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The movie alien has predominately fallen into one of three major categories when it comes to human contact. There is the mostly-human form alien that appears just like us, which can be subdivided into two main groups: a) those disguised as people trying to kill us and are actually gruesome skeletal or insectoid/larva-like creatures beneath using our bodies as shells (see Mimic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live, Mars Attacks!, Men in Black, etc.) or b) those disguised as people trying to learn about emotions or teach us about our failures and are actually gentle beams of light, anatomically similar, or otherwise wondrous (see Starman, Superman, Under the Skin, My Stepmother Is An Alien, The Day The Earth Stood Still, Men in Black, etc.)
Next is the adorable alien, the E.T.-type with large warm eyes, a sense of humor, and a kindness that gets them involved emotionally with humans (see E.T., Howard the Duck, Paul, Mac and Me, The Abyss, Flight of the Navigator, etc.). And lastly is the bug. The bug is the most popular extra-terrestrial in the movies and comes in many forms from your straight-up insect-looking creepy crawly to an insect-like species with other discernible appendages (see Signs, Aliens, Starship Troopers, Independence Day, War of the Worlds, Men in Black, The Mist – alternate reality but still alien, Infestation, etc.). Quick note, other famous movie insect-like monsters such as the ants from Them and the spiders in Eight-Legged Freaks are man-made, by-products of our atomic age, and the Graboids in the Tremors series are actually Earthbound animals evolved from millions of years ago.
Sure there are lots more minor variances of aliens that don’t fit quite so well in these categories, such as The Blob, but for the most part, these are the ones. Of course whatever ‘alien’ we are looking at, none are actually that. Each has been designed and produced by humans. And that is an important distinction. Using human standards for what appeals or repulses, moviemakers create creatures that tap into our basic evolutionary emotions and cultural influences for what is not only attractive or disgusting, but also safe or dangerous. We are programmed to have nurturing feelings for small beings with large heads and wide eyes, fearful of large creatures with small eyes and big teeth, and disturbed with tiny creepy creatures that scurry.
Back to E.T. We all know the story. A spaceship lands in a California forest and out pops a group of small aliens to investigate. A more curious fellow wanders off and when government agents suddenly arrive on the scene, the creatures fly off leaving one of their own behind. He escapes the pursuit and makes his way to a suburban home, hiding in the tool shed. He is discovered by a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) who is as terrified of the alien as E.T. is of the boy. It’s a memorable moment between the two as Elliott realizes it isn’t an animal in his backyard since after he tosses a baseball into the shed, it comes bouncing back. A bit later, E.T. flees into the garden and Elliott finds him again, finally coming face to face with the little creature. A connection is formed and a trust is soon made, the two bonding as E.T. senses that Elliott can help.
Now imagine this same scenario except hiding in the shed is not the small, bulbous, big-eyed, adorable E.T. we’ve all come to love, but rather an ebony-black, slimy, razor-tailed, double-mouthed Xenomorph from the Alien franchise, but with the same personality as E.T. He’s curious, lonely, frightened and hungry. Would Elliott connect as easily? Would he have brought a baseball bat rather than Reese’s Pieces to lure the creature to his room? What would you do?
Interestingly, E.T. and the Xenomorph are made by the same man. Well, the mechanics at least. Of course any movie fan knows that the ghastly, nightmare-inducing Alien from the horror movie was designed by HR Giger, who famously made haunting images of long-headed creatures. To bring that beast to life was the job of Carlo Rambaldi, a special effects artist and painter who created a working, wearable headpiece for Ridley Scott‘s horror masterpiece. This was in 1979. When it came time to design and build an alien for Steven Spielberg, Rambaldi was tapped with designing and building E.T. from the ground up with direction from Spielberg to create something audiences could sympathize with. He did so by drawing inspiration from his own work, a painting called Women of Delta, featuring long-necked, big-eyed, stubby legged women.
E.T. became a quintessential example of the adorable alien, resembling a child in many ways but also a pet. Its facial symmetry, highlighted by wide expressive eyes, and small mouth are the triggers of our genetic nurturing predisposition. Rambaldi perfectly captured the look and it is one significant reason why E.T. continues to tug at viewer’s hearts. We want to take care of him. We can’t help it.
So the question remains. Given the human instinctive impulse to protect that which is almost universally defined with childlike or infant characteristics and reject that which appears entomological, would Elliott embrace a Xenomorph if it was as kind and bonding as E.T.? Probably not. The sight of it would spark the opposite reaction E.T. does, triggering his sympathetic nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ impulse and either attack it or run away the same if he’d seen a scary but harmless spider.
Interestingly, this is a concept never explored in film. All ‘ugly‘ aliens are evil and all ‘cute’ ones are friendly, further reinforcing the bias. Still, each has their appeal. Both E.T. the extra-terrestrial and Alien were huge box office successes with both species becoming long-remembered and iconic, each the standard of there genre by which everything after is compared. People flocked to see Alien and feel the rush of fear while basking in the warmth of E.T. They are both masterworks of manipulation with no real foundation in reality, designed solely to play on human emotions. And we’re glad for it.