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The Unapologetic Geek


Top 10 Aliens in Film

The Monolith
Number 11, if this list were the top 11
In February, I made a list of the Top 10 On-Screen Vampires. Now, with rumors circulating around Ridley Scott's next science-fiction film, Prometheus, that it may or may not have anything to do with his landmark 1979 film Alien, and with news and pictures starting to trickle onto the Internet this week concerning J.J. Abrams' and Steven Spielberg's enigmatic new film releasing on June 10 that most likely has to do with aliens, Super 8 (including mixed-media, ARG-style tie-ins with Valve's immensely popular new video game Portal 2), I have undertaken an arguably even more difficult and controversial listing of the top aliens to ever appear on film.

Originally, this list was going to be like the previous one and include television, but the list became too unweildy and the choices too hard for this humble writer to make. So instead of filling this list with klingons, cylons (the original ones, as the new ones aren't technically aliens), the visitors from V (again the original ones, but this time because the new ones aren't as awesome), and ALF, I have restricted myself to movies. As always, I have other restrictions too: (1) if the alien appears in more than one film (including sequels, remakes, and reboots), that alien can only appear once; (2) Superman and similar alien superheroes don't count; (3) the alien has to have genuine extraterrestrial origins; and (4) the movie in which the alien appears has to have been out for at least a few years. So, with those constraints in mind, here are my picks for the top 10 aliens in film. If you think I left something out, got the order all wrong, am utterly insane, or am right on the mark, please let me know in the comments at the end.

First, though, come the honorable mentions: Clover (from Cloverfield), the aliens in Independence Day, the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the "prawns" from District 9.

Jeff Bridges in Starman

Viewed by modern audiences, Starman is a cliché. The plot is about an alien who visits Earth in response to the friendly invitation included with the Voyager 2 spacecraft. The alien comes in peace and takes on the form of a human, the dead husband of a woman named Jenny. Of course, the alien is relentlessly hunted by the military and has to run away in order to get to his ship before it leaves him behind to die. Along the way, he learns the value and nature of human life, has inter-species relations with Jenny, and has an enlightening conversation with the peaceful scientist who is reluctantly working with the military and gives him just enough time to escape. The movie, in all honesty, doesn't hold up as well as some of the others on this list, but it is cliché these days only because it was such a poignant story when it was first told. As a side note, Jeff Bridges, who plays Starman, is the only actor to ever be nominated for an Academy Award for playing an extraterrestrial.

War of the Worlds (1951)
an alien craft in 1951's War of the Worlds

Regardless of whether you're talking about the 1953 film by George Pal or the 2005 film by Steven Spielberg, War of the Worlds presents a terrifying glimpse of how first contact with aliens might occur. However, like Starman, the story is painfully cliché by modern standards. In a nutshell, aliens invade the Earth and start eradicating humanity with their giant, robotic, three-pronged ships and probes. In the end, they fail to eradicate mankind, not because of mankind's resilience to the threat they represent, but because they were unfamiliar with our germs. It is a simple, but effective tale, with an ending that--while cheap because of the deus ex machina--makes it clear that humanity would stand no chance on its own merits in the face of an advanced alien species intent on wiping it from the face of the universe. Few seem to remember that the aliens are supposed to be Martians, but that's immaterial. I cite the 1953 version of them here because of the iconic sound the aliens made, a sound that still elicits chills and cold sweats from my inner child.

Mars Attacks!
some cute, loveable little Martians in Mars Attacks!

Beings from Mars make a second appearance on this list in the form of the aliens from Tim Burton's cinematic masterpiece of irreverance, Mars Attacks!. The film manages to simultaneously honor and eviscerate genre tropes that have persisted from the 1950's to today in terms of alien invasion scenarios. However, the film wouldn't work if it weren't for the creatures themselves, playfully malevolent little green men with an ear-splitting language of barks and laughs and a desire to cause chaos that is as relentless as it is inexplicable. Whether they're transplanting the head of Sarah Jessica Parker onto a chihuaha's body, knocking over Vegas casinos, slaughtering all of Congress, or turning nuclear weapons into literal playthings, everything they do is for their own amusement, and you start to root for them because the human characters in the film are so painfully one-dimensional and stereotypical that there isn't a redeeming one in the whole lot, except for maybe Lucas Haas' good-natured donut salesman or Natalie Portman's cynical but abnormally cogent president's daughter. For dark is the suede that mows like a harvest, indeed.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)
a victim of the alien virus in 1971's The Andromeda Strain

Most of the aliens on this list are terrifying, which speaks to what mankind typically thinks of the unknown. However, few of them can be called realistic, because when it comes to alien life, assuming it exists, we have absolutely no idea what to expect. The exception to this is, arguably, The Andromeda Strain, the film adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel of the same name about an extra-terrestrial virus that hitches a ride on astronauts and is let loose on Planet Earth. Of all the alien lifeforms here, the Andromeda strain is the least visible, intelligent, or complex, but it also strikes me as the most plausible. Over 99% of all life on Earth is microscopic, and if we assume that extraterrestrial life follows a similar evolutionary path to ours, it stands to reason that our first contact with aliens will be with alien microorganisms. This also presents an entirely different form of terror, because there is nothing in human experience as relentless, unmerciful, and uncontrollable as infection. Even worse, an alien virus like the one presented in The Andromeda Strain is likely to obey completely different rules from the ones we are used to, and that could easily devastate mankind much faster and much more efficiently than the most advanced alien warships.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
some hot gelatinous goo alien-on-plant action in 1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers

1978's Invasion of the Body Snatchers is not the first or last film adaptation of Jack Finney's book The Body Snatchers, but it is, without question, the best. The aliens here actually come to Earth in the form of a gelatinous substance that quickly assimilates plantlife to form strange pods. These pods then start replicating people while they sleep, creating nearly perfect (but emotionless) copies and disposing of the originals. The copies then start seeing to it that the entire human population is replaced. What follows is classic paranoia fiction, ripe for symbolism and social commentary: in a world where anybody can be one of them, how can you know who to trust? In the 1950's version, the pod people are a stand-in for paranoid fears about communism, while the 1978 version is often considered a dark satire of "The Me Decade." It's a shame that the most recent film adaptation, 2007's horrid The Invasion, didn't try to tap into modern socio-political issues, because it would seem only natural to mine the story for "War on Terror" themes. Regardless, the body snatchers are a perfectly ambiguous creation, aliens that can represent almost anything we fear as a society at large, from the loss of individuality to the idea that there are aliens among us who want to destroy everything we cherish.

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-e. magill 4/27/2011

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