The subject of this week’s film essay in the Reader, James Gray’s Ad Astra, imagines a future in which humanity has united in the mission to find and make contact with intelligent life outside our solar system. I won’t reveal whether the film’s characters succeed in their quest, though I’ll note that Ad Astra is a distinctive sci-fi picture in that it focuses on the hard science of how space travel and interstellar communication might work in the future as opposed to the science fantasy of how extraterrestrial life might look and behave. That speculation, of course, has inspired untold amounts of genre fiction over the past century, as authors, illustrators, and filmmakers have imagined all sorts of intelligent species from other galaxies. One branch of narratives, likely stemming from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, imagines alien life as malign and hoping to conquer us humans. A second, perhaps epitomized by Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), imagines friendly creatures from outer space who initiate welcome relationships with earth people. Then there’s another variation, recently represented by Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016), that depicts alien life as so downright alien that human efforts to understand it take up most of the narrative.
Below are five capsule reviews from the Reader archives of movies about intelligent beings or life forces from space. The fourth selection, Eliseo Subiela’s Man Facing Southeast, is something of an outlier, as it concerns a character who may or may not be an extraterrestrial, but I wanted to include it because I think it’s a wonderful film that’s ripe for rediscovery. I also would have included Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Before We Vanish (2017), a more recent personal favorite in this sci-fi subgenre, but no one at the Reader ever reviewed it. Both films are available on DVD; I highly recommend both.
The Day the Earth Stood Still Like most of Robert Wise’s work, this slickly constructed 1951 science fiction film settles squarely in the middle of its genre, better than some and worse than others, though Michael Rennie was born to play the sleekly tailored visitor from another planet who carries a warning message to earth. The picture is smooth and atmospheric, but it nowhere finds the knife-edge of its famous contemporary, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. With Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe (who was doomed to play the same part for the next decade). The evocative score is by Bernard Herrmann. —Dave Kehr
Solaris Although Andrei Tarkovsky regarded this 1972 SF spectacle in ‘Scope as the weakest of his films, it holds up remarkably well as a soulful Soviet “response” to 2001: A Space Odyssey, concentrating on the limits of man’s imagination in relation to memory and conscience. Sent to a remote space station poised over the mysterious planet Solaris in order to investigate the puzzling data sent back by an earlier mission, a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) discovers that, drawing on the troubled memories of the space explorers, the planet materializes human forms—including the psychologist’s own wife (Natalya Bondarchuk), who killed herself many years before but is repeatedly resurrected before his eyes. More an exploration of inner than of outer space, Tarkovsky’s eerie mystic parable is given substance by the filmmaker’s boldly original grasp of film language and the remarkable performances by all the principals. —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Explorers Joe Dante’s 1985 film seems to crystallize the tragic position of a strong directorial personality in the assembly-line 80s. With one hand, he builds up a slick, pseudo-Spielberg fantasy about a 12-year-old’s innocent dreams of reaching the stars; with the other, he slashes into the burnished, sentimental drama he has worked so hard to create with a savage satire that exposes those innocent dreams as grubby, media-induced hallucinations. When our hero (Ethan Hawke) and his two buddies (River Phoenix and Jason Presson) do reach the great unknown, it turns out to be a ripoff—a drab, awful place populated by creatures even more cretinous and childish than those they left back on earth. But where Dante’s cynicism ultimately carried the day over Spielberg’s piousness in Gremlins, Explorers remains a hopelessly schizophrenic film, obscenely eager to compromise its own originality. With Dick Miller and Robert Picardo. —Dave Kehr
Man Facing Southeast A peculiar SF allegory about a mental patient in Buenos Aires who claims to be from another planet, this probably has the second best use of the climax from Beethoven’s Ninth in a film (after Tarkovsky’s Stalker). Not for every taste, and perhaps a bit deja vu for spectators who’ve encountered too many versions of this visionary Christian parable elsewhere, but otherwise odd enough to warrant a look. Directed by Eliseo Subiela, with Lorenzo Quinteros, Hugo Soto, and Inés Vernego (1986). —Jonathan Rosenbaum
Body Snatchers Abel Ferrara’s 1993 feature is a remake of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), which was itself a remake of Don Siegel’s paranoid 1956 SF classic. For my money, this version doesn’t match the Siegel film, though it’s a lot scarier and more memorable than Kaufman’s low-key, New Agey version. While Kaufman shifted the action from a small California town to San Francisco, Ferrara sets his film in an army compound in Alabama, and until its final moments, when the story lamentably collapses into incoherence, the theme of not being sure whether one’s family members or friends have been replaced by extraterrestrial replicas—a notion of conformity rich in sociopolitical overtones—affords a lot of queasy moments. In some ways I prefer Ferrara dressing up genre exercises (here and in King of New York) to dressing down art movies (Bad Lieutenant), and he swims well in these troubled waters. Screenwriters Stuart Gordon, Dennis Paoli, and Nicholas St. John adapted a screen story by Raymond Cistheri and Larry Cohen, though the original source material for all of these movies is Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers. With Gabrielle Anwar, Terry Kinney, Meg Tilly, Billy Wirth, R. Lee Ermey, and Forest Whitaker. —Jonathan Rosenbaum v