A Short History of Alien Invasion Movies—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.