A Look at Cinema’s Earliest Extraterrestrials

From the USSR to the UK, a universal interpretation of a third kind.

Arrival finally hits theaters this week (you can buy your tickets here). In celebration, we have a collection of great articles inspired by the film.

With Arrival hitting theaters this week, we thought it might be a good time to reflect on some of the earliest depictions of extraterrestrials in film. Though science fiction is one of the more popular genres, outside of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), John S. Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), and Marcel L’Herbier’s L’Inhumaine (1924), the silent era rarely experimented with it.

The decades succeeding the silent era broadened the genre with narratives centering on mad scientists and experiments gone wrong. It wasn’t until the 1950s and 1960s that science fiction shifted from Frankenstein to life on Mars. Viewers have Cold War politics, fear of Communist infiltration, the threat of nuclear warfare and the Space Race to thank for that. These mid-twentieth century decades were inspiration for American science fiction classics like The War of the Worlds (1953), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), From the Earth to the Moon (1958) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

Though earlier cinema preferred mad scientist over space there were still a few odd directors inspired by H.G. Wells and Jules Verner who took on the challenge of filming the inconceivable. The silent era consists of less than ten extraterrestrial films, all of which look wildly different in comparison to what we see later. Instead of the ET, Mars Attacks, X Files aliens we picture today, directors like George Méliès and Thomas Edison created vicious skeletal demons, giant swaying Tree-men, and hulking satanic rulers who blow their intruders back to Earth.

A Trip to the Moon (1902) and A Trip to Mars (1910) center on brief, daytime voyages to the moon and Mars where proper attire and oxygenated helmets weren’t required. These films lack a curiosity in extraterrestrials that we see today in films like Arrival where challenges such as language barriers are an exciting exploration rather than a big red sign to back away from.  

Extraterrestrial perceptions changed when Danish director Holger Madsen created Himmelskibet, also known as A Trip to Mars. Madsen’s film appears to be the first feature about alien life. While Méliès and Edison found violence in space, Madsen encountered angelic vegetarians practicing Pacifism and peace in the shape of any ole human. The film differs further from the two mentioned above with its themes. Its length allows for character development and story exploration that became the norm as film progressed. Though Himmelskibet uses extraterrestrials, Madsen focused less on uncanny aesthetics and more on the overarching message. Jesus or lightning. Take your pick.

There weren’t any Pacific peace making aliens after Himmelskibet, but the following extraterrestrial films did shy away from surreal Martian depictions that were seen in Méliès and Edison’s films. Feature films popularized and as a result audiences needed to see more than the simplistic stories that were previously screened. And thus we have The First Men in the Moon (1919), directed by Bruce Gordon and J. L. V. Leigh, the story of two guys journeying to the moon and embarking on a series of adventures with the Selenites. Gordon and Leigh constructed extraterrestrials similar to what we might see in Star Trek or The Twilight Zone: half human, half unknown species. This interpretation carried over into Roy William Neill’s 1922 film, The Man from M.A.R.S., a movie that overlaps fantasy and science fiction.

Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is the last silent extraterrestrial film before talkies took over and sound became the new norm. Aelita is also one of the more popular science fiction films of the silent era, sitting in the same rank as Metropolis and L’Inhumaine. Based on Alexie Tolstoy’s novel by the same name, director Yakov Protazanov stripped down his aliens and fashioned their other-worldly mystique with dark makeup and unique costumes.

Like Himmelskibet, Aelita was a political product. It was inspired by the post Russian Civil War Soviet Union and Lenin’s New Economic Program, which was put in place to boost the economic unrest that had swept the country. Russian history is not my specialty, so if you’re looking for further exploration, “Senses of Cinema” published an informative review back in 2010 that maps out all the influential information.

From political inspirations to H.G. Wells and Jules Verne adaptations, extraterrestrials in the silent era were few and far between. As film progressed, so too did alien depictions. Directors focused less on wowing audiences with exotic costumes and more on how these representations fit in with the overall narrative. Lucky for viewers, science fiction has mostly been inspired by political controversy and less about religion. We don’t need another movie about vegetarian Pacifist cult on Mars.