Who’s Out There?: Orson Welles Narrates a Documentary Asking Whether There’s Extraterrestrial Life in the Universe (1975)

Does intel­li­gent life exist else­where in the uni­verse? The ques­tion has cap­ti­vat­ed humankind for cen­turies upon cen­turies; long before the X‑Files pop­u­lar­ized the dec­la­ra­tion, we’ve want­ed to believe. But this curios­i­ty-dri­ven desire goes hand-in-hand with mor­tal fear: what if intel­li­gent life does exist else­where in the uni­verse, and it decides to come to Earth and exter­mi­nate us? Turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry sci-fi mas­ter H.G. Wells tapped into that emo­tion­al cur­rent with The War of the Worlds; forty years lat­er, Orson Welles tapped it deep­er still with his adap­ta­tion of Wells’ nov­el, “a cer­tain noto­ri­ous radio broad­cast which some of you may remem­ber.”

That’s how Welles puts it from the nar­ra­tor’s seat of Who’s Out There?, a half-hour tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­tary orig­i­nal­ly broad­cast in 1971. “It starts off strong with its Doc­tor Who-esque cred­its sequence,” writes io9’s Katharine Tren­da­cos­ta. “Then Welles talks about becom­ing friends with H.G. Wells after his infa­mous War of the Worlds radio play. Then they inter­view peo­ple who had been scared by the broad­cast. It gets bare­ly more nor­mal as it goes on. Once Carl Sagan showed up, my head explod­ed.”

I lis­tened to Welles’ War of the Worlds over and over again on tape as a kid, but by that time it had already passed into the realm of his­tor­i­cal arti­fact. When Who’s Out There? debuted, how­ev­er, that infa­mous Hal­loween broad­cast had aired less than 35 years before (Who’s Out There? itself, by com­par­i­son, aired 45 years ago), so the fright it caused remained in liv­ing mem­o­ry. Even more recent­ly, David Bowie had cap­i­tal­ized artis­ti­cal­ly on a new wave of out­er-space fas­ci­na­tion with “Space Odd­i­ty” in 1969 and, more direct­ly, “Life on Mars?” two years lat­er.

“Life on Mars?” acts as more or less the ani­mat­ing ques­tion of this doc­u­men­tary, which both exam­ines the then-cur­rent evi­dence for such a phe­nom­e­non, on the Red Plan­et or else­where, and pon­ders why we so often assume that vis­i­tors from out­er space will come with malev­o­lent inten­tions. (Welles won­ders aloud if it has to do with our hav­ing named Mars after the Roman god of war, and I sup­pose he has a point.) Still, our curios­i­ty has­n’t gone away, as evi­denced by Exo­Mars, the joint mis­sion of the Euro­pean Space Agency and the Russ­ian Fed­er­al Space Agency which today launch­es probes out to search for, yes, life on mars. If who­ev­er’s out there won’t come to us, well then, we’ll just have to go to them.

Find more doc­u­men­taries in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

via io9

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells in 1940: The Leg­ends Dis­cuss War of the Worlds, Cit­i­zen Kane, and WWII

Leonard Nimoy Nar­rates Short Film About NASA’s Dawn: A Voy­age to the Ori­gins of the Solar Sys­tem

The Great Leonard Nimoy Reads H.G. Wells’ Sem­i­nal Sci-Fi Nov­el The War of the Worlds

Carl Jung’s Fas­ci­nat­ing 1957 Let­ter on UFOs

Free NASA eBook The­o­rizes How We Will Com­mu­ni­cate with Aliens

Future Shock: Orson Welles Nar­rates a 1972 Film About the Per­ils of Tech­no­log­i­cal Change

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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