FORD PREFECT: Oh, Zaphod, this is a friend of mine, Arthur Dent. I saved him when his planet blew up.
ZAPHOD BEEBLEBROX: Oh sure, hi, Arthur, glad you could make it.
FORD PREFECT: And Arthur, this is my—
ARTHUR DENT: We’ve met.
FORD PREFECT: What?
ZAPHOD BEEBLEBROX: Oh, er… have we? Hey…
FORD PREFECT: What do you mean you’ve met? This is Zaphod Beeblebrox from Betelgeuse Five, you know, not bloody Martin Smith from Croydon.
This dialogue exchange appears almost verbatim in just about every version of Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, starting with the 1978 radio series and continuing through the novel, record, and television adaptations. The one place it doesn’t appear is the 2005 film, which was released four years after Adams’s death and substantially rewritten without his input, dropping Ford’s reference to Smith and the London suburb from which he hailed (among other things). Croydon has been reclaimed, however, as the setting of John Cameron Mitchell’s latest, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, based on the Hugo Award-nominated short story by Neil Gaiman. (Gaiman, incidentally, wrote a book about The Hitchhiker’s Guide early in his career, so chances are good he was paying tribute to Adams by using Croydon in the late ’70s as the site of a party where two teenage boys have close encounters of the female kind.)
Movie history is teeming with space aliens bent on destroying as many of our cities and landmarks as possible, but there are a small minority that, like Ford Prefect and the female aliens in How to Talk to Girls at Parties, pose no real threat to us and merely want to have a look around and leave on the next spaceship out. As a researcher for the Guide, Ford uses his time on Earth to expand its entry from “Harmless” to “Mostly Harmless,” and it’s in that spirit that this list is divided into four categories, with “Potentially Harmful” and “Genocide” reserved for those alien races who have the means to inflict serious damage or wipe us out entirely if they wanted to.
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
No article like this would be complete without E.T., the Platonic ideal of the altruistic alien. With his squat frame and enormous head, however, there’s no way he could ever pass for human, and his one foray into the outside world on Halloween is still a dicey proposition. His mystical healing powers are not to be discounted, though, and his impact on the culture cannot be underestimated. Before the decade was out, E.T. had inspired such otherworldly imitators as Trumpy from the MST3K fave Pod People, Meatball from Meatballs Part II, the hibernating Antareans from Ron Howard’s Cocoon, South Africa’s Nukie, the mechanical beings from the Spielberg-backed *batteries not included, and the feature-length McDonald’s ad Mac and Me. Sometimes flattery isn’t as sincere as it’s cracked up to be.
Wavelength (Mike Gray, 1983)
Prior to being exploited in this fashion, E.T.’s lowest point comes when he’s captured by government agents who poke and prod him until he dies. A similar scenario serves as the basis for Wavelength, in which a small group of aliens — which look like naked, bald children because that’s exactly what they are — are being held in cryogenic stasis in a secret military facility after the Air Force shot down their spacecraft. Even in that state, they’re able to communicate telepathically with anybody empathetic enough to pick up their distress call, which is how they come to be freed by a sensitive drifter, a grizzled prospector, and a washed-up musician, who sagely observes, “We can’t run around with three naked kids, not even in Hollywood.” Suffice it to say, whatever planet they come from, modesty is not one of their virtues.
Earth Girls Are Easy (Julien Temple, 1988)
Crash landings are a popular way for aliens to get stranded on Earth, but the reason the furry space travelers in this film wind up in a swimming pool in the Valley is because one of them (Jim Carrey’s Wiploc) is horny after being in space too long. Wiploc and his crewmates, captain Mac (Jeff Goldblum) and Zeebo (Damon Wayans), cause havoc in the home of sexually frustrated manicurist Valerie (Geena Davis), but any destruction they cause during their stopover on Earth is inadvertent and relatively contained. They don’t even appear to have any weapons on their ship or knowledge of how they work, because the one time Zeebo gets his hands on a toy gun, he has no idea what to do with it. Heck, apart from their ability to change channels on TV at will and their knack for vocal mimicry, their main power is the “love touch” Mac gives Valerie’s cat, a pair of cops, and her philandering fiancé. What could be more harmless?
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001)
When a meteorite made of atmospherium falls to Earth, three different factions compete for control of it, including a dunderheaded scientist played by writer/director Larry Blamire and a deceitful doctor who wants to use it to bring the title skeleton back to life. In most dire need of it, though, are aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis, who crash-land on Earth and require the mysterious substance if they ever hope to return to their home planet. They’re about as non-threatening as they come, in spite of the rampaging mutant they lose track of, and are extremely bad at blending in to boot. Good thing for them the humans they encounter are, by and large, equally clueless.
It Came from Outer Space (Jack Arnold, 1953)
Along with crash landings, another common trope in these films is a spaceship’s inhuman inhabitants having to impersonate Earthlings to stall for time while they make their repairs. In Earth Girls Are Easy, this was accomplished by having Mac, Wiploc, and Zeebo shave off all their body hair. In It Came from Outer Space, the aliens are one-eyed blobs that absorb the humans they encounter and replicate them. Instead of being killed, though, their victims are merely being held hostage. In terms of weaponry, the aliens have a beam that can cut through rock and would do worse to a person if push came to shove. Luckily, it does not.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
In this trippy adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel, David Bowie’s Thomas Newton travels to Earth because his planet is dying. To save it, along with his wife and children, Newton comes armed with enough scientific knowledge to speed up technological advances so he can build a rocket and pilot it back home. It never gets off the ground for various reasons (including his descent into alcoholism), but with that kind of power at his disposal, he could have easily turned it against us if he’d wanted to. That very fear is probably why his efforts are undercut in the first place.
The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
Sayles’s one foray into science fiction as a director (after previously penning screenplays for the likes of Piranha, Alligator, and The Howling) is the story of an illegal alien who’s an actual alien. As played by Sayles regular Joe Morton, the Brother is a mute slave with fast-healing powers (he regrows a three-toed foot overnight) and the ability to sense strong emotions and fix machinery with a single touch. His strongest power by far is his empathy for everyone and everything around him, but when he encounters someone causing harm to other humans — like the drug dealer poisoning the Harlem neighborhood he has made his adoptive home — the Brother has no qualms about removing them from the picture.
The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984)
There are plenty of aliens in this space adventure, but the only one that visits Earth with good intentions is Robert Preston’s Centauri — a distant cousin of the fast-talking huckster he played in The Music Man (1962) — who recruits arcade addict Alex to be a Starfighter and defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada. Apart from tooling around in his star car and donning an elaborate disguise (which is easier to remove and reapply than the one Thomas Newton uses) so he doesn’t spook Alex, Centauri doesn’t have any superhuman powers apart from the gift of gab, which he uses to talk people into things they might not otherwise be inclined to do — like take on an entire armada single-handedly.
This Island Earth (Joseph Newman, 1955)
While not as conspicuous as the Coneheads would be when they were introduced two decades later on Saturday Night Live, the high foreheads on the Metalunans mark them as a civilization of high intelligence. In spite of this, they still need to come to Earth to enlist its best scientific minds to aid in their war effort against a more aggressive race. Failing that, their backup plan is to abandon their doomed planet and colonize Earth, which wouldn’t have been too difficult in light of their superior weaponry and technology. In retrospect, maybe that should have been Plan A.
Superman (Richard Donner, 1978)
The sole survivor of the planet Krypton, Kal-El comes to Earth as an infant and, thanks to our yellow sun, grows into adulthood with a number of extraordinary powers, including super-strength, super-speed, super-hearing, heat and x-ray vision, freezing breath, invulnerability, and the ability to fly. It’s a good thing, then, that he decides to fight for truth, justice, and the American way because let’s face it, if Superman turned bad — as he briefly did under the influence of contaminated Kryptonite in Superman III — mankind could be in a lot of trouble.
Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)
To carry out their missions, alien visitors without physical bodies generally take on human form, but the one in this film takes it a step further by extracting the DNA from the hair of a dead man and going from infancy to full-grown adulthood in the space of a minute, much to the amazement of the man’s widow. Upon completing his “symbiotic transformation,” the alien (played by Jeff Bridges) sets about traveling to his intended landing site to rendezvous with a rescue ship. Along the way, he uses his finite supply of metal spheres to communicate his S.O.S., cause a lug wrench to heat up and a tree to burst into flames, bring a dead deer back to life, and perform similar wonders. Clearly, his race’s technology is such that if they weren’t peaceful — and they brought enough metal spheres with them — they could give Superman a run for his money.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Much like Jeff Bridges’s Starman travels to Earth in answer to the invitation sent into space on Voyager II — only to get shot out of the sky when NORAD picks up his ship — Klaatu comes “in peace and goodwill,” but less than a minute after emerging from his spaceship he’s shot by a trigger-happy soldier. Luckily for him, he has a salve that can heal a bullet wound in less than 24 hours. Unluckily for the solders in the vicinity, he’s backed up by an 8-foot-tall robot called Gort that can obliterate guns, tanks, and other weapons with a single blast, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. “There’s no limit to what he could do,” Klaatu warns. “He could destroy the Earth.” Indeed, when Klaatu is subsequently shot dead, Gort takes the initiative and disintegrates the two soldiers unfortunate enough to be on guard duty that night. The message: Gort isn’t playing around.
They Came from Beyond Space (Freddie Francis, 1967)
To outward appearances, the alien plot in this British import (made by Hammer competitor Amicus) is most insidious indeed. It starts with the scientists investigating a curious meteor landing in Cornwall being taken over by disembodied intelligences (a process they call “connection”) and put to work on a secret project. So far, so This Island Earth, but the film’s hero (who’s immune to their mind control thanks to the silver plate in his skull) eventually finds out the aliens are only borrowing Earthling bodies to make repairs to their ship so they can return to their own planet after crash-landing on our moon. Along the way, though, they incite mass panic by introducing a disease called “The Crimson Plague” to get the manpower they need shipped to the moon to do the heavy lifting. It’s posited that the contagion could spread to the entire country and maybe the world, so if the aliens were serious about wiping humanity out, it definitely seems within their capabilities.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter, 1984)
After demonstrating how his Oscillation Overthruster can break through the dimensional barrier, Buckaroo Banzai is contacted by Black Lectroids from the Eighth Dimension, who take the form of Rastafarians on Earth and warn him that if their enemies, the Red Lectroids (led by Lord John Whorfin, who has possessed the body of Dr. Emilio Lizardo), get hold of it and figure out how to make it work, they’ll be forced to vaporize the Earth and all its inhabitants. Luckily, that sort of thing is all in a day’s work for the world-famous surgeon, physicist, and rock star, who’s played with cool aplomb by Peter Weller. And the latest addition to his back-up band, The Hong Kong Cavaliers, is played by none other than Jeff Goldblum, whose experience with alien incursions also extends to the Independence Day franchise, but that’s a discussion for another day.