We’ve had killer klowns, pod people, and replicants. Earth has been overrun by predators, robots, and some manner of interstellar “vampire”. Ever since cavemen noticed unexplained lights in the sky and marveled at where they could possibly come from, folklore (and their modern equivalent, films) have speculated on the very stars above, wondering if they are inhabited and the intentions of said unseen space dwellers. Sadly, most of our narratives have focused on evil ETs, beings and their advanced technologies bent on taking over the entire galaxy - with our planet directly in their path. While we have had the occasional visionary variation, most of the time its saucers, lasers, and lots and lots of carnage.
The latest version of this cosmic campfire tale - the unscreened for critics Skyline - arrives in theaters on 12 November, and in celebration of said end of the world scenario, SE&L has decided to fashion a Top 10 list of the Alien Invasion Films. Of course, this is a matter of opinion, not rote reality, and your mileage/choices/appreciation will - and definitely should - vary. In a genre overrun with middling to mediocre examples, our picks are not necessarily endemic. Instead, we’ve chosen to focus on those films which tried something different - and on occasion, failed fabulously. We’ve also decided against numbering said entries, since position is a tangential issue at best.
So without further ado, here are our picks for the Top 10 Alien Invasion Films of All Time, beginning with a choice that will leave many dizzy and dumbfounded:
PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE
The ‘50s were overflowing with outer space schlock, and none were more mind-bogglingly bad than Ed Wood’s homage to all things extraterrestrial. Of course, the ‘aliens’ here are actually bad actors in shiny pant suits and their invasion idea consists of resurrecting the recently deceased and having them walk the Earth. Zombies as your conquering army? Sounds like a decent idea. Unfortunately, the space cases pick the elephantine Tor Johnson, Vampira, and a bad Bela Lugosi stand-in to do their dirty work. No wonder the previous eight plans didn’t succeed.
A planet of bugs manages to bring mankind to its knees, and it’s time for Earth to fight back. Working through generations of world at war propaganda and Nazi/fascism fantasy, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven tapped into a jingoistic zeitgeist growing in America and turned it on its head. The result is a schizophrenic splatterfest which seems to both denounce and support rampant militarism and misplaced patriotism. After being criticized heavily, the filmmaker fessed up, defending his defiant button pushing. With its amazing F/X and lingering larger themes, it stands as an entertaining and unusual action epic.
Tim Burton intended his comic take on the end of the world to be a combination of the famed Topps trading cards (which inspired the film) and a spoof of Irwin Allen type disaster movies. So he gathered up an all-star A-list cast - Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan - crafted some lovable, kooky CG Martians, and gave the whole thing a larger than life/Dr. Strangelove vibe. Then Independence Day arrived and stole all his spectacle thunder. What he was left with is still funky and funny, but just pales in comparison.
It’s a brilliant idea for a film - follow a supposed invasion of Earth from the viewpoint of a single small town family. This being M. Night Shyamalan, however, things have to go from clear cut to unnecessarily complicated. We get the fallen preacher, the fallen baseball player, the conspiracy theory kid with asthma, the dead mother, the little girl with a water fetish…it just goes on. Eventually, everything comes together way too conveniently, but few moments are as impactful as that first captured glimpse of an evil ET at a South American children’s birthday party.
WAR OF THE WORLDS
Take your pick - George Pal or Steven Spielberg: either one delivers on their individual HG Wells updates. For those who appreciate old school cinematic classicism, you can’t beat the fascinating ‘50s take, complete with the iconic flying saucers and triangle headed monsters. The man who gave UFO lovers hope with his seminal Close Encounters of the Third Kind tried a more grounded post-9/11 approach to the material, and delivered his usual blockbuster bravado. Either version avoids many of Wells’ dated ideas, instead going for destruction and human desperation.
John Carpenter had previously tackled “visitors” from outer space with his sweet, sentimental Starman. Two years later, fed up with Reaganomics and the obvious excesses of the ‘80s, the Halloween helmer took a short story by Ray Nelson and turned it into a dark comedy about the then current state of world affairs. The planet is now secretly run by extraterrestrials using subliminal messages and telepathetic brainwashing to get the human population to conform…and consume…and never complain. It’s up to a band of ragtag rebels to expose the truth. Brilliant.
Now we begin to push the boundaries of the cinematic concept. We assume that the oversized creature running ramshackle over Manhattan comes from outer space. After all, a last minute Easter Egg as part of the production shows our happy lead couple enjoying a day at the amusement park when some unusual object falls into the water off in the distance. Still, with its found footage conceits and expert mixing of reality and CG trickery, this remains one of the best Godzilla rip-offs ever, a nice post-modern update on a very old man-in-suit conceit.
While it definitely stretches the definition of an “invasion”, this look at how the world reacts to a sudden influx of cosmic immigrants is at times stunning in its social commentary elements and compelling in its standard sci-fi schemes. Using the mockdocumentary approach initially, we are introduced to the South African slum housing the unwanted and persecuted “prawns”. When a bumbling bureaucrat finds himself on the other end of the alien/human DNA stick, his adventures highlight everything from personal pain and loss to decades of unconscionable Apartheid policies.
Yes, the title creature actually comes to Earth looking to…escape? Cause trouble? Hide? Whatever the case, it arrived several eons too early, needing a 1980s scientific crew to dig it up, thaw it out, and…help it ‘adapt.’ Unfortunately, it winds up at an Arctic research station filled with the most paranoid personnel this side of the former Bush Administration. While many remember it as a gross-out Grand Guignol experience (or a splatter shocker deconstruction of the 1951 Howard Hawks film), it’s actually a tightly wound thriller, a shapeshifting villain picking off its snowbound captives one by one.
Sure, the characters are cardboard cut-outs of cliches salvaged from the second hand bin at Central Casting, and the last act computer virus angle is still confusing those who pay attention to such bothersome plot points. Still, nothing can beat Roland Emmerich’s visually flashy battle of the planets. While Earth is definitely on the losing end of most of the space-based spectacle (the initial arrival and White House explosion remain iconic), the best bits are reserved for the end, when all airplane/spaceship Area 51 alien reactor core Hell breaks loose.