The second episode of Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams presents one of Dick’s signature visions of a future gone terribly wrong in an episode called “Autofac.” The standout performance is Janelle Monae’s turn as Alice—who, like many of Dick’s characters, is a robot designed to appear human. Even off-screen, on a typical day, Monae is a performer who looks, sounds, and moves like someone from a higher plane of existence. Her voice and motions on Electric Dreams are those of a being noticeably different from humanity—and probably superior. It’s a wonderful bit of casting that follows a long tradition of rock and hip-hop superstars who have played robots and aliens in television and film; perhaps there’s an argument to be made that the best school for learning how to depict fascinating, otherworldly beings is the concert stage.
When you consider these various performances together, the question becomes: Who did it best? Which stars gave us a compelling vision of otherworldly, futuristic existence, and which couldn’t even give a convincing depiction of being from next week? The following is by no means an exhaustive list of singers whose forays into acting led them to sci-fi’s frontiers, but it does cover some memorable highs and lows…
Mos Def, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Fans of Doctor Who will forever argue which actor was the best Doctor, and while the correct answer is always Tom Baker, it’s easy to see how the discussion is driven by extremely subjective opinions and perceptions. For me, Douglas Adams’ creation Ford Prefect will always be David Dixon from the 1981 BBC series (yes, I had to look his name up), but with fresh eyes I might agree that Mos Def does as good a job as Dixon in the role, providing a capable friend to poor Arthur Dent as they go careening around the galaxy. And Mos Def’s white suit and cream-colored overcoat make him the style standout on this competitive list (it’s also a nice tip of the hat to Bowie—more on him later). But he doesn’t seem very alien—and indeed, why would you cast this man, who’s spent much of his career communicating in harsh terms the terrestrial realities that many of us earthlings try to ignore, as a guy from another world? Mos Def does a solid job with the acting, but in terms of believability as an alien, he’s in the middle of the pack.
Iggy Pop, Deep Space Nine
As a creature called a Vorda, a spokesperson for an organization called the Dominion, Mr. Pop isn’t terribly convincing—his mannerisms are pretty earthbound, and he even delivers his lines with a Midwestern twang. But you don’t hire Iggy Pop to play someone other than Iggy Pop, and his characteristic strangeness makes him sufficiently alien for a second-rate Star Trek spinoff (Yes, I said second rate—Deep Space Nine was no Andromeda, people). Plus, Pop gets some extra points for providing the singing voice for a post-apocalyptic mutated animal rock star in Rock & Rule, an animated film that I thought I might have just imagined (except that it does, apparently, exist.)
Rihanna, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets
I overheard a critic on an NPR podcast saying that Rihanna was the only good thing about this movie, and while Rhianna is often the only good thing about lots of things, I respectfully disagree with this assessment. The film is extremely uneven, wasting good actors (Ethan Hawke, Clive Owen) and overusing bad ones (Dane DeHaan), and unfortunately Rihanna doesn’t come off too well. She does a sexy dance—one in which each kinky costume morphs into another, until every standard fetish (nurse, schoolgirl, Liza Minnelli in Cabaret) is exhausted—and that’s about it. It’s an insulting part for a stunningly beautiful performer with an electric presence and an award from Harvard for her humanitarian work.
Miley Cyrus, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Miley Cyrus apparently voices a CGI robot or computer called Mainframe in the film Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, appearing in one of the post-credit sequences. There is reason to doubt this claim. I’ve seen the film twice and I’m not even sure who Mainframe is or what it does. As far as this competition goes, Hannah Montana fails to transport anyone to other worlds with this non-performance.
Mick Fleetwood, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Fleetwood Mac’s famously tall drummer beats even Miley Cyrus for the Most Unimpressive Performance by a Recording Artist as an E.T. or A.I. Fleetwood put on a rubber mask that makes him look like an off-brand Deep One who’s just scarfed a few fistfuls of slug-like macaroni, only to be escorted off the Enterprise when Troi’s mom pegs him for a spy. The important lesson here is that impersonating an alien involves more than just getting into a costume. Mick could have been anyone, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if that was Peter Cetera doing his best Admiral Akbar—or, for that matter, if they’d just draped the latex costume on a post. To be fair, though, there’s not a lot that even Christie McVie or Lindsay Buckingham could have done with this small, unimportant part.
David Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth
It was never any contest: Bowie wins this competition hands down. Bowie spent decades doing his best to convince the public that he was, in fact, a creature from another solar system, and he largely succeeded because none of us cave dwellers could figure out his play. In The Man Who Fell to Earth—a mess of a movie, by the way—Bowie practically spelled out the rules of the game-slash-multi-media-experiment-slash-pop-art-mindfuck that was his career. As Thomas Newton, Bowie is an alien who might just be an eccentric millionaire. In the end, he gives up on his cosmic mission because he becomes bogged down with the same shit that crushes us all—booze, lousy entertainment options, consumerism, empty sex with Candy Clark, and existential malaise—and instead becomes a little-understood singer. Ah, Bowie, were you entertaining us, or were we failing to entertain you? Now we’ll never truly know. One hopes the journey back to your homeworld was smooth.
So, considering all of the above, my personal rankings from worst to best would be:
- Mick Fleetwood on TNG
- Miley Cyrus in GotG Vol. 2
- Rihanna in Valerian
- Mos Def in The Hitchhiker’s Guide
- Iggy Pop on DS9
- Janelle Monae, Electric Dreams
- David Bowie, The Man Who Fell to Earth
Honorable mention, or at least semi-honorable, goes to Sting, who didn’t exactly play an alien in David Lynch’s Dune, though Feyd was technically born on another planet. Still, it’s not one of Sting’s better roles. And then there’s Leonard Nimoy, who was never considered a top-tier pop singer, but he did record an astonishing five albums, in addition to his role as the most famous alien in television history.
There have got to be some performances I’ve missed here: It’s hard to believe that Gene Simmons and Annie Lennox never played aliens, or that Thomas Dolby never played an automaton, or that Ariana Grande hasn’t been cast as some combination of the two. Please chime in with any roles I’ve missed. All commenters will receive a free trip to the dark side of the moon, just as soon as I, like, finish the rocket, man…
Hector DeJean relives the pop-culture highlights of his misspent youth every day in his head. He’s written about television, superheroes, and TV superheroes for the Criminal Element.