Out-of-this-world encounters hold mirror to humanity
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After several days of enigmatic objects being blown out of the sky, even the normally staid and sober New York Times seemed a bit discombobulated, putting out the questioning headline: What’s Going On Up There? Over at Politico, the banner read: The truth is out there.
On the don’t-panic side of things, a UFO expert interviewed by the CBC rather nonchalantly suggested these objects could be what he terms “hobbyist balloons.” Another specialist spoke about the proliferation of completely mundane human-made space trash.
Still, the spate of spooky celestial objects has a lot of us looking to the heavens and thinking big thoughts.
And for movie lovers, it calls up favourite UFO films.
This is a genre that features an assortment of aliens, a variety of alien intentions, and a whole range of outcomes, from stories that hold out new hope for humankind to those that rush straight toward global annihilation. Here’s the thing, though. Whether it’s The Day the Earth Stood Still channelling anxieties about nuclear proliferation or Nope examining the difficult issue of race in Hollywood, UFO movies almost always tell us more about life here on earth than they do about potential visitors. They’re really about us, not them.
Here are a few UFO — and UFO-adjacent — films to help you ponder the great mysteries.
The Hopeful UFO Movie: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg takes a characteristically optimistic approach to first contact in this masterwork of the sci-fi sublime. The slow-building storyline, which features Richard Dreyfuss as an ordinary guy who becomes obsessed with the approaching aliens, culminates in an awe-filled sequence that suggests humankind has entered into a new form of cosmic communion.
The Kick-ass UFO Movie: Independence Day (1996)
Disaster master Roland Emmerich prefers his aliens hostile, hideous and prone to blowing up recognizable national landmarks. This gung-ho action-adventure flick is explicitly anti-Spielbergian: Here the naïve New Agers hoping for rapturous unity with the intergalactic arrivals are the first to be wiped out.
Never mind, though. Enter heroic American president (Bill Pullman) and a ragtag collection of cocky flyboys who want to celebrate July 4th by punching invading aliens in the face, as Will Smith emphatically does, before lighting a cigar and delivering a wisecracking Bond-esque one-liner: “That’s what I call a close encounter.”
The Cerebral UFO Movie: Arrival (2016)
Forget those barnstorming pilots. In this haunting drama from Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, 12 mysterious crafts land around the globe, and world powers respond by bringing in a crack team of academics, including linguist Amy Adams and physicist Jeremy Renner.
Melancholy, mysterious and measured as it tracks the struggle to communicate with these alien creatures, Arrival is really about language and how it functions, how it shapes us and sometimes limits us, and how it can connect or separate us.
The Scary UFO Movie: The Thing (1982)
In this claustrophobic, graphic horror flick from John Carpenter, something alien is released from the frozen Antarctic ice, and the crew of an American research station (a scruffy ensemble cast that includes Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley and Keith David) must deal with a shapeshifting force that moves among them. This is a nihilistic look at survival at all costs, in which the men become as dangerous as the thing they’re hunting.
The Funny UFO Movie: Galaxy Quest (1999)
Washed-up actors from a long-cancelled Star Trek-style show (including Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman) are mistaken for true-life space heroes by members of an alien race in need of some help. This sweetly funny film handles the resulting intergalactic misunderstanding with affection and enthusiasm, as the all-too-human actors — and their adorably nerdy fans — manage to rise to the occasion.
The Indie UFO Movie: The Vast of Night (2019)
In small-town New Mexico in the late 1950s, a nocturnal DJ and a switchboard operator are confronted with an inexplicable phenomenon. While this no-budget film from debut director Andrew Patterson makes brief, tantalizing references to alien invasions, government conspiracies and the Cold War, these things are kind of beside the point.
The Vast of Night is about what humans do in the face of mystery. It’s about why we question and search. And, as with almost all good UFO movies, it’s about how we try to make sense of our own brief and fragile lives amid an infinite sea of time and space.
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Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.