Science fiction is a funny business. You want to have just enough scientific realism to be believable, but you don’t want to spend the whole film talking about hardware or the linguistics problems involved in human-alien communication.
Some movies manage to turn language barriers into a strength, like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, while others fail spectacularly, like Mac and Me and Battlefield Earth.
And then some movies throw caution to the wind and disregard the problem altogether. And I’m going to talk about 10 movies about aliens that don’t have any language barriers.
1. Dark City
Dark City is a majorly underrated gem that has somehow flown under the radar since its debut in 1998. The aliens in this film are very talkative creatures. Even when it would clearly be advantageous to speak to each other in another language when in the presence of their enemies, the aliens just speak in plain English, spelling out their plans and giving the humans a chance to thwart them. It could be that the human bodies they inhabit prevent them from speaking their true language, but the film never explicitly states this.
2. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Ever since I read the Infinity Gauntlet comic-book series back in the ‘90s, I have thought Silver Surfer was awesome. He’s definitely the most interesting character in this silly sequel to the boring 2005 iteration of Fantastic Four. Silver Surfer spends a lot of time zipping around the universe looking cool. And when he finally opens his mouth to speak, not only does he sound exactly like Morpheus from The Matrix, but Earthlings understand him just fine. Did you really expect a logical explanation for an alien speaking English from a comic-book movie? We’re just getting started with those, by the way.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians of the Galaxy is the funniest space movie since Galaxy Quest. And I love that in a movie about intergalactic politics, it never gets bogged down with exposition. That’s because it focuses on the bare essentials of storytelling and then allows its characters to have a lot of fun in their interactions. They all speak English, which opens the floodgates for insults, jokes, and ‘80s pop-culture references galore. I know, someone is going to object by saying, “What about Groot?” so I’ll just nip that in the bud. Sure, Groot only speaks three words, but those words are in English, and his voice inflections and body language make it clear to his friends what he’s trying to say. So there.
4. Masters of the Universe
He-Man is so dang cool that when he accidentally lands on Earth and runs into a human, he doesn’t need to struggle to communicate his intentions to her. He just tells her to get out of the way so he can do battle with the forces of evil in spectacular fashion. Dolph Lundgren isn’t the most articulate English speaker, but it’s clear that he’s not speaking some alien language when he talks to Earthlings. It’s funny, I never thought of He-Man as an alien in the old cartoon show. But Masters of the Universe makes it clear that he and his friends are most definitely extraterrestrials.
5. Plan 9 from Outer Space
Oh yeah, I’m going to seriously discuss this hilariously bad movie. Give it some credit: The aliens may be totally incompetent at destroying the Earth, but they sure know how to engage in interesting philosophical debates. They even surprise humans by declaring that they believe in God. What other movie has presented the idea of aliens believing in the same Supreme Creator as the people of Earth? That’s a bold move. Especially for someone who just spouted off epically bad lines like, “All you of Earth are idiots!” and “You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! STUPID!”
6. Race to Witch Mountain
You might be wondering why I didn’t go with the classic 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. Well, that’s because in that film, they do briefly mention that aliens visited Earth and couldn’t speak our language at first, but they learned over time. But as far as I could tell there is no mention of any trouble communicating in this 2007 remake. I have to admit I find this movie strangely entertaining. It could be Dwayne Johnson’s earnest performance or the way the kids slowly act more human and bond with him. Whatever it is, Race to Witch Mountain speaks my language.
7. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
I never get tired of this movie. It’s so cheap and terrible that it actually achieves a kind of greatness. In this film’s warped reality, Martians exist and they speak English perfectly. You might think that it’s because some of their kids watch Earth’s television programs, but even Voldar (who hates anything related to Earth) has no problem speaking with Earthlings in English. In this case, I think it was pure laziness that led to the filmmakers’ decision not to make a big deal about language barriers.
8. Superman II
Superman has always been more of a fantasy character than a science-fiction one to me. I know, the first film starts out by stating, “This is no fantasy,” but I beg to differ. It’s the best kind of fantasy, blending realism with fantastic elements to create something resembling believability. In Superman II, when General Zod, Ursa, and Non show up and start terrorizing astronauts, police officers, and government officials, no one has trouble understanding the orders they give (except the Russian cosmonaut, but that’s Cold War politics for you). Sure, they don’t always get pronunciations right, like with “Houston.” But people sure do respond when Zod says, “Kneel.”
9. Teenagers from Outer Space
Am I reaching with this one? Maybe. But just because the only reason this movie is remembered is because it was riffed on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 doesn’t mean that it’s any less of a film than the others on this list. Back in the ‘50s, some really annoying and trigger-happy alien teenagers land on Earth and start scaring and vaporizing people in suburbia. They may not know how to drive or get around town, but they definitely know how to read and speak English just fine. Somehow.
Is Thor a god or an alien? He comes from another world (sorry, realm) and he isn’t immortal, so that makes him an alien in my book. My favorite scenes in this film aren’t the big action sequences, but the moments when Thor just has quiet conversations with the human scientists Jane Foster and Erik Selvig. I like how he tries to explain things that look like magic and legends as science and history. Thor may get stripped of his superpowers for a time, but he definitely retains his mastery of the English language during his banishment to Earth.
Breaking Through Barriers
Not every movie needs to spend time worrying about plot holes or logistical problems, like how to deal with alien languages. Sometimes they just have a fun story to tell and they decide to tell it in the most straightforward way possible: In a language we can actually understand.
As a side note, I realize not everyone in the world speaks English, but this is Hollywood we’re talking about and these movies were all made in English. So let’s not quibble over semantics. After all, these movies clearly didn’t.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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What about Star Wars? Han understands what Chewie says, despite the lack of vowels, consonants or any discernible language, while Luke learns what R2-D2 is saying without the help of a computer readout.
Does that count as disregarding the problem?
In the case of the Star Wars films, they at least acknowledge the existence of alien languages, like with C3PO claiming he is “fluent in over 6 million forms of communication.” This list only includes films that make no mention of any alien language and they just assume that every character can speak English fluently.
Ah, gotcha. It’s actually quite hard… What about The Fifth Element? Yes, Lee-Loo has a “Divine Language” but the mercenaries speak English, don’t they?
This is much harder that I initially imagined.
Exactly. I had to be very careful with this list. In the Fifth Element, LeeLoo doesn’t speak English at first. She’s confused and struggles to communicate with Korben Dallas. So I had to leave that one off the list, too.
Props to you, this is a tough one. One more go: what about something like Coneheads? As far as I can recall, they arrive speaking English…
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Oooh. I think you are right. I haven’t seen Coneheads in years, but I don’t remember them ever speaking in a foreign language, and their daughter (who was born on Earth) understands what the aliens are saying when she visits her parents’ home world. Hm. Well done. 🙂
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The movie Stargate was really good about the alien language barrier. It was a major plot point and it played out very well. When it turned into a TV show ( SG1) it tried to do the same for a while, but eventually dropped it and had every person on each new planet they visited speak English. I found that very off putting.
Another one would be Star Trek First Contact. We go back in time and see the very first time a vulcan meets a human. The first words out of the vulcan’s mouth were “Live long and prosper” spoken in flawless English.
Wow. I hadn’t thought of that, about Star Trek: First Contact, but you’re absolutely right. I had thought that Star Trek was off limits because of the universal translator, but they definitely didn’t have those at that point in history.
Stargate is a surprisingly smart action movie. I have never seen the TV shows it inspired, but I’ve heard mostly good things about them.
Thank you for your comment, Mike. 🙂
Even though the language barrier is a huge plot point, you owe it to yourself to watch Enemy Mine, with Dennis Quaid and Lou Gossett Jr.
Good call. Enemy Mine is classic sci-fi. I first saw it as a kid and I had no idea what was going on, especially when Louis Gossett, Jr. gave birth. But now I have a much deeper appreciation for it. Such a fascinating film.