The alien invasion scenario is a common one in cinema – and for good reason. If movies are a mirror, reflecting social anxieties and regrets, then the alien invasion trope is one of the most adaptable allegories imaginable. For decades, filmmakers have used it to discuss military policies, fear of technology and concern over environmental abuses. Our scientific progress as a species, in conflict with the moral progress of our conscience, and our natural fear of change, are all to be found in the alien invasion movie. There are three main types of cinematic alien invasion – each serving a different purpose – although variations and combinations do occasionally appear. These are Occupation, Infiltration and Raid.
The Occupation alien invasion movie addresses two main concerns about the human condition. First, are the films featuring aliens that want our planet, and are entirely disinterested in us. We are inconsequential, and serve no purpose. We are simply there to be eradicated – nothing more than a housekeeping chore to be completed – like a new homeowner dealing with a bug-infestation. This speaks to our natural fear of being pointless – of leaving this world, and this universe, without having made an impact. It also speaks to the fear of our own mortality – that we can be snuffed out of existence so easily, and what then? It speaks to our sense of vulnerability, as a species – that we are all just clinging to this lump of rock, hurtling through the vastness of space at immense speeds, and who knows what else is out there?
The second concern addressed by the Occupation alien invasion movie is guilt about our misuse of our planet. Those movies that depict an invasion that is intended to be beneficial – to save us from ourselves, in effect – are about intervention from an alien force that is almost parental in nature. They strike the tone that – in the hierarchy of the universe – we are simply the moody teenager that doesn’t know what’s best for them. They are simultaneously about our of fear of the loss of control, and our arrogance that we have charged ahead in conflict with our planet – and ourselves – instead of working in harmony with both.
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The Infiltration alien invasion movie is all about trust. Aliens stage their attacks by possessing, or taking over human beings – or by taking on their appearance and mimicking their behaviours. This is the variation on the theme that hits closest to home. It’s about being attacked when we are at our most vulnerable, and when we least expect it. Those that are closest to us turning on us, and not being what we think they are. It is about self-doubt, and isolation – the sense that those around us are being won over and we are increasingly alone in the fight.
The alien invasion Raid movie questions our sense of preparedness. It has alien forces staging what are essentially reconnaissance missions – testing the chinks in our armour, perhaps paving the way for a bigger force later on. This is more about strategy, and anxiety about what is to come – that fear of the unknown, and the sense that there is something bigger, and more terrifying just around the corner.
Across all these variations, the constant theme is paranoia. We are unable to know how we are perceived by any other life forms that may be out there, nor what their intentions are. We are entirely self-involved – dealing only with each other in our delicate, atmospheric bubble, passing through the universe. This theme is one reason why alien invasion movies are often released in spates. For example, at the height of the Cold War, many alien invasion B movies were released, and in the mid-1990s, we saw numerous planetary onslaughts on the big screen – a reaction to conflicts such as The Congo, The Gulf, Chechnya, Kosovo, Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Somalia. Also, closer to home, there was the bombing of the World Trade Centre, the Oklahoma City Bombing and the Omagh Bombing. We felt vulnerable, and we made movies about it.
The thing about the alien invasion trope is that it highlights another fundamental aspect of our collective psyche, which is that – just as Mary Poppins says – a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Making a big budget, action-based movie, about Earth under siege – full of special effects and explosions – has a greater appeal than a movie like Black Hawk Down, which actually tells a version of the events of the Battle Of Mogadishu. Instead of viewing these events as they actually happened, we would rather filter our discomfort through the lens of Roland Emmerich, M. Night Shyamalan, or Barry Sonnenfeld, for example.
The alien invasion movie – perhaps most spectacularly depicted in War Of The Worlds – is borne of our desire to avoid looking ourselves directly in the eye, but such diversionary tactics do give rise to some awesome cinema. So, with both Edge Of Tomorrow and Transformers: Age Of Extinction now in theatres, let’s take a look at some great examples of alien invasion movies.