Aliens Have Never Been More Alluring

Every generation gets the extraterrestrial invasion its times demand. In 1938, conflicts simmering in Europe meant that a radio broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” became a panic-inducing news event in America. In the McCarthy era, manufactured paranoia about Communists led to movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) and “I Married a Monster From Outer Space” (1958). The terrors of the Cold War coincided with the skittering xenomorph of “Alien” (1979), a conscienceless creature willing to destroy humanity to ensure its own survival.

Then, in 1982, just a few years before perestroika, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” introduced a different kind of alien — an adorable, empathic being in need of human assistance. This presaged a new attitude — open-minded, quasi-scientific — on shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987-94) and “The X-Files” (which first ran from 1993 to 2002), leading to comedy, the ultimate dismissal of alien exceptionalism. Sci-fi sitcoms like “3rd Rock From the Sun” (1996-2001) and “The Neighbors” (2012-14) treated visitors from other worlds not unlike the Beverly Hillbillies: just more fish out of water.

From left: Jane Curtin, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ben Kingsley and Jade Quon in the 2023 film “Jules,” directed by Marc Turtletaub.Credit…Linda Kallerus/Bleecker Street

Nowadays, though, a news topic that was once the exclusive province of tabloids has entered mainstream media. This past summer, a congressional subcommittee heard testimony about the discovery of nonhuman “biologics” at U.F.O. crash sites. In “The Little Book of Aliens” (2023), the astrophysicist Adam Frank argues that we’re closer than ever to being able to look for possible signs of civilization in outer space — just in time for a population that feels alienated from life on Earth.

The new generation of alien-focused pop culture reflects that shift, in which suspicion and fear have been replaced by something closer to affinity. In Marc Turtletaub’s 2023 film, “Jules,” Milton (Ben Kingsley) feels a sort of kinship with the alien (Jade Quon) whose craft crashes in his backyard. The new arrival ends up being more protective of 70-something Milton and his buddies than local cops ever have been so, when the feds show up, the seniors side with the alien.

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