Let’s get right to it and see what happens when an alien finds themselves stuck with, well, another alien. No amount of stalling will spare you from the ending…
Everything I’ve chosen is old enough that I’m hoping my SPOILER ALERT is unnecessary. Really, I’ll be a little sad for you if you’ve missed any of the five things I reference.
Stuck With Them
The first set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are Earthlings (that’s us) suddenly among people not from Earth. The case where we are the alien and it wasn’t on purpose. In this set, we’ve got a token human as our point-of-view character to help us engage with the story. Once they leave the Earth, they might be our only point of familiarity (until we are shown the ways in which another species might have similar traits or concerns). I’m going to set aside the cases where the aliens are entirely malevolent or where we’re out there and know there could be alien life. For me, the fascination is with what happens when this wasn’t the plan. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just two stories: the film The Last Starfighter and the TV programme Farscape.
In both, our token human is someone we might expect to adjust a little easier than the “average” human without being too different from average. In The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan is a teenager who is really into trying to get a high score on a video game and who’s dreaming of bigger and better than his very-small town life. When he gets the high score and discovers—via being picked up by an extraterrestrial agent—that the game was a recruitment device to find pilots for an interplanetary war, he’s surprised but manages to get it together quickly enough to be helpful.
In Farscape, John Crichton is an astronaut who accidentally gets hurled through a wormhole during an experimental flight. Again, sure, he’s got some adjusting to do. But he’s an intelligent and capable guy who, obviously, already had his eyes on the stars. Fortunately for us, as he meets loads of different species over the life of the series, he’s one of those lovely open-minded humans. With Crichton, as with Alex, our experience is shaped both by their capability to survive and thrive and by their open natures. Their willingness to work through fear and surprise, to be open to the other species they meet, gives us a more positive window into their stories. (If they’d been full of fear and suspicion, acting in hate, we too would have hated the aliens and found the stories chances to feel superior to or afraid of Them.)
Both Alex and Crichton also meet multiple sorts of aliens rather quickly. The lone human scenario can be a great way to let us (and the writers) experience many species. I don’t know about you, but that’s got great potential for enjoyment and making my brain soar into its own flights of fancy. The Last Starfighter has the advantage of being so short that it avoids the pitfalls that arise when trying to build realistic alien cultures (something especially likely when trying to build multiple realistic cultures). Farscape mitigates this by keeping our main exposure to that of Crichton’s new crew. They interact briefly with other species, but we mostly get to know a band of self-confessed misfits and outcasts. From my perspective, and looking at this from the view of how the human’s perspective impacts our experience, this is also a great way to show us that, just like humans, some aliens are good and some aren’t. Again, no furthering of a xenophobic agenda. Hopefully, if humans ever do meet aliens, experiencing the stories of Alex and Crichton will keep us from jumping immediately to “kill ‘em all!”
The last part of this sort of scenario I want to touch on is the homecoming, because, obviously, that’s what those unexpectedly stuck outside their lives want. Again, seeing the stories through these two characters gives us a different experience than if we’d been on the run from dangerous predators the whole time.
For Alex, having completed the mission for which he was taken, he can now return to his home (easily dropped off) without any sense of guilt. We’re thrilled he’s won, but we’re with him in being a little unsure that going home is the best ending. So, rather than looking forward to him running away from the aliens and settling happily back into Earth life after the adventure helps get his hunger for something bigger out of his system, we’re hoping he makes another choice. Even though the writers gave him a human love interest that they’ve made us want him to stick with. Yeah, he left to battle an enemy and we know it’s not safe, but there’s got to be more to the story, at least for him. (There was actually a sequel scheduled to happen at one point, but I’m afraid this was all the story we got.) What happened to Alex? You really should go watch and satisfy your curiosity.
With Crichton, he’d been through so much and had constantly been looking for ways home. We really wanted him to find that way. And then he did…and we realised that we had grown as fond of his new friends as he had and we kind of didn’t want to see the team broken up. We don’t forget the dangerous and ugly parts of his experience, but we also realise that the life he has out there is something we can’t really rival on this pale blue dot. (And the only way we get to keep sharing in those wonders is if he keeps experiencing them.) And maybe, just maybe, having learned this lesson through Crichton and Alex, it’s a little easier for us should we unexpectedly find ourselves on an interstellar adventure.
Stuck With Us
The second set of aliens marooned with aliens that I want to talk about are extraterrestrials stuck on Earth. They are the outsiders and, in the cases I’ve chosen, not invaders or actual threats. And here we have plenty of humans to relate to, but we might not like what we see. Just like we saw that, among the multiple species of alien Crichton and Alex encounter, some are good and some aren’t…It turns out that we humans aren’t all good. In fact, be prepared to see just how ugly we can be. In the interest of brevity, I’ll talk about just three films: The Man Who Fell to Earth, Escape to Witch Mountain, and District 9.
The Man Who Fell to Earth was based on a book of the same name (which I read ages ago but, as previously noted, my recall for books is rubbish). . The story is a grim one, centred on Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien posing as a brilliant, human inventor. He was heading to Earth to get resources that would save his own planet from dying, but he crashed. Now, he’s got to hide his identity whilst earning the capital to build a ship he hopes will get him home.
As long as humans think he’s just rich and eccentric, they’re intrigued but he gets the privileges of the rich, white, and attractive. However, in spite of him never doing anything harmful to humans, all it takes is the knowledge of his alien origin and the government moves in, with the help of a human who should know better but betrays him, and breaks him (physically, mentally, emotionally). He’s entirely rejected by even the woman he trusted most. This isn’t a happy film and, worse, his betrayals ring true. Faith in humanity battered.
Did you laugh when you saw I’d listed a children’s film? Just enjoy this less-grim break, because the brightest point in this section shows up in Escape to Witch Mountain. (This one was also based on a book, which I haven’t read but might need to add to my reading pile…) I re-watched the original a few months ago (thanks, Netflix!) and found that it was far less cheesy than I’d worried it might be. Missed this one? Don’t worry; I’ll spoil it for you.
For the bulk of the film, we don’t know that Tony and Tia are aliens. In fact, we think they’re just charming orphans. And, as long as everyone thinks that, it’s fine. They’re well-behaved and cute and only the orphanage bully has an issue with them. But, once again, when they start to show their inhuman sides, it gets less cuddly. In fact, in this case, it’s almost worse, because the humans don’t see an alien threat; they think they’re just looking at fellow humans with unusual abilities. But none of us are actually surprised to learn that we’re willing to be horrible even if we just think another human is, in a non-extraterrestrial way, alien to us somehow, are we?
Luckily for us, this is a children’s film, which means that not everyone is bad. There’s a kind older man with an initially gruff exterior who helps them escape the rich, old, white man trying to exploit the kids. Even when the pieces come together and we learn they’re aliens whose people crash-landed on Earth, gruff old Jason O’Day still thinks they’re the neatest kids. As he reunites them with their remaining people, it’s clear that everyone hopes to see each other again. Not all of us are horrible! The aliens are still marooned but reunited in a happy little valley with their people! All is not grim!
Did you enjoy that little respite, that piece of hope that maybe we wouldn’t be entirely inhuman should we meet aliens? Get ready to get over it, because I’ve saved the grimmest for last. (I’ve included an extra picture from the film, complete with a cat, whose beseeching look suggests he knows you need rescue too. You deserve a cat for all the horrors of humanity you’re reading.)
District 9 is the most contemporary of my examples, and we see that we’re as sure as ever that any aliens marooned here would be sorry. The film is based on a short film previously created by the director and quite unabashedly, for those who pay attention to human events, inspired by events in District Six, Cape Town during the apartheid era. So, to be clear, we start out knowing that this is definitely about how inhuman humans can be, even to each other.
In this case, it’s bad from the get-go. The poor aliens in this film look, by human standards, scary. Which means that, even if they were the sweetest beings and showed up with cancer cures and wealth for all, humans would treat them poorly. Instead, their ship is crippled and they’re stuck here. Stuck here and forced to live in a ghetto, experimented on, and seen both as a danger and as garbage. If you watch this and don’t feel horrified by humanity, I hope we never meet. Especially now that I’ve pointed out the very obvious fact that this is based on how actual humans were treated by actual other humans. Shame, shame!
But, just to drive home the horror of humans, the plot includes a human who starts transforming into an alien after exposure to an alien chemical (that the aliens were carefully keeping away from humans, but humans came in and messed things up and brought this on themselves). And do you know what the other humans did as soon as they realised what was happening to their brave and, let’s be frank, injured-in-the-line-of-duty soldier? They decided to vivisect him. But, wait, we’re about to look even worse, because when this soldier escapes and goes to the very aliens he messed up for help? THEY HELP HIM. Are you ashamed of us yet? When the aliens find a way to escape Earth (the only actual bright spot in this film), I can’t be the only person not entirely concerned with whether or not they’ll do as they promised and return to heal the soldier. Faith in humanity destroyed.
I loved this film, but it’s so grim that it’s one I would own and never watch again. Unless I were already depressed and figured it couldn’t get worse. Seriously. (But you should totally watch it. Maybe it will shame you into being one of the good humans…)
And now that I’ve gotten myself down, I’m afraid I don’t have a pithy summary. I just hope, for the sake of everyone, that we’re the ones who get stranded. That we get a chance to show how big we can be instead of being likely to show just how very small we are. (Let’s end with one more relevant Bowie picture. That always soothes me…) Now, go out and be the best kind of human you can, whether it’s to other humans or to aliens. That will help scrub some shame off our collective souls…