The search for extraterrestrial life and the consequences of its discovery have long been a significant part of human culture. The idea of conscious beings existing outwith or within our domain is simultaneously a terrifying and enlightening prospect. In no other form of our society has this taken on such a significant role than it has within cinema. Mathematically inevitable and yet seemingly unreachable, cinema has been appointed the artist and storyteller in deciding how and when we will meet our cosmological cousins, and to what end such a discovery will be.
In this series we will study the variety of alien portrayals in modern cinema and how unique insights are offered into worlds where we are not the only super-intelligent inhabitants. More so than in any other genre of film, the past 50 years has seen science fiction progress like in no other era, thanks to advances in the real-world fields of computer science and engineering. These advances have seen aliens evolve from puppets, suits and prosthetics to computer generated life-forms of almost limitless potential, while in the background extraterrestrial life has taken hold of our literature, pop culture and more as the world has embraced the possibilities of the future.
From the humble 1902 classic Le Voyage dans la Lune to the 1950’s, relatively few films concerned themselves with aliens. But post-war development in technology, the cold war and the space race propelled the world’s cosmic interest forward. From the 1970’s where our series begins, science fiction received a post-moon-landing surge in interest. In becoming closer to reaching intelligent life, our opinions and portrayals of aliens became much broader, optimistic and relevant. It wasn’t until after man had walked on the moon that we began to properly entertain the notion of aliens as more than just warmongering savages. Having an opinion on such an issue was no longer unusual and cinema began to run wild. Since then science fiction has been on an upward trajectory in terms of popularity and relevance.
With the politics of war, peace and everything between, aliens have been used to portray a wide variety of stories new and old. Through select films we will examine their use in cinema in terms of hope, horror, sexuality, comedy, religion, national identity, race, war, communication and much more - in the full spectrum of human emotion reflected in these extraterrestrial beings.
Our selections will broadly cover the classics and a few lesser-known films within the genre, starting with the genre defining Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and closing with the similarly minded Arrival (2016). Between the two lie some of the most iconic characters, scenes and dialogue in all of cinema, neatly bookended by common ideas that have evolved and created rules and conventions of their own.
We’ll study their soundtracks and scores to see how important sound is when crafting an engaging film. From the nerve shredding score of Under The Skin and uplifting themes of E.T., to films where particular sounds form important plot devices, like the country yodelling of Mars Attacks! and Close Encounters of the Third Kind’s iconic 5 tone motif. We’ll watch as Alien’s famous xenomorph suit paved the way for CGI to reach fruition in the 21st century and how subverting all of these conventions in the name of humour and suspense has achieved great success too.
We’ll also pay due diligence to unsung heroes behind the genre like special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi, more commercial names like Steven Spielberg and Roland Emmerich, as well as highlight the heroines of science fiction who have broken moulds and been decades ahead of other genres, watching Ellen Ripley (Alien), Louise Banks (Arrival), Ellie Arroway (Contact) and Scarlett Johansson in Under The Skin, as their characters are afforded more depth and interest than women in many contemporary films.
Our worst fears and greatest hopes for alien contact have already been played out onscreen for us to enjoy and ponder, so join us as we reflect on the closest thing we have to reaching out and touching the stars ourselves.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Euan is the editor of Wrap Party Media, contributor at Discovery Music, freelance writer, and popular on instagram as @cinematographersparty. He’s examining alien cinema for his love of science fiction and to track the innovation of the last 50 years within the genre. His other writings can be found at https://wrappartymedia.com/author/euanfoley/
ABOUT NEON EYE
Neon Eye is a film production company based in Edinburgh. As well as offering a platform for these curations and an accompanying video podcast, the company also creates and produces creative films of varying forms, from documentary to drama, and commercial videos for other companies, individuals, and enterprises.