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Close Encounters with Mankind: Aliens as the Other and Ourselves

By Jason Cueto

In cinema, the archetype of the alien holds many meanings: from a scientific perspective, it elicits the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the universe; in a socio-political context, alien describes a racialized notion of the “other” or the immigrant. Ideas about aliens have radically evolved throughout motion picture history and these two concepts have changed the way audiences view science fiction films, establishing aliens as a strong, long-running trend in popular culture.  With the newest installment of Ridley Scott’s “Alien” universe, “Alien: Covenant,” the alien remains an iconic popular cinematic trend. Scott’s alien— the Xenomorph— comes from a long lineage of past alien representations shaped by mankind’s own history.

The alien trend did not reach prominence in science fiction until the Age of the Atom when America demonstrated the destructive power of  atomic bomb in WWII. A nuclear arms race ensued and at the same time, McCarthyist fears of Communist expansion ran rampant,   inspiring science-fiction writers with the possibility of total war by an otherworldly force with weapons insurmountable to mankind.

Thus, aliens were  presented as hostile antagonists throughout the ‘50s with B-films like “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” and the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Wells’s novel, “War of the Worlds,” wherein the alien as a totalitarian force often existed to reflect human society.  

The alien also portrayed social ideas and anxieties of the ‘50s, where any individual or body displaying nonconformity was labelled as the Other, an alien. Conversely, the alien could also be something socially dangerous but invisible, as it had assimilated within society, an idea greatly exemplified in the 1956 horror film “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The alien is disguised as a human — completely normal and unassuming— so that humanity becomes the cloak for the extraterrestrial, tapping into fears of communist infiltration. Both the original and the 1973 remake embody these cultural anxieties, reinforced in other alien films such as “The Blob” and “The Thing from Another World.”

By the Vietnam War, the alien trend paused. Sci-fi cinema took a bleak turn, telling stories of doomed, dystopian futures, reflecting the collective cynicism elicited by the war. When the war ended, the trauma from years of political disarray remained fresh in the national consciousness, heightened further by the Civil Rights Movement and Watergate.

However, the countercultural New Hollywood film movement brought a more optimistic view on cinema, as well as extraterrestrial sci-fi through filmmakers George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. “Star Wars’s” variety of alien characters broadened Lucas’s universe with hardly a semblance of social commentary; that’s where “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” comes in. The Spielberg epic evoked benevolent aliens, as opposed to their hostile ‘50s counterparts. The aliens initially appear unholy, but through encounters and culminating in its iconic climax,  they begin to reflect our own childlike curiosity to communicate and understand others, rebellious in the wake of post-Vietnam discord.

Five years later, Spielberg’s spiritual successor “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” sincerely reprises this universal lesson with its cuddly titular alien who brings together a dysfunctional family burdened by divorce. By the 1980s, the alien genre in sci-fi cinema returned with a more promising note, inspiring human spectators to accept those considered “alien,” but to also acknowledge and celebrate their differences.

Yet, the alien invasion narrative was revived in a more biological than social aspect with a horrific alien antagonist. Ridley Scott’s 1979 “Alien” introduced an iconic universe, now on its sixth installment with “Alien: Covenant”.

“Alien” remains one of the most effective science fiction titles, a classic that amplifies fears of the unknown with disturbing ideas. Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett’s screenplay combined with H.R. Giger’s twisted surrealist art served important roles in conceptualizing the film, especially its titular antagonist. “Alien” is not just a slasher film in sci-fi skin; the film tackles themes of rape and sexual violation characterized by Giger’s psychosexual, otherworldly designs.

The Xenomorph represents a transgressive entity of sexual depravity: it must impregnate a human host by the act of oral rape and then spawns from a violent pregnancy that kills its human host in the process. The female Xenomorph impales its victims with a phallic tongue tipped with a secondary mouth which mirrors the violence in a common slasher film as a penetrative act of violation. Considering its victims are primarily males who hold patriarchal values and authority in “Alien,” the film questions gender roles when its female protagonist, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is left alone to destroy the alien.

These ideas are still strong in this year’s prequel, “Covenant”. As a concept, the Xenomorph redefines alien invasion conventions with body horror themes, similar to disease and parasitism, addressing how crucial it is for the human body to protect itself from  biological intrusion. The “Alien” films also engage with gender roles in a male-dominated world; a female character at her most vulnerable rises to authoritative power to resist this entity.

The alien trend still runs high in popular culture, given today’s digital filmmaking standards, introducing films that pay tribute to the classics. This spawned a whole subgenre with popcorn flick farce (“ID4, Mars Attacks”), but also contemporary classics that transcend expectations (“Arrival,” “District 9”).  While there is escapism to behold, the alien narrative across science fiction is important to understand in a sociological context. The trend has different meanings from differing views, addressing how society perceives and coexists with the Other. The alien upholds relevance to socio-political topics like famine, illness, war and xenophobia. The extraterrestrial still inspires science to look beyond the stars, but most of all, the alien provides a reflection of humanity as a whole and how we can benefit others and ourselves in a generational span.