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More than 25 years ago, Steven Spielberg and a talented group of puppeteers and craftsman worked painstakingly for months to create E.T. the Extraterrestrial, who would become perhaps the most beloved non-human movie character of all time. If those people knew that their efforts would eventually lead to Aliens in the Attic, they would have probably just given up and done a sequel to 1941 instead.
Now, I have not seen Aliens in the Attic yet; I say “yet” because it strikes me as one of those movies my kids might convince me to take them to in a weak moment, like on a Sunday afternoon after it’s been raining for days and there stands a good chance that if we don’t leave the house, someone will actually commit violence.
But even if it’s not a pained, derivative cross between E.T. and Gremlins (my God, I think I just channeled the pitch meeting), I still say there are plenty of other aliens-among-us movies that are probably better – even if they’re worse. Here are just five:
They Live (1988): You’ll find a lot of people who claim they saw this John Carpenter flick, in which pro wrester “Rowdy” Roddy Piper discovers that aliens have secretly taken over society, in the theaters when it first came out. These people are lying, although they probably did see the clip where Piper says that “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubblegum,” which may be the single greatest movie line ever written.
No, this film became better known after the fact, primarily for the five-and-a-half minute fight scene in which Piper and Keith David beat the stuffing out of each other in an alleyway. All that was missing was one of them hitting the other with a folding chair, and a ref who always seems to be looking somewhere other than where the guy with the folding chair is.
But I’d argue that the film’s take on society – in which not only can’t we see the aliens, we also can’t see that all printed matter is carrying subliminal messages like “Obey,” “Conform” and “Watch Television,” not necessarily in that order – is more relevant than ever. Apparently Carpenter was ahead of the curve on consumerism, greed, complacency and even global warming, which turns out to be the aliens’ fault as well. Why didn’t Al Gore think of that?
Unfortunately Carpenter didn’t seem to know where to go with this message, so instead he had the characters pummel each other for five and a half minutes. That may or may not be a good thing.
Strange Invaders (1983): I saw this with a group of friends when I was 15, and as I recall I was the only one who liked it – I think because, like Roger Ebert in the clip above, I took it as a satire of space alien movies. As for my friends, they thought it was about people who rip their latex faces off to reveal smushed-up E.T. heads, so I’m not sure what it was they were complaining about.
Today even the purposeful cheesiness of it seems too good to be true – you just can’t orchestrate cheese this cheesy. And Nancy Allen proves just how lucky she was to get that part in Robocop a few years later; at least there she got to wear a cool cop uniform instead of a silver polyester ’80s potato sack.
Bit I’d argue that Paul LeMat is wry enough in his approach as a skeptical husband who stumbles upon aliens in a town stuck in the 1950s that he makes Strange Invaders utterly watchable. LeMat – who created truly indelible characters in American Graffiti and Melvin and Howard, and was famously set alit by Farrah Fawcett in TV’s The Burning Bed – is apparently still acting; I’d nominate him for the next big comeback. Quentin Tarantino, please notify your casting director.
Chicken Little (2005): So say you’re Disney and you’re going to make a big-budget CGI cartoon based on a children’s story that, if told in its original form, would be about six minutes long. What do you do? That’s right, you add in space aliens. That’s pretty much a given.
So I don’t fault Chicken Little for turning to invading extraterrestrials for its antagonist rather than an acorn. Particularly when two of them are voiced by Fred Willard and Catherine O’Hara, providing the parents in the audience with welcome Waiting for Guffman flashbacks to keep us distracted through the inevitable montages set to songs by artists you though had been forever lost to civilization. (I won’t mention any names. Spice Girls.)
What I don’t get is why the film – aimed, presumably, at people still so small that their pudgy little arms don’t reach the bottom of the popcorn bucket – needed to include a subplot about Chicken Little’s strained relationship with his father in the absence of his requisite-for-Disney dead mother. Memo to Bob Iger: This is why you bought Pixar – let them do the family dynamics, and your guys can stick to the song montages and fart jokes.
Lifeforce (1985): If aliens ever do come to earth, I predict it will happen exactly like it does in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce: namely, in the form of beautiful naked women who suck people’s souls out of their bodies by kissing them, turning them into zombies. I should mention that this is not a comedy.
In fact, it so dead serious, while at the same time being so insanely complicated and impenetrable, that it may go down as one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies of the 1980s. (Yes, I realize this is a decade that included Road House, but I’m convinced to this day that that was supposed to be funny.)
The main thing that makes Lifeforce worth watching today, though, is the appearance by a pre-Star Trek Patrick Stewart, who gets mistaken for a naked lady vampire, is kissed by the hero, and then has his soul sucked out by giant lightning bolts, only to later have all his blood fly out of his body through his nose and mouth and form a floating-blood naked lady vampire (on a helicopter, natch). Don’t worry, I put that clip above — I know that now you probably don’t want to have to wait.
By the way, a decade later Species did the beautiful naked alien thing much more professionally. So there’s absolutely no reason to see that one.
Muppets From Space (1999): By the time this – the sixth and final (so far) theatrical release by everyone’s favorite felt characters – hit theaters, it seemed like the Muppets had probably run out of steam. This had been evident ever since they started revolving the movies around humans — humans! — like Michael Caine’s Scrooge in A Muppet Christmas Carol , with star Muppet status defaulting to Gonzo, the third-banana whose puppeteer (Dave Goelz) had suddenly become the only Muppet guy who wasn’t dead or off directing The Indian in the Cupboard.
Which makes it all the more surprising that this installment, in which Gonzo discovers that he’s a space alien, is so darn, well, Muppet-tastic. The humans are strictly sidekicks, the story isn’t based on some stuffy classic novel and the Muppets all live together in a giant house where they interrupt each other’s showers and sing Rick James songs, which is as it should be. Plus, it has Pepe the King Prawn, who with his suave demeanor and unintelligible accent is sort of like the Benicio Del Toro of the Muppet community.
Throw in Ray Liotta and a scene where Miss Piggy kicks a guy’s ass and you have some classic Muppet hijinks, not to mention a return to irreverence in the way it skewers sci fi movie tropes. These include the mad scientist bent on alien dissection, represented here by Dr. Phil Van Neuter — manned by Jim Henson’s son, Brian, and one of the weirdest Muppets to come along in years: He’s a cross between Andy Dick and Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.
Unfortunately, the Muppets got right back on their downhill slide after this – hopefully Jason Segel’s promised Muppet reboot will right all wrongs, but it will be hard to bounce back from TV’s downright ugly Muppets’ Wizard of Oz. (And if you think that movie’s ugly, you should see the dancing girls.)
(Dis)honorable mention: TV aliens. Let’s face it, Coneheads is the poster child for Saturday Night Live sketches that shouldn’t even be second sketches, much less a theatrical film years down the road. And My Favorite Martian sucked the charm out of the Ray Walston original like naked vampires sucking the life force out of Patrick Stewart. Yet you know that right now, somebody, somewhere without an original idea is pitching a TV-based project that’s equally execrable.
Let’s hope it’s not whoever bought the treatment for Aliens in the Attic, or next summer my kids will be dragging me to an “Alf” movie.
What’s your favorite (or least favorite) aliens-among-us movie? Share it in the comments.
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