Age of the invasion
Aliens are back in fashion. Following the success of Neill Blomkamp's low-budget sci-fi thriller District 9 last year, a string of films involving extraterrestrials has appeared. Earlier this year a trashy '80s alien franchise was revived with Predators, last month the Earth was attacked by brain-chewing invaders in Skyline, and we're under assault again in Monsters, which was released here yesterday.
The work of British writer/director Gareth Edwards, Monsters illustrates perfectly why filmmakers are so drawn to the alien theme. Made for an astonishing $500,000 using two actors and a supporting cast of amateurs, Monsters is set in and around the US/Mexican border in the near future, six years after a human space probe crashed in northern Mexico and scattered alien seeds.
These have produced giant squid-like amphibian creatures with glowing heads that amble through the jungles making terrifying lowing noises and causing considerable destruction. When an American man and woman miss the last boat back to the US from Mexico, they're forced to venture through the quarantined zone where they learn a lot more about the aliens than they might have liked.
Edwards' extremely ingenious film suggests more than it would ever have had the money to show, and demonstrates that the beauty of making movies about aliens is that they can be absolutely anything you want them to be.
While the modern obsession with aliens can be traced to the stories of 19th century writers like Guy de Maupassant and HG Wells, the movie Alien has his roots in the paranoid Cold War days of the 1950s, so it's little wonder that so few of the little green fellows come in peace.
Hollywood's interest in extraterrestrials coincided with the start of the atomic age. Advances in rocket technology during the Second World War seemed to make space travel a possibility, which begged the question: if we could fly to Mars, why couldn't whatever was on Mars fly here?
Then there was the atom bomb, and the fact that by the early 1950s the Russians also had them. The fear and paranoia that prevailed in Eisenhower's America found perhaps their fullest expression in the deluge of science- fiction B-movies that flooded US movie theatres and drive-in cinemas during the 1950s. The aliens in them were the ultimate outsiders, hostile invaders that had to be repelled by all means.
One of the first and best of them was Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and for once the aliens weren't actually out to get us. A flying saucer hovers over Washington DC, and a well-spoken gent called Klaatu emerges to deliver mankind a message. Before he can do so, a soldier panics and shoots at him, after which a giant robot emerges from the spaceship to vapourise everyone's guns.
After many adventures Klaatu finally gets to tell mankind that our intergalactic near neighbours are not impressed with our trigger-happy ways, and if we don't stop they're going to come back and sort us out. Wise's film was hugely influential, and its most famous scene was parodied by Tim Burton in his black comedy, Mars Attacks (1996).
HG Wells's most famous novel, The War of the Worlds, was given the Hollywood treatment in 1953. A meteorite falls to earth in America and out pops a Martian war machine that shoots first and asks questions later. These creeps are definitely out to get us, and only an atom bomb will sort them out. Steven Spielberg remade the film in 2005, but this Byron Haskin original remains the best.
Another 50s alien classic was Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which Kevin McCarthy played a smalltown doctor who's puzzled when his patients start claiming that their loved ones are impostors. It turns out that half the town has been replaced by replicants or 'pod people' as part of an alien plot to replace the human race, but the film's real target was the hysteria of McCarthyism that was then gripping America.
These films, though, were very much at the top end of the 1950s sci-fi boom. More typical were schlocky films like the 1956 movie Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (the title is pretty self-explanatory), the 3D melodrama It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959). The latter film has often been called the worst movie ever made, but its creaky sets and rotten scripts and awkward pauses lend it a certain charm.
Among the small boys watching these alien sagas was a young Steven Spielberg, and in the late 1970s and early 80s he added two classics to the genre. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Spielberg restored a sense of wonder to the alien movie, as Richard Dreyfuss played an Indiana lineman who becomes fascinated by extraterrestrials after catching a glimpse of a spaceship, and begins to interpret a series of alien communications.
Those aliens came in peace, and even more cuddly was ET. In Spielberg's E.T. The Extraterrestrial (1982), a small green visitor with a magic finger enchanted a generation and offered an altogether sunnier view of what might be out there.
Roland Emmerich's Independence Day (1996) marked a return to the dumbed-down alien invasions of the 1950s, as Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum set out to kick ass after a huge mothership lays waste to New York and Los Angeles. The special effects were pretty good, but Independence Day was no classic.
Much creepier and cleverer was John Carpenter's 1988 thriller They Live, in which a race of aliens with skull heads have interposed themselves in human society.
Of the recent films District 9 stands out for sheer verve and imagination. Blomkamp's film was both a brilliant action thriller and a meditation of sorts on racism. Twenty years after the arrival of a giant spaceship above Johannesburg, the extraterrestrials on board have been herded into a ghetto where they're treated like cattle.
District 9 was brilliant stuff, but for me the best extraterrestrial film of them all is Alien. Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece invented a revolting and very believable life cycle for the exceedingly aggressive monster who terrorises the crew of the cargo spaceship Nostromo. It was, apart from anything else, a rivetting thriller, and the good news is that Scott is going to return to the subject next year with a prequel.