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Cowboys and What?: Movies with Inexplicable Extraterrestrials

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Jul 28, 2011 | 8:53am EDT

Cowboys & Aliens is part of a long Hollywood tradition of introducing aliens into the most unlikely of settings. Despite the film’s mixed mixed reviews, it’s actually one of the more successful attempts. Not every film is able to integrate aliens without them seeming out of place, arbitrary or absolutely insane. In honor of Cowboys & Aliens, we’ll take a look at some of the most inexplicable alien appearances in film.

Warning! Spoilers for twist endings will follow. Though, as most of them have been out for several decades films, you can't blame us too much.

dark cityDark City

The question that tends to be raised by all these inexplicable alien appearances, and ignored by their directors, is simply “why?” Why are these unknowable, incredibly powerful extraterrestrial beings harassing humans through various movie plots? Dark City offers a cursory answer, namely that the film’s aliens, or Strangers, are dying out and are studying humans to figure out how to replicate their “souls.” But that only serves to raise more questions, such as “why would having souls help with extinction?” or “why build a giant city on a floating landmass in space?” or “why use all of your amazing psychic powers to replicate a noir film?” We can hypothesize that the aliens were all Fritz Lang fans, but it doesn’t help make the film’s sudden swerve from slick noir to cloudy sci-fi any easier to take.

life of brianLife Of Brian

Long before Family Guy abused the trick to the point of obnoxiousness, Monty Python was the king of the random cutaway. One of their weirder uses was in religious parody Life Of Brian, where Brian’s escape from the Roman guards is interrupted by an interlude, in which he falls out of a window, lands in a spaceship, and becomes involved in a brief Star Wars-esque space battle. The entire incident is never mentioned again, and has nothing to do with the plot. That type of surrealism is expected from the Python crew, but you the sense that the scene was included so that the studios could include some explosions in the trailer.

indiana jonesIndiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull

I get what Steven Spielberg was trying to do with Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull, I really do. The series began as an homage to the pulpy action flicks of the 30’s and 40’s, and with the fourth film, Spielberg and Lucas wanted to reflect the space age enthusiasm for science fiction in the 50’s. But just because I understand it, doesn’t mean that it worked.

There’s a certain level of the supernatural you come to expect with Indiana Jones films, and it doesn’t include inter-dimensional omniscient alien skeletons. In classic “inexplicable alien” fashion, they arrive right at the end of the film to kill the villain and wrap up any loose ends. While the aliens weren’t the only problem that the fourth film had (CGI prairie dogs, CGI monkeys, CGI nuclear fridges) they were like the failure anchovies on the crap sundae that was Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull.

rocky horrorRocky Horror

It’s weird to accuse anything in the Rocky Horror Picture Show of being random or out of place, because that entire movie is more or less a mass hallucination/acid trip. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when yet-another genre appeared in the horror-musical-porno mashup, but I honestly didn’t expect the sudden ending swerve into science fiction.

During the climax of the film, Riff Raff, Magenta and Dr. Frank-n-Furter are revealed to have been aliens, who return to their home planet at the end of the film. It’s a testament to the strangeness of the film that while, in any other movie, the revelation that three characters have been aliens the whole time would be completely unbelievable, but in Rocky Horror, it’s merely slightly unusual.

knowing is terribleKnowing

Nicolas Cage film Knowing actually starts off as a pretty good film, in a very Nic Cage sort of way. Cage plays a scientist with a young son who tries to unravel the meaning of a set of numbers that seem to predict major disasters, and discovers that the world is due to come to an end. Overall, there are some thrilling and horrifying scenes of destruction and a compelling central mystery: what could the origin of these prophetic numbers be? You have three guesses as to the answer. And they should all be aliens.

Yes, glowing extraterrestrials (who may also be angels—but that’s another story) show up at the climax of the otherwise science-based film in order to explain that they left the numbers, in order to stress humanity out about these disasters, because there’s nothing they could do to prevent them anyway. Fortunately for the characters, the aliens leave Cage behind but agree to take his son and another character’s daughter with them to space, presumably to take part in their human breeding program/petting zoo. Which seems unnecessarily mean, but honestly, I would not want to restart the human race with Nic Cage as a template.

why is there an alien in this?Meatballs 2

This in-name-only sequel to Bill Murray's 80’s summer camp comedy Meatballs has little in common with the original. For one thing, none of the original cast is in it. For another, there are aliens.

While the majority of Meatballs 2 is about sexy teens, a creepier-than-usual Paul Ruebens, and a typical “saving the camp” plot, there’s also a sub-plot about campers who stumble upon a lost alien and help him find his way home. Or, as wikipedia so aptly puts it, “Also in the movie, an alien is also staying at the camp for the summer.” Plenty of films in the 80’s tried to rip off ET, and plenty tried to rip off Meatballs. Most weren’t brazen enough, or insane enough, to try both at once.

sdcc dinosaursThe Forgotten

The Forgotten is a little-remembered (sorry) Joseph Ruben film, about a mother (Julianne Moore) who tries to prove her child’s existence after all evidence of his life is erased. It shares a lot of similarities Flightplan and Changeling, both of which revolve around women with missing children. But while both of those films managed to bring their stories to a satisfying conclusion, The Forgotten figuratively threw its hands in the air and went “screw that, aliens did it.”

When Julianne Moore follows the threads of the conspiracy to their conclusion, she discovers that the entire experience was not perpetrated by the government, but by a group of aliens operating behind the government. It turns out, the entire thing was a psychological experiment by said aliens who developed interstellar travel, came thousands of light years, and used incredibly advanced mind manipulation technology on hundreds of people, just to experiment on one woman. They must have gotten one hell of a research grant.

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