Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The Modern Alien Invasion

The alien invasion movie is nothing new. The basic formula is straight forward enough. One way or another an alien species ends up on Earth and poses a serious threat to humanity. A group of human protagonists are forced to try and survive while figuring out how to deal with said aliens. A race against time ensues as the heroes throw everything they can at the invader to little avail until finally the heroes find their last hope and make one last desperate stand in which they ultimately prevail. It's an old cliché, pioneered by H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, later popularized by science fiction films of the 1950's, and still going strong today. However, while this same basic structure has been retained over the years with occasional variations (am I the only one who would be interested in seeing an alien invasion film where the aliens ultimately win?), it is surprising how differently this plot is handled depending on the time period in which the film was made.

In my article Alienation of the Individual in Films About Aliens (as well as the academic paper from which it was adapted), I discussed how alien invasion movies of different time periods reflected specific social anxieties. In the 1950's, movies of this type often used the aliens as an allegory for the fear of communism. Starting in the 1970's and going into the 1980's, we get plenty of alien invasion films which reflect the political scandals and social changes that led to distrust in the American Government.

At the end of that article, I brought up the question of what patterns may exist now. The alien invasion genre is still alive and well with films like Independence Day, SkylineBattle: Los Angeles, The Whisperer in DarknessPacific Rim, and most recently Godzilla and Edge of Tomorrow. and there does seem to be an interesting new pattern that emerges in most of them.

Looking at the older examples, even just comparing both The Thing (1982) and The Thing From Another World (1951), we can see two logical extremes. In the 1950's, we see the army serving as a positive authority which mobilizes the cast against the invaders while later on the stories become more about individuals having to think for themselves. The strange thing is that shifting gears to more contemporary alien invasion films we tend to see both sides coming together to form a sort of middle ground. With many of these films the army and governing bodies are at least partially cast in a positive light and yet at the same time the focus is on specific individuals.

Let's look at a few examples. Independence Day certainly casts the government in a sympathetic light, but there are still conflicts within, it's not seen as perfect. Also the focus becomes more on specific individuals. The President of the United States is one of the central characters, but ultimately he's not the one single-handedly taking charge of the situation. He plays a role in organizing everyone but in the end he's one of a squad of fighter pilots, not the one actually leading them. Meanwhile the two guys that actually get to find the key to destroying the aliens are a single pilot and a civilian.

Then we get into some more recent movies. Battle: Lost AngelesPacific RimGodzilla, Edge of Tomorrow all follow individuals working for the military. In the case of Pacific Rim, the whole concept of the Jaegers is one that requires very specific people, and by the time the movie's plot gets going only a handful of the machines are left along with people to carry them. Though the project is government-authorized and organized, it ultimately comes down to four people involved with a one-shot effort to save the world from being overrun by the invaders.

The other three films I listed actually have soldiers as their central characters. Battle: Los Angeles is also an interesting case in that it doesn't end with a full-on triumph. It does have a positive image of the military and its soldier protagonists do manage to achieve a significant victory against the invading aliens but at the end it is still made clear that there is still more to do before humanity prevails. Though it is this small group of characters that ultimately finds the key to gaining an upper hand in the war it is still military might that finally takes it down. Godzilla actually follows a soldier who gets caught up in the conflict between the titular monster and two other even more dangerous monsters. We see a large portion of the military effort to stop them and later to essentially do what they can to make it easier for Godzilla to do the job, but most if not all of that is shown from the point of view of this particular man.

In Edge of Tomorrow, the film once again casts a moderately positive image of the military (even if certain officers are not as sympathetic as the leads). It's essentially two people who are the ones responsible for allowing humanity to prevail, in this case because of each having been exposed to their time warping technology, but on the other hand the implication is not so much that they alone ended the war as they did make it possible for the army they were fighting in to ultimately emerge victorious.

After going through a period in which it was normal for the military to seen as a protective force followed by one where they are a danger and it becomes the responsibility of the individual to take action, it seems that modern alien invasion films have found a middle ground between both extremes. In most of the films I've found we return to the idea of a positive image (if only moderately) of the government and military, but at the same time putting the emphasis on the role of the individual moreso than the collective group. It does raise the question of just what current events we are reacting to in this manner, and I cannot specifically label that. However, what I can say is that this shows just how much a genre can change over time, even one that relies on a very straight forward and mostly unaltered formula.


  1. This is an excellent post. Like Westerns, the science fiction genre transformed and reflected social and historical factors. I love your attention to sci-fi on this blog. Also, apropos of your recent post on ZULU, I recently watched it two times in a row. Great movie.

    1. Thanks. I thought this was an interesting trend and I'm still not sure precisely what is being reflected here, but it is interesting to look at how the genre changed with society. You might also enjoy the earlier article I wrote in which I go into a bit more depth about how alien invasion films changed between the 1950's and 1980's and how traces of those continued into the late 90's.

  2. I will check out the earlier post.