W.B. at the movies: Well-meaning aliens

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My favorite of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies is easily First Contact.

In the Trek mythology, the Vulcans discovered Earth on the day Zefram Cochrane performed a successful warp drive experiment. A passing Vulcan craft detected the warp drive signature — a sign of an advanced, star-faring civilization — and went over to Earth to introduce themselves.

In the film, the overly aggressive Borg collective travels back in time to stop Cochrane from making that first flight. The Enterprise chases them back in time to make sure the Borg fails, and the closing scene shows Cochrane and the Vulcans meeting each other.

I’m a sucker for these first-contact movies that revolve around humans and aliens interacting with essentially peaceful motivations.

I’m sure there are earlier examples, but I’d start with the original version of The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), where Klaatu and his robot Gort attempt to present Earth with a device that would enable us to study life on other planets, until a trigger-happy government employee pumps a round into him. Klaatu ends up becoming a world cop, leaving Gort behind to prevent further bloodshed, so it’s not exactly a happy ending. More satisfying endings happen in:

It Came From Outer Space (1953), in which aliens crash-land and do some body snatching, but only so they can fix their boat. Otherwise they have come in peace. 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and its more literal sequel, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, in which we never really meet the aliens but their mission is clearly to help us evolve to the next, more noble, stage.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), in which, when we finally meet the mysterious aliens, our hero joyously rides off with them in an apparent mission to explore strange new worlds and new civilizations.

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), in which an alien botanist gets stranded on Earth and befriends a little boy. This sweet story is one of my all-time favorite films and, tangentially, the John Williams soundtrack is that fine composer’s finest hour, er, two hours.

Contact (1997), which I wrote about the other day, a cross between the secretive aliens of 2001 and the Close Encounters aliens who invite us humans along for the intergalactic ride, albeit using small moves, Ellie.

And finally, Arrival (2016), a magnificent film and my favorite of the 21st century so far, in which a dedicated linguistics professor races to translate the language and culture of visiting aliens before we paranoid humans can blow them (and ourselves) up. Once again, their goal is meaningful communication but some of us can’t get over our fears.

What these movies have in common is the notion that aliens among us generally have nonviolent and benevolent intent, and our fears and prejudices make us act in unwelcome ways that hinder the process at best and make us the true villains of the story at worst.

I would suggest these stories intend to encourage us to be willing to embrace the strange and the unknown and find a common understanding to move forward together. That’s why I regard these movies with more fondness than, say, War of the Worlds (1953) or Independence Day (1996), which are tremendous stories in their own right but present the aliens as would-be conquerors. I think the films I’ve listed here have a healthier outlook.


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