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Sunday, December 9, 2007

The Friendly Aliens, Part 2 (originally published 11/01)

One of the lessons we have learned from science fiction movies is that it may not be safe to harbor strangers in our midst. There is always the danger that they may represent a threat. Science fiction dramatizes this most often by showing us extraterrestrials who turn out to be the vanguard of a full-scale invasion.

There is, however, another side to the story. Some of the best science fiction stories suggest that there is an equal danger in being too quick to assume that those who are not like us are necessarily the enemy. Consider, for example, the inoffensive character played by Kevin Spacey in the recently released "K-Pax." He may or may not be the extraterrestrial he claims to be, but whether he is or not it seems clear that he represents no threat. To demonize and persecute him for being different would serve no purpose but to transform earthlings into the ravenous, bloodthirsty beings they so often imagine alien invaders to be. I think it may be fortuitous that we're seeing "K-Pax" on our screens at the moment rather than, say, "Independence Day." At a time when emotions toward foreigners in our midst are running especially high, it strikes me as a healthier message to be exposed to. We looked last week at some earlier screen portrayals of benevolent aliens. Here are some additional titles to look for on home video.

"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977). Lest we forget, "E.T. The Extraterrestrial" (1982) was not director Steven Spielberg's first friendly alien. Riding high on the success of "Jaws" (1975), and therefore able to write his own ticket, Spielberg next turned his considerable talents to this tale of humanity's first contact with visitors from another world. Their technology is awe-inspiring, and they do create a certain amount of unintentional havoc, but in the end it turns out that they just want to get acquainted. Renowned science fiction author Ray Bradbury has said that this is his all-time favorite film.

"Cocoon" (1985). How many movies about extraterrestrials can accurately be described as sweet and sentimental? Not that many, to be sure, but this is one of the few. It depicts visitors to our planet who are not here in search of conquest or to exploit Earth's resources in any way. Instead, they have come to quietly reclaim some of their own, who were left behind in cocoons when their race made a hasty departure long ago. The aliens assume human form and rent a house with a pool to carry out the reanimation of their sleeping companions. The cocoons are placed at the bottom of the pool, which is then invested with life-renewing energy. As it happens, some elderly gents from a nearby retirement home have been sneaking into this pool for a refreshing daily dip. Now, however, they discover that the pool seems to be restoring their lost youth. It's a nice premise, but what really makes the film soar are the performances by a cast of old pros including Don Ameche, Hume Cronyn, and Wilford Brimley.

"Man Facing Southeast" (1986). But for the fact that "K-Pax" is credited as an adaptation of a novel by Gene Brewer, I would have simply assumed it to be a direct remake of this film by Argentinean writer-director Eliseo Subiela. It features a mysterious mental patient who claims to be an extraterrestrial and a psychiatrist who becomes fascinated with his case. "Man Facing Southeast" leans perhaps a bit more heavily on the messianic overtones than does "K-Pax," drawing as it does on the Latin American literary tradition of "magic realism," but the broad strokes of the two films are nevertheless strikingly similar.

Needless to say, I would be remiss here if I didn't mention the most benevolent alien of all: the last survivor of the planet Krypton. In addition to being an exceptional journalist in his guise as Clark Kent, he's been known to put aside his notepad from time to time in order to go out and save the planet from certain doom. Considering how often Superman has saved our bacon in the comics, on television, and in the movies, you'd think we would have learned to treat our movie aliens with a little more respect by now.

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