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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives on the West End with his lovely wife Emily, where they watch all the movies ever made. When not digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: November 7, 2016

With ‘Arrival’ opening, a look back at alien encounters

Written by: Dennis Perkins

When the space aliens finally show up, we’d better hope they’re more honorable than we generally are.

That’s the premise behind the new “first contact” sci-fi thriller “Arrival” (opening Friday), in which a linguist (Amy Adams) is hired by the trigger-happy military to determine if the newly arrived, unnervingly tentacled extraterrestrials are going to be our new alien pals, suck out our brains for rocket fuel or what.

Watch the “Arrival” Trailer

The late Roger Ebert once observed, “Aliens are like dreams. We have bad ones when we’re troubled.” In this soul-deadeningly divisive political climate, that doesn’t bode well for Adams’ character’s hopes for inter-species cooperation (and not eating each other’s faces).

In the past, the concept of humans’ first interactions with extraterrestrial species have largely resulted in movies about alien ships death-lasering national monuments. But sometimes the experience has been more interesting, if not exactly comforting. Let’s take a look back at some of those scenarios and what they might have said about the state of humanity.


Form of first contact: Sending cryptic puzzles to test agnostic scientist Jodie Foster, then whisking her off to have a warm and fuzzy chat about human potential with a projection of her dead dad.

Good dream or bad: The best possible, really. Comedian Jake Johannsen once mused that we’d better hope arriving aliens have our best interests at heart, considering that coming here in the first place proves how much smarter and more powerful they are. These mysterious beings might be a little enigmatic, leaving poor Jodie without proof of their existence, but they come off more as benevolent guides than conquerors.

Watch the “Contact” Trailer

‘Star Trek: First Contact’

Form of first contact: Popping by to introduce themselves once they see we’ve achieved interstellar travel.

Good dream or bad: While the advanced and logical Vulcans are only seen briefly at the end of this “Star Trek: The Next Generation” movie, “Trek” TV series “Enterprise” went on to show that, while Mr. Spock’s people aided their human buddies immeasurably, they did so at their own pace. Parceling out their superior technology only when they decided we dumb humans could handle it is nice, but a little condescending, frankly.

Watch the “Star Trek: First Contact” Trailer

‘E.T. – The Extraterrestrial’

Form of first contact: Befriending a cute little kid.

Good dream or bad: I’m dropping this one down the list because it happened by accident, with the kindly E.T.’s desperate need to get the hell off this planet proven wise, considering how poorly Earth’s adults coped with his presence. Call it a dry run for a more well thought-out second contact.

Watch the “E.T.” Trailer

‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’

Form of first contact: Befuddling visions, lights in the sky, the occasional benign child kidnapping.

Good dream or bad: Same here. While the stretchy alien visitors don’t death-ray anyone, their higher intelligence clearly has little sense of personal boundaries. Apart from invading Richard Dreyfuss’ mind and whisking that little kid away from his terrified mom, they’re revealed to have an entire squadron of 1940s fighter pilots on board their ship, guys who are going to have a lot of late-’70s adjusting to do. I mean, Alice Cooper alone …

Watch the “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” Trailer

‘2001: A Space Odyssey’

‘2010: The Year We Make Contact’

Form of first contact: Mysterious, vibrating rectangles that jump start human evolution.

Good dream or bad: In the superior first film, it’s a toss-up. The monoliths advance the species (good), including teaching our ape ancestors how to use tools to bash each other’s brains out (not so good). Later, they take a dull astronaut on a psychedelic spiritual journey everyone’s still arguing about. In the dopey but fun sequel, it’s all rosy, as the aliens give us a shiny new Earth to share once the Americans and Russians prove then can stop threatening to nuke each other for 10 minutes.

Watch the “2001: A Space Odyssey” Trailer


‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’

(All versions except the terrible Nicole Kidman remake, “Invasion”)

Form of first contact: Surreptitious replacement.

Good dream or bad: Dream is right, as aliens lull us to sleep and step into our lives when our guard is down. Regardless of the era, the aliens’ calculated determination that their way supersedes our individuality is a process that happens so gradually we cannot recognize the evil among us until it’s too late. Make your presidential election analogies where you see them.

Watch the trailer for the 1978 version of “Invasion of The Body Snatchers”


PMA Films
Friday-Sunday: “Eva Hesse.” Documentary portrait of acclaimed but short-lived modern artist Hesse who, before her death at the age of 34, created complexly evocative “post-minimalist” sculptures.

SPACE Gallery
Wednesday, Nov. 16: “Gabo: The Creation of Gabriel García Márquez.” SPACE teams with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance to present this documentary about the enduringly influential Colombian novelist of “Love In the Time of Cholera” and “100 Years of Solitude.”

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