Thursday, 6 August 2015

Thursday Movie Picks: Alien Invasion of Earth

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks Meme is Alien Invasions. If you're not familiar with her activity, it's pretty straight forward. Each week, she picks a different theme, and participants are asked to list three movies that fit the established criteria. The results are surprisingly varied. I remember back when the theme was Police Movies I was expecting Dirty Harry to pop up on everyone's lists but the popular choice instead turned out to be The Departed. It's a lot of fun and I'd recommend getting in on it. It also can allow you to be somewhat selective, so if one week there is a theme one week you can't find much for that's no big deal.

Back on topic, alien invasions are a subject I am very familiar with, as you can imagine. I've only written three seperate posts and an academic paper on the subject. The general idea of beings from another world invading Earth arguably originated with H.G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds, though that one is quite a bit different from later incarnations of science fiction. Wells' novel was a bleak vision of an alien invasion, in which the Martians (who are implied to be invading because their own world is dying) easily overpower humanity. The military throws everything they had at their disposal at the time at the Martians (from artillery to the Ironclad Thunder Child), and the best any of it can do is momentarily stall them by taking out one or two before being wiped out. In the end, the Martians actually manage to conquer Earth, and humanity is only spared by pure luck (it turns out the Martians' bodies are vulnerable to Earth's bacteria). It also ends on a dark note where even as society goes back to normal it is suggested that humanity might not have seen the last of these invaders.

Later incarnations of alien invasion narratives are often more optimistic. While Wells' film centered on an everyman recounting his experiences simply trying to survive, later films would feature the central characters making a stand against the invaders. The majority of the time, humanity triumphs in some form or another (though sometimes at great cost) and the alien menace is eliminated. There are exceptions, of course, but generally this is how alien invasion films are structured. However, as I've discussed before there are three major waves of invasion films, and this basic premise is more or less where the similarities end.

The first major wave began in the 1950's, when science fiction was starting to become recognized as a film genre. Alien invasion films of the era were being made in a time of Cold War paranoia, with the alien menace serving as an allegory for the fear of communism and nuclear war. Outside of a handful of exceptions, films of this era had a pro-government attitude. If the protagonists were not themselves soldiers, they were fully co-operating with the military. Generally this meant that the characters were united under one common authority (or at least a representation of authority) to defeat the alien menace.

The second wave began in the 1970's and continued into the 1980's. This time, the films were being made in an era when various political developments had left the American people distrustful of their government. Aside from a greater presence of films about friendly aliens, the focus shifted to an anti-authoritarian attitude. Instead, the heroes were generally civilians, ordinary people caught in extraordinary situations. At best, the heroes are cut off from any authority and at worst the government (or anything resembling authority) is an active threat. Instead of uniting under one common identity, these films instead spoke of the individual standing up to unreliable or dangerous authorities.

The third alien invasion cycle began in the late 1990's and continues today. This one is especially curious as it seems to offer a middle ground between the ideas of the 1950's and 1970's-80's cycles. In these films, authority is sometimes seen as flawed, but in most cases is still cast in a positive light. At the same time, there is an emphasis on the individual having to take a stand against the alien invaders. Instead of having everyone conform to the ruling of one authority, the basic narrative often consists of the government being initially unable to handle the invasion, until the individual (or a group of individuals, in many cases) does something that finally allows them to emerge victorious. In other words, these films don't take sides but instead show that there is value to both the government and individualism, and in the end both have to work together to succeed.

Naturally, I'd say it's fitting therefor that for this entry I choose one film from each wave to show my extensive knowledge of alien invasions.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

This early film by Don Siegel (who would later become better known for Dirty Harry) is a very good example of the idea that the alien "other" as seen in most 1950's science fiction films (outside of a few rare exceptions such as The Day the Earth Stood Still) served as an allegory for Cold War paranoia and the perceived danger posed by the rise of communism. In this case, the popular perceptions of communism are represented by the alien "pods" which are seen as infecting and brainwashing the people of a small American town. The problem is of course that they are very good at infiltrating, so much so that nobody notices until it is down to only a small group of characters that have not already been possessed (and from there down to just one). This ties into the fears of the presumed efforts of the Soviet Union to infiltrate American society and spread the ideas of communism from within, not being noticed until it is too late (hence the paranoia; i.e. stopping it before it starts).

Alien (1979)

Okay, technically, this isn't actually an invasion "of Earth" (though the danger of the alien reaching Earth and starting an invasion is very real) but it is a very good example of how alien invasion films changed in the 1970's. In this film, the "authority" is represented by a mostly-unseen corporation who ultimately proves to have intended the crew to be expendable, (complete with an infiltrator on board to make sure things go according to their plan). As a result, any chain of command has to be broken (especially seeing as the captain and first officer are among the earliest casualties), bringing the civilian protagonists onto equal ground and forcing them to stand up to the corporation. The individualism is even depicted in a literal sense, with Ripley being the only member of the cast to survive long enough to make a stand against the alien, by which point she is cut off from any form of authority (which has so far proven hostile anyway) and forced to rely purely on her own intuition to succeed.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge of Tomorrow is hardly critical of the armed forces or their capability to deal with an extraterrestrial invasion, but it does show that they have difficulty when faced with a menace that challenges everything they know. This is where the middle ground comes in: it is two soldiers played by Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt who must take matters into their own hands. They have to rely on themselves and on their skills to defeat the aliens, but it is their actions which ultimately allow their superiors to achieve a victory against the invading aliens. This provides a perfect example of the middle ground exemplified by modern alien invasion narratives; it is the government who ultimately defeats the aliens, but the individual who makes it possible for them to do so (similar patterns can also be found in Independence Day and Battle: Los Angeles).