[17 March 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The aliens are coming! The aliens are coming! Actually, they’re already here. This weekend (18 March), Greg Mottola and writers/stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are bringing Paul, their geek ET comedy, to big screens nationwide, while just seven days before, Marine officer Aaron Eckhart and his ragtag group of grunts tried to save California in an epic Battle: Los Angeles. As long as there have been Halloween radio broadcasts, there has been media talk of invading spacemen and the destruction they leave in their interstellar path. Cinema has long championed the alien overthrow, using the concept for everything from comedy to commentary, action to awkward cautionary tales. Of the dozens directed at drive-ins and theaters around the world, few made the grade. The good ones stand out. The subpar simply drift off into the stratosphere.
One title destined to slip the bonds of this planet and pass into infamy, 2010’s Skyline, is about to make its debut on DVD and Blu-ray (available: 22 March), and it got the staff at SE&L thinking… what are the best alien invasion movies of all time? What war of the worlds got us thinking about the fate of the planet, and our precarious place among the others? In compiling this list, we did make a few conscious decisions. First, we discounted any movie where the confront occurred while airborne or off planet (this leaves out titles such as Alien, Aliens, and the like). We also restricted our choices to films where the outer space clash (or infestation of same) was the most important plot part. Finally, this is all a matter of opinion, though one has to admit that, when taking a look at all the possible entries, many are pretty poor.
So, in ascending order, we present the Top 10 Alien Invasion Films of All Time, beginning with one that few remember:
The forgotten film in both Kevin Williamson and Robert Rodriguez’s creative oeuvre finds a bunch of Ohio high school students forming a “resistance” of sorts against an alien parasite infecting their teachers. Perhaps best known for the cast of then unknowns (including Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, and Jordana Brewster) accompanied by a group of genre vets (including Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, and Famke Janssen), it remains a honorable homage to the invasion schlock of the past.
Tobe Hooper still complains about this muddled mess of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires, though many would argue that it was his approach, not eventual studio meddling, that’s the culprit. After all, rumors of cost overruns and scheduling issues meant that many scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or were never filmed at all. Still, this is a novel little bit of Nosferatu, an extraterrestrial soul sucker running stark naked throughout London, draining victims of the vital bodily… essence.
Okay, okay, the screenplay is a series of cloying coincidences, and once the alien appears on the Hess farm, all bets are off. Still, considering the unique style employed (an all out ET apocalypse viewed from the POV of a tiny town and the one horse residents within) and the skill shown directorial, this is a lot of sci-fi fun. Shyamalan does show ‘signs’ of fading here, but not as fast as with the hilarious hackwork of The Village.
Leave it to the “real” Spielberg to show the wannabe king of the blockbusters how it is done. Again, a similar approach to Signs is utilized (invasion via one particular family’s fate) and yet the man who made his name telling us to ‘watch the skies’ in the mid ‘70s is now just as scared of an attack on American soil as the citizenry was/is. While the 9/11 allusions are obvious, they aren’t overdone, resulting in a realistic and horrific experience.
If Irwin Allen were a Goth oddball and had access to Warner Brothers infinite financial backing, he may have made a star studded space case clash as goofy and enjoyable as this one. Tim Burton took all his Batman commercial cred, lined up a bunch of A-list buddies, and then spent all his time focusing on the freakish little green men. It’s superbly silly, only undermined by coming out six months after the skyrocket success of a certain Roland Emmerich effort.
The original focused on the growing threat from Commie weary government factions. The update moved everything to the Me Decade desires of the ‘70s and the self-help capital of Northern California. Steeped in the cynicism of the time and updating the premise to employ a more eco-conscious calling, the remake did a great job of both upping the alien-ation and anxiety factors. The final shot of Donald Sutherland remains as memorable as Kevin McCarthy’s call of ““You’re Next!”
John Carpenter jumps into the social commentary corral with this potent political satire and ends up scoring major humor hit points. Big ups for casting then wrestling sensation “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as his protagonist and staging an epic fistfight that’s since gone down in brazen B-movie history. The main narrative has America being brainwashed by class-conscious aliens using media-enhanced subliminal messages. Instead of battling with weapons, these ETs are using wits—and as usual, they are winning.
As he did with 2012, Roland Emmerich created the legitimate last word on silly, science fiction falderal. In between the flag waving and the character stereotyping, the eye-popping special effects and severe narrative flaws, we get the kind of extraterrestrial beat down our filmic forebearers could only dream of—that is, if their visions were filled with cliches, crude attempts at comedy, and a last act plot point that has even luddites laughing at its ludicrousness.
It’s amazing—in the span of almost thirty years, this remarkable movie has gone from geek show to cinematic classic. When it was released, John Carpenter’s gore-filled update of the ‘50s icon was slammed for being too focused on splatter and not enough on suspense. Today, it’s viewed as a viable statement on distrust and ballsy biological terror. All blood bathing aside, Rob Bottin’s make-up work is award worthy, and the entire production takes on a decidedly ominous tone.
There is an unusual amount of optimism in the original version of this story, a sense that mankind can come to its senses and stop its path toward self-destruction before Klaatu and his alien pals have to shut it all down… for good. This is the thoughtful version of the threat, the considered challenge between competing galaxies. Unlike the contemporary take which had to go overboard with the eye candy, this is food for the mind, not the brainless.