We’ve always wondered what could possibly be out there. Even centuries ago, when humanity could only dream of floating in the zero gravity of outer space, stories were being written of the far reaches of space and what could be out there waiting. Or possibly what could be coming here.
Alien invasion stories initially started as intellectual exercises. In the eighteenth century, Voltaire and Jonathan Swift both included extra-terrestrial alien species in their fictional works. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels included an Atlantis-like civilization living on a floating island called Laputa, which was the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky.
This long history of aliens come to earth blossomed in the Sci-Fi fiction of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s from authors like H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Jules Verne. and later 20th-century authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Finney, and Robert A. Heinlein. Many of these authors would have their stories adapted into movies as the art of cinema and practical effects allowed for these stories to be made reality on-screen.
With Independence Day: Resurgence coming to theaters this weekend, it is fitting to talk about the best of these movies, which include some of the aforementioned authors’ stories adapted to the big screen. From the early days of cinema to new classics, we take a look at the best of alien invasion movies.
You haven no idea how hard it was to find a decent photo to go along with this description that would not have activated a gag reflex. James Gunn’s 2006 film Slither majors on a mix of slimy, gross effects and dark humor. Taking many elements of B-movie horror, Gunn got his start in the business writing for Troma Entertainment, as well as mixing homages to John Carpenter and other 80’s horror and classic horror films like The Blob and Night of the Living Dead.
While the movie is firmly grounded in Gunn’s B-movie roots, there is a level of sophisticated writing and filmmaking most B-movie horror lacks. Combined with Gunn’s clever dialogue and sharp one-liners, main leads Elizabeth Banks and Nathan Fillion carry the movie’s very simple plot. Fillion plays his role as Police Chief Pardy like Mal from Firefly, with a capable confidence, a witty edge, and a secret love for Elizabeth Bank’s Starla that reminds us of Mal’s obvious but unspoken affection for Inara. Banks, as I have come to realize of all her performances, is brilliant as the other lead. She’s the rock solid soul of Gunn’s movie and a reluctant but adept heroine. And, of course, Michael Rooker is a fabulous Southern dolt turned psychotic alien killer. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll need a puke bucket.
It is incredibly uncommon to have a movie’s remake be as good or slightly better than the movie it remade. Sci-Fi movies are often remade for a new generation and utilize new practical and CGI effects. Such was the case when Jack Finney’s classic story, The Body Snatchers, was remade in 1978 after already having been a critical success when adapted to the big screen in 1956. It has widely been regarded as one of the best remakes of a movie, ever.
The 1978 version is notable for utilizing many practical effects as well as embracing a darker, scarier horror premise than the previous movie. Also, it explores many of the themes absent in the first movie but present in Finney’s novel. More than anything else, it’s scariness is palatable and expertly done through amazing camerawork and genius sound design and effects. On top of all that, it’s cast of Donald Sutherland, Leonard Nimoy, and Jeff Goldblum mixes the old Sci-Fi with the new Sci-Fi. Nimoy was already a star and recognizable face from Star Trek and likewise Sutherland from TV and movies. Goldblum, however, was a relatively new face, who would go on to star in Sci-Fi classics like The Fly, Independence Day, and a little movie called Jurassic Park. Very cool to see him in an early film and looking so young and pre-Goldbluming.
3) The Thing
Continuing the trend of Sci-Fi/Horror movies on this list, John Carpenter’s 1982 movie is both a remake, an homage, and the standard for all Sci-Fi/Horror movies. Starring Kurt Russell as the hero with a flamethrower, he battles his way through this story that is equally a psychological thriller. Carpenter uses silence, sound design, and a score from the legendary Ennio Morricone to heighten the tension and amp up the horrific moments. The biggest and scariest moments are never the reveals of the monster but always the build up. When we see “The Thing”, an alien being released from his icy resting place in the Arctic, it is less scary than it is repulsive and awful to behold.
Carpenter has always been reticent to give a lot of meaning to his films, but The Thing is one of the easier of his movies to wrap a true meaning around. The characters struggle to trust one another as they try to uncover who is masking as “The Thing”, and the psychological aspects bring their worst tendencies to the surface. It speaks to the madness of humanity to believe the worst in people, but also explores the will to survive in a character like Russell. Another fabulous aspect of Carpenter’s movies is it fails to fall into the normal tropes of B-movie exploitation horror of the time. A true classic that has inspired so much after it, it is a shame it falls outside the purview of our Reviewing the Classics guidelines, having come out in 1982. Maybe in five years we can tackle this movie on RTC or maybe it could be an episode of Rewind. Paging Blaine Grimes!
An alien invasion movie with heart and a message, Attack the Block is a little-seen gem from British director Joe Cornish and featuring a lot of young, British actors making their movie debuts, including future Star Wars star John Boyega. Boyega plays the leader of a group of street toughs in the South London apartment block called “The Ends”, who must defend their turf from a species of invading aliens that are kind of like a “wolf/gorilla” as one of the characters describes them.
While much of Sci-Fi can dabble in a deeper message, Attack the Block tackles newer territory. It assaults preconceived cinematic tropes of black teens, helpless white female victims, and what he expect our heroes to look like. What I love about the movie is how it can have fun, throw in some action and well-shot scary moments, and also speak deeply about racism, social injustice, crime, and how we perceive youth. This invasion goes wholly unnoticed by police and adults and when they finally do appear, it is only to reinforce what greater society perceives about black youth and teens. I don’t want to ruin this if you haven’t seen it, so go see this movie and revel in its depth, fun, and adventure.
A cinematic classic I already looked at in a somewhat recent Reviewing the Classics, this movie is incredibly influential and cinematic perfection. Based on Harry Bates’ Sci-Fi short story, “Farewell to the Master”, it tells a familiar story, the greatest story, wrapped in an alien invasion motif. Think about this part taken from my review of the movie:
“Klaatu descend[s] from the heavens with a special mission to spare humanity, much the same way Jesus was incarnated into humanity with a mission to rescue humanity. Likewise, he takes the name John Carpenter, the same initials as Jesus Christ and the profession often associated with Jesus. As his mission unfolds, he befriends a woman and a young boy, much like Jesus befriended women and children during his ministry. He commends the faith and moral purity of a small child, has his mission completely misunderstood, and is killed by leading men in power. He rises again and the first witness to his resurrection is a woman, Helen. He delivers a commissioning to spread his message of peace and prosperity throughout all the earth, and then ascends back into heaven with the assurance if his message is not heeded, he will return to eliminate the planet.”
You would never think of Christ’s story as an alien invasion story, but it kind of is. In fact, Paul calls the Church “aliens” when referring to our life here on Earth. Robert Wise’s movie is one of the best examples we have of a non-Bible gospel story on Hollywood. That is why it sits at #1 on this list and is the best alien invasion story.