Feature: "Benign"
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Benign Aliens

By D. Scott Apel

In a year virtually infested with alien contact movies -- think Men In Black, Mars Attacks!, Starship Troopers and Alien Resurrection -- the finest one among them refuses to present the aliens as bad-attitude dudes on the rampage, but treats the first contact question with intelligence and poignance.

Contact, due on video December 16, was directed by Robert Zemeckis and stars Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey in a story based on the novel by the late astronomer and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan.

Like most great science fiction films, Contact has its share of jaw-dropping special effects, like The Machine itself, a ghostly apparition on the Cape Canaveral horizon, and the central character's "wormhole" journey to the far reaches of the galaxy. Unlike many science fiction films which are little more than effects-fests, however, Contact has the added advantage of an intelligent script; Sagan's study in the moral dilemma in attempting to reconcile science with belief generates both thought and emotional reaction in the attentive viewer. As an added bonus, the film showcases the superb acting talents of Jodie Foster as tough, intelligent astronomer Ellie Arroway, who dedicates her life to proving that "we are not alone," only to end up embodying a truly poignant contradiction between her head and her heart after an epiphanal trip to the stars.

Contact earned over $100 million in its theatrical release and should do well as a video rental; while the immensity of its effects can't help but be diminished on a small screen, the thoughts and feelings the film inspires should translate intact.

While Contact uses the idea of a first contact with another self-aware species as the center of its story and the jumping-off point of its philosophical speculations, it is hardly the first film to deal with our inaugural encounter with benign beings from beyond. Below, a baker's dozen further recommendations for movies about galactic guests who "flew the friendly skies" -- and the various fates which befell them when they found themselves among us.

Ambassadors of Intergalactic Goodwill

It would be enough to discover that we are indeed Not Alone in the universe...but it's almost too much to hope for that our initial encounters could be this affectionate. But it makes for some good stories -- and beats the pants off stumbling across an alien out of Alien...

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977; Columbia TriStar; rated PG; 2:22). Zemeckis' mentor, Steven Spielberg, is responsible for two of the best of this breed, including this awe-striking (and very human) story about subtle preparations by the "Space Brothers" to make contact with our primitive race.

E.T. -- The Extra-Terrestrial (1982; MCA; Universal; PG; 1:55). Another Spielberg classic, this beloved fairy-tale of a boy and his alien introduced us to a turtle-like traveler with Einstein's eyes and no long distance phone card.

Cocoon (1985; CBS/Fox; PG-13; 1:57). Ron Howard directed this touching tale -- almost the flipside of E.T. -- about a group of mysterious but ultimately friendly aliens who accidentally rejuvenate a group of senior citizens.

Superman: The Movie (1978; Warner; PG; 2:24). Let us not forget that the ultimate protector of Truth, Justice and the American Way was in fact an alien at birth, sent to earth from the doomed planet Krypton to become the most powerful and popular alien ever to land on our little mudball. This Oscar-winning film (best visual effects) has it all: action, romance, comedy...and super flying effects.

Mistreated Visitors (or "Uh-oh...We're The Bad Guys!") "No good deed goes unpunished," says an old adage. This is certainly the case in these films, where the best intentions of the visitors are subverted by our own cruelty, callousness and greed to become the roads to their personal hells on earth.

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951; CBS/Fox; unrated; 1:32). Director Robert Wise's film noir sci-fi parable used the arrival of a mysterious being from the stars to illustrate the political paranoia that gripped post-War America. Along with its message of trust, acceptance and rationality, it's an engrossingly eerie -- and all too realistic -- tale.

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976; Columbia TriStar; R; 1:58). Director Nicolas Roeg's atmospheric saga of the seduction of an alien ambassador by the greed of a primitive planet is painful in places, but makes for some great drama. Rock icon David Bowie plays the innocent and passive planetary emissary, distracted from his mission of mercy and captured by savages...namely, us.

Wavelength (1983; Embassy Home Entertainment; PG; 1:27). This pleasant little low-budget thriller about four childlike visitors held captive by the government is a real buried treasure, filled with low-key updating of 1950's B-movie cliches.

Alien Antics

The idea of aliens as "fish out of water" on earth has long been the source of wacky humor, from Jerry Lewis' Visit to a Small Planet to television's My Favorite Martian, Mork and Mindy and the recent hit, 3rd Rock From The Sun. These are pure escapist flicks, using the ultimate culture clash to point out our own foibles.

Coneheads (1993; Paramount; PG; 1:26). This "extended dance mix" of Saturday Night Live's skit about egg-domed aliens stranded on earth stars Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtain in a virtual living cartoon full of good goofy fun, featuring such comedian guest stars as Dave Thomas and Jason Alexander.

Explorers (1985; Paramount; PG; 1:47). Director Joe Dante focuses on a trio of outcast kids (including River Phoenix) who share dreams of alien technology and cobble together a clunky spaceship to see if they can find someone out there to come out and play.

Earth Girls Are Easy (1989; LIVE; PG; 1:40). A sci-fi musical comedy extravaganza about a trio of hairy, horny aliens (Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey and Damon Wayans) who land their UFO in a Valley Girl's (Geena Davis) swimming pool and evolve into hip, hunky "L.A. liens." Clever nonsense and slapstick fun.

Philosophical Speculation

As in Contact, the idea of alien contact can serve as a metaphor for more earthly concerns; as a springboard to social and philosophical questions of the nature of our very humanity. These films use the idea of aliens as a mirror for reflections of our own society.

The Brother From Another Planet (1984; CBS/Fox; not rated; 1:49). Writer/director John Sayles created this social satire which is low on budget but big on ideas. When a mute black spaceman lands in Harlem, he engages in an odyssey of confrontations with colorful locals while trying to escape intergalactic bounty hunters (including Sayles).

Starman (1984; Columbia TriStar; PG; 1:55). John Carpenter helmed this suspense entry about a birdlike alien who assumes the shape of a Wisconsin widow's (Karen Allen) deceased husband. Jeff Bridges earned an Oscar nomination for his unique and engaging performance as the traveler.

Man Facing Southeast (1986; New World and Starmaker; R; 1:45). This Argentine film (in Spanish with English subtitles) is a moving philosophical treatise on what it means to be human. And while it raises far more questions than it answers, isn't feeling alienated one of the most characteristic of human qualities?

D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.

Previous features:
Die Laughing: 13 flicks guaranteed to rattle your funny bones.
Film Noir: Build a library of some classic B-pictures.
Thanksgiving turkeys: A giblet-eye view of the worst of 1997.

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December 9, 1997