This week, Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ bracingly emotional love letter to ’80s spectacle sci-fi auteurs like Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, the terror of new fatherhood and the limits of sacrifice, arrives in theaters. It’s a star-studded affair that’s designed as a throwback, but also written in such a pared-down fashion that it feels cleaved of all but the most essential information. Rather, it builds narrative through Nichols’ deep attention to character, and foundational intel about the way these characters relate to each other. That doesn’t mean it’s not full of thrilling genre elements like superpowered characters, classically crafted car chases and allusions to worlds beyond the stars. The less revealed about the plot the better, but it’s fair to say that one of the characters is very much a visitor to our world.
Cinema, especially Hollywood, doesn’t generally hold an optimistic view of figures from beyond our known geography. Whether it’s full-scale war, otherworldly intruders terrorizing hapless earthlings, or just an overwhelming anxiety about our place in the universe, film has long tapped into our xenophobia to present visions of our fear about other worlds. But there are exceptions, and it’s a perfect time to focus on those films with unfamiliar neighbors who have either benevolent or neutral intentions toward Earth.
Given a few seemingly obvious omissions like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind here, so many other films that deal with other worlds deserve attention. Quite a few either deal specifically in communicating with but not meeting aliens (Contact, Interstellar) or do not take place on Earth, but that would also significantly muddle this list. In order to streamline the following, the visitor needed to be coming to Earth and had no intentions to cause harm (Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin for instance, was on the bubble for its second half). Here are five films that say something particularly interesting about either aliens or our world’s relationships with them.
Director: Robert Wise
Though it’s certainly not the first film about aliens—friendly or otherwise—Robert Wise’s 1951 classic is nonetheless one of the most influential. And while Michael Rennie’s collected but subtly bold lead turn as Klaatu originated some of the most prescient and culturally digestible presentations of extraterrestrials, it’s easy to forget the genuinely transgressive qualities of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
At its heart a cautionary tale about Cold War-era nuclear armament, The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from a feature-length sermon, sprawling into pronged discussions on the meaning of “true knowledge,” the value of individual human accomplishment and the oblivious selfishness of Earthlings who believe they’re above the rest of the universe.
Backed by the caterwauling theremin- and vibraphone-heavy Bernard Herrmann score, the film magnificently teeters between genre leanings like Klaatu’s massive laser-eyed robot guardian, Gort (whose rubber suit design—characteristic of the special effects of the era—looks as bulbously cushioned as a bouncy house), and sober monologues about the dangers of substituting fear for reason.
A messenger from the far reaches of the solar system, Klaatu only wants to impart his boundless wisdom, but true to genre form, Earth has never exactly been a place to put out the welcome mat for foreigners. Upon landing on the planet, a trigger-happy American military destroys Klaatu’s olive branch to Earth—an unspecified cone-shaped device of which Klaatu says ruefully, “With this, you could have studied life on other planets”—and that’s before denying the peaceful alien’s one request to have a conversation with a global council about their dangerous path. In Wise’s cynical vision of politics, even life-changing circumstances aren’t enough to empower a divided world to come together.
Director: John Carpenter
The only film on this list that’s been specifically cited by Nichols as a direct influence, John Carpenter’s Starman has a significant amount in common with Midnight Special, but it also has some insightful and entirely disparate discussions that meld fish-out-of-water hijinks with more complex moral hierarchies.
Jeff Bridges is the titular Starman, an outer space shape-shifter who takes the form of a widow’s (Karen Allen in one of her best unsung performances) recently departed husband, and enlists her to drive him to the Grand Canyon for … something that’s better left undisclosed. Bridges earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a gradually emerging human, though his performance is a bit distracting in its initial reliance on body language tics like hunched head turns and a scrunched Ken-doll expression. In the early going, it looks as though at any point he could unhinge his jaw inside out like one of the grotesqueries from The Thing.
After the initial theatrics, an undeniably complex internal conversation ponders the need to lionize or villainize those who are different, as best synthesized in Charles Martin Smith’s line, “The cannibal said to the missionary, ‘Who is the missionary and who’s the cannibal?’” Another film about friendly aliens that uncovers the nature of our relationships, Starman isn’t necessarily interested in the outside forces in general, even as they’re always in the rearview mirror. Buoyed by Jack Nitzsche’s soaring, bruisingly raw synth score and the bristling warmth in Allen and Bridge’s romance, it’s a reminder that the purity of aliens reacting to humanity can reflect both our most base and most affirming qualities as a species.
Director: John Hough
John Hough’s original Escape to Witch Mountain may be the least successful of any of the films here, but if only for its identification as a Disney film and for its whimsically out-there set pieces, it deserves a place on this list. Based with substantial liberties on the enormously popular YA story of the same name written by Alexander Key, the oft-adapted tale (including a 1995 TV version starring Robert Vaughn and a pint-sized Elisabeth Moss), follows Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia (Kim Richards), two achingly precocious orphans from the stars who possess the most narratively convenient telepathic and psychokinetic powers in cinematic history.
Sent to an orphanage after their kindly foster parents pass away, the two children catch the eye of Lucas Deranian (the perpetually creepy Donald Pleasence), who’s alerted to their powers after they warn him of an impending car crash moments before it happens. Deranian soon forges documents, adopting the children and taking them to his sycophantic millionaire boss, Aristotle Bolt (The Lost Weekend’s Ray Milland). Immediately aware of the strangeness of the whole situation, the two soon break out, and head on a road trip with the compassionate but curmudgeonly Mr. O’Day (Eddie Albert, perhaps best known as the scamp photographer/best friend in Roman Holiday), followed closely by a payrolled police department and a small band of mercenaries.
Using a harmonica as a spiritual conduit, Tony is able to control things, and see visions of the near future (sort of). Tia, meanwhile, has the ability to telepathically communicate with people and animals, and experiences a recurring amniotic dream about drifting in an ocean with her brother and an unknown figure. Her only clue about her origins is a star case she’s had since early childhood that has a hidden map inside. Cue an endless series of deus ex machinas as the plot magically thrusts forward whenever one of the kids has an inkling of where to go next.
Filled with superimposed rear projection and special effects that are a deliberate pause away from transparent wires, Escape to Witch Mountain isn’t exactly a technical marvel. Still, it’s engaging to watch Tia control a coat hanger to terrorize a police officer, or see the daffy goofiness of an upside-down helicopter hovering in the sky.
Director: Nicholas Roeg
Imbued with newfound poignancy and melancholia after the passing of its mercurial lead Starman, David Bowie, Nicholas Roeg’s impressionistic, ravenous, experiential masterpiece is one of the rare films about aliens that feels as exotic in its form as its content. Filled with Roeg’s characteristically discursive, paradoxically symmetrical and nonlinear cutting, and violently sensual imagery, The Man Who Fell to Earth is as much about subverting the very nature of human experience as it is about offering an outside window into our culture.
As the “secretive, but not private” Thomas Jerome Newton—a meteoric billionaire industrialist whose knowledge allows him to skip decades of scientific stranglehold at a mere moment—Bowie’s version of a universal traveler is less about a misunderstanding of the world than a semantic confusion of the pronunciation of words, or an inability to reinforce his own externalized narrative.
Even as Newton leaps every known scientific hurdle, his life force is slowly being wrung out by competitors and friends alike who are so consumed with success they’re unable to see the big picture, or recognize the importance of Newton’s own interest in returning to his family.
In what both represents and replicates the experience of watching a Roeg film, Newton obsesses over watching dozens of televisions, attempting to collectively view reality as one congealed experience. As he explains, “Television shows you everything, but it doesn’t tell you everything.” Moving decades in single frames, Newton can’t escape this misery of his own making, basking in the death of his memories over endless gins as he experiences seemingly multiple lifetimes in a single event.
Referring to his eternal imprisonment, Rip Torn’s traitorous Nathan Bryce asks, “Are you mad that we did this?” On the verge of passing out, Newton responds, “We’d have probably treated you the same if you came over to our place.” Even aliens aren’t immune to our vices of apathy and despair.
Director: John Sayles
An inevitable thematic companion piece to The Man Who Fell to Earth, John Sayles’ brilliantly subversive, socially incisive The Brother From Another Planet looks at humanity through a distinctly less luxurious lens, if not a more outwardly humanistic context. Beginning with the crash landing of a spaceship in 1980s Harlem, “Three-toe” (a stunning Joe Morton, who may be best known in the contemporary landscape as Olivia Pope’s father on Scandal) is a mute alien who’s on the run from two Men in Black from his planet, where he was enslaved for labor.
Mistaken for a foreigner given his inability to speak English, he fortuitously falls into the good graces of a local bar owner and its band of idiosyncratic regulars. At first, they can’t decide whether he’s a wino or crazy, but as one of the regulars, Fly (Darryl Edwards), states after pushing a shot of whiskey in front of him, “He hates the flavor of booze, so he must be crazy.” Still, they stand up for their own, and soon they’ve found him a place to stay and are telling the Men in Black to buzz off, with mixed results.
A purely low-budget affair, the glistening steel drum soundtrack, distinctly ’80s New York milieu and glitchy digital special effects have certainly carbon-dated The Brother From Another Planet, but that doesn’t mean its message is any less resonant. A beacon of multiculturalism, “Three-toe” drifts from neighborhood to neighborhood, wandering the streets and peering into the treatment of different communities through conversations with social services representatives, cops and junkies. Without saying a word, he helps people through supernatural and, more engagingly, natural ways. A glowing hand trick that magically fixes both mechanical and electrical devices and wounds grabs him a little money, but more often, it’s about the people who need to just unload about their own lives to someone.
Per usual, Sayles has a peerless sense for dialogue—take a humorously strange, errant detail of lumpiness in a pie-like tumor—but his real skills as a writer are on display when the small talk moves to social consciousness at a moment’s notice without sounding preordained in any way. Like other films that consider racial and class divides (Trading Places), The Brother From Another Planet so casually bridges these conversations, simply given the ability to breathe by a character who’s an outsider. He may be an alien, but that doesn’t mean goodness isn’t an innate part of his being.