With Battle LA unleashed on Blu-Ray this week, Falling Skies debuting on UK TV last week and Super 8 due out in three weeks … I decided to gather together my Brains Trust and have a conversation about Alien Invasion Movies. It very quickly became obvious that there are more of them, and a wider variety of them, than you might at first think.
Firstly we found ourselves breaking them down into five sub-genres:
The Small Town Invaders: These invasions begin small in some hick town in the armpit of nowhere and begin to build a bridgehead that way.
The Worldwide Invaders: Often arrive more publicly and aren’t shy about landing on the White House lawn.
The Solo Invader: Arrives by itself, often by accident, but promises to take over the world eventually anyway.
The Friendly Invaders: Means us no harm and generally finds that the sentiment is not reciprocated and, finally,
We Are the Invaders: In this latter category, we humans are out of our comfort zone i.e. our home planet!
Then we realised that there are two distinct types of invader – Dumb and Smart. The Dumb Ones work purely on instinct, they aren’t plotting to overthrow the human race, they’re just doing whatever they do to survive and we happen to be in the way. The Smart Ones, they regard this Earth with envious eyes and slowly and surely dispatch a fleet of flying saucers to whup our collective ass. Some of the films fall into more than one category, of course, so I’ve listed them in the one I think they best represent.
So, here they are – The Top 25 Alien Invasion Movies, arranged by category:
Small Town Invasions:
There’s obviously something very powerful about this notion, since they can’t seem to stop remaking this film. The fear of the mid 50′s was of Communists in our communities (the reds under the bed) and that you couldn’t tell them apart from ‘us’. This tale of perfect, identical ‘clones’ grown in pods was to articulate that fear better than anything else.
The spores start off Dumb but, once they’ve seeded the pods, the pod-people are very smart and organised.
2: Village of the Damned (1960)
Based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos in which a mysterious silver UFO is seen in the village – an element actually missing from the film! This depicts an invasion from within as every woman in the village gives birth to an unearthly child. Without the novel’s UFO, the aliens are absent and it is left to the viewer’s interpretation whether or not this invasion came from outer space, but the children produced are preternaturally Smart!
3: The Mist (2007)
The invasion emanates from another dimension rather than outer space. As with many of those 50s monster movies which writer/director Frank Darabont so loves, military experiments create the problem – in this case by creating a doorway to another dimension. The spectacularly Dumb monsters that walk through it could hardly be more alien and, of course, they evoke the still unsettling spirit of H. P. Lovecraft.
4: Invaders from Mars (1953)
Released in vivid, garish colour, unusual for the time; in Invaders From Mars the aliens do mean us harm – they want to stop our atomic rockets before we can be a threat to them. Like The Wizard of Oz, this film is seen from a child’s perspective and ends with the ‘It Was All a Dream … Or Was It?’ ending.
5: Signs (2002)
Okay, so the invaders are Smart, but their plan for world domination … Galactically Dumb: They’re allergic to water … Earth is 75% water! Nevertheless, this film introduced the scary, paranoia-inducing alien invasion to a whole new generation.
1: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Unlike the original version, which hosted this attack on American values in a small, idealised town, this invasion takes place in the big city, with the industrialised production and distribution of pods clearly showing that it is actually world-wide. Leonard Nimoy proves once and for all that he isn’t Spock, by playing a coldly logical and emotionless pod person. The ending traumatised a generation!
2: War of the Worlds – (1953)
H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel wasn’t the first alien invasion, but it was the first of its kind and pretty much set the template for every smart invasion that followed. The George Pal-produced, Byron Haskin-directed 50′s film version boasts the most beautiful and original alien vehicles put on film (at least until Alien came along twenty-five years later) and includes the best sound effects ever. The special effects rightly won that year’s Oscar!
3: They Live – (1988)
Come on, say it with me: “I came here to chew bubble-gum …” … They Live is the most fun film in this countdown! This biting satire of American consumerism and corruption was released at the perfect moment – just as I was studying Sociology and becoming incurably cynical! The aliens are already here – and they already own yo’ ass!
Politically almost the binary opposite of They Live, this is the ultimate, wrapped-in-the-flag gung-ho pro-American movie but written and directed by a German! Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day brought back the disaster movie and the traditional 50’s-style invasion flick. It’s cheesy and preposterous and I still love it.
5: Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. (1966)
Well, it wins the award for having the most punctuation of any film title in this list. Its Blitz-like setting also gives what is unambiguously a children’s film a much darker edge, as the parents of the kids who watched it upon release would remember all-too-well when there was a real danger of Britain being crushed under a war machine. The Daleks might act Dumb, but this is an attempt at a smart invasion!
Honourable Mentions –
Superman II (1980) – Just ’cos it’s ACE!! And Kryptonians are aliens!
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – It is suggested that the dead start walking as a result of alien radiation coming from a satellite returning from Venus, a Dumb invader that makes us all equally dumb.
1: The Thing – (1982)
Many people consider this to be John Carpenter’s masterpiece. The ultimate Dumb Invader, The Thing behaves much like a viral infection, therefore the fact there is just one creature doesn’t mean it won’t reproduce and eventually consume all life on Earth. But it reckoned without Kurt Russell!
2: Predator (1987)
Initially derided as just another meat-head action movie, this film has grown in stature over the years. The Predator is here for the sport and, as is indicated in the later Predator 2 (1990), his kind have been here, picking fights, for quite some time. A very Smart Invader, this warrior picks his targets carefully, ignoring anyone who can’t give him a good fight.
3: 20 Million Miles to Earth – (1957)
Hatching from an egg brought back from Venus, the Ymir starts off as one of the cutest invaders ever, as it scuttles around on a desk-top but, as is the way with these things, it quickly begins to grow, eventually tearing apart The Coliseum in Rome. The Ymir is Ray Harryhausen’s first great animated creation, it does more than just destroy, it has its own characteristics and personality – unheard of in a movie monster at that time.
4: The Thing From Another World – (1951)
In this version (quite different to the original story and the later remake) the monster is a vegetable and, like many plants, the bits that are cut off plant seeds and reproduce. The paranoia of the age was reflected in this film’s conclusion that this solo invader was likely just the vanguard of a much bigger invasion force – summed-up in its now legendary last line of dialogue: “Keep watching the skies!”. Given the plethora of alien invasion films which followed, this was, in a way, right.
5: The Blob – (1988)
The original version was the first starring role for some young guy called Steve McQueen. This version was co-written by Frank Darabont and features some delightfully over-the-top gory effects. The invasion begins with a little meteorite cracking open and the titular substance leaking out and attacking people. It is another one of those Dumb aliens that consumes all in its path and grows as it does so.
Honourable Mentions –
The ‘Lonely Death of Jordy Verrill’ segment of Creepshow (1982) – Stephen King wrote and stars as the dim-witted farmer who finds “meteor shit” in a broken meteorite and inadvertently starts growing the wrong sort of grass.
The Hidden (1987) – This is a typical 80s action/cop film, with the added twist of the alien symbiote who takes control of various characters as it sees fit. The film does surprising well with an unpromising premise and cast.
Friendly (i.e.VERY Smart) Invasions:
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Now, if I had to take just one of these films as my Desert Island Alien Invasion movie … This would be it! Having recently re-watched my Blu-Ray, and sat through all three versions, I have fallen in love with it all over again. Y’know, this film is actually better than Star Wars! Shush. Don’t tell George. This is one of the very few alien invasion films that believes we humans may be mature enough to actually communicate with aliens, not simply try to nuke them. Sadly, Spielberg doesn’t seem to believe this himself any more.
2: The Abyss – (1989)
This was the film where James Cameron emerged as the most despotic, most visionary, most ambitious film director since C.B. DeMille. The crew took to wearing t-shirts proclaiming: ‘You can’t scare me, I work for Jim Cameron’. The film itself is a master-class in structuring an action/adventure movie. It has visuals unlike anything seen before or since and, at least in the full-length version, it actually makes sense! The only problem is that there is so much going on in the The Abyss, the aliens almost come across as an afterthought.
3: The Day The Earth Stood Still – (1951)
The second oldest film in this list (it was released about six months after The Thing From Another World) is also one of the calmest and most thoughtful. It is a film that acknowledges that science is the language with which we will most likely be able to communicate with other intelligences, but warns that that same science might be our undoing. It weaves in Christian symbolism with good old American values, a brilliant robot, an awe-inspiring musical score and a career-defining performance from Michael Rennie. Oh, and that catch-phrase: “Klaatu, barrata … ehm … neck-tie”!
4: It Came From Outer Space – (1953)
This film plays with the conventions of the fledgling genre quite early in its development. It is a rare early anti-war invasion movie. Here the aliens, whilst appearing malicious, are merely using the local humans to help them rebuild their spaceship so they can go home. Credit for that innovation must go, I feel, to the great Ray Bradbury who wrote the original treatment and, depending on who you believe, also provided the full script.
5: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial – (1982)
The ugly spud-faced guy with light fingers wasn’t invading deliberately, he was here to do a spot of gardening and got stranded and, in the process, helped a lonely kid deal with his parent’s divorce. The phenomenal, unprecedented success of this film pretty-much ruined Steven Spielberg for the next decade, as he became obsessed with seeing the world through children’s’ eyes. Not in a creepy serial killer way, you understand.
Honourable mentions –
The Fifth Element (1997) – Milla Jovovich’s Leeloominaï is, in many ways, just as innocent as ET (though, obviously, less spud-like) but she isn’t an alien so much as an alien device constructed to save the universe, pursued by an invading force of gruesome, big-eared Mangaloreans.
We Are The Invaders:
1: Quatermass and the Pit – (1967)
Standing in for any and all iterations of Quatermass, any one of which deserve places in various categories. Although I think this film version is slightly less impressive than the 1959 TV series on which it is based, it’s easier on the eye. It concerns an alien invasion that occurred five million years ago and resulted in what SF author David Brin calls ‘uplift’ of the human race from apes to humans. The influence the long-dead demonic Martians have over us shows that we haven’t evolved all that much in all those millennia.
2: 2001: A Space Odyssey – (1968)
Much like Quatermass, this film postulates, first, that we were visited way back in the mists of time by friendly aliens who uplifted us from apes to men. The film then proceeds to have us as the aliens, en route to meet those who helped us.
3: Solaris – (1971)
This film, something of a companion to 2001, tells of the ultimately futile attempts to communicate with an alien ocean, which is apparently sentient, but does not respond in a coherent way.
It is based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, who wrote often about failures of communication. Tarkovsky’s adaptation dwells more on Kris Kelvin’s developing ability to communicate with himself, to understand his own motives and emotions and come to terms with them. As with Quatermass and 2001, the Smart or Dumb status of the alien is unclear.
An extra-ordinary piece of film-making from MGM, the studio more at home producing frothy musicals. Forbidden Planet is as visually stunning as any made at the time. It also has some very disturbing ideas buried just below its surface – rather as the endless galleries of subterranean computers lie below the surface of Altair IV. As with Quatermass and 2001, these alien artefacts have been left by a long-departed or long-extinct alien civilisation. This technology unleashes the Disney-animated Id Monster – one of the most sophisticated monsters ever put on film. Like Solaris, this film uses outer space as a metaphor for the inner space of the human soul.
5: First Men in the Moon – (1964)
Made some five years before Man actually first put foot on the Moon, this film adaptation of H.G. Wells’ 1901 novel, scripted by Quatermass’ Nigel Kneale – is absolutely Imperial! Once again there is a lot going on beneath the surface of a Heavenly body, in this case Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Selenites. Once again communication between invaders (us) and invaded (them) breaks down and ends in violence. They start out relatively Dumb, but get wise to our violent ways pretty quickly!
Honourable mention –
Martian Chronicles – 1980 – This isn’t a movie at all, but a TV mini-series, based on Ray Bradbury’s Silver Locusts stories of man’s arrival on and occupation of Mars. We, of course, destroy their culture (and our own) and the series ends with Rock Hudson and family, stranded on Mars, with no Earth to fly back to, gazing at their reflection and realising that they have become The Martians.
And that’s it … This list doesn’t include every alien invasion film but, to my taste, they are the best or most significant. If I’ve missed any absolutely essential movies, I’ll rely on you to tell me.
Meanwhile: Thanks to my Brains Trust: Mark and Jason, Rose 3, Phyll, Other Mark, Dave, Howard, Andi, Chris, Steve, Sean and My Beloved, Linda.
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