Sometimes they are benevolent visitors. Sometimes they come in peace, to aid mankind in our hour of need and help us overcome our struggles. Sometimes. Most of the time, however, they come to kick our ass, steal our resources and breed with our females. Yes, those aliens are rarely here for the good of anyone but themselves. More often than not they are just intergalactic hoodlums and Earth is the bar they choose to pick a fight in. Probably because the human race is so willing to oblige them.
With the recent release of both Monsters (reviewed on this site) and Skyline, the alien invasion movie is enjoying a spell of popularity. So, I tip my hat to the genre and present my list of the ten best it has to offer. Die, alien scum!
10. Independence Day
Roland Emmerich’s first exercise in monument pounding has arguably some of the worst dialogue in summer blockbuster history, but it more than compensates with its on-screen carnage. These visitors don’t even say hello before calmly giving the planet both barrels. Luckily, our fair globe has three lines of plucky defence. We have Will Smith, to see them all off with his smug wise-cracks. We have Bill Pullman, a US President who doesn’t carry on listening to kids read a story when trouble hits. And we have Jeff Goldblum, who is able to upload a virus to an entire alien computer system using just his laptop and a pair of ‘I Am Super-Smart’ glasses.
Great invasion movie, but if you’re looking for gritty realism and convincing plot developments, look elsewhere.
The alien invasion movie that doesn’t actually show you the alien invasion. Inspired! Budget friendly! And thanks to the now increasingly dwindling skills of director M. Night Shayalaman, it works beautifully. The invasion itself is set in place as a backdrop to the story of widowed Reverend Mel Gibson’s crisis of faith. The aliens are rarely seen, and their presence on a global scale is made known only through TV broadcasts. It’s a neat approach, and Signs features Gibson’s last great performance before he, too, was invaded by aliens.
Just try to ignore the basic premise that a group of extra-terrestrials who are fatally allergic to water plan to invade a planet which is 70% covered in the stuff. Dumb asses.
8. Killer Klowns from Outer Space
As dumb as it sounds, but a total hoot from beginning to end. Special effects trio The Chiodo Brothers brought us this singular tale of an American town invaded by aliens who look like…clowns! Yes! Landing in their Big Top shaped spacecraft, the malevolent harlequins set about harvesting the inhabitants for food, cocooning them in cotton candy, liquidising them and then drinking them through huge straws. Armed with such deadly weapons as killer shadow puppets, rabid balloon animals and brightly coloured ray guns, the clowns seem unstoppable. But they have a weakness. A big, red weakness in the middle of their faces.
Sophisticated, high-brow filmmaking this is not, but Killer Klowns from Outer Space has a rare, anarchic imagination.
7. District 9
The passive alien invasion, and allegory for any race of people who find themselves unwelcome in a foreign land. These aliens come to Johannesburg…and just don’t leave. Segregated into their own ramshackle part of the town and referred to as ‘prawns’ by the indigenous population, they are only a threat in the paranoid imaginations of the humans. Director Neill Blomkamp and lead actor Sharlto Copley deliver a well-observed, cutting, but thoroughly entertaining examination of the human capacity to loathe what it doesn’t understand.
One of the more successful uses of the ‘mockumentary’ style, District 9 is a lot of fun. And the prawns themselves, thanks to New Zealand based FX company Weta, are strangely sympathetic.
6. Men in Black
Not only are the aliens coming, they’re already here, have been for years and someone needs to keep an eye on them. Cue deadpan veteran Tommy Lee Jones and livepan new recruit Will Smith (yep, him again) as the titular Men in Black. Like the CIA for alien visitors. This is the kind of movie that could have been truly awful, but thanks to the light touch of director Barry Sonnenfeld, his two leads and a fantastic supporting cast, the alien invasion movie has rarely been so much fun.
Playing on popular stories among UFO conspiracy theorists of shadowy government figures, it’s possible the whole project was part of a government plot to hide the true existence of shadowy government figures. And aliens. Probably.
5. They Live
The first of two from director John Carpenter, They Live was arguably the last of Carpenter’s great movies. Released in 1988, at the end of a decade which celebrated greed and the accumilation of wealth, the movie sees an out-of-work drifter inadvertently discover that the ruling elite of America are aliens. Disguising themselves by manipulating humans through broadcast signals and subliminal messages, the aliens encourage a culture of ruthless aspiration designed to turn humanity upon itself, preparing the way for an easy invasion. Sound far-fetched? No, I didn’t think so either.
Carpenter’s dialogue isn’t always the best, but any movie that contains the line, ‘I have come here to chew bubble-gum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubble-gum,’ is a winner.
4. The War of the Worlds
The first movie adaptation of H.G. Wells’ classic book, which in turn was the first piece of alien invasion fiction, Byron Haskin’s movie deviated greatly from the source material. Out went the tripod machines, replaced by floating ships which looked a bit like green coat hangers. Cooler than they sound, trust me. The aliens are just as ruthless and relentless as Wells intended, however, bringing destruction to the world with their unstoppable and diabolical death rays. Is there any other kind?
Steven Spielberg brought his own considerable talents to the story in 2005, also straying from Wells’ original, but this first attempt still stands as a spectacular piece of science fiction from an earlier age of fantastic cinema.
3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Jack Finney’s original novel The Body Snatchers has been filmed a total of four times, with several looser adaptations along the way, but Philip Kaufman’s version is by far the best. A dark, brooding exercise in paranoia, Kaufman squeezes every last drop of fear and melancholy from Finney’s source material. As aliens invade us by the simple act of becoming us and disposing of us while we sleep, Donald Sutherland and a small group of survivors struggle to find a way out, the odds against them increasing by the hour. You don’t have to be a narrative expert to know it’s not going to end well.
As if the premise itself isn’t scary enough, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is filled with macabre imaginary. Look out for the dog. And the closing scene will stay with you for a long time.
2. The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still is possibly the first great alien invasion movie, rising above the B-movie fare of its time with a premise and an agenda that demands to be taken a little more seriously. When a flying saucer lands in President’s Park, Washington, the sole occupant, a man called Klaatu, emerges and tells the people of Earth that unless they mend their violent ways they will be eliminated. Backing him up is a big-ass robot called Gort. This is an alien who hasn’t come to kick our ass. He’s come to spank it.
Smarter than the average invasion movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still was remade to disastrous effect in 2008 with Keanu Reeves. Believe it or not, he didn’t play the robot.
1. The Thing
John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World is essentially a more faithful adaptation of the original source material, the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. Similar in theme to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien invader is an organism which can overcome and imitate anyone. Infiltrating an American research station in the Antarctic, the alien picks off the 10-man team, one-by-one, leaving the survivors mistrustful and increasingly paranoid. Featuring some of the best live-action special effects ever seen, The Thing is a complete master class in taught, streamlined storytelling.
How next year’s prequel will measure up to this classic remains to be seen, but it will have to work hard. Other attempts to remake Carpenter have left expectations on the floor.