erik lundegaard

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—The Second Wave: Gods and Lost Children

Read the intro here and the first wave (Red Scare) here...

Just as quickly as they appeared, alien invasion movies—poof!—vanished from our screens. Except for a few low-budget crapfests (“Santa Claus vs. the Martians”), we didn’t hear from them throughout the 1960s. A great sociological study could be made of this gap. Did we become less paranoid of outsiders? Did we become more fascinated with our own star treks (Mercury, Apollo, U.S.S. Enterprise) to be concerned with the treks of others here?

Moreover, when aliens did return to earth in the 1970s, during an era of U.S.-Soviet detente, they were almost entirely benevolent. It’s a jolt watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) after these paranoid ‘50s films, because at no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our air-force pilots and small children. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!

Original poster for "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977)  Poster for "E.T." (1982)

Spielberg's two films, on gods and lost children, remade the alien invasion movie.

The benevolent aliens from this period can be divided into two groups: the crash-landers (“The Man Who Fell to Earth” ( 1976), “E.T.” (1982), and “Starman” (1984)), and the gods (“Close Encounters,” “Cocoon,” (1985), and “Contact” (1997)).

The crash-landers are essentially lost children who, like children everywhere, want to go home and watch TV. The man who fell to earth (David Bowie) winds up a kind of Howard Hughes/Elvis figure, so his bank of T.V. sets is pejorative, representing the cacophony of our culture, while E.T. and Starman, sublimating the tastes of their directors, wind up watching famous kissing scenes in old Hollywood films—“The Quiet Man” and “From Here to Eternity,” respectively—which teach each alien about love. Awwww. Thank God “A Clockwork Orange” wasn’t on.

So if the aliens are benevolent, who are the bad guys in these pictures? Generally, the U.S. military. Even when the government has a friendly face (Peter Coyote, Charles Martin Smith), the aliens are still hunted down. Captivity is imminent; dissection is implied. Go, E.T., go! Run, Starman, run!

Maybe this is the reason those other aliens, the gods, rarely land. They simply hover in their big, bright ships and grant the stars of the picture what they need: Richard Dreyfuss a purpose, Don Ameche youth, Jodie Foster a father. Awe accompanies their appearance. In their presence, we are the children, once lost, now found.

Movie poster for "Starman" (1984)  Movie poster for "Contact" (1997)

While the earlier movie posters drew you in with the unknown quality of the stars, these later posters draw you in with the known quality of movie stars. They also echo their predecessors. “Starman”'s tagline (“He is 100,000 years head of us”) echoes “E.T.”'s (“He is 3 million light years from home”), while the title of “Contact” is the final line of “Close Encounters”'s tagline.

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Posted at 07:50 AM on Fri. Jun 17, 2011 in category Movies  
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