Filmmakers and audiences have long been attracted to the concept of alien encounters because they evoke all kinds of interesting philosophical questions about our future and how we relate to others. As well as presenting great opportunities for cinematic visual spectacle through make-up, production design and special effects.
Today we will recommend five alien encounter films and look at what their use of extraterrestrial characters mean.
A Trip To The Moon
Georges Méliès early silent short sees a group of scientists venturing to the moon in a rocket. Where they encounter a not-so-friendly race of moon people. While its aliens have simple designs and lack emotional depth as one of the earliest science fiction films this short showcased that films were capable of presenting other worlds as well as showing our own. It represented progress for cinematic imagination and inspired filmmakers to start dreaming of what extraterrestrial life could look like.
2001: A Space Odyssey
This sci-fi masterpiece charts the human race as it evolves and pursues travel to the stars. Each major event in our history (the development of tools, colonisation of the moon and interstellar travel) is marked by the appearance of a monolith that seems to communicate something. Eventually, when one astronaut finds another monolith beyond Jupiter something happens to him. Is it the birth of a new alien being? A way of communicating with beings beyond our understanding? Or something else? 2001 presents a visually arresting but grounded view of humanity’s technological progress. Additionally, it asks us to consider if our first encounter with alien intelligence will be terrifying, liberating or even conventionally understandable.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Cinema’s ultimate friendly alien. When E.T. gets left on earth he is taken in by the young Elliot. Eliott tries to keep E.T. safe from the government and eventually, with help from his family and brother’s friends, gets him home. A classic tale of bonding that through its fantastic direction, score, performances, and effects shows us the wonder of the world from a child’s perspective. But it also promotes the value of kindness by showing how the bonds of friendship and family are common. Even across the stars. It’s a film that by the end makes you want to be a better person.
The Thing (1982)
John Carpenter’s The Thing took the cinema staple of the hostile alien encounter to its most gruesome conclusion. A dog carrying an alien life form reaches an antarctic research station. After grotesquely transforming its host’s body the research team discovers that the alien can infect people through contact and absorb and imitate other life forms. Was anyone else infected by the alien and worse how can the team tell who is still human? The Thing is a great allegory for how viruses affect the body and human nature. But it also gave us perhaps cinema’s scariest alien. A creature that can hide anywhere and transform life into twisted parodies of itself. The Thing is the pinnacle of cosmic horror films and practical effects work.
If E.T. uses alien encounters to show humanity at its best District 9 uses them to comment on the worst of humanity. After a ship of aliens lands on Earth they are placed into an apartheid system where they are discriminated against and forced into separate houses and systems to humans. From there we follow Wikus van de Merwe, an agent of the company MNU, who through being exposed to something slowly begins turning into one of the aliens. Similar to E.T. District 9 uses aliens to comment on how we view others but this film focuses more on the at-once banal and other times violent nature of systemic oppression and the ramifications it can have on oppressed people. With some fantastic effects work, a compelling story, and poignant thematic underpinnings District 9 is a hard but rewarding watch.
We could honestly recommend many more alien contact movies. These films have been a staple for years because they represent cinema’s greatest qualities. The ability to visualise new worlds and people while reflecting the most human of experiences. If you have any favourites you want to recommend then please do so.
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