A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies: 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 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.