Moviegoers have been pretty much obsessed with alien invasions since the early 1950s. Our love affair with the concept probably had its genesis in the infamous 1938 Orson Welles radio version of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but it took well over a decade for film producers to catch up. By the time the dust had settled on WWII, Hollywood special effects artists were finally catching up with the brilliant imaginations of science fiction writers—and since 1951 we’ve been treated to dozens of wildly different alien invasions.
In honor of the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 smash Independence Day, here’s a primer on the basics of alien invasion cinema. Just keep in mind that we’re talking about large-scale Earth-based invasions, so my apologies to the fans of Alien, Xtro and Predator. Maybe those monsters should have brought a few friends along.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)
It’s sort of sweet that our first big alien invasion movie was such a quietly thought-provoking rumination on the state of humanity and our place within a greater universe—mostly because the large majority of alien invasion movies are little more than flashy action flicks that don’t boast a whole lot in the subtext department. But this one does! It’s about a spaceman who comes to Earth to warn of us about our self-destructive nature—but of course the moment is ruined when a soldier opens fire, thereby proving the spaceman’s point in record time. Plus, there’s a giant robot!
IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953)
With names like Ray Bradbury and Jack Arnold attached to this adaptation, you might expect a slightly more scintillating piece of early 1950s science fiction cinema. Unfortunately, this one stands out as a rarely dry and simplistic addition to the subgenre. It’s about an alien invader who messes with human beings in slightly more creative ways than simply zapping or eating them, but it also takes a while to get to the good stuff.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
It only makes sense that one of the first and most popular alien invasion movies is an adaptation of a story that started it all, so here it is! Impressively dark yet colorfully presented, this Oscar-winning rendition of H.G. Wells’ beloved tale may stray from the source material in several key ways, but it does manage to retain the apocalyptic awe of the original. Plus it’s really creepy and the special effects are pretty damn stellar. And this was 1953 special effects! You know the plot by now: Aliens invade, aliens attack, aliens succumb to an oddly ironic nemesis.
INVADERS FROM MARS (1953)
Perhaps not as refined as its bigger-budgeted sci-fi movies, this one benefits from a suitably clever concept, some wacky alien creatures and an ominous vibe that one could suitably describe as “sci-fi / horror.” Or “horror / sci-fi.” Either works. Anyway, a young boy begins to suspect that his parents have been infected by some sort of alien virus—and guess what? He’s right.
EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956)
It’s all right there in the title!
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers has been adapted for the cinema four times so far, and while the 1978 rendition is my personal favorite, there’s no denying that Don Siegel’s original version is one of the most fascinating—not to mention unsettling—alien invasion stories we’ve ever seen. Whereas most alien invasions begin with spaceships and/or slimy aliens, this one starts off in much sneakier fashion: Alien vegetables basically generate a double while you sleep, suck you dry and then throw your body away! No violence necessary! If you’re new to the “Body Snatchers” movies, definitely take them in order. The basic premise lends itself remarkably well to (almost) any setting.
INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957)
Not a particularly great low-budget B-movie that surely played hundreds of drive-ins, but it earns a spot in the beginner’s guide for having an awesome title and an endearingly freaky alien monster.
THE BLOB (1958)
Almost as if in response to the stark and downright disturbing alien invasions of movies past, a few independent producers cooked up this “teen empowerment” sci-fi / horror mash-up that still holds up today as a mindlessly amusing B-movie matinee. And yes, it’s actually about a gigantic alien blob that devours anything it touches. The 1988 remake is also fun, but definitely start off with the original.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978)
Whereas the original movie version of The Body Snatchers worked as both a dark sci-fi story and an effective metaphor for the fears that ran rampant during the Red Scare, this effortlessly unsettling late-‘70s version works as a sly indictment and post-hippie America and the kooky self-help movements that popped up seemingly everywhere. But social commentary and clever subtext aside, this is one scary movie. Scarier than most full-bore horror movies, if it’s me you’re asking. Which you sort of are.
All you need to know is that this ambitious, insane, and endlessly watchable sci-fi / horror / action / romance(?) mash-up was directed by the man who gave us The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—and that it was based on a novel called Space Vampires. In some ways Lifeforce is a mess, and in others it’s a truly fascinating genre stew that, say what you will, is zero percent boring. Plus, I’ve bet you’ve never seen an alien invader who is quite a stunning as Mathilda May.
The low-budget answer to the big success of Gremlins should not have turned out quite this entertaining, but it did! If you’re looking for a movie about alien fuzzballs with razor-sharp teeth who attack a small town while trying to avoid some interstellar bounty hunters, then this is the one for you.
INVADERS FROM MARS (1986)
Fresh off the big-time flop known as Lifeforce (which we already established is awesome), Tobe Hooper reunited with Cannon Films to remake one of the more beloved sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s. Yep, the one where the kid is convinced that his parents are infected by aliens but nobody believes him. The remake boasts some cool casting choices (Louise Fletcher!) and some pretty solid creature effects, but I’ll stick with the original in this case.
THE BLOB (1988)
And I’ll stick with the remake on this one! Sure, the original Blob is a kooky American classic, but the remake is true blue 1980s horror through and through—right down to Kevin Dillon’s woefully distracting “business upfront, party backstage” hairstyle. Wow. Not only does the remake offer a big upgrade in the special effects department, but it also brings a bit of a military thriller vibe to the equation, and it’s frequently quite funny, albeit in a suitably dark and playful fashion. But ugh, that mullet.
CRITTERS 2: THE MAIN COURSE (1988)
They’re back! Of course they’re back. It was the 1980s; virtually everything that cut even a tiny profit got a sequel. (Kinda like today!) But fortunately for loyal young nerds like me, who bought tickets to just about anything, Critters 2 turned out to be quite the solid little follow-up. It’s more of the same, of course—tiny ravenous aliens invade a small town and cause all sorts of damage—but in true sequel fashion, everything just got ramped up a little crazier. I still have very fond memories of the giant Critter-ball sequence. The next two sequels weren’t so hot, although one of them does feature a very young Leonardo DiCaprio!
KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE (1988)
With a title like that, you know you’re in for something silly, but there’s a reason this low-budget, high-energy B-movie is so well-remembered, and that’s because there’s a lot of craft, creativity and cleverness to be found here. Not only is it a legitimately amusing parody of 1950s monster movies, but thanks to some truly remarkable special effects, Killer Klowns is actually a little bit scary, in an R-rated, early-stage Tim Burton sort of way, which only adds to the fun.
INDEPENDENCE DAY (1996)
By this point, with four decades of alien invasion stories to pick from, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day is pretty much just a mix tape of scenes, characters and ideas that we’ve seen in other movies. But it clearly struck a chord with audiences around the world, and now it’s generally accepted as the template for the whole subgenre. (A designation I’d give to War of the Worlds, but let’s not digress.) There’s not much of a plot, and even less in the way of 50s’-style subtext, but if you want to see a colorful ensemble contend with a massive array of alien invaders, then you probably already love this movie.
MARS ATTACKS! (1996)
It’s sometimes easy to forget that another alien invasion movie with a colorful ensemble and a wide array of alien invaders descended on theaters in 1996, but while Tim Burton’s irrepressibly goofy rendition of an alien apocalypse didn’t exactly blow the box office doors down, it has gone on to become a certifiable cult favorite. Based on a series of trading cards (yes, really), this B-movie parody is fairly inconsistent in the laughs department but earns a lot of credit for off-kilter ambition and lots of amusing eye candy.
While it may not stand up as one of M. Night Shyamalan’s best movies—I’d go with Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense, personally—alien invasion aficionados well certainly find a few moments to savor in this story of a family terrorized by, you guessed it, unhappy interstellar visitors. Well shot, beautifully scored and (occasionally) blood-curdling, the movie is almost undone by the unnecessary “twist” ending—but when the flick sticks to the aliens, it’s pretty damn creepy.
WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005)
If you’re going to go back to the classic alien invasion era and pick one for the remake treatment, you could do a hell of a lot worse than War of the Worlds. And just to make sure you get the job done right, you hire Steven Spielberg, the man who brought us Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, and was clearly very excited to present some aliens who weren’t so friendly and musically inclined. Spielberg’s visually stunning take on H.G. Wells’ classic tale does a fine job of combining the source material with a contemporary setting—and it may very well be the director’s scariest film since Jaws. As a horror fan, I call that a big plus.
THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (2008)
So of course they decided to remake this one too. Some of it works, some of it doesn’t, but kudos to the filmmakers for trying to bring some of their own ideas into a remake of a true-blue classic. I’ll take the giant robot’s weird new powers and few new action scenes over a slavishly carbon-copied remake. Plus, sue me: I’m a sucker for anything with Jennifer Connelly in it.
Check out this insane genre stew that starts out like a horror movie, promptly becomes an alien invasion story and then suddenly morphs into an action-filled comic book that goes to some truly insane places. Not saying it’s a great film (it’s not), but it is pretty fun to sit through. And get this: The sequel is almost finished! Seriously!
ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011)
Leave it to the indie filmmakers to jolt some new life into a well-worn premise. This highly energetic UK import was a sensation on the festival circuit and has gone on to become a big-time favorite among sci-fi / horror fans across the globe. It’s about of bored teenage troublemakers who show their true colors when their neighborhood is besieged by a legion of freaky alien creatures. The score is great, the cast is aces, and you just can’t beat a clever action / sci-fi / horror / combo that all but refuses to slow down to take a breath.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES (2011)
Aliens invade Los Angeles. Soldiers fight back. Plays a lot like the story sequences that pop up between the levels of a first-person shooter video game. Nifty special effects help a lot, but plot-wise this is about as generic as the most forgettable 1956 B-movie.
PACIFIC RIM (2013)
Not all alien invasions come from outer space! Sometimes they come from… other dimensions that are only accessible by navigating the ocean floor. Anyway that’s not all that important. What is important is that these aliens are truly super-sized, cause all sorts of mayhem, and can only be stopped by equally super-sized robots that are piloted by human beings. Got that? Good. Just sit back and enjoy the high-end brain candy, because we’ve never seen a cinematic alien invasion quite like this one.
EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014)
Whether you focus mainly on the film’s clever premise, the copious action sequences or the flawless face of Emily Blunt, one thing seems certain: Everyone who has seen Edge of Tomorrow loves it and agrees that it should have made more money at the box office. Not only is it one of the more original alien invasion stories out there, but it’s also laden with smart ideas, cool dialogue, stunning special effects and, yes, tons of bad-ass action. Call it a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day if you like, but it’s still a great piece of genre cinema.
INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE (2016)
The biggest alien invasion movie of all time has finally spawned a sequel! Does it measure up to the original? TBD! Returning star Jeff Goldblum seems to think so, and he’s one smooth mf.
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