Welcome to The Last Sci-fi Blog, our biweekly column about all things science fiction in movies.
(This article contains spoilers for Under the Skin, The Man Who Fell to Earth and E.T.)
Aliens have a rich cinematic history of arriving on Earth and killing us all. In films like War of the Worlds and Independence Day, they're powerful but unknowable forces so far beyond us that we can barely understand them, let alone fight them. If the aliens aren't killing us, they're deliberately keeping us at arm's length, fully aware that the human race simply isn't ready to join them in the cosmos. In Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey, first contact with an alien species raises more questions than answers -- extraterrestrials are so far beyond us that they have no interest in killing us or even getting to know us all that well.
Between these two extremes exists a third kind of cinematic alien. These beings are sometimes malicious and sometimes benevolent; they can look like us or they can look like a monster. What unites them all is that they're ruthless invaders or unknowable cosmic sages: they're victims. More specifically, they're victims of the human race, a species that has never shied away from cruelty and excess. But what makes these kind of science fiction tales so totally unique is that human pleasure and human kindness are often just as harmful as a weapon.
Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin begins as a small-scale alien-invasion movie, an art house riff on Species where a being from outer space wears the skin of a beautiful woman to lure unsuspecting men to their deaths. For its first half, this menacing film moves from one unsettling sequence to another with no intention of ever giving the audience a clear answer as to what's going on. The mystery remains in place even after the film suddenly shifts gears at the halfway point. After encountering a kind but deformed man, Scarlett Johansson's unnamed alien seductress/huntress abandons her mission, flees her motorcycle-riding minder and embarks on a quest to make a connection with the human world, despite the fact that her humanity begins and ends with her skin.
Naturally, her attempt to connect to humanity ends up destroying her.
The best companion piece to Under the Skin is director Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth, which centers on a very different alien being. Like Under the Skin, the details of our hero's mission are deliberately obscured, but we learn the gist of it over the course of the film. The being who calls himself Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) has been sent to Earth with powerful technology that he will patent and sell to become a billionaire. With his new funds, he can find a way to transport water back to his dying planet, saving his family and his race. But in order to become a businessman, Newton must first pass himself off as human and live among them for years.
Naturally, his attempt to connect to humanity ends up destroying him.
This type of story isn't limited to the art house, but it tends to take on a slightly more optimistic light in mainstream cinema. Take Steven Spielberg's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which has an adorably ugly alien stranded on Earth after a mission of unknown (but peaceful intent goes awry). Taken in by a friendly young boy with an ample supply of peanut butter candy, he has to elude the worst that mankind can offer with the help of the best that mankind can offer: little kids who aren't old enough to know that you're apparently supposed to treat all creatures as experiments waiting to happen.
Naturally, his attempt to connect to humanity destroys him... until he's resurrected for the third act and a happy ending.
All three of these films don't like human beings very much, ultimately siding with the extraterrestrial protagonist. Even Under the Skin asks you to care about its weaponized blank slate of a lead character, humanizing her (it?) through its innate curiosity and fascination with the more gentle people she meets. When Johansson encounters typical jerks with only sex on their mind, they're easy prey, food for the bizarre machine she has stored under her flat. Her big turn comes when she encounters compassion for the first time, a concept that seems completely alien (haha) to her kind, who otherwise seem totally emotionless.
But her sudden turn toward kindness and her willingness to embrace the people she meets ruin her. Unable to make love with the kind man who takes her in, she flees to the countryside where she is assaulted and burnt alive by a would-be rapist after he tears open her skin and reveals her alien form. With her exterior gone, we can finally look upon her real form and while it's humanoid, it's so far removed from humanity that it's no surprise her attacker kills her. Mankind doesn't do well when dealing with the unknown. As Johansson burns to death and the credits roll, we're left with a heartbreaking lesson that this alien visitor learned too late: our passions make us human, but they also make us monsters. The emotionally fueled murder that concludes the film is far more horrifying than Johnasson's surgical and scientific killings that open it.
If Under the Skin is about an alien learning about the basic goodness of human nature and dying for it, The Man Who Fell to Earth is about an alien learning of Earth's greatest pleasures and being trapped by them. Newton is on a mission of mercy, a noble quest to save his entire race of people, but part of his human disguise involves mingling with the men and women he pretends to be. It means experiencing alcohol, drugs and sex. It means wallowing in the kind of depravity that is second nature to mankind but crippling to a visitor from another world. Newton falls in line with his human counterparts and succeeds where Johansson's huntress never could -- he becomes one of them. He knows the joy and the pain of being human and it ruins him. It reduces him from a higher being to something broken and forgotten. The film ends with him stranded on Earth, his human disguise permanently attached and everything he used to love dead or dying across the galaxy. Humanity may kill, but humanity also corrupts. He was too pure and too good and we killed him for it.
It's notable that the only humans who actually assist E.T. in his quest are children. Most of that is because it's a family film and Under the Skin and The Man Who Fell to Earth are not, but it remains noteworthy. The evils committed in the other two films are adult vices, the work and pleasures of the more mature members of our species. As we get older, our curiosity dies away and we grow more fearful and more prone to shielding ourselves with things that make us feel good. Of course an adult is going to see an alien and want to capture or kill it. It could be a threat! But kids haven't developed the cynicism yet. Finding an alien in your backyard seems more akin to finding a wounded baby bird or a stray dog. Compassion and curiosity drive us in our younger years and we tend to lose them as we grow and learn that things aren't so simple.
Is that the grand message that unites these films? Because the world (and the universe) are not simple, we have to become simple to survive? These movies may star aliens, but they're really about you and me and everyone we know. They're about how we infect and corrupt everything around us and how a visitor to our planet has to phone home and flee before he ends up murdered or trapped. There's a reason aliens always want to kill us in some movies or avoid direct contact in others -- these moves paint us as a species that doesn't deserve to exist.
MORE FROM AROUND THE WEB: