MN 1 — The ‘Human’ Alien in Film aka Messiahs and Whores
Prior to the 70s, aliens in cinema were (more often than not) simply the ‘black hats’ of sci-fi. In much the same way as the western would signify a character’s moral compass via the colour of their outfit, so too would a character be deemed the villain of the piece should they hail from anywhere other than our humble planet. Then, as the cultural revolution of the 60s took root, simple black and white concepts of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ gave way to more ambiguous extra- terrestrials in sci-fi cinema.
In ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ (1976), David Bowie’s alien protagonist Thomas Newton comes to Earth in search of water, due to an ecological crisis back on his home planet. With his far advanced intellect and his species’ technological knowhow, he is able to masquerade as human and set himself up as quite the entrepreneur here on Earth. However, what he doesn’t count on is all the distractions our planet has, namely in the form of alcohol and TV (I can relate). Soon he has become addicted, and the visual gaze of the cathode ray machine has sucked him into its hypnotic glare.
Whereas in earlier decades an aliens’ plan was simply to enslave or destroy our planet, here we have a character who wants simply to take home some of our high quality H2O. His intentions are pure in the sense he wants only to help those he has left behind, and this mission is thwarted when he is, in turn, ‘corrupted’ by the influences available on our home planet.
While Bowie’s character is not (at least in the traditional sense) the ‘villain’ of the piece, this 70s example of the humanoid alien is still of the ‘other’. His pale, thin appearance coupled with the shock of red hair contrast him sharply with the American locals he encounters at the movies start (to whom a European probably seemed like an alien anyway). That this appearance is the ‘disguise’ is actually pretty shocking given just how immediately alien he appears — painfully thin and so pale to be transparent. Earth is known to his people as the ‘planet of water’, somewhat ironic given he arrives in a seemingly arid, sun drenched New Mexico desert. The accent adds to the overall effect, although why he chooses to ‘go limey’ on his mission is never fully explained (maybe his bunch just thought we were the best).
This most arch and alien of characters is deposited into a world of pure Americana, dating a waitress and (with his entrepreneurial skills) becoming himself that most American of ideals — the rags to riches story, the self-made (main) man. Bowie becomes ‘hooked’ on capitalism and the American dream, and in the process loses sight of what was the point of his mission — to save his people (as represented by his family). While his world dies he literally forgets his quest ending up an alcoholic, hooked on visual media. A truly damning indictment of contemporary western society.
This bleak outlook — of a society that in some way draining or crushing the hero — is seemingly shared by a string of 70s sci-fi movies. ‘Silent Running’ (1972) features a protagonist piloting a star ship away from a corporation — taking with him the last vestiges of Earth’s natural wonder and resources. ‘Logan’s Run’ (1976) presents us with a hero — once again — running from a society on the brink of collapse due to overpopulation.) . George Lucas’ THX 1138 climaxes with the titular character climbing his way out of a hellish, future subterranean society. Said society has become intertwined with tech and he is more or less just a cog to its figurative machine. Bowie’s Newton would have done well to pick a different planet all together, Earth making him quite literally the ‘Fall Guy’.
All of this switches around towards the end of the decade as our alien visitors (and they’re relationship with us) become altogether ‘cuddlier’.
‘Superman: The Movie’ (1978) does a complete flip around on the ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ idea. Here we are presented with an alien sent from his dying world to Earth, and raised more or less in a Norman Rockwell painting. Blue collar, farm based- foster parents, gleaming white teeth — the whole cookie cutter package. Before arriving in the present, we see Clark as a teen in the 50s. It’s no mistake that the movie adaptation of this beloved character show us glimpses of late 50s America when charting his upbringing, totally sidestepping the 60s and the Cultural Revolution. Indeed, it is during that whole period that the character is holed up in the ‘Fortress of Solitude’ being taught by his alien blood father (told to us via montage). It is made clear that over 12 years pass, so his superhero training is a kind of more noble ‘club 18–30’.
It’s quite telling that when Clark arrives in modern day Metropolis, despite his ‘human’ disguise he is viewed as something of an anachronism by those around him. Lois Lane (clearly representing ‘modern’ cynical America) guesses his farm boy background, and laughs at his use of terms such as ‘golly’ and ‘swell’.
The 50s had already by the 70s been eulogised as the last ‘age of innocence’ and an overall far simpler time .In the year that ‘Superman’ was released the top grossing Hollywood movie was ‘Grease’. Throw in the fact that prior to this the character’s most known representation was the TV show starring George Reeves, and this alien appears to be an ambassador for 50s values. It’s an interesting approach to the ‘alien amongst us’ idea — while he may be known the world as the ‘Man of Tomorrow’ due to these abilities, his upbringing has made him a bit of an ambassador of the past. Upon hearing his intention to fight for ‘Truth, Justice and the American Way’ Lois exclaims ‘you’re going to be fighting every senator in the union’. With Watergate fresh in audience’s minds, these must have been music to much of the audience’s ears.
This idea of grafting the past with ideas of heroism and nobility is one that begins to permeate through so much of late 70s American cinema. An overall distrust of authority and power hangs over the decade’s sci-fi offerings, the twin shadows of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War looming large. Whilst the Thomas Newton character shows us an outsider for whom Americana has a purely detrimental (and ultimately destructive) effect with Superman we are shown the reverse. Here is an alien who is bringing the so called ideals of the US back to them. Metropolis is clearly denoted as modern day New York, all noise, muggers, pimps, and blaring noise. Superman brings his farm boy upbringing ideals to this and turns things around. The villain of the piece (in true 70s cinema style) is natural disaster — albeit man made. A common enemy that both the alien and average American can unite against. It’s put into words as the prison warden thanks Kal-El for making the US safe again ‘we’re all part of the same team’.
With the Vietnam War over, and with a seemingly liberal president in power, this sense of hope is present in a lot of cinema of these few years. The new decade on the horizon could also be a reason for the spirit of optimism that the movie personifies in the character of Superman. Not only does the character go about giving the people of Metropolis a newfound sense of hope but they (along with we the audience) are asked to also trust in those in power. While they may appear ineffectual next to the feats that Clark carries out, every police office and army general in the film is generally shown to be a ‘good egg’ and all there to help the titular character get the job done.
Whilst both Newton and Superman come to Earth with near messianic intent, it is the latter who is the more successful in his mission. While Newton has a pure mission statement that is eroded by the world around him, Superman is a representative of a simpler, purer time. He is to all intents and purposes almost shown as more human than the humans around him — refusing to lie, always making good on his word, and devoting as much time to saving kittens from trees as to diverting missiles from causing untold world devastation. He’s alien — but thanks to his ideallic upbringing he is more ‘human’ than us. That most nostalgic of American of backdrops the farming family has produced not just one of us, a ‘better’ one of us. A true ‘Super-man’ all round.
The eighties arrive and with it ‘Starman’ (1984), in which Jeff Bridges assumes the form of Jenny Hayden’s (Karen Allen) recently deceased husband. This alien visitor has been drawn to Earth by our own messages (sent by the Voyager spacecraft — itself the subject of multiple movie plotlines). His arrival here is noticed by the authorities who are soon in hot pursuit as the Starman and Jenny start a journey to Arizona — where he will return to his people.
Bridges character has a naiveté about the new world upon which he finds himself, a character trait that calls to mind a humanoid ‘E.T.’ Like his pudgy counterpart he is shown to have a gift for healing as he resurrects a dead deer (and later Jenny herself). The Starman views humanity as a savage race, but is fascinated at our strength in the face of adversity. It’s a theme that harks back to Superman’s training from his father Jor-El, who also views humanity as problematic but inherently ‘good’ — simply needing a guiding hand from beyond the stars…
The messiah overtones abound with these two alien visitors. Baby Kal-El was sent to us in a ship that resembles a giant Christmas decoration (from a world rife with heaven imagery), and Bridges is quite literally a ‘Starman’ who is introduced to us in the movie via a resurrection scene. He ‘gifts’ Jenna a pregnancy towards the movies denouement — in effect a ‘immaculate conception’ from her deceased husband. However, while Superman is welcomed seemingly with open arms to our world Starman is quite literally chased away from it (again bringing to mind ET). Whereas during the 50s the movie warned us of threats from beyond, the warning was now being sent from us to them — stay away, we are the threat. This contrasts very sharply with the way in which Kal-El is greeted with seemingly open arms in his 1978 movie. Whilst in that narrative the character’s alien heritage is (quite oddly) never an issue with his adopted planet, here the characters alien origins are reacted to on all sides. Right away the question of his physiology and what this could mean to us is at stake. Whereas the humans in ‘Superman’ are shown to have an attitude of thankfulness for what these alien gifts can do for us, here it’s all about what can we can get from him (in many ways a throwback to the Man Who Fell to Earth). As in ‘E.T’. the military are shown in the harshest of lights as they pursue Bridges relentlessly, seemingly an update of the pitchfork-wielding villagers from the ‘Frankenstein’ movies. 4 Years into a Reagan government and the Cold War was threatening to become a ‘hot’ one perhaps the sense of optimism present in ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Superman’ had been eroded, and authority figures were not as cuddly and trustworthy as they had seemed for a fleeting moment.
In the late 80s into the 90s there is a general default back to the ‘evil monster/alien’ model of the 50s, with the ongoing ‘Alien’ series plus a slew of send ups and old school invasion movies such as ‘Independence Day’, ‘Mars Attacks’ and yet another ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ remake. The humanoid alien tale does take shape this decade in the form of ‘Species’ (1995).
This movie concerns a group of scientists receiving messages from a never seen alien source, providing them with details on how to create fuel effortlessly. Said aliens then provide them with info on how to splice their own DNA with that of a human. This results in the creation of ‘Sil’, the scientists picking female DNA due to it’s ‘more docile and controllable traits’ (these guys clearly need to get out more).
Sil immediately exhibits violent traits, and soon she has escaped her creators. Maturing rapidly into the form of Natasha Henstridge, she goes on a killing spree as she attempts to mate and populate our world with more of her many tentacled kind.
‘Species’ is interesting in that it fits with the overall tone in the 90s of a return to earthbound alien invasion narratives, but merges it with the slasher genre. If ‘Alien’ (1979) turned the slasher genre on its head by relocating it to space, ‘Species’ does another flip by bringing it back down to Earth and making the killer a humanoid female. Sil is an alien black widow — hellbent on using the male body to provide her with offspring.
This idea of a ‘monster mother’ figure could also be seen in the previous decades ‘Aliens’ but here it is given overt female form (indeed both Sil and the Alien were visually realised bt HR Giger). Sil attracts males with her initial attractive appearance, but eventually reveals her horrific alien origins. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants, and leaves a trail of male bodies in her mission. Her creation was born out of a desire to harness alien technologies to better the planet (something Thomas Newton could lend a pale helping hand to). Instead those involved bring an alien invasion upon themselves.
This linking together of sexuality and death is nothing new in sci-fi, but it is something that becomes remarkably prevalent in the late 80s and 90s. In ‘The Fly’ (1986) Seth Brundle’s tampering with nature results in creating a gene-spliced monster in himself — after a night of sexual misadventure. ‘Independence Day’ (1996) dispenses with any characters showing signs of sexual deviancy in the first quarter of the movie, and ‘Starship Trooper’s’ (1997) continues the trend (when said character/victim has barely got herself dressed). Looking back it could be seen as a Hollywood struggling to reclaim an old school set of values. With the spectre of the LA riots looming still and a President’s tenure marked with supposed sexual scandal, it could all be seen as a desire to return to a simpler moral outlook.
The 21st Century arrives and with it comes Prot, as played by Kevin Spacey in ‘K-Pax’ (2001). After appearing in Grand Central station, Prot is commited to a mental institution after claiming to be an extra-terrestrial. His only seemingly otherworldly trait being an aversion to light, as evidenced by the snazzy scarlet shades he wears throughout the movie. Once there psychiatrist Mark Powell — (Starman himself!) Jeff Bridges — attempts to get to the bottom of ‘Prot’s identity.
Prot displays a level of knowledge about the cosmos that puzzles and intrigues Powell’s contacts in the scientific community. Coupled with this he almost immediately makes a connection with his fellow inmates at the institution. One by one they are ‘freed’ from the various demons plaguing them, and all become focused on his offer to take one of them back to his home planet on July 27th. Meanwhile, Powell uncovers a past that suggests ‘Prot’ may be more human than he appears.
Even without the presence of Bridges, this movie clearly brings us back to the idea of the benevolent ‘alien messiah’. Prot first appears bathed in light at Grand Central, as a scene of jeopardy (a robbery) plays out in front of him. His level of extreme calm whilst talking of alien origins brings to mind both Superman and Starman, given a firmly ‘real world’ backdrop (in his resulting locking up in a mental institution). He manages to ‘cure’ all of those around him in various ways. Alleviating his fellow patients of their various conditions, confirming to the scientific community our place in the universe, and finally inspiring Bridge’s character to reconcile with this estranged son. He is ‘saving’ these characters, just in a way maybe less visually enthralling than a Superman/Starman. When we eventually learn of his human origins, we are shown a man pushed to the brink of sanity, last seen wading through water before vanishing. It’s a striking image of ‘rebirth’ that again harks back to ‘Superman’, when Clark leaves behind both Smallville and his ‘human’ life to travel the arctic and learn his alien heritage.
Looking back on ‘K-Pax’ now it is tempting to read into it a post 9/11 shadow. Given both the location and the overriding theme of a character who has lost everything, now seeking to guide other similarly lost souls. Given its release in October of 2001, I think we can chalk this down to a sad prescience.
The ‘alien sexual predator’ (not that one) resurfaces in ‘Under The Skin’ (2013) This features Scarlett Johansson as an alien curb crawler. Driving around the streets of Glasgow, she tempts unwitting victims into her car and back to her place, where a gruesome fate awaits. Her intention is to harvest the internal organs of the males she encounters, to be sent back to her home planet.
Bowie just wanted water. Scarlett wants us.
With her mop of jet black hair and pale visage it’s impossible not to watch this and think of ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’. Whereas that transposed the Englishman (a dictionary definition ‘limey faggot’ to use the vernacular of our cousins across the pond) against the contrasting New Mexico landscape, this places what could be a hipster New Yorker into the bleak backdrop of the North of England. Her American accent attempting to draw in males pissed up on their 5th can of special brew and making their way from one chav-tastic club to another. It’s a clever mixing together of images that immediately signals to us that she is out of place.
A change of heart is brought on by some of her encounters, bringing her into conflict with her partner in crime. The movie changes gears from sexualised alien slasher into chase flick. What transpires is that she ends up the victim of a (sadly, routine) sex crime and murder. Her mission to Earth has been thwarted not by an addiction to media, or by a group of military assailants as in ‘Starman’ but by the brutality and evil ‘human’ nature. Going straight back to ‘Man Who Fell to Earth’ the theme of an alien visitor being enveloped and swallowed by humanity rears its ugly head.
Her mission was to create a meat market for her home world by trawling our own distinct ‘meat market’s’. She is almost a walking embodiment of a UKIP nightmare, this foreign visitor walking our streets and quite literally bleeding us dry.
Over the course of the last four decades we have seen alien visitors take on a variety of forms, from entrepreneur turned junkie, Norman Rockwell-esque crusader for justice, messiah outcasts to street-walking vampires. All of these are other-worldly reflections of the hopes and anxieties humanity at the time. Moving into the latter part of this decade it will be interesting to see what traits of human nature are next played out via our alien stars of the silver screen. In the meantime, Bowie is bringing Thomas Newton not just back to Earth, but to the stage! This writer shall be first in line…..