Phone home: Aliens in film depict human history

Hollywood consistently depicts aliens differently. Emily Hower | Layout Editor

From “Transformers” to “E.T.,” no other media has had a turbulent fascination with aliens as film.

The science fiction genre would be moot without consideration of intelligent life somewhere in the infinite reaches of space. Filmmakers’ consideration of aliens and our contact with them has been an American fascination for most of cinema history, growing into a real phenomenon by the middle of the 20th century. The genre is rich with films that use aliens as antagonists to brilliant effect, from horror-crossover classics like “Alien” and “The Thing,” to modern genius strokes like “Edge of Tomorrow.”

From Méliès’ wonderful “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902 to the painstaking poetry of “2001: A Space Odyssey” to the numbing but popular clangs of the “Transformers” franchise, our culture has reflected the masses’ captivation with space and the creatures that we imagine inhabit it.

The period in which alien movies best reflected America’s collective consciousness was the McCarthy era of the ‘50s, where the first real upsurge of the genre coincided with the paranoia of our anti-communist ideology. Look no further than films as ominously titled  as the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956), “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) or the first theatrical adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” (1953).

But on the fringes, certain alien-centered films opt not for dread, but wonder — and this is often where our most enduring classics and more intellectual sci-fi thrives. An alien takeover plot is nice if you want to see Will Smith duke a guy in a suit, but where would cinema even be without Kubrick’s ambitiously magnificent “2001” (1968)?

The final sequence remains a beautifully ambiguous depiction of meeting life that has evolved far beyond our own civilization and remains a classic piece of cinema almost 50 years later. The film’s heavy reliance on images over dialogue, and sound in general, leaves most interpretation to the audience — a satisfying departure from the sinister depictions that saturated the genre before it.

In the late ‘70s, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) helped bring sci-fi back to mainstream consciousness alongside “Star Wars.” Spielberg’s fondness for sentimentality introduced an endearing depiction of alien visitors — perhaps the only ones to date to communicate with us through musical tones — that followed in many films of the following decades.

Five years after “Encounters,” Spielberg returned with “E.T.,” cementing another cultural and critical conception of friendly alien visitors into his sprawling legacy, expanding audiences by bringing aliens into more of a family-oriented realm than the horror/thriller genre.

In the 21st century, aliens continue to allure filmgoers with optimism and fear.  While the “Transformers” films and certain Marvel adventures both use aliens in almost absurdly spectacular fashion, they feel like cash grabs. In other modern entries that pose the possibility of disagreeable alien encounters with some valuable subtext, the gap between friendly and fearful reactions, and their effectiveness, seems just as polarized as ever.

Now a decade old, Spielberg’s massively underrated “The War of the Worlds” reboot (2005), for example, plays heavily on post-9/11 paranoia that stars Tom Cruise in a Yankees hat. The film’s New York setting notably combines a gritty realism with a modern take on H.G. Wells’ universal tale of galactic colonialism and survival.   

In 2009, “District 9” improved on some of the genre’s tropes by placing humanity at the forefront of darkly political inclinations like segregating aliens into ghettos and lean-to shacks, and unwarranted human authority figures’ hostility toward them. When compared to Michael Bay and others’ casual approach to the genre via crunching metal and bright colors, “District 9” and “The War of the Worlds” prove that great alien films take proper imagination and restraint.

Other recent films have had a more cerebral approach to aliens. The more implicit films like “Contact’”(1997) and “Interstellar” (2014) have striven for intellectualism about a connection to a more advanced civilization. Though each succeeds to arguable degrees of quality, these and others adhere to the sci-fi blueprint left by Kubrick in what is perhaps his greatest film.

Though “Interstellar” implies the possibility of higher intelligence in its final act, it is still involved in a trend in films that demonstrate a fascination with space itself. From Alfonso Cuarón’s technical masterpiece “Gravity” (2014) to Ridley Scott’s entertaining “The Martian” (2015) — both of which have earned sizable box office returns — it seems the race to create the definitive modern space epic is on.

The praise for each has hardly been unanimous, leading me to believe that the next classic space-set film is yet to come.

Going forward, aliens will no doubt remain part of our shared imagination through film. Our depiction of aliens and our response to them will remain both an intriguing and frustrating reaction to the unknown, perhaps even after we find the real thing — or they find us.

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