There’s a scene in Explorers, an oft forgotten sci-fi movie from 1985, in which three 14 year old heroes (including the young River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke) having built their own spaceship, make contact with a pair of extraterrestrials deep in outer space. It turns out that the aliens have been watching all the TV that we’ve been broadcasting over the last 30 years. It becomes immediately clear by watching how aliens are treated in popular culture how any contact would become a violent exercise. One of the aliens says, “We know what they do to people like us down there.”
And by the looks of the alien invasion films from the 50’s and 60’s, who could blame them? America, at the height of the Cold War, found plenty to be afraid of. It’s a sad moment in the film. The other-worlders tremble, watching endless xenophobia re-runs from our B-movies – aliens squashed, burned alive, obliterated, or simply shot. Strange cultures from other worlds had come to kill us or they were aberrations to be feared.
The irony of this observation was that this was an 80’s movie, and by the late 70’s and 80’s, there was a shift: Friendly aliens were the new norm, beginning with blockbusters like Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977 to the unforgettable E.T. in 1982, moving on to a bittersweet Starman and Cocoon in 1984. Even smaller films like Mac and Me (1987), and unabashed E.T. rip-off, the goofy My Stepmother is An Alien (1988), and the bizarre Earth Girls Are Easy (1988) all depicted strange, but ultimately friendly alien personalities.
Sure, there were still the hostile depictions, such as Aliens (1986), Predator (1987), but the whole zeitgeist had changed. Xenophobia was no longer the norm. Aliens could just as easily be friendly and curious. Going to see a movie with extraterrestrials no longer automatically meant an attack on our lives, our country, or our God.
America was ready for the Cold War to end, and the aliens in our movies reflected this.
Fast-forward to 2011. As I sat, watching another trailer for a film about hostile alien invasion, I sadly concluded that we have returned to another paranoid era of our culture. The events of 9/11 were politically polarizing, and the relics of fear and xenophobia have returned.
The following five movies paint a dark picture of who we are based on how we fantasize about aliens.
SIGNS – 2002
Signs is a smaller story about alien invasion. Where other writers and directors would focus on the spectacle of the invasion itself, this story is a far more intimate tale from the point of view of a family, led by its lone patriarch (Mel Gibson), living on a farm in the Midwest as the alien invasion occurs.
The creatures here are mostly unseen until the end, yet their presence is everywhere. What begins as strange “crop circles” pressed into the corn escalates to eerie noises on the airwaves, ethereal lights in the sky, and things that literally “go bump in the night.” The creepy violins from the outset tell us immediately…they are here, they are unsettling, and they are to be feared.
The theme penetrates: When the aliens come to destroy us for our resources, we must rely on family and faith in the greater plan. And then kill them all.
WAR OF THE WORLDS – 2005
Tom Cruise plays a single father taking care of his kids for the weekend when the giant alien robots arrive to destroy us all. It’s similar to Signs in that it keeps its point of view through the family’s eyes, though it is a much bigger spectacle.
By the time the gargantuan alien machines rise from the earth, people don’t have a chance. Humans are not just killed; they are obliterated into ashes or imprisoned and liquefied. The earth itself is transformed as the aliens change the chemistry of the landscape using the blood of humans they have collected. Military resistance is sporadic and useless, and whole cities are laid to waste.
Early in the film, a giant bridge in Boston is destroyed as the father’s car speeds away from the chaos, his two kids in tow. “Is it the terrorists?” Dakota Fanning’s character asks. It is an obvious tip to our collective paranoia as this film conveys our worse fears about terrorism manifested: complete breakdown of the infrastructure of society and anarchic mob rule for the survivors.
The message is clear. When they come, it is to exterminate us.
CLOVERFIELD – 2008
A man films a going away party for his friend in New York as a giant alien attacks the city. If the plot sounds thin, it’s because it is. This is mostly about the chaos from the point of view of the cameraman, and we see what’s happening through his eyes.
It’s the first alien invasion movie done in the first person, which isn’t for everyone. But it does accomplish something key – most of the terror is from the confusion of not quite knowing what’s happening or why, rather than from seeing the monster itself.
It’s the alien-monster movie for the YouTube generation. When the invasion comes, film it. But the point is the same as its relative movies from the 50’s: alien creatures are here to destroy us, and whatever we do to defend ourselves will be largely useless.
DISTRICT 9 – 2009
(Spoilers) Full disclosure – I love this film.
Shot in the style of a kitchen sink documentary, it asks “What would happen if aliens showed up here, really?”
When a lone extraterrestrial ship runs out of gas and parks in the sky over Johannesburg, South Africa, the governments of the world quickly quarantine the area and attempt to take care of the extraterrestrial survivors. What begins as a diplomatic mission quickly deteriorates into a refugee camp, where our alien “guests” live in the most desperate and squalid conditions while the military attempts to reverse engineer their bio-weapons technology. When our “hero”, a government official, becomes infected, slowly starting to become one of the aliens, we see his viewpoint shift from “occupier” to “occupied.” It is a brutal transition.
At its most disturbing, it shows us a depiction of human nature we know to be true because we have seen it so often before. If this really happened, the military would try to obtain the weapons technology. The quarantined refugees would become pariahs. The desperate aliens would turn on themselves. Those aren’t just extraterrestrials. They represent every refugee population that has ever been oppressed. They represent what we do to our own people.
An early moment in the film shows a black man holding up a sign that reads “Aliens go home.” The fact that a victim of apartheid in South Africa can’t even recognize the plight of the visitors is a sore indictment of who we are.
The lesson? We are the monsters and differences we don’t understand must be contained.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES – 2011
I’ve saved the worst for last. Marginally better than Skyline (a dreadful outing that I won’t waste time on here) Battle: Los Angeles describes the military’s last stand in Los Angeles against a brutal invading force from beyond the planet.
In a plot that seems mostly ripped from a video game, our hero, a sergeant in the U.S. Army (Aaron Eckhart), leads his platoon in a desperate effort to evacuate survivors and strike back at the heart of the alien menace.
It’s a boring exercise of CGI battle after battle, as the heroes string up a set of unlikely victories against a technologically superior force.
This film’s message appears simply to be that the military will save us. Oh, and aliens, once again, are here to kill us and take our resources.
These are a select few, but there are others. Battlefield Earth, Skyline, and The Day the Earth Stood Still were not only terrible, but also box office failures that the public largely rejected. I think it’s safe to say they don’t really represent the zeitgeist of the times.
There is another movie worth mentioning: Monsters (2010), a terrific film that nobody bothered to see. Again, though the film is a thoughtful meditation on the alienation of lost souls, it is more about our own emotional isolation than the xenophobia of alien races.
As we move forward into multiple crises here in the real world, I expect our alien invasion movies to evolve accordingly. Unfortunately, it looks like the last decade was dominated by fear, suspicion, and malice.
I hope the latest from J.J. Abrams, Super 8, will be the start of a new trend. Though the alien isn’t exactly friendly, it is not here to destroy us either. The story told through the innocence of kids living in the 80’s is a refreshing change and might be an indicator that all this fear has exhausted us and that we are ready to see something new. We may be ready to evolve into a new narrative about extraterrestrials.
Hope springs eternal – and also makes the best movies.