No, we're not talking about folks whose immigration status is in question, but actual visitors from another planet. This weekend marks the release of District 9, in which an alien race is forced to live as second class citizens in slum-like conditions on Earth. To commemorate the occasion I'm taking a look back at seven of my favorite cinematic aliens.
This 1988 flick seems like the perfect one to start with since the plot reminds me so much of District 9. The film is set in the far flung future world of 1991, just a few years after a space ship filled with escaped alien slaves landed in California. Known for their large spotted craniums and their tendency to dissolve in salt water, the aliens are referred to as newcomers and their assimilation into the Los Angeles population has been difficult. Since the newcomers are not particularly welcome they have become America's newest oppressed minority.
James Caan plays police detective Matthew Sykes, whose partner is killed in the line of duty. Sykes' is assigned to work with Detective Sam Francisco (played by Mandy Patinkin), the first newcomer officer to be promoted to detective. This is basically a buddy cop film with science fiction trappings, so the somewhat racist Sykes eventually warms up to his extraterrestrial partner and they join forces to prevent a highly addictive drug from being sold to the newcomer population. The film inspired a 1989 television series on Fox that lasted only one season but in turn gave rise to five made-for-TV movies. According to our sister site TV Squad, the show is about to be reimagined for the SyFy channel.
The War of the Worlds
While I liked the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg version from a few years ago, I'm more concerned with George Pal's film from 1953. This tale of Martians invading Earth in order to exterminate humanity was terrifying to me when I saw it on TV as a kid and it's still pretty entertaining today. What I think makes these aliens so scary is that you barely see them at all. The movie is chock full of some of the most impressive visual effects the decade had to offer (for which the films won an Oscar), but the little green men flying those Martian war machines are glimpsed at only briefly. I also have fond memories of the film because the character Dr. Clayton Forester (Gene Barry) is the namesake of the mad scientist played by Trace Beulieau for seven seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Coincidence? I think not.
Clark Kent, a mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, is in fact a strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Since the character first appeared in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics, Superman has gone on to become a pop culture icon and crossed over into nearly every medium imaginable. The Man of Steel's first big-screen appearance was in a series of animated shorts that began in 1941, a series that still holds up well today. 1948 saw the release of Superman, a 15-chapter movie serial starring Kirk Alyn in the title role with Noel Neill playing romantic interest/girl reporter Lois Lane. A second serial, Atom Man Vs. Superman, followed in 1950 and featured the screen debut of arch villain Lex Luthor.
In 1951 George Reeves starred as the Last Son of Krypton in Superman Vs. the Mole Men, which was the character's first feature length appearance and essentially served as a pilot episode for the Adventures of Superman TV series which lasted from 1951-1958. 1978's Superman, directed by Richard Donner, saw the franchise's return to movie theaters as a big-budgeted blockbuster starring a then unknown Christopher Reeve as our hero and Marlon Brando as his Kryptonian father Jor-El. That film spawned one decent sequel and two really bad ones. To date Superman's most recent big-screen adventure is 2006's Superman Returns, which tried to recapture the magic of the first two Reeve films with mixed results.
The Quatermass films
These are the probably least known films on the list, but Britain's Hammer Films did three movies based on TV serials about a scientist named Bernard Quatermass who is heading up England's space exploration program. In 1955's The Quatermass Xperiment (released in the states as The Creeping Unknown) a space ship designed by Quatermass (played with a Machiavellian twist by Brian Donlevy) returns to Earth with only one of its crew members alive but infected by some alien presence. In the second film Quatermass 2 (Enemy From Space in the U.S.) Donlevy returns in the title role investigating some mysterious meteorites which point to an alien conspiracy. The third and weakest of the series is Quatermass and the Pit (known over here as Five Million Years to Earth) has Andrew Keir playing Quatermass who investigates an ancient alien space craft unearthed in a subway construction project. Like a lot of British science fiction these three films beautifully play up the potential horrors of alien life.
Howard the Duck
This one isn't exactly a favorite but it has always stuck with me for some reason, though certainly not because it's a good movie. Howard was one of Marvel Comics' most off-beat characters back in the 1970s and I was ecstatic when I first saw a poster for this 1986 release. The title character is an anthropomorphic duck (basically a little person in a duck suit) who is mysteriously transported from his home planet where ducks reign supreme to the interstellar oasis that is Cleveland, Ohio. Howard hooks up with a struggling musician named Beverly Switzler who tries to help Howard get back home. The rest is quite excruciating with the exception of a seriously cool stop-motion animated monster at the film's climax.
Emilio "Whatever Happened to Him" Estevez stars in this 1984 cult classic as Otto Maddox, a newly unemployed punk rocker. His hippie parents have donated his college fund to a televangelist and things look bleak for our hero. That is, until he crosses paths with Bud (Harry Dean Stanton) a seasoned repo man who teaches Otto the fine art of swiping cars from people who haven't kept up on their payments. What's the alien angle you may ask? Well, there's a 1984 Chevy Malibu that every repo man in town is trying to get their mitts on, although none of them realize the rapidly decomposing remains of some dead aliens are in the car and anyone who has the misfortune of opening the trunk is immediately vaporized.
E.T.: The Extraterrestrial
OK, you really didn't think I was going to skip over this one, did you? A wrinkly faced alien gets left behind by his comrades and he is taken in by a boy named Elliot, his brother Michael and their sister Gertie. Oddly enough I had read the novelization by William Kotzwinkle (which is told from E.T.'s point of view) before seeing the movie and I had kind of pictured E.T. looking more like the aliens from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I remember how this movie took the world by storm back in 1982 and made the name Steven Spielberg a household name. I absolutely loved this film but haven't seen it since its theatrical run, so I wonder how well it would hold up today.
So how about you? Who are your favorite movie aliens?