Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
When aliens visit Earth, they naturally assume cars run the world. It’s not such an outlandish idea anymore.
An alien spacecraft hovers above Earth. But before it lands, the super-intelligent creatures on board want to know what they’re getting into. So they carefully observe what they assume is the dominant life form on the planet: the car.
This extraterrestrial reconnaissance mission is the subject of an adorable animated short film made in 1966 by the National Film Board of Canada and brought to our attention by Alex Ihnen at NextSTL, a website promoting smart development in St. Louis, Missouri. Here’s how the film board describes this Oscar-nominated film, called “What on Earth! The Automobile Inherits the Planet”:
This animated short proposes what many earthlings have long feared—that the automobile has inherited the planet. When life on Earth is portrayed as one long, unending conga-line of cars, a crew of extra-terrestrial visitors understandably assume they are the dominant race. While humans, on the other hand, are merely parasites.
The film is a 50-year-old commentary on the dominance of cars in our lives, but it’s still relevant today. As Edward Humes recently wrote in The Atlantic:
The car is the star. That’s been true for well over a century—unrivaled staying power for an industrial-age, pistons-and-brute-force machine in an era so dominated by silicon and software. Cars conquered the daily culture of American life back when top hats and child labor were in vogue, and well ahead of such other innovations as radio, plastic, refrigerators, the electrical grid, and women’s suffrage.
The idea that cars might be self-sufficient entities independently navigating the planet isn’t just cute satire anymore; with the advent of driverless vehicles, it’s a real possibility. In one 10-minute visual package, this film is both a stark reminder of the persistent primacy of automobiles and a prediction of what that could look like in the near future.