In Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerising Under the Skin the everyday becomes otherworldly when the nondescript streets and unaware inhabitants of Glasgow are seen through eyes of Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed protagonist, an alien seemingly dedicated to luring men towards their doom. Using the temptation of sex but having no understanding of it, Johansson’s character lures her prey to a place that could be a lair or a factor, where they’re harvested in a process that eschews explanation for arresting images. Whether caught up in a hen’s night or sheltered by a stranger, her alien is the latest in a line of extra-terrestrials who have found that life, in whatever form, on this tiny rock teeming with lifeforms and circling a sun can be anything but ordinary.
The Man Who Fell To Earth
(1976, Nicolas Roeg)
As with Scarlett Johansson, Nicolas Roeg’s cult science-fiction film presents a hugely famous figure – someone already divorced in a way from the general public – as an alien figure new to life on this planet. All cheekbones and serene pallor, David Bowie’s Thomas Jerome Newton arrives on Earth from a dying planet, tasked with securing water, only to fall victim to various human addictions (alcohol, television) and imprisonment by a suspicious government. Roeg had already rendered the Australian outback otherworldly in 1971’s Walkabout, and here his imagery is vivid and nightmarish, with Bowie the increasingly despondent fulcrum observing his own downfall. Narrative is the least of Roeg’s interests, but the result is often transfixing.
E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
(1982, Steven Spielberg)
In Steve Spielberg’s paean to the pleasures and trauma of a childhood in the suburbs, the stranded alien botanist who fetches up in a backyard shed makes his way home through the reassuring cues of American childhood: he learns to communicate through the episodes of Sesame Street watched by his finder’s little sister (Drew Barrymore), gets the idea to phone home from a comic book, and fits in some trick or treating on Halloween. As someone who catalogues things, E.T. is an explorer, but Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison maintain the focus from the eyes of Elliott (Henry Thomas), who gets a best friend better than any imaginary one.
The Brother From Another Planet
(1984, John Sayles)
One of the things that made John Sayles such a crucial figure in the formative American independent cinema was his readiness to explore genre and convention; contemplative middle-class dramas were the least of his interests. In this low-budget satirical comedy The Brother (Joe Morton) is a modern day escaped slave, arrived in New York from another planet where, with his dark skin, he is soon relocated to pre-gentrification Harlem. Mute but empathetic (and telepathic), he finds himself in an environment where skin pigments seem to define his life, a situation only exacerbated by two very white alien bounty hunters – played by Sayles and David Strathairn – who seek to recapture him.
(1984, John Carpenter)
In the early 1980s John Carpenter was making a movie a year: The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Christine, and… Starman. A film about the power of love to transcend loss and the cosmos, it begins with an alien scout shot down by the military on arrival who takes the form of a recently deceased house painter, who resembles Jeff Bridges, much to the initial distress of the dead man’s widow (Karen Allen). With his ability to perform acts we perceive as miracles, including rising from the dead and gifting a son, this is an example of the alien as Christ-like figure, even if Carpenter is surprisingly most fascinated by the romantic possibilities.
(1988, Graham Baker)
Another metaphor for the American immigrant experience, this hardy B-movie was enlivened by the rapport between James Caan as Los Angeles police detective and Mandy Patinkin as his new partner, one of the alien “Newcomers” who arrived three years prior as escaped interstellar slaves. Recasting In the Heat of the Night, racial disdain gives way to friendship as the pair attempt to solve a series of crimes connected to a drug ring looking to manufacture a substance highly addictive to the new arrivals. Like all mismatched cop films, Caan’s Sykes and Patinkin’s George come to respect each other, although the circumstances between them rarely get beyond the prosaic.
Earth Girls Are Easy
(1988, Julien Temple)
A daffy comedy that could only be set in Southern California, Julien Temple’s episodic comedy is about a trio of brightly coloured galactic bros (played by Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans) who land in the swimming pool of jilted manicurist Valerie (Geena Davis) and soon become hot things at the local club after a serious makeover session. It’s very silly, very 1980s, and you have to wonder if director Julien Temple’s experience documenting punk in London a decade prior with The Sex Pistols prepared him for the subject matter (or the cast, for that matter). There’s little insight, but a fun dance sequence.
(1995, Roger Donaldson)
A recurring theme in these films is our invitations to other lifeforms in the universe and what transpires. In Species the SETI program brings transmission from another race, resulting in instructions for a hybrid alien-human DNA, who quickly becomes Sil (Michelle Williams, then an often topless Natasha Henstridge), a science experiment that escapes and attempts to breed with a human male to create a destructive new race. The film is a crude metaphor for a young woman’s sexual exploration, but director Roger Donaldson diligently shoots a daft story where an empath (Forest Whitaker) walks into a blood spattered room where a murder has occurred and profoundly announces that he senses something bad has happened. You don’t say.
(2009, Neill Blomkamp)
With sublimely pervasive digital effects, South African filmmaker, South African-born filmmaker Neill Blomkamp used the film’s fictional presence of an alien population, discovered in an abandoned spaceship sitting above Johannesburg and moved into a vast ghetto below, to comment on human traits such as racism and discrimination. Sharlto Copley’s bumbling Afrikaner bureaucrat is forced to re-think his life when starts transforming, Kafka-like, into one of “prawns”, plunged into corporate malfeasance and a race to find either a cure for himself or hope for the degraded arrivals. The aliens are treated terribly, but it’s no different to how humans treat each other; the derogatory quotes about the newcomers from interviews with ordinary South Africans were obtained by asking them what they thought of Nigerian immigrants.