erik lundegaard

A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies: Intro

I first wrote about this in 2007. In the wake of “Super 8,” it feels worth revisiting...

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.

Tomorrow: The first wave: Red scare

poster for "War of the Worlds" (1953)


Posted at 09:20 AM on Wed. Jun 15, 2011 in category Movies  
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