*Warning: This article contains spoilers for Life. The film. I'm not reading into the future.*
On 22 February, 2017, NASA made a momentous, perspective-shifting announcement; a new solar system, brimming with exoplanets with Earth-like properties, had been discovered, 40 lightyears from Earth in a cluster surrounding the dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1.
Due to the condition of the planets, the chance of alien life on the so-called "holy-grail" is high. With each technological advancement, humanity edges one step closer to answering the age old question: Are we alone? The recent discovery leaves us a mere decade away from a potential definite answer to that question.
The fascination with what exists beyond the Earth's atmosphere has provided the catalyst for a fine collection of high-profile #scifi movies for decades. #Life is the latest, focusing on a six-member team aboard the International Space Station who investigate what appears to be life on Mars. But not everything is as it seems.
Directed by Daniel Espinosa and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, the sci-fi horror has understandably been compared to Ridley Scott's classic Alien (1979). Taking a step back and looking at the wider history of alien encounter movies, where does Life fit? Below, let's break down the different ways aliens have been portrayed.
The Friendly Visitors
While talking about the concept of fear, horror novelist Stephen King once said: "Nothing is so frightening as what's behind the closed door." Aliens, if they do exist, are hidden by the thick vacuum of space, leaving lots of creative space to paint a frightening picture of what is behind the closed door.
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But it's not always fear-inducing. In fact, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), one of the earliest depictions of an alien invasion, presented the aliens as holy, Christ-like and intent on helping humanity, not destroying it. The film — made as a commentary on the Cold War — is led by Klaatu, a humanoid alien who is joined by his friend Gort, an eight-foot robot, who wishes to impart his wisdom upon society.
In a similar but more understated manner, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) is as vibrantly unique as its lead actor, pop icon David Bowie. In the hypnagogic cult hit, humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton crash lands on Earth, with the intent of transferring water back to his home planet. He digests popular culture like Tic Tacs through viewing excessive amounts of TV, attempts to fit in but ends up ostracized. In the process of showing Newton's struggle, the film reflects the ills of society.
Newton's outward alien nature manifests itself in eccentricity and is a far cry from eight-foot robots. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), on the other hand, has a boggle-eyed protagonist with bizarre features, an alien that wouldn't look out of place in a horror movie. However, E.T also has a gentle, benevolent nature — all he wants to do is go home. Typically of friendly alien encounter movies, the government, and grown-ups in general, aren't trusted with treating the alien in a non-combative manner, and E.T's mission is assisted once he befriends a lonely boy named Elliott.
All-Out War And Patriotism
Destruction is the first image that springs to mind when envisioning an "alien invasion," usually including a mammoth spacecraft hovering in the sky, laser beams causing nuclear level destruction and presidents giving speeches on how everyone must team together to defeat the threat and save the world (or, America). The man to thank for that is H.G Wells, who popularized the fictional concept of alien encounters way back in 1897 with his novel War of the Worlds.
In 1953, the film adaptation of Wells's work set the standard troupes of destructive alien behavior into the cement of cinema. Acting as a commentary on the Cold War, director Byron Haskin tapped in to the growing fear of the possibility of nuclear attack by depicting the threat in the form of Martians, simultaneously stripping them of national identity and keeping a sense of close proximity.
Another film that epitomises all-out war with alien creatures is Independence Day (1996), a big-budget blockbuster than is a spectacle in large-scale obliteration — aided by advances in CGI. Forget messages or political intent; the aliens are secretive, and their motives not fully understood, instead acting as a one-size fits all enemy. These aliens are so disdainful, Hollywood favorite Will Smith greets one of them with a punch in the face.
Movies in this category generally tap into a growing sense of paranoia about outsiders, either the threat of war or the threat of terrorism. Interestingly, the call to patriotism has been identified by social critics such as Noam Chomsky as a dangerous veil to identify social control; what better way to be patriotic than in an effort to stand up against an alien race?
Xenophobia And Aliens As Victims
Away from the "us versus them" mentality, alien movies can be used to provide a commentary on societal issues, from xenophobia to sexism, to all sorts of discrimination. Replacing vilified or underrepresented groups with an alien being is an affective way of exploring such territory and providing a new perspective, acting as a microcosm for wider issues.
One shining example is Neill Blomkamp's innovative sci-fi District 9, which starts off in 1982 in a fictional world where an alien spacecraft has arrived over Johannesburg. This spacecraft doesn't arrive with Independence Day level destruction in mind. Instead, the bug-like aliens onboard are frail and used to following orders on their home planet, which the government exploit by forcefully organizing them into internment camps.
The film is highly politicized, providing a commentary on the apartheid, the system of racial segregation in South Africa that ran for decades. On top of that, it also tackles issues of discrimination — the aliens are disdainfully referred to as "prawns" — and the refugee crisis, where aliens are treated poorly, given rations and evicted at short notice.
The same struggles are sometimes isolated to a singular alien being, as with The Man Who Fell to Earth. In modern times, the stripped back and thought-provoking Under the Skin (2013) portrays discrimination through the framework of femininity and sexuality. The emotionless humanoid alien — who is seen as a sexual object throughout the film — is played by Hollywood "sex symbol" Scarlett Johansson.
Throughout the film's abstract run in Jonathan Glazer's film, the woman learns about identity by luring an (admittedly easily lured) mixture of men, who seek her for their own sexual pleasure but end up sinking into apparent oblivion. In the process, she learns about sexuality and the level of significance attributed to beauty through such encounters, which leads to the film's shocking conclusion.
Geopolitics And Aliens As A Source Of Bettering Mankind
As with the friendly visitors category, films that fall into this bracket tend to depict an alien race that has achieved some form of enlightenment. These aliens have become more advanced than the human race spiritually and emotionally, appear to live in peace, and land on Earth with the intent to steer the course of mankind to the better — perhaps inspired by Stanley Kubrick's genre defining 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Stephen Spielberg's classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) brought some of the '60s view of peace and love — yet only after initially making the aliens seem fearful, playing on the preconceptions formed by the violent alien invasions mentioned above. Contact (1977) also plays on these same fears, while portraying a positive message as it tackles the conflict between how religion and science.
Most recently, Arrival (2016) also follows the formula of bettering mankind through the framework of language and communication. In the film, 12 identical spacecrafts land on Earth and linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is chosen to attempt to discover their motivation for landing. Through a gradual understanding of the heptapods' language, Louise pieces together the aliens' "gift." In doing so, she discovers a tool that can be used to appease geopolitical issues, and presumably promote world peace — a clear message that we can all learn from each other.
Aliens As Dangerous Organisms
The final category — of which Life is a part of — takes Stephen King's theory that was made earlier and exploits it, portraying alien encounters within the paradigm of horror. Without a doubt, Ridley Scott's Alien had a genre-defining influence, trapping the chilling events within the H.R. Giger designed confines of the Nostromo spaceship.
Scott's film mixed a number of messages into its narrative. To an extent, it played on the fear of what is out there, but looking slightly below the surface, Alien also highlights a concern toward growing capitalism. The desire to monetize even the most dangerous of situations is a theme that is prevalent and continues in the sequel Aliens (1986).
As with Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is widely considered one of the best horror films of all time. Unlike Alien, which shows the crew enter the aliens habitat and be punished for it, The Thing shows what would happen if an unknown entity entered Earth. Again unlike its predecessor, the film focuses less on wider political issues and becomes more of a character study of human nature in a fight for survival.
In contrast to Alien, where events take place in distant times (around 2122 in fact) and distant lands, Life is close to home. The crew are aboard the International Space Station and the extraterrestrial antagonist are discovered by a probe sent to Mars, our neighbouring planet. This makes it harder for viewers to remain blissfully detached across space and time.
Life doesn't paint a pretty picture, playing with the fear that our exploration, and the use of scientific means to toy with nature, could end up causing problems. It also shows that the closer we get to a discovery becoming a reality, the less alien encounter movies work in metaphor and the more they become worst case scenarios of what could really be out there.
What is your favourite alien encounter movie? And how does Life compare?