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Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Friendly Aliens (originally published 10/01)

At a time when those in our midst who come from somewhere else are being regarded with an extraordinary level of suspicion, it is perhaps a good thing that we can go to see a movie about an affable, harmless fellow who claims to be from a culture more remote than anything our State Department has ever dreamed of. In "K-Pax," Kevin Spacey plays a character who cheerfully explains that he is an alien - the kind from outer space, that is.

Although threatening extraterrestrials who invade with ray guns blazing have always made for exciting screen fare, there is also a substantial tradition of movies about encounters with benevolent aliens. For a sampling of anti-xenophobic science fiction movies, look for these titles on home video.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951). The inversion of the alien invasion plot, casting earthlings as the menace and aliens as the victims, had long been common currency in science fiction literature before this film introduced it to the screen. Michael Rennie plays Klaatu, an emissary from a federation of civilizations dedicated to galactic peace. They have had our young planet under observation for some time, but now that our warlike species has developed nuclear weaponry, the day of reckoning has come. We can join the cause of peace or face total annihilation.

"Moon Pilot" (1962). Although not one of Disney studio's better-remembered pictures, this comedy ranks with some of its most clever work. Tom Tryon stars as Captain Richmond Talbot, an astronaut who is chosen to be the first man to orbit the moon. Although he is closely guarded by the FBI, a beautiful young woman keeps managing to slip past the security detail to talk with Captain Talbot. She says that she is from the planet Beta Lyrae, and she seems intent on helping Talbot by giving him a formula with which to coat the rocket's hull to protect it during the journey. Although Disney's films are not generally known for satirical humor, this one takes some very funny digs at the FBI, the Air Force, and NASA, neatly puncturing the self-importance of each organization.

"The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976). Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, this strange but intriguing film stars David Bowie as an alien who has been sent to Earth on a mission. His planet is dying of thirst, and his assignment is to work out a way to tap into the supply of our water-rich planet. Drawing on his civilization's advanced technology, he becomes fabulously wealthy virtually overnight by introducing several basic and utterly new patents. Unfortunately, he is diverted from his task by some of Earth's less salutary distractions, including alcohol and television. The style of director Nicolas Roeg is definitely an acquired taste, with his eccentric visuals and quirky, nonlinear narrative progression, but the film does reward careful viewing, and has become quite a favorite among the midnight movie cult film crowd.

"Starman" (1984). Having made his reputation with such hard-edged fare as "Halloween" (1978) and "Escape From New York" (1981), director John Carpenter showed that he also had a soft and fuzzy side with this sentimental romance between an alien (Jeff Bridges) and an Earth woman (Karen Allen). The alien is a friendly emissary who has come to Earth in response to our message of greeting on Voyager I. He startles Allen's character by appearing to her in the form of her late husband, having mimicked the form he saw in her photo albums. While helping him escape the clutches of hostile earthlings, she finds herself falling in love. If you don't ask too many questions, it's an entertaining, if somewhat offbeat, love story.

"The Brother From Another Planet" (1984). Writer-director John Sayles cast Joe Morton as a dark-skinned, humanoid alien who is on the lam from intergalactic bounty hunters. He hides out on Earth, making his way to Harlem, where he is accepted as a black earthling. Sayles uses this outlandish premise as the basis for a sharply satirical look at urban culture, as well as the prejudices that can turn earthlings into aliens among their own kind.

Next week, we'll look at more benevolent alien movies, including the remarkable Argentinean film of which "K-Pax" is a virtual remake.

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