Nothing intrigued me more—or scared me more—in my childhood than the thought of aliens. “Thought” is the operative word, since I never really saw any except in the movies. But those ones were inevitably mean and powerful, a frightful combination for a little kid. I especially remember two movies. One was among the earliest of the short-lived 3-D films, The War of the World (1953), based on H.G. Well’s novel. I remember the early scene where the spacecraft has landed. The National Guard, well weaponed, is out in force to confront it. A Catholic priest, crucifix in hand, approaches the vehicle. It fires its ray gun and wipes out both priest and soldiers. The other, whose name I’ve forgotten, stars a boy of perhaps 10 who wakes up one summer night to see, through his wide-open window, scary aliens in his backyard. The rest of the film, the contents of which I no longer recall, goes from one frightening episode to the another. Fortunately, near the end, the original sighting turns out to be a nightmare from which the boy finally awakes. It’s still dark out, however, and as he glances out through his open window, guess what! Those same scary aliens are there, this time in reality. I must have slept for a month or more after that with my light on and the door open...
As a legal term alien simply means a non-citizen of one’s country. But the extended term, alienation, suggests the negative connotation of the root word. Those folks are not our people. And if our own people can be scary, just consider the possibilities of THEM. Come to think of it, that was the name of another scary movie in 1954, although the aliens this time were terrestrial: giant ants mutated by atomic radiation. They were mean and powerful too. Nowadays we have the term “othering,” or treating diverse individuals as ipso facto mean and perhaps powerful. It’s best not to extend the hand of friendship to them lest like the Catholic priest in the Wells-based movie, we too will get zapped. How far are we from that well-known French saying, Vive la différence, “Long Live Difference”!
To be sure, there are a few movies where the aliens turn out to be nice. Think of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But of this kinder, gentler sort of extraterrestrials, my favorite and perhaps the most meaningful film is The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Here a UFO lands on the Mall in D.C. A large robot, Gort, comes out first and stands next to the ship. He is followed by a tall, human-looking man with an English accent. This, we learn, is Klaatu. The two of them are from a technologically but also morally advanced world and have come to Earth, now dangerously armed with atomic weapons, to tell us we’ve become a danger to the Universe and need to be more peaceful or else. To demonstrate their immense power, Klaatu causes the world’s electricity and motor vehicles to stop from an hour. Meantime, if our army tries to use weapons on the visitors or their craft, Gort has a way of discouraging them. At nearly 83, I would dearly like to experience a real-life “nice” alien like Klaatu who can help us war-like earthlings, in the African American idiom, to straighten up and fly right. Otherwise, the outlook for our planet and its fragile cargo is not very rosy.