Alien Encounters: The Super-Nice and the Ultra-Scary


Movie aliens typically come in one of two flavors: Super-nice or ultra-scary. The benevolent aliens spring from our desire to make contact with otherworldly creatures who mean us no harm and may have come to Earth for our benefit. The malevolent ones spring from our deepest darkest fears of the frightening unknown.

The latest alien movie to beam down is J.J. Abrams’ much buzzed-about, highly secretive Super 8. The film, which stars Kyle Chandler (“Friday Night Lights”) and Elle Fanning (Somewhere), focuses on a group of teenagers in the 1970s who, after witnessing a mysterious train crash, begin to notice strange happenings taking place in their quiet suburban town. Whether the destructive creature at the movie’s center is benevolent or malevolent isn’t yet clear (though from watching the trailer, we’re guessing it landed on Earth for mostly nefarious purposes). With Super 8 hitting theaters this weekend, MM thought it a perfect time to take a look at the some of the most successful alien encounters of the past 60 years.

BENEVOLENT ALIENS

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
directed by Robert Wise
One of the best science-fiction movies ever made, Wise’s film tells the story of Klaatu (Michael Rennie), an alien in human form from a Utopian planet who visits Earth to relay a peaceful message to its citizens. Unfortunately that message is drowned out by the U.S. Army, which is more intent on destroying Klaatu than listening to him. Wise’s thought-provoking movie is still relevant nearly 60 years after its initial release. The movie seems to say that humanity’s greatest threat is in fact, not life from another galaxy, but ourselves. Featuring the iconic robot Gort and the classic phrase used to command him, “Klaatu, barada, nikto,” (later paid homage to by Sam Raimi in Army of Darkness), The Day The Earth Stood Still is proof that a strong involving story is still the best kind of special effect.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg has a deep affinity for benevolent aliens. Five years after Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he created another optimistic sci-fi classic, featuring a harmless alien named E.T. Like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Close Encounters also deals with humanity’s propensity for resorting to violence when confronted with the unknown. In the movie, Richard Dreyfuss stars as Roy Neary, an average working man who has a close encounter with a UFO and spends the rest of the film on a quest to reconnect with these mysterious creatures. The movie was a smash hit in its original release, garnering Oscar nominations for Spielberg, actress Melinda Dillon, composer John Williams’ superb score and its special effects. Like most of Spielberg’s work, it is a hopeful movie. The awe-inspiring climax of the human beings and aliens teaming up on a simple yet powerful musical collaboration remains one of the great alien encounters in all of cinema.

Starman (1984)
directed by John Carpenter
Starman was a refreshing change-of-pace for Carpenter, whose previous work had mostly been in the horror/action genres, with such classics as Halloween and Escape from New York. Unfortunately, he never again crafted as heartwarming or touching a movie. Starman is a gentle romantic tale of an alien (Jeff Bridges) who visits Earth by taking the form of a young woman’s (Karen Allen) dead husband. When he asks her to drive him from Wisconsin to Arizona so that he can return to his home planet, the government attempts to thwart their offbeat road trip. Bridges gives one of his best (Oscar-nominated) performances as the naïve, strangely endearing Starman, who experiences human emotions when he falls in love. Allen is also convincing as a woman who goes from being initially frightened of the Starman (who looks like her husband but acts like a robot) to ultimately loving him. Once again, the benevolent alien is seen in a much more sympathetic light than the humans out to destroy him.
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MALEVOLENT ALIENS

War of the Worlds (1953)
directed by Byron Haskin
Based on H.G.Wells’ classic novel, the original War of the Worlds was made during the height of the Cold War and can be seen as a parable of America’s 1950s paranoia. The movie revolves around alien invaders from Mars, who plan to exterminate Earth’s population. The movie was the prototype for many sci-fi B-movies centered around malevolent creatures from outer space. Unlike Klaatu in The Day The Earth Stood Still (released two years prior), the War of the Worlds aliens are unsympathetic, faceless beings who coolly and dispassionately attempt to annihilate mankind. The movie was remade into a Tom Cruise mega-budget blockbuster (with considerably more elaborate special effects) by Spielberg in 2005. Although the remake’s budget and star-power was much bigger, the original remains the more successful adaptation of Wells’ work.

Invasion of Body Snatchers (1956)
directed by Don Siegel
In this terrifying sci-fi classic, based upon Jack Finney’s novel, a small-town doctor (Kevin McCarthy) learns that everyone around him is being replaced by creepy, emotionless alien duplicates who plan to take over the world. What makes the premise so frightening is that anyone, even close family members, might be a malevolent alien. Perhaps in part due to this chilling notion, Finney’s timeless work has been remade three times, most successfully in the ultra-creepy 1978 version with Donald Sutherland and Jeff Goldblum, and least effectively in the 2007 bomb The Invasion, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig.

Independence Day (1996)
directed by Roland Emmerich
Obviously inspired by War of the Worlds and the flying saucer movies of the 1950s, Roland Emmerich’s big-budget alien invasion epic brings together a large cast of characters, including Bill Pullman as the U.S. President, Will Smith as a cocky fighter pilot and Jeff Goldblum as a computer whiz. This band of heroes must battle super-intelligent yet nefarious aliens, housed in a gigantic spacecraft, who plan to invade and destroy the Earth. Like most malevolent alien movies, there is no attempt to dimensionalize or understand the villainous creatures of Independence Day (although admittedly the moviemakers don’t make much of an attempt to flesh out the human characters either). With its flashy special effects and nifty alien designs, the movie was a huge summer blockbuster and proof that, as long as malevolent aliens make a ton of dough at the box office, we’ll be seeing them on screens much more regularly than the friendly ones.

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