Rich Reynolds at UFO Conjectures has complained, rightly, I think, about the uniformity of the alien in both recent science fiction and in the contact reports ufology chooses to scrutinize compared to the early days of the modern phenomenon in the 1950s. Any reader of Skunkworks will know too the consistent criticisms I level against the obsessive anthropocentrism of ufological speculations. As I commented myself on Reynolds’ complaint, recent cinematic and televisual incarnations of the Alien Other came to mind that strike me as strange enough to begin to approach just how uncanny a truly alien entity might be. (Though none compare to this real world report out of Japan, here!).
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
A thematically complex film, Arrival‘s depiction of the alien Heptapods is as creative as its plotting and its probing the relation between language and consciousness. Its first virtue is how the aliens resemble octopi or squid more than human beings. Recent discoveries concerning the genetics and intelligence of octopi harmonize nicely with this conception. Despite their being linguistic, tool-using (technological) creatures—an anthropocentrism I often criticize here—the radical difference of their language due to their profoundly different mode of temporality and the way their ships resemble stone more than metal and dissolve in mist rather than shoot away into the sky also set their depiction apart from the stereotypical Little Grey Man in his Flying Saucer. The cognoscenti will recognize in that fading away a correlate to real-world sighting reports.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Like Arrival, Under the Skin is more than an alien body-horror film. Still, its version of the alien is even more cunning. The aliens seem to be fluid, a witty metaphor, capable of filling the role of a human being, whose skin they don. Even when this disguise is finally ripped off in the movie’s climax, the audience sees only an impersonal black form, as featureless as the liquid form is amorphous. By refusing to actually depict an alien, it employs a visual metaphor that is all the richer for its being nonliteral.
The Mothman Prophecies (Max Pellington, 2002)
Though strictly more about ultraterrestrials than extraterrestrials, Pellington’s cinematic version of John Keel’s classic book includes one of the most compelling representations of what would otherwise seem a UFO encounter experience: an indistinct, blinding orange-red light, which seems as much an interdimensional portal as a UFO, an uncanny dread or calm, and a vaguely-human figure, communicating in a weird, whispering hybrid of telepathy and speech. The figure of the Mothman not only appears as a dark, indistinct, red-eyed menacing silhouette, but pareidolically as a mark on a car’s radiator grille, tree bark, and, most wittily, in a brainscan image.
The X-Files (Chris Carter, 1993-2018)
For all its inconsistencies, when The X-Files was good, it was very, very good, however unconsciously. On the one hand, it presents us, rather wearily, with varieties of Greys; nevertheless, the ETs appear also, more provocatively, as hybrid clones, shapeshifters, and a black oil. These latter imaginings share the strengths of those in Under the Skin and The Mothman Prophecies in being more suggestive than literal. As hybrid clones, the alien is as much a monstrous DNA as nonhuman being. The shapeshifting variety (however anthropocentric) wears its protean, unclassifiable Otherness on its sleeve, as it were. And the black oil combines alien-as-infection body horror, the fluid identity of the shapeshifter, and a metaphorical resemblance to petroleum ,all in a single, tour de force image.
Solaris (Tarkovsky, 1971)
Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, Tarkovsky’s arthouse film Solaris is a richly suggestive cinematic work that transcends mere genre. The title’s planet, which mirrors and conjures the desires of the humans sent to explore it, is a vivid metaphor for the projective character of human understanding in general and how we place as much as face objects of perception, especially the alien Other. Lem’s metaphor encapsulates much of my critique of the ETH and its implications.