The idea of extraterrestrial life has been one of fiction’s most long-lasting points of interest. The notion that there are more forms of life in the far reaches of cold, deep, and dark space has been taken as both a point of hope and terror. Even as science has allowed us to better understand the nature of both outer space and our own inner workings, the vast mysteries of other planets has allowed some of fiction’s greatest creators let their imaginations run wild.
With no limits on what creatures can be formed when coming from worlds completely unlike our own, the aliens that have chosen to invade/destroy/enlighten Earth have covered an enormous spectrum. From the cute to the frightening to the confusing, the most interesting alien life forms have taken on a wide variety of appearances and motivations.
But it’s not just creators who have been enraptured with extraterrestrial life. Audiences have flocked to theaters and bought up books for decades and even centuries because alien life forms spark an idea in everyone. Whether these life forms are here for our own good or our destruction, aliens tend to fit into five different categories, each with their own iconic figures.
Invaders Want Our Special World
One of the earliest ideas concerning alien life visiting Earth revolves around the idea of invasion. If an extraterrestrial race were to come to our planet, they would surely want to take something from it or conquer it for themselves! While this notion is obviously instilled by a sense of fear concerning outsiders and the centuries-spanning cycle of war and invasion here on Earth, it also says something about what we think of ourselves.
After all, human see our world as unique and special. While thinking of ourselves as the only life in the universe springs from thinking of ourselves as one of a kind, thinking that there are countless living worlds in the universe, yet ours is the best of them all, is a very special form of hubris. Should someone from outer space learn of our planet, they would naturally want it for themselves. This idea has been put forward in a variety of ways. Some aliens have lost their home and have decided to make our theirs and their alone. Others are created a galaxy-spanning empire, with our being the next link in the chain. Plenty more are given no actual motivation, just a simply evil intent that forces the people of the world to band together.
In any of these cases, the Earth and each individual human faces extreme fear when confronted with strange and menacing conquerors from outer space. But with new challenges, humanity may be forced to rise to new heights.
Iconic Alien Invaders: Space Invaders, The Martians (War of the Worlds), The Utrom (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Flying Saucer (Independence Day), The Blanks (The World’s End), Kaiju (Pacific Rim), Mimics (Edge of Tomorrow), Decepticons (Transformers), Mongul (DC Comics), Ming the Merciless (Flash Gordon), Klingons (Star Trek), The Empire (Star Wars)
Finding Help from Above
If there is a take on alien life that is just as prevalent as invaders, it is the idea that extraterrestrials are ready and able to help humanity. While the two ideas are not mutually exclusive, with many broad depictions showing alien life to be just as varied as humanity, aliens who look to do good are often far more powerful than Earth’s civilizations. This idea often crosses over into an idea of a benevolent being greater than humanity who is has come to bring help.
While many works of fiction use this idea in accordance with supernatural and spiritual beings, it is just as easily applied to alien life. Those who would prefer to not delve into the supernatural can find this idea much more easily digestible when brought into alien form. Additionally, applying these rules to a physical being with strange powers and technology can break away from the clichés and narrow interpretations that often plague benevolent supernatural beings brought to life in works of fiction.
The good hearts and heroic actions taken by alien heroes throughout fiction make them not only relatable, but inspirational in many cases. Like Superman, alien heroes are often the embodiment of the idea that anyone can change the world, no matter appearances or origins.
Iconic Benevolent Aliens: Superman (DC Comics), Gort and Klaatu (The Day the Earth Stood Still), The Green Lantern Corps (DC Comics), E.T. (E.T.), The Autobots (Transformers), Yoda (Star Wars), Martian Manhunter, (DC Comics)
Pea-Brained Humans are Beyond Hope
While benevolent aliens are ultimately trying to save humanity, there is another set of aliens that are simply beyond our comprehension. If we are allowed to imagine that alien life comes from planets and galaxies that are beyond our comprehension, then these characters may motivations that are beyond our comprehension as well. The ideas of good and evil may not necessarily be applied to them. Instead, good and evil can only be applied to the human beings that interact with them, as our own prejudices and presuppositions are layered upon their strange actions.
The mystery of these beings is what most often captures the imaginations of audiences. While an unknowable alien entity may not make for a particularly exciting protagonist, these characters can add many layers to the stories they are featured in. Frequently, the hurdles and questions they pose create unique obstacles for heroes. What a protagonist does when faced with murky choices reflects questions of faith and morally ambiguous decisions that can be faced in real life.
Iconic Aliens Beyond Our Understanding: The Watchers (Marvel Comics), N.T.I. (The Abyss), The Prawn (District 9), Starman (Starman), The Observers (Fringe), Q (Star Trek)
The Devouring Terror from Space
h2If there is a type of alien character that can have the term “evil” most appropriately applied to it, it is the creature who only seeks to devour and destroy. Rather than cunningly take over the planet or follow a path to their end goals, these monstrous beings only seek to fulfill their insatiable hunger and gruesome instincts. These are the creatures that lurk in the deepest and darkest corners of space.
Like the monsters we imagine on Earth, these beings encapsulate some of humanity’s greatest fears. But these beings are not confined by the limitations we place on the monster made from Earth’s ecosystem. Rather, these are the products of unrestrained imagination and terror, unbound by our own sense of logic. As such, terrifying notions and metaphorical fears can be given a corporeal form, which plays off the deep-seated terrors lurking in the minds of many audience members.
Many of these monstrous creatures are encountered when humans breach new boundaries in outer space exploration. This easily encapsulates our innate fears of the unknown and the dangers that naturally come from exploration. on the other hand, some creatures come to Earth, breaching our own sense of safety and uniqueness in the universe. These are often individual creatures who can pose the threat of worldwide destruction if not defeated then and there by overwhelmed heroes.
Iconic Monstrous Aliens: Xenomorphs (Alien), The Predator (Predator), The Blob (The Blog), King Ghidorah (Godzilla Series), The Thing (The Thing), Cthulu, Venom (Marvel Comics), The Red Lantern Corps (DC Comics), Parasites (Slither), The Brood (Marvel Comics), The Borg (Star Trek), Audrey II (Little Shop of Horrors), Bugs (Starship Troopers)
Friends from Another World
While the previous categories have resulted in some of the most memorable characters villains in science fiction, some of its greatest heroes are not altruistic do-gooders with hearts of gold. Instead, they are complex people, loyal friends, and iconic protagonists. These are the characters who prove to be just as relatable and fascinating as any human, despite looking little like the audience. They make the case that all life has something in common, sharing in struggles and difficulties faced on Earth each day, only set in much stranger environments.
While most of these characters are befriended by Earthlings, they may have meaningful relationships with other aliens, as well. Most often, these types of characters are in a supporting role for a film, TV show, or novel, providing new dimensions to a story and aiding the hero in saving the day. They may steal every scene they are in or be featured in some of the stories most memorable moments. In any case, they make science fiction stories more fun and help suck audience members further into the world.
However, morally complex and likable aliens can be the star just as well as any human. Unlike the savior role, these protagonists are fallible and complex. While it may take more for an audience to connect with a hero that looks nothing like them, the strength of the character and the quality of the story will be enough to go past appearances in order to create a deeper and more meaningful bond in the end.
Iconic Alien Buddies: Groot (Guardians of the Galaxy), Rocket Racoon (Guardians of the Galaxy), Chewbacca (Star Wars), The Na’avi (Avatar), Spock (Star Trek), Paul (Paul), Worf (Star Trek), The Doctor (Doctor Who)