This weekend brings Battle: Los Angeles to movie screens across the country, not to mention Aaron Eckhart to the brink of extinction as space invaders sock it to the Left Coast. Last month gave us I Am Number Four, the story of sexy high school kids who just happen to not be vampires — instead, they’re the last of an alien civilization living right in our midst. Do they sparkle in the daylight? That we don’t know.
But we do know that there’s been a fascination with our mothers, brothers, and others from beyond, so here are some of the Popdose staff’s favorite close encounters from the worlds of movies and television. Some come as friends, some want to mate with us, and some want to have us for dinner (it’s a cookbook!).
The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man” (1962): Rod Serling’s primary focus with his TV series The Twilight Zone was a hidden one. By using science fiction settings and scenarios, he was able to get morality plays about paranoia, bigotry, egotism, and other human failings onto television sets all across the country, and he did so without being preachy.
Of course, he wasn’t above just scaring the crap out of you either. Submitted for your approval, one “To Serve Man,” wherein the aliens arrive on Earth and start hard-selling us inhabitants on the glories of their home world, and how we would be treated as kings there. Why, they even have a book devoted to the task entitled To Serve Man. To prove their benevolence the aliens start shutting down the nuclear armaments of the world, they turn deserts into lush fields, and they stroke our collective ego as it’s never been stroked before. Masses of humans, ready to junk this one-horse planet for interstellar godhood, climb aboard the aliens’ waiting spaceship, only to learn upon their arrival that the menu … is them!
You could make a case that this too is a cautionary tale about human arrogance and the gullibility that sometimes rides shotgun with it, but I suspect Serling was more interested in keeping you on the edge of your seat with this one than anything else. That he was advocating suspicion in the face of the characters’ utter trust of the aliens seems to be a far cry from some of his other Twilight tales. I guess that’s what made the show so brilliant — you just never quite knew what was going to be on that plate. —Dw. Dunphy
The Twilight Zone, ”The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” (1960): I spent a good portion of childhood without a sociocultural crisis to worry about. My grandparents had the Red Scare, my parents can recall ducking under desks during school drills, and my cousins were left wringing their hands as nuclear weapons became increasingly prolific. Me? It took 14 years and a devastating attack on American soil to remind me that the world was often a scary place.
But I already knew how scary things could be thanks to “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” from the first season of The Twilight Zone. Science fiction is a surprisingly solid way of teaching children of the ills and foils of mankind — consider the implicit warnings against industry and technology in films like Alien (1979) and The Terminator (1984) — but “Monsters” is probably the most effective sci-fi yarn for deconstructing the dangers from outer space. Even as a seventh grader who was introduced to the episode in script form — our English class took on the various roles and read it aloud — I was shaken by the power of Serling’s writing.
In “Monsters” a suburban neighborhood is unified, then blisteringly torn apart, by a power outage and subsequent fear that there may be aliens living in one of the peaceful, affordable houses. As is so often the case, the creatures from another world are far less dangerous than the paranoid neighbors, but all the spacemen needed to win was an oversized remote control — fear did the rest of the work for them.
Most of the movie monsters my generation deals with are easily defeated by a punch from Will Smith. I don’t even know that suburban streets are unified enough to react in the same way they would have 50-some years ago. Yet the power of “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” is stronger than ever. If there’s anyone reading this who lives on a real Maple Street, think long and hard about what you’ve seen before you start questioning why your neighbors are so strange. —Mike Duquette
I Married a Monster From Outer Space (1958): Well, what spouse hasn’t felt that way from time to time? Alien invasions come in all shapes and sizes, but this one hits right smack in the bedroom. Marge, a perky young newlywed (Gloria Talbott, who had been the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll the previous year), begins to feel there’s something off about her husband, Bill (Tom Tryon). For one thing he’s refusing alcoholic beverages, which in our 12-step era would be quite commendable, but back in the cocktails-and-cigarettes age was suspect. And he’s no longer showing emotions, which, as she’ll learn in a few years, is true of any husband yet right off the bat suggests something odd. Nor can she get pregnant, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — Marge deduces that she and her fellow townswomen have married monsters from outer space, extraterrestrials from a female-denuded planet who’ve taken over the Earth husbands’ bodies in order to mate with their wives and create a village of the damned, to name-drop another alien-invasion flick. (Tryon, a gay man who gave up acting to write best sellers like The Other, might have found Bill’s false front similar to living in Hollywood’s celluloid closet.) Smarter than its title suggests, the movie has a greater hold on me now than, say, that same year’s The Blob, another unwelcome visitor from the stars. When I was a kid I thought the Blob lived under my bed, ready to pounce, but it’s scarier to think that the person right next to you in the bed is somehow an alien. —Bob Cashill
Starman (1984): Of all the things that could have gone wrong with this movie, the biggest would have to be the choice of director. Nobody could have predicted that John Carpenter would assume such a sentimental story so gracefully, especially when only two movies prior to Starman he was clinching humanity’s defeat with the body-snatching The Thing (1982).
But here we are, on the road with Jenny Hayden (Karen Allen) and the alien that’s assumed the physical form of her dead husband (Jeff Bridges). They’re off on a road trip to Arizona, where the Starman will rendezvous with his own and return home — if he doesn’t die first, that is. Earth is slowly killing him, and what the planet won’t take, government officials and deer-hunting rednecks will.
With all the trappings of a chase flick, a sci-fi flick, and the morose underpinnings of a Lifetime Weeper of the Week, Starman still manages to be an effective romance and has Carpenter’s signature all over the place, from the widescreen compositions to the synth score, even down to his standard typeface for the credits. He may not have initiated the project — that honor supposedly goes to producer Michael Douglas — but once it was finished, Starman couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s. Carpenter would return to exploring the insidious side of our cosmic brethren with the hootin’ n’ hollerin’ They Live! (1988), but in ’84 the most important thing we found beneath the surface was his ability to be an old softie. —Dw. Dunphy
Men in Black (1997): Aside from being a clever comedy and a showcase for the quicksilver chemistry of Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, who’s never been funnier, Men in Black has made me question the interstellar origin of every single — how do I put this? – unique person I’ve come across in the past 14 years. In a brief cutaway director Barry Sonnenfeld exposes Danny DeVito, one of the stars of his previous film, Get Shorty, as an alien in disguise (think about it — he’s not much taller than E.T.), as well as self-help giant Anthony Robbins, psychic chanteuse Dionne Warwick, Men in Black executive producer Steven Spielberg, and even Sonnenfeld himself. So the next time you’re sitting on the bus next to a guy whose skull appears to be one size too small, or you choose to see Red Riding Hood this weekend instead of Battle: Los Angeles because you’re mysteriously drawn to Amanda Seyfried’s out-of-this-world eyes, remember — we’re not alone. (However, Ms. Seyfried would prefer to be left alone, so please stop asking for her number.) —Robert Cass