Desert Island Films: Alien Invasion Films



The alien invasion film appeared in the United States in the early 1950s, coinciding with the Soviet Union’s shift from a wartime ally of America to a nuclear-armed international rival. In “The Horror Film: An Introduction,” Rick Worland estimates that the alien invasion film as began. Whatever the precise moment to inspire this sub-genre was, it clearly coincided with the rising fears of a nuclear war and a technologically superior enemy.


Alien invasion arrived on American movie screens in 1951 with two films that explored the possibilities of the unknown; in one they would arrive in peace, while the other with only destructive motives. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) presented a superior intelligence, though they arrive with a positive message for humanity to learn from. In the other alien invasion film of 1951, “Dracula became a blood-sucking vegetable from outer space in The Thing from Another World (1951)” (Maddrey 31).


The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

The alien in The Thing from Another World is a malevolent and non-communicative being, determined to simply destroy mankind, but beyond this explicitly important distinction is the quiet manner in which he begins his invasion as opposed to the showy entrance from the skies seen in The Day the Earth Stood Still. Soon afterwards there were additional films illustrating the alien invasion utilizing both of these methods. War of the Worlds (1953) featured Martians arriving from the skies, though they were as malicious and non-communicative as the alien in The Thing from Another World.


Also in 1953 was another type of silent attack, this time utilizing the invasion of the human body as a method for larger planetary domination. In Invaders from Mars (1953) invasion is seen through the eyes of a young boy, David (Jimmy Hunt), whose father returns from the site of the spaceship landing acting much surlier than normal. With the help of a local doctor and brilliant astronomer, David is able to uncover the secret plot by the aliens, taking over the bodies of the humans.

Earth Vs. Flying Saucers (1956)


The next pair of dual-narrative alien invasion films came in 1956 with Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Earth Vs. the Flying Saucer featured an effects-driven attack[1] by aliens in spaceships, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers shows an attack where similar to that in Invaders from Mars without the recognizable images of a spaceship to cue the attack. Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is a small town general practitioner who returns from a medical conference to find that citizens of the community are being replaced by pod people grown to look identical to the humans they replace.


For decades after the release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the majority of alien invasion films seem to utilize this method of the stealth attack in its invaders, though the physical invasion still appeared in the event picture, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) or Independence Day (1996). Invisible Invaders (1959) features aliens who overtake the bodies of the recently deceased humans. In 1978 Invasions of the Body Snatchers was remade, this time taking place in San Francisco and used as an allegory ‘between the counterculture and Establishment America’ (Maddrey 69). It was then remade again in 2007 as The Invasion, utilizing fears of the other through the framework of post-9/11 paranoia.

Skyline (2010)


In the 1980s John Carpenter altered the face of the invasion film, first with the remake The Thing (1982), in which the alien has a parasitic ability to digest or dissolve victims afterwards appearing identical to the victim. The alien’s ability to appear as any living creature aligns the monster much more with the Body Snatchers aliens than the original ‘Thing’ from 1951. In 1988 Carpenter updated the alien invasion film with a direct comment on the consumerism age of Reaganomics in They Live. The aliens are already living amongst the humans, silently dominating them for financial gain through mind control in subliminal messages that say “Conform,” “Consume,” and “Marry and Reproduce,” and it is up to a drifter to join an uprising against the aliens when he discovers their existence among humanity.


Since the attacks of 9/11 in 2001, there has been a revival of the large-scale alien attack movies, with the most notable being War of the Worlds (2005), Skyline (2010), Battle Los Angeles (2011) and Battleship (2012). Many other genres have blended with the alien invasion picture as well, including the creature-feature alien attack in Pacific Rim (2013) and the more passive arrival from the aliens of Super 8 (2011) and District 9 (2009).


5. Signs


Although past alien invasion films all found the military and scientific contribution as essential to the narrative of humanity’s struggle for survival against an attack, Signs focuses instead upon the nuclear family. The entire film takes place on a secluded farm in rural Pennsylvania, though we see from the news that the alien invasion is a global phenomenon. This limits the information that the victims have about their invaders, as well as the audience. In many sequences the victims of the invasion see more than the audience is permitted to see, as the focus instead remains on the reactions from the humans rather than providing any further information about the creatures. Once again, this confines the audience exclusively to the victims, as “the invasion narrative in Signs becomes less important than its sustained visual and aural exploration of inchoate dread” (Thompson 127).


Former pastor Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) grieving the loss of his wife. Graham’s brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), has moved in with him to help take care of his two small children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Graham’s sudden loss of faith disturbs the children, who prefer to believe that their mother is in heaven. Bo and Morgan begin studying an alien invasion book when crop circles appear in their farm, noting that the farm in book looks remarkably similar to their own home. When the aliens finally begin their invasion, after an intimidating period of hovering above major cities around the world, the family in Signs is forced to barricade themselves within their home.


This film also marks the tipping point for my appreciation of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense was great, and I even appreciated Unbreakable as an attempt at making a realistic comic book movie when superhero films weren’t a summer certainty. Signs is the strongest of his screenplays, and my personal favorite of his films, with every scene seeming to lead to the final outcome. Every film Shyamalan has written/directed following Signs has left me enormously under-whelmed.



4. Predator


Much of this classic action/horror/sci-fi classic by 80s action director John McTiernan is well worth repeat viewing. Predator is Rambo meets Aliens, with action star Arnold Schwarzenegger leading up a team of elite soldiers in the jungles of South America on a top secret mission. Along with them is CIA Agent Dillon (Carl Weathers), a former solider buddy of Dutch (Schwarzenegger). This mission is filled with a lot of heavy firepower and an entire village of rebel soldiers. When they have completed the task, however, they find the real danger hiding in the jungle. An extraterrestrial hunter has traveled to the jungles of Earth to do some hunting, and Dutch’s team is the only prey available.


This film is not remarkable in any narrative or thematic sense. It is simply the combination of an action film and a horror movie which is completely compelling, not unlike From Dusk Till Dawn in the Desert Island Vampire List. It is also a wonderful display of 80s action in its prime, with a full sequence of firepower before the alien predator even becomes a part of the narrative. Schwarzenegger and Weathers are at their best as well, though it is always much easier to compliment the former governor’s acting when he has more physical work and less dialogue. Once Schwarzenegger is the only one remaining in the jungle with the alien, there is a lot less to be said. It becomes a movie about images, and they still look fantastic after all these years.


3. The Thing



        John Carpenter’s films have been ruthlessly remade in the recent past, especially his action-filled films. These failures are ironic considering the failure Carpenter himself has discovered when attempting remakes, at least in consideration of profit. Carpenter’s Village of the Damned remake made few waves and The Thing (1982) was considered a failure when it bombed at the box offices. Over time, however, The Thing has both grown in critical recognition and cult status. Revolutionary for its special effects at the time, The Thing now plays as a complex and intelligent tale of paranoia. John Carpenter’s version of The Thing actually attempts to return somewhat to the original text of the classic short story “Who Goes There?” by science fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr., and has less in common with the Howard Hawks version, The Thing From Another World (1951).


        In the remote snowfields of Antarctica there is a small American research outpost, stuck without contact from the outside world until the weather from the volatile season resides. When a Norwegian helicopter flies into their base, desperately trying to kill a fleeing dog and accidentally wounding the Americans in the process, the shocked scientists retaliate. Helicopter pilot, RJ MacReady (Kurt Russell) travels with a doctor to the nearby Norwegian base, finding it in ruins. The entire crew appears either dead or missing, with one body grotesquely deformed. They bring the remains back to the base for an autopsy. Meanwhile the dog which was found near the site begins to mutate when put in the pen with the other snow dogs. The group discovers an organism that appears to have been dug up out of a UFO crash sight discovered by the Norwegians. It has the ability to absorb any living creature near it, replicating and imitating it until complete destruction.


Throughout the film Mac Ready seems to have a strong distrust when concerning Child (Keith David), one of the other members of the team. Even when he has proven that he hasn’t been taken over the trust does not remain for long. All it takes is for one of the characters to be out of sight for a moment and the others begin growing suspicious. This suspicion tears through the group, and as the pressure tears on each individual they become suspected even more. This film is essentially Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the Antarctic, but the impressive practical visual effects make it chillingly originally and wholly Carpenter.


2. Alien franchise


        These films are difficult to classify, being that they aren’t the typical invasion film and that there are debates whether they should even be classified as horror rather than science fiction. The way I see it, the first three films are absolutely horror movies due to the fact that they are hunted and picked off by a menacing creature. They just happen to be in space, which brings in the element of science fiction within a narrative that would be considered completely horror had it been set elsewhere. The first Alien film even has a “final girl,” making it almost like a slasher in space with an alien as the psycho. With that being said, the screenplay by Joss Whedon for the fourth film in the franchise takes a clear deviance into hard science fiction and away from horror.


        My second argument for including these films is because of the invasion which does take place within each of the narratives. It may not be an invasion of Earth, but it does threaten the human population and is a far more gruesome way of being eradicated than the quiet body invasions of other films, with the exception of The Thing, perhaps. The invasion in the alien films take place in stages, which anyone who has watched them is familiar with. First the smaller alien attaches to the face of a human, inserting an egg in them which will hatch out of their chest after incubating. The emerging creature is even more deadly, though it is difficult to imagine a worse end than those who carry the eggs.


        Ridley Scott’s Alien is a groundbreaking blend of science fiction and horror, but more than that it is just a well told story. The creativity of the creature’s construction aside, there is a simplicity to Alien which makes it great. There is an alien aboard the spaceship and its blood will eat through the entire ship if it is killed. James Cameron’s Aliens continues the story, but it increases the number of creatures and becomes more of an action film in replacement of the horror. Aliens always reminds me of Predator a great deal, perhaps because of the high level of firepower carried by our protagonists. Alien 3 was not a huge success, but it is impressive to watch if only from a filmmaking standpoint. The storyline may have been bleaker and less exciting following Aliens, but the visual accomplishments by David Fincher is absolutely worth seeing. Alien Resurrection also has its strong moments, though there are some odd story ideas which are in Whedon’s screenplay. The franchise also branched off into the Alien vs. Predator series, which was less than impressive in both attempts.



1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers


Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) takes place in a small American town, where Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns to his small practice to find a spreading paranoia among many of the locals. Many seem to be suffering from the delusion or paranoia that someone or something has replaced their friends, relatives and loved ones. Though they look and sound the same, there is an emotional detachment which leads the humans remaining to suspect the silent alien invasion replacing people with doppelgangers aliens. Along with the simple but significant omission of any explanation for the attacks, Body Snatchers has no flying saucers or bug-eyed aliens, but instead the intruders simply walk among us. This brought a whole new world of terror onscreen.


Jack Finney’s classic novel made the perfect 1950s Cold War thriller, and even though every attempt at putting the novel onscreen since then has used the same idea of paranoia few have captured it as well as the original. There was a new version in the 70s with Donald Sutherland which was quite good, and had an eerie quality to it that felt on target with the original. The change in plot and locale in the 90s version attempted to keep the politics and authority forefront by placing the setting on a military base. The aliens in The Invasion (2007) are not pod people, nor do they duplicate, absorb or destroy the human body. Instead the alien is presented as a viral intruder, taking over human bodies under the guise of being a common cold.


I can give technical reasons for having this film at the top spot, such as the Cold War paranoia and political subtext in the narrative. This storyline has been imitated and adapted several times, proving the quality of my choice. But the real reason I had to put it at the top is because I can still remember the first time I saw it. Even though I had rented the film in VHS form from the library, free of charge and available to be checked out for repeat viewings, I watched The Invasion of the Body Snatchers twice in a row before returning it that first time. Even more significantly, I used a tape recorder for my own bootleg sound-only copy of the film for listening at my convenience. If a film that is 40-years old can have that kind of impact on a twelve-year-old, how can I not put it at the top?


 Click HERE for more Desert Island Lists


Jancovich, Mark. Rational Fears: American Horror in the 1950s. Manchester:

            Manchester University Press, 1996.  Print.

Maddrey, Joseph. Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American

Horror Film. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2004.  Print.

Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. 



[1] Thanks to the advanced special effects utilized by Ray Harryhausen, also the man responsible for the creature in It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955)


No comments: