In "Arrival," which opens Friday, space aliens have landed at several sites on Earth. Cable news goes berserk, and for once you can't blame them. The university where Amy Adams's character teaches — she's a linguist — clears out. That's convenient, because it means she's available when Army Colonel Forest Whitaker asks for help in trying to communicate with the visitors. Google Translate has its limits.
Do the visitors come in peace or — not? This is the great alien-encounter question, first posed by H.G. Wells's novel "The War of the Worlds" (1898). The title gives you Wells's answer. The book inspired two films, in 1953 and 2005 — not to mention Orson Welles's 1938 nation-terrifying radio adaptation. More important, the novel gave us the basic when-worlds-collide situation: It's human Us vs. not-human Them.
Think of alien-encounter movies as Westerns told from the point of view of the Indians — or as imperialist-adventure movies told from the point of view of the natives. Strange creatures with amazing technology suddenly show up. Things will never be the same.
The South African director Neil Blomkamp, in "District 9" (2009), turns this template upside down. The aliens are forced into the title area, a version of the white-imposed townships during the apartheid regime — or, for that matter, like Indian reservations. In "Avatar" (2009), James Cameron turns the template upside down and shakes it: Earthlings are the alien invaders.
Wells's aliens are from Mars — not only the planet nearest Earth but also bearing the name of a god of war. Uh-oh. The Martians want to conquer Earth, and very nearly do so. It's the tiniest Earthlings who come to the rescue. Microbes do what military might cannot. All the death rays in the world — or solar system — can't make up for the lack of an immune system.
Presumably, Wells drew inspiration for this plot device from the way that European diseases devastated native populations in the New World. For his purposes, devastation (theirs) becomes salvation (ours). Extraterrestrial biochemistry also plays a determining role in "The Andromeda Strain," both Michael Crichton's novel and the 1971 film adaptation.
The invaders in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!" (1996) are no less ruthless than Wells's Martians. Yet it's a comedy. How could it not be, with Jack Nicholson playing the president, Tom Jones playing himself, and Slim Whitman yodels saving the day the way microbes do in "War of the Worlds"? A machine does the human-alien translating. Where's Amy Adams when you need her?
In fairness to Nicholson, Bill Pullman makes for an even more preposterous chief executive, in "Independence Day" (1996). He ends up piloting a fighter jet in an effort to repel the space invaders. The White House gets blasted by a spaceship death ray (don't worry, Pullman and family have already evacuated). Will Smith's Marine fighter pilot punches an alien invader in the snout. Randy Quaid goes all kamikaze on an alien mother ship. No way these visitors come in peace, and much of the movie could be one big recruiting video for "Starship Troopers" (1997). That said, "Independence Day" has the single wittiest image in the whole genre. A shadow of the alien ships falls on the plaque that Apollo XI left on the moon, announcing their approach.
Steven Spielberg directed the 2005 "War of the Worlds." Viewers commented at the time on its graphic scenes of destruction as an allegory for the 9/11 attacks. Seen in the context of alien-encounter movies, it's shocking for a different reason. With two earlier blockbusters, Spielberg had redefined they-come-in-peace movies.
"Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) is a hymn to interplanetary fellow feeling. Hymn is the right word, too, since the means of communication begin with John Williams's five-note musical phrase. It doesn't take Amy Adams to hear the music of these spheres. Five years later "E.T. the Extraterrestrial" arrived. E.T. is cuddly. He (E.T. is a he, right?) has a weakness for Reese's Pieces. The end of his index finger lights up. He plays dress up with Drew Barrymore's Gertie and takes to the sky in a bicycle basket.
E.T.'s presence extends beyond his own movie. J.J. Abrams clearly intends "Super 8" (2011) as an homage. He could have called it "Super E.T." Like "E.T.," Abrams's movie concerns a space alien trying to make it home, though this guy's a whole lot more destructive. Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney, as the juvenile leads, look uncannily like slightly older versions of Barrymore and Henry Thomas. Oh, and Spielberg is one of the film's producers.
E.T. is also patron saint of the subgenre that emphasizes aliens among us rather than spaceships looming overhead, like "The Brother From Another Planet" and "Starman" (both 1984), and "Earth Girls Are Easy" (1988). "Earth Girls" has the best alien-encounter title, hands down. The best alien casting, also hands down: David Bowie as the title character in "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976).
Like "War of the Worlds," "The Day the Earth Stood Still" has twice been a film, in 1951 and 2008. It's the opposite of "War," with its story of an alien, Klaatu, who visits this planet trying to bring humanity to its senses. In the first version, the message is about nuclear war; in the second, it's environmental degradation. Either way, Klaatu is here to help, not enslave. Riding shotgun is a very cool robot, Gort. Gort's the recipient of the movie's most famous line, "Klaatu barada nichto." What does it mean? Although we see the effect the words have, neither script offers a translation. Put a call out to Amy Adams.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.