Most are humanoid and hairless, with oversized heads, nostrils for noses, and long thin necks, although one species has a single, three-colored eye and suction-tipped hands at the end of long thin arms (1953’s “The War of the Worlds”), while another, poor thing, is forced to plod along with a space helmet atop a gorilla’s body (“Robot Monster”).
Most are here to take over — don’t kid yourselves — but some are benevolent voyeurs (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), while others simply need a place to hang (“Men in Black”).
They are aliens who come to earth, and the type we get tends to coincide with our feelings about foreigners: benevolent aliens during times of peace, ferocious aliens during periods of xenophobia. Just look at the granddaddy of all alien invasion stories: H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.”
Wells published his novella about a Martian invasion of England during the saber-rattling before World War I. A generation later, as the world braced for WWII, a radio adaptation by Orson Welles panicked East Coast listeners who believed Martians were invading New Jersey.
The first film adaptation appeared during the panicky McCarthy years, the second during the paranoia following 9/11.
Consider the first paragraph of Wells’ novella. I’ve added a century, shifted the focus from “this world” to “this country,” and removed references to “intelligences greater than ours.” Here’s what you get:
“No one would have believed in the last years of the 20th century that this country was being watched ... With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this country about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter... Yet across the gulf, (other minds) regarded this country with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the 21st century came the great disillusionment.”
Aliens are rarely just aliens.
The first wave: Paranoia
The biggest wave of alien invasion movies occurred between the rise of Joe McCarthy in 1950 and the launching of Sputnik in 1957. Yet while these films play upon our anti-communist paranoia, they rarely buy into them. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Mrs. Barley (Frances Bavier — Aunt Bee from “The Andy Griffith Show”) looks the fool when she implies the flying saucer that landed in President’s Park is Soviet-made.
The aliens, in fact, seem to worry more about us than we do about them. To Klaatu, the Christ-figure of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” Earth is the Mideast of the galaxy: a trouble-spot that threatens to wreak havoc beyond its borders. In the surrealistic “Invasion from Mars,” aliens are afraid what will happen when we take atomic energy into space. In “It Came from Outer Space,” aliens crash-land, adopt human identities and try to buy hardware supplies to get the hell away again. “Why don’t they come out in the open?” a paranoid cop asks. “Because what we don’t understand, we want to destroy,” the star-gazing writer responds.
Sure, most of these movies are dated. That’s part of the fun: the hokey rubber masks, the strange pronunciations (“MUTE-tants”), the convoluted nomenclature (“an indefinitely indexed memory bank”), the fact that every other protagonist is a pipe-smoking scientist. My favorite unintentionally ironic scene occurs in “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” as two D.C. doctors talk about Klaatu’s age. He appears middle-aged but is actually 78 (earth years), because life expectancy on his planet is 130. “He says their medicine is that much more advanced,” says one doctor as he offers the other a cigarette. Then both stand around smoking and debating longevity.
But there are joys beyond the ironic. “The Thing from Another Planet” has smart dialogue (“We split the atom.” “Yeah, and that made the world happy, didn’t it?”), while Ray Harryhausen’s special effects in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” are light years ahead of its time. Meanwhile, the set-up of Don Siegel’s excellent “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” — neighbors changing overnight into emotionless creatures — can be seen as a metaphor for Soviet communism or U.S. conformity or the Hollywood blacklist.
Aliens are rarely just aliens.
The second wave: Gods and lost children
Then, just as quickly as they appeared, alien invasion movies vanished from our screens. Except for a few low-budget crapfests (“Santa Claus vs. the Martians”), we didn’t hear from them throughout the 1960s. Did we become less paranoid of outsiders? Did we become more fascinated with our own star treks (Mercury, Apollo) to be concerned with the treks of others here? A great sociological study could be made of this gap.
When movie aliens did return to earth in the 1970s, during an era of detente, they were almost entirely benevolent. It’s a jolt watching “Close Encounters” after these paranoid ‘50s films, because at no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
These benevolent aliens can be divided into two groups: the crash-landers (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “E.T.,” “Starman”), and the Gods (“Close Encounters,” “Cocoon,” “Contact”).
The crash-landers are essentially lost children who, like children everywhere, want to leave as soon as they arrive. They also learn the language and/or culture from television. Newton (David Bowie) winds up a kind of Howard Hughes/Elvis figure, so his bank of T.V. sets is pejorative, representing the cacophony of our culture, while E.T. and Starman, sublimating the tastes of their directors, wind up watching famous kissing scenes in old films — “The Quiet Man” and “From Here to Eternity,” respectively — which teach the aliens about love. Thank God “A Clockwork Orange” wasn’t on.
So if the aliens are benevolent, who are the bad guys in these pictures? Generally, the U.S. military. Even when the government has a friendly face (Peter Coyote, Charles Martin Smith), the aliens are still hunted down. Captivity and dissection is implied.
Maybe this is the reason those other aliens, the Gods, rarely land. They simply hover in their big, bright ships and grant our movie stars what they need: Richard Dreyfuss a purpose, Don Ameche youth, Jodie Foster faith and a father. Little or no fear accompanies their appearance, just awe. It helps that they’re made of light instead of, you know, slime. Light beats slime any day of the week.
The third wave: Camp
Detente may have ended by the early 1980s, but “evil empire” rhetoric never really translated into paranoia in our homes or on our screens. If anything, alien invasion movies became jokey and campy, mocking their ‘50s predecessors with titles like “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” and “Earth Girls are Easy.” In John Carpenter’s “They Live,” in fact, the aliens are Reagan-era yuppies making money off of trickle-down economics. That’s why the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer (the rich are aliens; the poor are you), and that’s why no one is doing anything about pollution (it makes our atmosphere more like theirs), and that’s why we need Rowdy Roddy Piper. “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he says. “And I'm all out of bubblegum.”
The jokes continued throughout the ‘90s but weren’t particularly funny or representative. “Mars Attacks!” was based upon 1960s trading cards and reflected that weird sensibility — not to mention Tim Burton’s. “What Planet Are You From?” is one-note: how men and women seem alien to each other. “Evolution”? A good idea — single-celled alien life-forms grow exponentially until they threaten all human life — but the tone is spectacularly off. Even before the anthrax scare, who thought a scientist experimenting on U.S. soldiers with anthrax drugs was funny?
The best and most representative of these comedies is “Men in Black,” in which, yes, aliens are here and queer, but this time they’re New Yorkers (which explains a lot) and celebrities (which explains even more). It’s also indicative of where our fascinations lie: no longer with foreign affairs (communism) or socio-economics (yuppies) but with celebrity. What seems alien to us? What can’t we explain? In the 1950s it was Nikita Khrushchev; now it’s Britney Spears.
The fourth wave: Bad muthas
All this time, evil aliens never went away completely. We got good re-makes of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978, and “The Thing” in 1981. On TV, “V” introduced the concept that malevolent aliens might not be monolithic; that within an invading army there might be an underground movement, a White Rose, trying to help humans. “Transformers: The Movie” and “Alien Nation” picked up on this possible complexity as well.
So what the hell happened in 1996? Was it the first WTC attack? The popularity of “X-Files”? The contract with America? Because suddenly that complexity disappeared and we got three all-out alien assaults on our planet: the aforementioned dark giddiness of “Mar Attacks!”; Charlie Sheen’s paranoid thriller, “The Arrival”; and the biggest and baddest of them all: “Independence Day.”
“I.D.” was less a return to paranoid ‘50s movies and more a response to the Pollyanna vision of films like “Close Encounters.” Those awe-struck people at Devil’s Tower playing their five-note song of greeting? They’re the first to get fried in “I.D.” In “Starman,” Charles Martin Smith views the clean room where our government plans to dissect Jeff Bridges and says sadly, “Welcome to Earth.” In “I.D.,” Will Smith cold-cocks an alien and says the same thing.
When it comes down to it, alien invasion movies turn on the most basic of human reactions: How do you greet a stranger? Whatever our response, it’s often a corollary to the Golden Rule: We expect others to treat us as we treat others. Which is why the scientists in these films tend to be curious and hopeful while the military men are suspicious and combative.
History would seem to side with the military men. A technologically advanced race showing up one day and slowly wiping out the inhabitants? That’s the story, among others, of Europeans in America.
Aliens are rarely just aliens.
The fifth wave: small and dark
Post-9/11, alien invasion movies have tended to be small and dark. In “Signs,” the all-out invasion is as surreptitious as a Bigfoot sighting and has its own brand of loopiness. (The aliens are harmed by water? So why come here? Would we invade the planet of cyanide?)
In “Dreamcatcher,” the invasion is limited to the Maine woods. In “Alien vs. Predator,” they never get out of Antarctica. Even Spielberg’s grainy remake of “The War of the Worlds” feels less than global. What a shock, at the end, to find Boston neighborhoods untouched.
And they keep coming. This summer, “Transformers: The Movie” will try to one-up “Independence Day” for invasive Fourth of July fun. In August, another remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” hits theaters. A new “AVP” is on the way in December. Alien invasion movies are sort of like the aliens within them: There's no stopping them.
Erik Lundegaard is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. But he’s got lots of bubblegum. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org