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Allow Us to Explain
said it before: Super 8 is this summer's Inception, if only because a lot of its promise lies in the fact that we don't really know how the plot of the movie is going to go. When we realized that we had to make an Inception Power Grid despite having only the faintest idea what the movie was about, we defaulted to listing great thieves, which ultimately didn't have much to do with what actually happened in the movie. We recognize that we may wind up, again, slightly off the mark with this Power Grid, which is dedicated to all the little kids out there that managed to befriend the gamut of alien races and improbably survive because audiences don't much like watching little kids succumbing to the true horrors of alien related deaths in science fiction.
No, the tropes at play in these movies are much more about friendship and accepting differences in others... except when they're not, because the whole genre is being deconstructed by Jhonen Vasquez or K.A. Applegate. Or when the movie is just awfully, unforgivably, MST3Kingly bad.
But mostly, these extraterrestrially tinged bildungsroman play it straight, giving us some of the biggest tear-jerkers in kids sci-fi. Enjoy!
Pete Wrigley and Ellen Hickle
Messieurs Pete and Pete (so named because their mother wanted her sons to have rhyming names) inhabit a world that is somewhat different from our own. One where pretty much every branded product was manufactured by a company named Krebstar; where ice-cream men still serve cones wearing giant soft-serve masks; and where a grown man calling himself Artie, the Strongest Man in the World can live in a Porta-Potty, wear the same clothing every day, and still hang out with an elementary school kid he isn't related to
all the time.
But the strange setting of The Adventures of Pete & Pete isn't usually science fictional, exactly. I mean, sure, there's a possessed bowling ball with a mind of its own, a superhero, and plenty of other weird stuff going on, but everything is basically grounded in the same level of off-center reality as the rest of the show. Except for Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas, the episode where Big Pete and Ellen find out that one of their classmates is an alien from the Alpha Centurai system.
Joe Jones (somebody making a Martian Manhunter joke?), a nerdy outcast with a cowlick that points to magnetic north, a radio walkman that he is always listening to (listen, kids, this was a lot weirder behavior in the early '90s, just trust me), and a constant case of static electricity, is the secret alien of the story. But Ellen and Pete aren't worried about him invading their planet. They know he only came by because he really likes former Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. All they want to know is why he convinced them to choose really weird subjects for their science term papers, earning the ire of their disgusting science teacher Mr. Porchman, who has chest hair you can see right through his shirt. They're all likely to fail, and that means a fate worse than death: summer school.
But it turns out that Joe Jones just convinced them to study the possibility of alien life living in secret on planet Earth and the spread of the television broadcast of Jonny Unitas' winning sudden death overtime because he wanted to be discovered. The three decide to be friends, and bravely face the terrors of summer school together.
And then Joe Jones is never seen in another episode ever.
Alien Status: Adorable.
The Iron Giant, one of the lowest grossing and most critically acclaimed movies in history. The film's deft blend of 2-D and 3-D animation, pitch perfect presentation of 1950's Cold War America culture, and storytelling so full of heart was almost lost to the ether due to a mismanaged ad campaign but eventually did recoup its losses in international distribution and home video sales.
It's reasonably likely that your introduction to it was the twenty-four hour Thanksgiving marathons that Cartoon Network would run, where you watched, cried, watched, and cried the whole day. Yup, the Iron Giant is probably the only role in which Vin Diesel's voice has brought grown men to genuine tears. The Giant is an alien weapon, but due to a rough landing, he's got amnesia and instead of beginning his rampage over a world mostly unequipped to even scratch his chassis, he is discovered by young sci-fi buff Hogarth Hughes while chowing down on some metal power lines. Hogarth and the Giant hit it off, and though he takes some convincing, local beatnik Dean agrees to let the metal man hide out in his scrapyard.
Naturally this is right about the time the army shows up, lured in by cowardly FBI agent Kent Mansley. The army's weapons activate the Giant's latent defensive instincts, and he nearly slaughters them all. But in a twist of the trope, the Giant saves us, not only from his alien nature as a living gun, but from our own weapons, when, in an attempt to kill him, we nearly nuke a small Maine town.
Alien Status: Adorable
Jake, Marco, Cassie, Rachel, and Tobias
Animorphs is an example of this trope played very, very seriously. Five ordinary teenagers discover the crash site of a benevolent blue alien and he gives them the ability to turn into any animal that they can touch, in order to fight a secret, widespread, terrifying Invasion-of-the-Body-Snatchers style alien invasion by another race.
And over the course of the next fifty or so books, those five teenagers were given a crash course in guerilla warfare, terrorism, PTSD, space travel, living double lives, doubting even their own family members, horrific bodily injury, the morality of torture, the ethics of keeping prisoners, and pretty much every even possibly relevant science fiction trope.
In the end, the whole series becomes a meditation on children in war on par with Neon Genesis Evangelion (we won't go as far as saying Ender's Game, since we haven't actually finished the Animorphs series). The series even tackles the kind of tension that might occur if one member of your group started to like the awful, dangerous, bloody fights you get into; and explores what could possibly happen to them, mentally, were the war ever won.
Alien Status: Horrifying
Whereas a number of these entries are members of the “Let’s be friends and fight for each other’s rights” category of alien/monster fare,
Invader Zim has the distinction of being helmed by a complete nut job tiny alien fiend (sent to Earth to conquer it in an effort by his home planet to be rid of him), foiled in his exploits mostly by his own egotistical stupidity, but also occasionally by the one Earthling child who knows what he’s up to.
Invader Zim takes place in a grimy, dark, satirical version of Earth, and there are no adorable Reese’s Pieces-fueled friendships here. No one believes Dib (the aforementioned Earthling child) when he runs around trying to stop Zim from blowing up the world because he, too, is a complete conspiracy theory nut job who's been obsessed with the paranormal and supernatural since he was born. His sister, Gaz, also knows Zim is an alien bent on the destruction of her planet, but she's much too apathetic to care (and furthermore, percieves, much more clearly than her brother, that Zim is a moron). The only character who actually seems happy with their lives in this show (other than the countless background characters too oblivious to notice what's happening) is GIR, Zim's wildly erratic robot helper who spends his days disguised as Zim's dog--and that's mainly because his head is literally filled with nuts and bolts. And cupcakes.
Alien Status: Adorifying
Meg and Charles Wallace, and Calvin
A Wrinkle in Time is Madeline L'Engle's hardcore science fiction series for kids. When I say hardcore here, I mean the hardcore themes of the science fiction of the latter part of the 20th century, like dystopia, the dangers of conformity, and faster than light travel by using the different dimensions of spatial location.
There are actually a lot of aliens in the series, who sort of run the gamut from horrifying to helpful, from kindly sentient stars to eldritch beings from the black beyond that hunger for life -- any life. But the introductory aliens of the series are a trio of shapeshifters who appear in the classic "form that you can comprehend" of three old ladies (or two, with the third unable to materialize). Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which are kindly but not all powerful guardians who start the Murry children on a quest to find their missing physicist father, a task that can only be completed by them.
No real invasion here, just some all powerful universal forces of darkness striving to pull all the planets of the univers under its sway of complete conformity, groupthink, and blind belief. If it were an invasion, it would give us the sense that Earth is, in some way, you know, important.
Alien Status: Adorable
Lilo and Stitch keeps the classic E.T. formula of a lonely outcast kid befriending a small, seemingly non-threatening alien, but throws in an Iron Giant twist when the alien himself is a genetically crafted superweapon, an indestructible, super-strong ravenous monster whose every natural instinct screams at him to destroy and consume.
Yes, this was one of the only two animated Disney movies to recoup its operating costs in the 2000's.
But unlike The Iron Giant's themes of the nature of conciousness, the soul, and the meaning of death; Lilo & Stitch is solidly about family, love, loyalty, and responsibility (no matter what form they take).
In the end, when the troops show up to throw Stitch in prison and eventually destroy him as too dangerous to live, the monster himself begs them not to separate his new family, because: "Is little, and broken, but still good," and "Ohana means family, family means nobody gets left behind. Or forgotten."
Alien Status: No. No, there's just... there's something in my eye from when I was cutting onions in the rain a minute ago.
Okay, so these guys aren't exactly alien monsters, but they are scientifically-created monsters who
think they are. Scientifically created, accidentally, by the United States Defense Department and a bunch of stupid, money-hungry adults. Good thing there are kids in this movie to save the day!
Our Hero Kid is Alan Abernathy, who is actually a teenager and thinks he's way too cool for toys. Oh, no. Alan Abernathy, whose parents own a small toy store and think he's psychologically disturbed, is having none of this silly talking toy business. But sure enough, these soldier action figures and their anthropomorphic nemeses, the Encarta-loving Gorgonites, are relentlessly committed to making Alan's life miserable until he can learn to take responsibility and become a Real Man. By controlling a bunch of talking toys.
The fatal flaw with Small Soldiers is that is has somewhat grown-up underlying themes -- small business vs. Big Government/Big Business, perceived mental illness, tradition vs. progress/technology, etc. And while it may be just abstract enough to go over the heads of its target audience, you can't help but witness some kind of ideology going on here. And they're using toys to tell the story. Toys that want to kill people in the name of achieving their mission to defeat another race of toys. This might have been fun for the kids who didn't notice the ideological themes, but upon closer inspection, the evil toys are still just toys. Alan can actually just take away their tiny weapons and shove them in a garbage disposal. Which he does. How they capture Kirsten Dunst and her little brother is a suspension of disbelief that is too far to be convincing. (Seriously, Kirsten -- you could have closed the door and walked away.)
Alien status: Too annoying to be adorable, too tiny to be horrifying. But if we have to choose? Adorable. They die with their batteries and talk like Buzz Lightyear!
If you've never heard of Pod People, allow me to refresh your memory with three words and a number:
Mystery Science Theater 3000. A MST3K classic, this Spanish movie was a direct response to the success of E.T., but did not experience anywhere near the success of its inspiration. (And like a bad joke being told to death, its title for the DVD release was Extra-Terrestrial Visitors.) Mostly because it's pretty awful, as are many ripoffs of extremely successful movies. One of the things -- besides its approximately four or five almost completely unconnected storylines -- that made it awful was Tommy, the little boy who met the alien he would name Trumpy when his curmudgeonly uncle Bill brings home an egg after doing some hunting with some be-mulletted poachers. (Huzzah.) Meanwhile, said poachers are being hunted down by Trumpy's vengeful parent, who kills people. So, while Trumpy is playful and adorable and mischievous, his identical mother is a fuzzy-wuzzy killing machine -- which Trumpy will also eventually become. Meanwhile (again), there's a horrible band (like, music) hanging out in Tommy's house and they try to help track down Mama Trumpy.
This movie might have been slightly less awful had they found a real boy to dub Tommy's voice. It's clear in some parts that this movie was shot in Spanish, so they inexplicably made the creative decision to do Tommy's English-speaking voiceovers with a Haley Mills-type lady voice. It makes it very hear to take our ginger-haired moppet hero seriously. His emotions also change on a dime, so he's just not that sympathetic of a character. He's also kind of stupid. You almost want Trumpy to become a killer, except he's more interested in eating kittens.
Alien Status: Horrifying, despite what we assume were the best efforts of cast and crew.
So, let's get something out there right off the bat: the aliens in this 1988 movie that was still trying to capitalize on the "cuddly alien wanted by the government but not if these kids have anything to say about it" genre looks like the
Slitheens went on the cabbage soup diet, acquired "perma-blow-up-doll-face," grew Yoda ears, and ended up with this weird Stevie Wonder head-swaying affliction. But back to the movie.
Besides being such a blatant ripoff of E.T. -- "MAC" is also an acronym for "Mysterious Alien Creature" (really) -- it was also known for its 100% conspicuous product placement for McDonald's, Sears, and the two foods required by the swivelly-headed aliens, Coke and Skittles. So, it was a ripoff and a commercial. Anyway, Mac's alien family was sucked into a space rover that eventually returned to NASA. (NASA = the evil government suits who want to dissect the adorable, cuddly alien...this might sound vaguely familiar.) Mac escapes from NASA and hops into the van belonging to Eric's family then somehow lives stealthily inside the house without anyone noticing. Then -- the meet-cute, a horribly terrifying scene in which our wheelchair-bound child hero Eric (played by wheelchair-bound actor Jade Calegory who is now a photographer) goes careening off a cliff. (It also used to show up on Late Night With Conan O'Brien whenever Paul Rudd came to promote something.) Despite Eric's insistence that there is a creature running about the house, no one believes him, even though there was no way a drowning child in a wheelchair was going to save himself. Eventually they catch Mac in their home with a vacuum cleaner, but not without getting into some crazy ceiling antics! (Which is totally a ripoff of Pod People, that they should... probably not take any action over.)
Long story short, misfit Eric, who can't make friends, befriends Mac (and his plucky hippie-girl neighbor), they hide Mac in a teddy bear costume and go to McDonald's...where there is a dance-off already in progress, which prompts Mac to dance on the counter top amidst a crowd of more professional dancers, some of whom are also football players. (Way to fly under the radar, Mac. No one will ever question a dancing, child-sized teddy bear... and they totally don't. Ladies and gentlemen, California in the '80s.) And maybe add Nike to that product placement list. And in the end, the aliens eventually become American citizens, so I guess that means NASA isn't allowed to dissect them anymore. Because you would never dissect an American citizen. I guess.
But yes, if you liked E.T., you'll be completely ambiguous towards Mac and Me.
Alien Status: Horrifying, despite what we assume were the best efforts of cast and crew.
Elliott (and Gertie)
E.T. could probably be considered the gold standard of movies about children who find aliens. There were many attempts to recreate the success of this movie and an equal amount of failures. And why? What was so special about E.T.: the Extra Terrestrial that could not be copied? For one thing, it's a story that came right out of the mind of Steven Spielberg, based on an imaginary alien friend he created as a child when his parents divorced. Unlike the copycats that followed, this wasn't about commercial success or capitalizing on a familiar theme -- it was about telling a story.
A story about a lonely boy named Elliott and the lonely alien who was left behind by his fellow aliens. And then he psychically connects with Elliott and starts dying, so Elliott also starts to die. So, after spending some good times together, playing dress-up with little sister Gertie, learning a few words of English, and refreshingly few gimmicky tricks (considering the copycats, that is), E.T. finds that he can't survive on this planet -- and he's taking Elliott down with him. WHOA NOW WAIT A MINUTE. No wonder people tear up at this movie -- they don't know how to feel about this sweet, seemingly harmless being who heals with his magical healing light-finger and has a heart -- a heart -- that glows. Because no matter how you cut it, E.T. is killing Elliott.
And you never thought about that, did you? E.T. suddenly became way more sinister.
Alien status: Adorable, then horrifying.
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