Aliens, or extra-terrestrials, have had a surprisingly long and interesting history in terms of film. Beginning as early as 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, aliens have made appearances in a variety of genres from horror/thriller to comedy (and even romance), ranging anywhere from mysterious blobs to almost human. I thought I would compile a few of the ones that have made a major impact on alien cinema.
Let’s start with A Trip to the Moon, or La Voyage Dans La Lune, released in 1902 by George Melies. While you may not have heard of it (as with most films from the silent era), it is important for being the first film centered around contact with aliens. Influenced by Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and Around the Moon, the French film is about a group of astronomers who go to the moon in a cannon-launched capsule. As they explore the moon, they are chased by a strange looking lunar people, or Selenites, one of which they eventually capture and bring back to Earth. Here the aliens look distinctly non-human, setting up the trend for other interpretations of aliens in film.
In the next film of importance, the Blob, released in 1958 by Irvin Yeaworth (note: Superman made his first film appearance in a 1948 serial, but I am skipping over him, as the film centers around his comic origins, rather than its own idea), the non-humanoid alien appearance continues, with the main creature being a mere blob. The Blob arrives in Pennsylvania from a meteorite crash, where it consumes and old man who pokes the meteorite open. The Blob continues to grow and consume everything in its path, only stopped by extreme cold. This film, like the ones that came before it, center around aliens coming to Earth, or are mostly centered around Earth.
Star Wars, however, breaks that trend, taking place in a “galaxy far, far away”. Episode IV, released in 1977 by George Lucas, centers around a young Luke Skywalker, who lives in Tatooine with his aunt and uncle during an intergalactic civil war. After his uncle buys C3PO and R2D2, he discovers a message from the captured Princess Leia, and embarks on a journey to find Obi Wan Kenobi. From there he goes on a journey with the renowned smuggler Han Solo to find and rescue Princess Leia. In this film, and in the trilogy, the aliens come anywhere from entirely human (most of the main cast) to giant monsters, meant to represent a whole galaxy of different species. Star Wars is incredibly well-known, and seems to remain so, with new films from the series coming out every year.
Star Wars was an interesting turn from the norm of alien movies, being action-filled and comical, rather than horror-filled and intense. But the next big film on our list makes a serious return to the horror-thriller genre, coming in the form of Alien in 1979. Directed by Ridley Scott, the film follows the crew of the ship Nostromo who receive a distress signal from the planet LV-426, to which they decide to investigate. On the planet they find a derelict ship, which contains large egg-like objects. When one of the crew members touches on, a creature comes out and attaches itself to his face. It eventually falls off on its own, and after which they return to their own ship. The man who was attacked chokes and dies, however, and a small alien bursts from his chest, disappearing into the ship. From then the crew must try and kill the creature, which quickly grows, and begins to kill and eat the crew. This film was the first in its eventual series, developing into an entire series based around Alien vs. Predator.
The next film, like Star Wars, takes another turn away from the horror-thriller genre, being the heartwarming E.T the Extra-Terrestrial. Released in 1982 by Steven Spielberg, this cult classic follows the tale of E.T, who gets left behind after his group of alien botanists flee from government agents. It hides in a suburban tool shed, where he is discovered and befriended by ten-year old Elliot. They form a connection with one another, working together to try and send a message to E.T’s home. They work against government agents who are trying to capture and study E.T. to try and get his people to come back for him. It’s a heartwarming tale that has retained its popularity throughout the decades, contrasting typical alien films in that the alien this time is a cute wrinkly creature.
While there are plenty more alien films of importance to talk about, I’m going to have to cut it short and focus on a more “recent” one (when I mean recent, I mean late 2000’s). This film is Avatar. Why did I decide to choose this film over anything else? Well, because it not only was a change in how aliens are portrayed, but also how film is made entirely. The film, which was made almost entirely through CGI (a feat almost unheard of), takes place through the perspective of Jake Sully, a paraplegic former marine who partakes on a mission to find an energy source for Earth, after all natural resources had been depleted. They find a valuable source called unobtanium on the planet Pandora, a heavily forested planet inhabited by the 10-foot tall Na’vi. He joins the Avatar program to try and gain access to the unobtanium, but eventually falls in love with the princess Neytiri, and begins to change tune. He works to protect the land of the Na’vi against the humans who want to destroy their environment for resources, becoming one of the Na’vi in the process. I want to point out this film because of the mark it left in film (despite the joke that no one can remember a single line from the film). It was remarkable for its insanely high-production and beautiful scenery and design, and with the amount of CGI that it used, was considered a feat.