From the moment we developed flexible necks, humankind has looked to the stars. It is amid that vast collection of flaming gas and reflected light, we convinced ourselves, that the truth will be found.
Never mind that we’ve never come close to defining exactly what “truth” might look like. Much less have we agreed on whose version we should accept.
It’s always been enough to believe that if truth was to be had, the stars would divulge it.
And Hollywood has made a fortune suggesting to us exactly how. The latest big-budget effort of Robert Zemeckis is “Contact” (see capsule review below), the “Forrest Gump” director’s adaptation of the late Carl Sagan’s work of speculative fiction.
But there have been many more cinematic studies of the human quest for knowledge about the whys and wherefores of that vast entity we call deep space. Several have involved an actual meeting, for better and worse, between us and… well, them.
Whomever they might be.
Following are a few of my personal favorites:
“2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) - Stanley Kubrick’s patiently paced, episodic adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s novella “The Sentinel” is easily a masterpiece. It may not say as much as its fans insist (what is that monolith supposed to represent anyway?), but at least it seems to say something, and profoundly. Which is more than you can say for, say, “Starship Troopers.’
And even after all these years, with advances in technology that seemed unthinkable just last summer, the EFX of “2001” are impressive. From apes throwing bones to Keir Dullea blinking at the stars, this indeed is a great step beyond.
“Alien” (1979)/”Aliens” (1986) - Here are three words that I never thought I would use in the same sentence: Wes, Craven, intelligent. Yet intelligent is exactly the word that I would use to describe his nifty little horror film “Scream 2.” As indicated by the film’s cinema-educated characters, there are “Alien” fans (‘Ridley Scott rules!”) and there are “Aliens” fans (directed by the pre-“Titanic” James Cameron).
I love both, giving each its due: Scott’s original is essentially a horror film, while Cameron’s first (and best) sequel is pure action/adventure. The one thing that they do have in common, along with Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, is a vision of space that is cold, threatening and ultimately horrorshow. And dare I add delicious?
“Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) - Once again, we have a battle of preferences. Is Don Siegel’s original the best version of this killer-pods-from-space study? Or is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 effort? What about Abel Ferrara’s 1994 “Body Snatchers”?
For me, Siegel’s was there first with the most. No film, save the one that comes next, did a better job of defining the notion of aliens as the enemy.
“Invaders From Mars” (1953) - Despite Tobe Hooper’s juiced-up 1986 remake, which stars the alien-like Karen Black, William Cameron Menzies’ original is nothing that you want to watch at home alone (even if you were Kevin McCallister). Then again, how many of us have suspected that aliens have sucked out the brains of our parents? Again, the strangers from out there are anything but friendly.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977, longer “special edition” from 1980)/”E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) - “Hooooome,” the gnome-like little alien warbles, and we bought it. Just as we bought Richard Dreyfuss building Devil’s Tower out of mashed potatoes and walking purposefully aboard the tune-happy alien mother ship.
Just as we accept director Steven Spielberg’s child-like view of life, not to mention space, as the definitive view of what we would most like space travelers to be - friendly, fun and capable of great box office.
Note: Got your own space-alien favorites? E-mail them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or leave a message on my phone mail at 459-5483. I’ll pass on the results in a future column.
A young astronomer (Jodie Foster) is pushed by personal and professional pressures to search for extra-terrestrial life. When messages from outer space finally do come, inviting residents of Earth to come and discover the universe’s larger secrets, she desperately wants to be chosen to go. But first she must fight both the dark forces of her own past and the larger specter of political correctness.
Based on the novel by Carl Sagan, and directed by Robert Zemeckis, the Oscar-winning director of “Forrest Gump,” “Contact” is more of a meditation on the nature of being than a slam-bang cinematic roller-coaster ride. But while that is a welcome change of pace, Zemeckis fails to take full advantage of the material. Some of the special effects are nice, and two-time Oscar winner Foster is as good as she’s ever been, but the film never lives up to the promise that it displays from frame one. Rated R
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