois’ warm mousseline of Sussex chicken stuffed with cave matured Roquefort and fresh harvested walnuts, it’s the word you use when you are in awe of something (again, referring to ‘Awe’ as something being ‘Awesome’, does not mean the sweet kick flip Randy just did but a spectacle so monumental it envelopes you into its shadow). The Sublime is the sensation that occurs when you go to Yosemite State Park or stand on the beach and stare at the ocean or look up at the stars on a cloudless night; an existential thrill prompted by the vastness and greatness of nature. It’s also really fucking scary. It’s healthy, to be reminded you don’t mean shit and actually breaking Jessica’s phone wasn’t worth the three hours of crying and walking the neighbourhood you did, but equally, y’know, it’s also pretty depressing. Now, we can confront this kind of existential quandary in a number of ways. You could climb that awe-inspiring mountain that set you into a spin and conquer your implied insignificance by sticking a flag at the top and making it an extension of your genitalia — sorry, I mean ‘Nation’. Or you could be a total wet, weed and write a poem about it or something. OR you could lean into it and understand that the search for meaning in an uncaring world is pointless and we create meaning in spite of gargantuan threats to our sense of self.
Some computer generated monstrosity being given pause by, what is on a cosmic scale, a pointless act of self-sacrifice for another human being that will die anyway eventually, is a TITANIC bit of arrogance by the human race. The monster is the Sublime Figure; the Hound of the Baskervilles; the first train captured on film that made 19th century viewers faint (the PUSSIES); an unstoppable, unfathomable, beast that is a stand in for all that stuff Burke was writing about and makes us feel small and scared and alone. Being able to reason with the monster and it feeling a swell of pity implies that the mountain, or the ocean, or the stars gives two hoots about us. What do you think about when you kill a cockroach? Or a spider? I doubt very much you look upon the rat that inhabits your walls as it flees the sweeping spotlight of your iPhone torch and returns to its nest to protect its children, and say “Ah, we are not so different you and I…” No, you lay down a trap to capture it, or straight up call a squad of people in hazmat suits to GAS THE CREATURES TO DEATH. This ‘Curious Alien’ trope in fiction is, in fact, a human desperately trying to reconcile their insignificance with an inflated sense of self-worth on a global or galactic scale.
If I were feeling charitable (and I’m NOT), I could say, when the monster says “You Humans Are Strange…” that this is another human saying that to the rest of us. An observation of humanity by a human. Because I don’t know if you noticed, but we ARE really fucking weird. We made fidget spinners, eat tide pods and let Jeff Bezos off his taxes when Flint, Michigan still doesn’t have clean water. As self criticism, this trope works, in the context it is usually framed in however, it does not. Think of it like this: It’s very easy for Rob to make fun of ‘Piss-Pants Charlie’ because they’re friends but if a stranger were to say that, Rob would get all chivalrous and defend Charlie with his life. For a story to imply that we mean ANYTHING outside of our own creations is silly, but having a nominal representative of that meaninglessness say “Hold up, that was straight up noble what you did there. Good job buddy” and then pat you on the head, is both kind of pathetic and really arrogant.
So the next time you watch a movie or read a book and some ineffable monstrosity from beyond the stars does anything other than completely ignore and then flatten the protagonist, know that the film-maker or screenwriter is secretly telling you to stop using TikTok. I’m paraphrasing, obviously.