Once upon a time in 1984, two aliens came to Earth, the United States specifically. One landed in the upper Midwest, and one landed in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City. One was white, played by Jeff Bridges, and one was black, played by Joe Morton. Both were fairly similar in most respects, both essentially benign towards humans and operating with only the best of intentions. Once they reached Earth, they assumed human form, and displayed a variety of strange telekinetic and healing powers straight from the template of "E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial," which had been a smash hit two years prior. We never learned much about their planets, except that one wanted to go back to where he came from, and one did not.
So I watched John Carpenter's "Starman" and John Sayles' "The Brother From Another Planet" recently, in part because many of the discussions I read about "Midnight Special" kept bringing up similarities to "Starman." They do share a few bits of plotting, but "Midnight Special" isn't really a film about an alien visitor, and doesn't ask the same questions. "Starman" and "Brother," however, come across as fascinating variations on the same theme. An alien in the guise of a man comes to Earth, where he has to learn what he can from humanity to survive. Starman is in a John Carpenter action movie and is trying to get to a pre-arranged pickup spot to be taken home by his fellow alien travelers. This results in a cross-country road trip with Karen Allen as his initially reluctant ally and eventual love interest. The Brother is in a John Sayles social satire, and struggles to integrate himself into human society while avoiding other aliens who arrive to capture him. Unlike Starman, the Brother cannot talk and is largely reactive to those around him.
What struck me immediately about both movies is how thoughtfully they're put together. "Brother" has the more pointed social commentary by design, but "Starman" is full of lighter observations about the foibles of the human race that are still relevant to this day. I really appreciate how well paced these films are, letting the main characters develop their relationships with other humans, and fill in the details about why they're on Earth gradually over time. Action sequences are significant in both films, notably "Starman's" effects-heavy ending, but the character development comes first. And thanks in large part to Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen, it comes off terrifically. Though "Starman" was a commercial success at the time, I don't think it would be as easy to make a similar film today, as romance is a major component of its story. Supernatural romances have largely gone out of fashion unless they're aimed at young female audiences.
"Brother" feels more contemporary, even though it takes place in a Harlem that largely no longer exists. The issues that it addresses certainly do, though: the divide between white and black, rich and poor, the empowered and the helpless. "Brother" is far more cynical about humanity than "Starman," highlighting vices and pitfalls that doom many immigrants who find themselves in the same position as the naïve Brother. He meets a broader range of people, both good and bad, and is placed in far more morally troubling situations. At the same time, there's a hopefulness about the story that I found very uplifting. The film eventually makes the case that while the Brother may be an alien, and his new community is rife with social problems, it can be a home for him, as it's been for so many other refugees.
We haven't had many earnest tales of alien visitors since, and I suspect the whole idea of friendly, altruistic extra-terrestrials may have become hopelessly passé. Most of the subsequent films about aliens on earth in human form, like "K-PAX," tend to make a mystery of the alien figure's true origins, or we only meet the aliens once they're integrated into human society, as with the "MIB" series. The most direct successor to "Starman" and "The Brother From Another Planet," reflecting more modern attitudes toward this concept, is probably Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" from 2013. Scarlett Johansson plays the nameless alien visitor, a merciless, dangerous killer, who embodies all our fears of the unknown. Then her slow, sometimes painful humanization is shown to lead inevitably to her destruction.
Ands it's a shame, because I think there is a lot more mileage to the concept, and frankly we could use a little more optimism in our science fiction films these days.