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The Unapologetic Geek


Top 10 Aliens in Film - Page 2

one ugly mutha in Predator

It is often hard for screenwriters to come up with the proper motivation for aliens. After all, they're alien, with alien values, morals, and intentions. This is why so many movie aliens are single-mindedly ruthless or high-mindedly compassionate, because those are easy motivations to work with. Every once in a while, though, a screenwriter will try something different, as Jim and John Thomas did for 1987's Predator. The title character, the Predator, is an alien hunter with a sense of honor. It uses a specific set of futuristic alien tools like a cloaking device and laser cannon to go after its prey, but it won't kill anything that doesn't fight back. Rather than killing for killing's sake--to eat or annihilate the way most evil movie aliens do--the Predator hunts for sport, and that makes it unique (or, at least, it did back in 1987, before people started copying it). Even though this is probably the easiest blood-thirsty alien to thwart (just put down your weapon and surrender), it's made all the more terrifying simply because you can almost understand it. Since it's motivation isn't so cut-and-dry, the predator is a nuanced, slightly sympathetic creature, and there is nothing we fear more than an evil we can relate to.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
the one on the right is the alien--I know it's hard to tell the difference

Though as an adult I firmly believe that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a better movie, there's no denying the iconic charm of Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Interestingly enough, the script for E.T. was being worked on by Columbia Pictures at the same time as the script for Starman. The studio decided they could only make one film about a benevolent alien coming to Earth and they chose Starman, letting rival studio Amblin Entertainment produce E.T.. The two films are far more alike than different, with the basic plot involving a dying alien with magical healing abilities trying to get home while being hunted by big government types who want to study it. Still, even though I still consider Starman worthy enough to include on this list, E.T. is more special because it takes on a more innocent tone. Spielberg wisely chose to film this movie from the point of view of a young boy, and in so doing, he highlighted the fantastical elements while downplaying the unrealistic ones. When he was finished, he created one of the most memorable and beloved aliens in the history of film (though, personally, I think E.T. might also be the most mentally challenged alien in the history of film).

The Thing
some nightmare fuel from John Carpenter's The Thing

Surprisingly, when John Carpenter set out to make Starman, he was trying to prevent the end of his career following what was considered a nearly fatal flop, his previous film, 1982's The Thing, which was a critical and box-office failure. While both films are about aliens on Earth, the two could not be any more dissimilar in story or tone. Starman is set in the desert; The Thing is set in Antarctica. Starman is a benevolent being who wants nothing more than peace and understanding; the "thing" is a grotesque killing machine that uses the bodies of the dead to grow. Starman is a poignant, feel-good movie; The Thing is a horror film designed to keep you from sleeping peacefully. The Thing has stood the test of time far better than the more successful Starman, and for good reasons. It taps into many of the themes addressed by most of the other films on this list, including the paranoia of the body snatchers, the bone-chilling viciousness of the Andromeda strain, and the overwhelming sense of inadequacy represented by War of the Worlds. That's because the thing is, in a sense, all of them wrapped into one. It starts as a microorganism like the Andromeda strain, but it quickly develops into a shapeshifting multicellular creature capable of mimicking other lifeforms in much the same way as the body snatchers. Like E.T. and Starman, the thing only wants to go home, but it doesn't have the moral hang-ups of its more amicable cinematic cousins. More than any of the other alien on this list, the thing is the one that makes me squirm when I think what it would be like if it really existed.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Klaatu and Gort in the only movie named The Day the Earth Stood Still worth discussing

One of the most common motifs in alien stories is the idea of judgment, that if we should ever meet an advanced alien species, the entire human race will be judged for its behavior at large. This is frequently explored in the sci-fi cinema of the 50's and 60's with varying degrees of success, with The Day the Earth Stood Still standing out as the most important exemplar. In the film, a humanoid alien named Klaatu emerges from a small spaceship on "a mission of goodwill," but is quickly shot by a nervous soldier. This is when Gort, Klaatu's robotic enforcer, enters the scene, immediately dissolving all the weapons in the area without harming anybody. Klaatu is then detained by the government but escapes, eventually managing to deliver his message to an assemblage of scientists: aliens are concerned about mankind's penchant for aggression and baby steps toward spaceflight. If mankind continues to make war, robotic soldiers such as Gort will be forced to extinguish every human on Earth. This was a particularly meaningful message for the time, because we had recently come out of World War II only to begin the nuclear arms race of the Cold War. It was felt by many that, if humanity could not overcome its own violent nature, we would launch our nuclear weapons and destroy the planet, with us on it. Klaatu and Gort, therefore, represent the socio-political angst of the last generation and are an important piece of fictional history that do not deserve their abyssmal remake.

THE Alien

You knew this was going to be number one, so I apologize for being predictable. The fact of the matter is that there are no other aliens in the history of film that are as iconic, as memorable, as terrifying, or as truly alien as the alien, a.k.a. the "xenomorph." Though the xenomorph has undergone many subtle changes over the years, being animalistic one minute and more humanoid the next, its general demeanor remains the same. It is a hive-minded, relentless hunter with highly concentrated acid for blood and an extra, retractable jaw that can conveniently be used to punch through somebody's skull. It is born when an unwitting human gets mouth-raped by an aptly-named "facehugger" which plants an embryo into the human's chest cavity, from which the alien will explode at an unspecified moment in the near future. This disturbingly sexual, organic creature taps into something visceral and unconscious in the human psyche, and it is to outer space what Jaws is to the world's oceans, a terrifying beast that reminds us that the unknown can be a brutal, unforgiving place where forces we don't understand will tear us to shreds without the slightest bit of remorse. Hopefully, when and if the time comes that humankind meets an extraterrestrial lifeform, it won't look or behave anything like this nightmarish concoction birthed by the twisted imaginations of Dan O'Bannon, H.R. Giger, and Ridley Scott.

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-e. magill 4/27/2011

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