I know, it’s a weird question to think about. But when you look back at a lot of films featuring extra-terrestrial life, you’ll probably notice that many aliens in these films do not wear clothing for one reason or another. Sometimes they do, like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or the Na’vi in Avatar (2009), but many others like the titular characters in Alien (1979) and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) go through the entire movie unclothed. In most of these instances, the characters of the film don’t seem to care, which makes sense in some of these movies as there are greater implications that come with the presence of extra-terrestrial life such as our politics, religions, and place in the universe. But why don’t they ever wear clothes?
Well, let’s start by examining the backgrounds of science fiction films in general, particularly those about aliens. Science fiction films have historically been tied to the paranoia of the time period in which they were released. This can be traced back as far as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), which was released shortly before the Stock Market Crash of 1928. The world was entering the age of skyscrapers and the effects of the Industrial Revolution were in full swing, and many people feared that the business machine would take over the world.
Films about visitors from another world started to become popular in the 1950s with hits such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The War of the Worlds (1953), and The Blob (1958). In order to understand what the aliens in these films are meant to represent, it’s important to know what was going on in the world at the time and establish the context in which these films were made. In the 1950s, the United States and Russia were engaged in the Cold War. Although this lasted from 1947-1991, its effects are most noticeable in 1950s cinema.
In addition, the world had recently witnessed the power of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and like kids scrambling for the next cool toy in the 1990s, every country suddenly wanted their own atom bombs. The US already had them, but that’s the funny thing about being first in line for something. You get the toy, feel all ecstatic about it, feel like gloating that you’re the only one who has it, and then you turn around to see another kid behind you is getting the exact same toy. And that second kid in line was the Soviet Union. So the US and the USSR both have nukes, and the Soviets were attempting to spread Communism throughout the world. Well, what does this mean for aliens? Well, everything. The aliens were both our hopes and fears at that time.
Let’s examine Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) for a moment. When he first exits his ship, he descends down the ramp in a shining spacesuit. Anyone who’s seen the movie knows that Klaatu’s mission is to alert humanity of a higher power in the universe that has noticed their petty squabbles with each other concerning atomic warfare. Therefore, he comes to us in his shiny outfit as a beacon of hope for our advancement in life. But when humanity responds with stubbornness and refusal for the world leaders to sit down in one place to meet him, he goes on the run and dons civilian clothing, hoping to find men of reason to listen to his message of peace, non-violence, and the responsibility of wielding such great power.
This change of clothing can also be an allegory to God in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible; God is a powerful, commanding, and shining figure in the Old Testament, but descends to Earth in the form of a human as Jesus Christ in the New Testament. In both Testaments, God seeks to help humanity better themselves, but He is rejected from the very beginning. This parallel continues to the end of the film when Klaatu is shot and killed and kept in a jail cell, and shortly after is resurrected temporarily by Gort so that he may finish his teachings on Earth before his ascension into the stars. Sound familiar? Anyway, during his final speech, he reassumes his alien spacesuit to remind humanity of who he is.
But that’s an alien who wears clothes, what about aliens that don’t? Well, what do aliens normally do in movies? Invasion. In The War of the Worlds, the Martians invade from our neighboring planet in order to enslave us and take away our resources. If you’ve ever read the Communist Manifesto (please don’t, it’s horribly written), you’re probably aware that it was in their belief system to violently take away the possessions of the rich and redistribute them among the masses. The Martians are depicted as that mass, with no singular leader or any notably named characters among them. They all look the same, and they have no clothes. The Blob explores a similar theme with a creature that actually assimilates people into itself and dissolves them, kinda an extreme look on what the Communist countries were trying to do at that time. These aliens are portrayed as more antagonistic figures, and they are also rather mindless and uncharismatic. And they have no clothes. No clothes, meaning no democracy, no capitalism, and therefore they are the enemy of our way of life. So does that mean every alien that doesn’t have clothes is evil? Well, no.
Let’s fast-forward to the late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s. One of the biggest things to happen in film history happened right here: Star Wars (1977). This film spawned a mega-franchise that is still going strong to this day, but for the sake of this argument (and because the prequels suck) we’ll just stick with that original trilogy including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). It was unique at the time for portraying aliens of both kinds, with and without clothing, only now it seemed like most of the aliens were just thugs. The Cantina in Mos Eisley on Tatooine is populated mostly by aliens with clothes on, with the exception of Chewbacca in all his furry glory, but Obi-Wan put it best when he said “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.” And sure enough, all the aliens with clothes on either look disgusting, want to kill somebody, or both. Two aliens try to kill Luke Skywalker only for one of them to be literally disarmed by Obi-Wan thereafter, and need we forget Greedo’s pitiful attempt to shoot Han Solo? Oh, and for the record, Han shot first!
Anyway, these aliens are of great variety and very unorganized, unlike the Imperial Stormtroopers or the Rebel Alliance, both of which were mostly run by humans. By the time Return of the Jedi came around, we saw more aliens in the Rebel Alliance, including Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar, but we’ve also seen Jabba the Hutt, who has all but completely criminalized the aliens on Tatooine, many of which are not wearing clothes. And what was going on in the world at the time in terms of relations with people from other countries? We had just lost Vietnam, and now I’d like to get something off my chest. Star Wars is not sci-fi. It doesn’t explore the applications and consequences of science in its story, or at least they’re not a central element as is true in typical sci-fi. If anything, Star Wars is a fantasy, and it is played out as such, depicting humans successfully controlling the galaxy and slowly civilizing the indigenous life of other planets, which is kinda what America wanted to do in Vietnam, but failed. Miserably. Moving on…
The aliens in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) are never seen onscreen until the very end, and even then it’s hard to get a clear look at them. When they descend from their spaceship, they are almost masked by this seemingly holy light. But what you do see of them is a mass of diminutive aliens with a very simplistic design meant to echo the appearance of children. The mission of these aliens is to explore the cosmos in search of knowledge, and share that knowledge with the universe. The film ends with its protagonist, Roy Neary, leaving Earth with them to spend what is presumed to be the rest of his natural life with a race of aliens that seems free of the corruption of humanity, like Adam and Eve before the Fall of Man. In essence, Roy has longed to go back to that time of childlike innocence, even if it means leaving his family behind. Yeah, I don’t know what this says about the aliens and whether they’re good or bad, but they definitely are a simpler race than we are, and yet they’ve accomplished so much more than we have.
Steven Spielberg would return to the theme of aliens as childlike innocence in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), where the titular alien is stranded on Earth during a mission to collect plant life for preservation. E.T.’s design is very simplistic as well, but while the aliens in Close Encounters were shown to be extremely knowledgeable of the universe, E.T. is constantly curious about the world he’s been left in. But one of the things that makes E.T. unique among the other aliens discussed is that he does spend some time in clothes. He dons a bedsheet as a disguise on Halloween in order to go out into the woods and contact his kin, only for him to fall victim to illness shortly after, almost as if the innocence he once knew had faded, in effect making him seem more human.
What separates E.T. from humanity is the same thing that often separates children from adults. E.T. recovers and never allows human corruption to destroy him, abandoning the body bag from the portable science lab before the final bike ride and abandoning the clothes he wore during the bike ride, reverting to his original state. Being the all-forgiving creature that he is and never exacting revenge or justice on the human scientists who were experimenting on him, E.T. has removed his baggage and moved on with his life, something most people in their corrupt state have been unable to do.
Alien, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Whereas the designs of the aliens in Close Encounters and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial are very simplistic, the Xenomorph in Alien has a very complex design, made with so many moving parts it looks like a different kind of monster every time you watch it. It also looks very mechanical, sporting a sleek gray design while being covered in slime and leaving its stink wherever it goes. The life cycle of this alien goes from the egg to the Facehugger to the Chestburster to the HOLY-$#!%-WHAT-THE-%#@&-IS-THAT monster that has a mouth on its tongue and eats your face and… rapes you before it kills you… do you see where this is going?
While Close Encounters and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial use aliens to represent the innocence of humanity, Alien represents the worst of human corruption on all levels, from the mechanical aspects of the Xenomorph’s biology, to the phallic and vaginal designs of its face, to its parasitic reproduction. Aliens (1986), the first of several sequels, doesn’t really do any more to expand upon the corruption the Xenomorphs inflict on humanity, but rather the ability of humanity to resist it, as shown when Ripley successfully protects Newt from Facehuggers in both the infirmary and the Xenomorph hive.
After the 1980s, aliens almost became relegated to B-movies like Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), or Steven Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds (2005). But then along came Avatar (2009), which I would argue is the most realistic depiction of extra-terrestrial life in all of cinema. When you watch the film, you can see why James Cameron waited so long to make it, and not just because of the beautiful scenery. By using motion-capture technology to create the Na’vi, the filmmakers were able to create hundreds of alien creatures that, while sharing the same structure as most humans do, could all be easily distinguished from each other. Yes, the story is Dances with Wolves (1990) in space, but it’s done well enough where that’s not really a problem. And in staying on topic, the Na’vi are partially clothed, in comparison to the fully-clothed human invaders. The role reversal of human invaders as opposed to alien invaders allows this film to explore similar themes to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, mainly innocence. Only instead of children, Avatar explores the innocence of a young race centuries behind where we are technologically today.
The protagonist, Jake Sully, develops a connection with the Na’vi throughout the film for several reasons, but two in particular: 1) Neytiri, and 2) while in the Na’vi body he can walk again. It is this second reason that is especially important because Jake has left the human race that destroyed his legs and promises to restore them if he helps them destroy this other race, but he can’t bring himself to inflict the same kind of suffering he experienced on anyone else. One could even argue that he knows the Na’vi will advance as a race, just as humanity did, and I would say that’s the big message of Avatar over protecting the environment. Let other races develop naturally instead of forcing progress on people. We did it, and all things considered we’re turning out okay. The Na’vi will get their shirts and jeans eventually, just give them time.
So I’ve gone through five or six decade of aliens in science fiction films, analyzing why they don’t have clothes, and finding distinct reasons applicable to each film. But why is it a trend? Well, what are aliens to us earthlings? The Other. They are that which we do not understand. They are the colonizer and the colonized, the invader and the invaded, the liberator and the liberated. Aliens are and always have been that which we are not, and thus filmmakers have always portrayed them to be as different and “Other” from us as humanly possible. Humans are all very distinct? Give the aliens a collective mind or portray them en masse. Humans are very adult and advanced? Make the aliens childlike or naïve. Humans wear clothes? Well, aliens don’t.