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Keep Watching the Skies!

A short history of alien invasion movies

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 (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”).

Some are defeated by bacteria (“The War of the Worlds”), others are averse to cold or water (“The Arrival”; “Signs”), while one species, in a much-mocked incident, could travel the galaxy but couldn't deal with a simple computer virus (“Independence Day”).

They are aliens who come to earth, and the type we get tends to coincide with our current feelings about foreigners: benevolent aliens during times of peace, ferocious aliens during periods of xenophobia.

Just look at the granddaddy of alien invasion stories: H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” It was first published during the saber-rattling before World War I. A generation later, as the world braced for World War II, a radio adaptation by Orson Welles panicked east-coast listeners. 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 and shifted the focus from “this world” to “this country.” 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: Red Scare
The biggest wave of alien invasion movies occurred between the rise of Joe McCarthy in 1950 and the launching of Sputnik and the space race in 1957. Politically, things were paranoid and repressive; yet while these films certainly play upon our anti-communist paranoias they rarely buy into them. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) for example, Mrs. Barley (Frances Bavier—Aunt Bee from “The Andy Griffith Show”) looks the fool when she says 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 “Invaders from Mars” (1953) aliens are afraid what will happen when we take atomic energy into space. In “It Came from Outer Space” (1953) 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 cop asks the film’s protagonist, John Putnam (John Carlson), a star-gazing writer. “Because what we don’t understand, we want to destroy,” Putnam responds in what amounts to the film’s lesson.

Sure, most of these movies are dated. That’s part of the fun: the hokey rubber masks, the strange pronunciations (“MUTE-ants”), the convoluted nomenclature (“an indefinitely indexed memory bank” for “computer”), the fact that every other protagonist is a pipe-smoking scientist. But there are joys beyond the ironic. “The Thing from Another World” (1951) 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” (1956) are light years ahead of its time. Of course, Don Siegel’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1956) is a classic, in which the movie’s set-up, neighbors turning overnight into emotionless vegetables—can be seen as a metaphor for Soviet communism or U.S. conformity or even the Hollywood blacklist.

Even the crappiest of these movies have moments that inform our own time. In “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers,” when the pipe-smoking scientist wonders why the aliens, with their superior technology, don’t just take over, the alien responds:

Despite our power, the few of us would be busy indefinitely trying to suppress a large, hostile population. In the end, we would be masters of a wrecked and hungry planet.

Aliens are rarely just aliens.

The Second Wave: Gods and Lost Children
Just as quickly as they appeared, alien invasion movies—poof!—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. A great sociological study could be made of this gap. Did we become less paranoid of outsiders? Did we become more fascinated with our own star treks (Mercury, Apollo, U.S.S. Enterprise) to be concerned with the treks of others here?

Moreover, when aliens did return to earth in the 1970s, during an era of U.S.-Soviet detente, they were almost entirely benevolent. It’s a jolt watching “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977) 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 air-force pilots and small children. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!

The benevolent aliens from this period can be divided into two groups: the crash-landers (“The Man Who Fell to Earth” ( 1976), “E.T.” (1982), and “Starman” (1984)), and the gods (“Close Encounters,” “Cocoon,” (1985), and “Contact” (1997)).

The crash-landers are essentially lost children who, like children everywhere, want to go home and watch TV. The man who fell to earth (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 Hollywood films—“The Quiet Man” and “From Here to Eternity,” respectively—which teach each alien about love. Awwww. 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 is imminent; dissection is implied. Go, E.T., go! Run, Starman, run!

Maybe this is the reason those other aliens, the gods, rarely land. They simply hover in their big, bright ships and grant the stars of the picture what they need: Richard Dreyfuss a purpose, Don Ameche youth, Jodie Foster a father. Awe accompanies their appearance. In their presence, we are the children, once lost, now found.

The Third Wave: Camp, a Reaction to the First Wave
Detente between the U.S. and Soviet Union may have ended with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, but “evil empire” rhetoric never really translated into paranoia on our screens. If anything, alien invasion movies became jokey and campy, mocking their 1950s predecessors with titles like “Killer Klowns from Outer Space” and “Earth Girls are Easy.” In John Carpenter’s “They Live,” the aliens are actually 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.

The jokes continued throughout the 1990s but weren’t particularly funny or representative. “Mars Attacks!” was based upon 1960s trading cards and reflected, more than our odd times, Tim Burton’s odd sensibility. “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 2001 anthrax scare, who thought experimenting on U.S. soldiers with anthrax 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 celebrities. Movie aliens, after all, tend to represent what we fear and can’t explain. In the 1950s it was Nikita Khrushchev. In the 2000s, Michael Jackson.

The Fourth Wave, Bad Motherf***ers: a Reaction to the Second Wave
All this time, evil aliens never completely went away. 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”? Because suddenly that complexity disappeared and we got three all-out alien assaults on our planet: the aforementioned dark giddiness of “Mars Attacks!”; Charlie Sheen’s paranoid thriller, “The Arrival”; and the biggest and baddest of them all...


“Independence Day” was less a return to paranoid 1950s movies than a reactionary response to the Pollyanna vision of Spielberg. Those awe-struck people at Devil’s Tower playing their five-note song of greeting in “Close Encounters”? They’re the first to get fried in “I.D.” Even the plaque the Apollo 11 astronauts left on the moon, and signed by Pres. Richard Nixon, of all presidents, is called into question. It’s shown at the beginning of the film and reads: “Here men from the Planet Earth first set foot upon the moon. July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.” Then the dark shadow of an invading alien army falls upon it. In peace. Saps! Hippies!

Look at the way one phrase is uttered. In “Starman,” Charles Martin Smith views the clean room where our government plans to dissect Jeff Bridges and shakes his head sadly. “Welcome to Earth,” he says. Bummer, dude. In “Independence Day,” Will Smith shoots down an evil alien ship, the first indication that we can take them down, runs over to it and cold-cocks the slimy thing inside. “Welcome to Earth,” he says, then sits down and lights a triumphant cigar. Wooooo! We rock!

That’s ultimately what “Independence Day” offered us: Less Bummer, dude and more We rock!

The Fifth Wave: Post-9/11
9/11 changed everything but the immediate reaction from Hollywood was muted. Invasions, when they came, came small and dark. In “Dreamcatcher,” the invasion is limited to the Maine woods, in “Alien vs. Predator,” the alien (and the predator) never get out of Antarctica. The all-out invasion in “Signs” is as surreptitious as a Bigfoot sighting. Are they there? Is that really them? Even when Steven Spielberg—of all directors—made his grainy remake of “The War of the Worlds,” it felt less than global. What a shock, at the end, to find Boston neighborhoods untouched.

Or did 9/11 change anything? The same battles rage as raged before. Do aliens have more to fear from us (“District 9”) or we from them (“Skyline”)? The camp component hasn’t died (“Cowboys vs. Aliens”). Lost children still arrive, though they’re hardly children anymore (“Super 8”). Metaphors abound: aliens as advanced weaponry (“Transformers”), as an oppressed minority (“District 9”), as the U.S. in Iraq (“Battle: Los Angeles”).

Alien invasion movies really turn on the most basic of human reactions: How do you greet a stranger? With a smile or a frown? With an open hand or a closed one? Whatever our response, it’s often a corollary to the Golden Rule: We expect others to treat us as we treat them. Which is why the scientists in these films tend to be curious while the military men are combative.

History, sadly, 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 of America. Even in our most paranoid moments—in the 1950s, in the 2000s—we are still what we fear.

—Erik Lundegaard is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. But he’s got lots of bubblegum.

—originally published, in slightly different form, on MSNBC.com, July 2007