The most intriguing aspect of the sci-fi movie Arrival, which is released today and sees an alien species invite themselves to visit Earth without so much as a text message to say they’re on their way, is its tone of intellectual curiosity. The movie stars Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks, a specialist in linguistics, who is commissioned by the powers-that-be to find a way to communicate with the invaders in order to find out why they’re here and what they want.
It’s a far cry from the earliest incarnations of the alien invaders sci-fi, in which humanity tended to blast first and ask questions later. HG Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds set the tone when it was published in 1898, a breathless tale of a Martian invasion in which the intruders simply steamrollered the locals. The story is a perennial favourite, from Orson Welles’ infamous radio drama of 1938 to its first movie adaptation in 1953 and on to Steven Spielberg’s mega-budget remake starring Tom Cruise in 2005.
It’s a timeless narrative, in which the alien represents the time-honoured danger of the outsider, the unknowable threat looming from the impenetrable darkness beyond the flickering flames of tribal campfire.
It was during the post-WWII years, however, that the alien invader began to exert a powerful grip on the imaginations of film-makers. Developments in rocketry during the Second World War meant humanity could now look with some confidence to the skies; in theory, we were capable of visiting other worlds. The corollary of that theory, of course, was that the inhabitants of other worlds were also capable of visiting us — and in those times, such ‘visits’ were more likely to be considered a threat of destruction than a mutually beneficial meeting of minds.
The Thing (1950) is an early classic of its kind, in which scientists at a remote Arctic outpost discover a crashed spacecraft and thaw out its frozen alien, only to discover said alien is a murderous entity.
By contrast, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was a beacon of tolerance, as the alien Klaatu arrives to inform humanity it must learn to live in peace or be destroyed (unfortunately, humanity is already so paranoid and damaged by war it’s in no mood to listen).
A wave of movies similar to The Thing quickly followed: The War of the Worlds (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956), The Blob (1958), and the utterly bonkers Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers (1956) offered a subtler take on the theme of alien invasion, its story of humans being inhabited by aliens a response to the specific fear of ‘reds under the beds’ and US society being infiltrated by Communist spies from Russia.
For the most part, Klaatu’s message of intergalactic brotherly love was largely ignored: Aliens were monsters bent on destruction, and fire was met by fire.
The Cold War was still in deep freeze when a couple of alien invasion movies appeared to buck the trend. The former Ziggy Stardust, David Bowie, starred as The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), a surprisingly sympathetic alien who arrives on Earth in a desperate bid to rejuvenate his ailing planet back home.
Then came the real game-changer, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which humanity is justifiably cautious in its dealings with a recently arrived UFO, but gradually moves from a mood of terror and dread to one of hope and wonder. Aliens were no longer a threat per se; there was much to learn if only we had the tools to communicate with one another.
Spielberg returned to this theme in ET (1982), which featured the cuddliest alien of them all, giving ET a Christ-like aura to make the point that not all other-worldly visitors are a danger to humanity. That theme was taken up time and again in the following decades, as the viewer was invited to empathise with interstellar travellers in John Carpenter’s Starman (1984), Iain Softley’s K-Pax (2001), and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009).
The transition from war-war to jaw-jaw wasn’t exactly seamless, of course. While Spielberg & Co were preaching peace, love, and understanding between alien races, Arnold Schwarzenegger was having a whale of a time blasting aliens in Predator (1987), John Carpenter was remaking The Thing (1982), and Starship Troopers (1997) was satirising fascism with the last word in shoot-’em-ups.
And then there’s arguably the greatest of all sci-fi horrors, Alien (1979) and its sequels, in which Sigourney Weaver went to war with one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters (Jaws with jaws inside its jaws, basically).
In the last couple of decades, however, the tone of alien invasion movies has changed considerably. There have been remakes that attempt to play the story straight — Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008), with an aptly cast Keanu Reeves as the alien Klaatu — and originals that aim to replicate the original tone: Attack the Block (2011), Battle Los Angeles (2011), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014).
For the most part, though, the alien invaders have been given the comedy/camp treatment, as in Mars Attacks! (1996), with Jack Nicholson (!) as the US president, Independence Day (1996), Men in Black (1997), Cowboys and Aliens (2011), and The Watch (2012).
Meanwhile, the rise of thoughtful films about aliens and what it might mean to communicate with extra-terrestrial species continue apace: James Cameron’s epic The Abyss (1989), Contact (1997), M Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002), the Steven Spielberg-produced Super 8 (2011) and Under the Skin (2012).
The alien-as-threat flick is likely to be around for a long time — it’s a terrific excuse for an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up with no great need to develop a motive or backstory for the bad guys — but these days it’s a crassly juvenile alternative to the more thoughtful, inquiring film about what humanity might do if it ever encounters a species as advanced as its own.
The pre-Oscar buzz building around Arrival suggests the latter kind of film is here to stay.
Close Encounters of the Intelligent Kind
Decades ahead of its time, Robert Wise’s film preaches an anti-war message of peace and co-operation that was largely ignored during the Cold War.
Richard Dreyfuss eventually took the lead role of Roy Neary after it was turned down by Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino, James Caan and Jack Nicholson.
That man Spielberg again, with one of the greatest feel-good movies ever. All together now: “E … T … phone … home.”
Jodie Foster stars as an astronomer who receives the greatest gift she can imagine: messages from deep space.
A bleak, haunting tale starring Scarlett Johansson as an alien attempting to understand her new home.