I’m a bit of a sucker for this genre and will pretty much watch anything involving aliens vs. humans, even the bad ones. Whether it’s a slow infiltration, a pod possession, or a straight-up fight, aliens have been portrayed as a human-harvesting menace for over 50 years. Here are some of my favorites.
V (1983). “Humankind’s last stand.” I generally don’t consider putting TV miniseries on my movie lists, but this one seemed important enough to include. Airing over two nights, V told the story of first contact that at first seems mutually beneficial, until the true intention of the “Visitors” is slowly uncovered while many humans remain caught up in their propaganda. Looking back at it now, it admittedly doesn’t always hold up — there’s certainly some cheesy elements at play and it clearly feels like an ’80s TV show. But its overall message, an allegory for the rise of fascism, still holds up strong.
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Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956). “Warning! Take cover!” This gem from the ’50s is a straight-up invasion picture that delivers pretty much what the title suggests. The result is great fun, featuring glorious destruction of actual monuments and cool spinning saucer effects by the great Ray Harryhausen.
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Signs (2002). “It’s Not Like They Didn’t Warn Us.” I realize it’s not fashionable to praise M. Night Shyamalan these days (or Mel Gibson for that matter), and Signs is certainly one of Shyamalan’s films that leaves folks divided, but I’ve always found the film tremendously suspenseful, with engaging and moving moments regarding fate vs. coincidence. And for sheer chills, that Brazilian video footage gets me every time.
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Independence Day (1996). “The question of whether or not we are alone in the universe has been answered.” ID4 — a shorthand title that always seemed a little on the lame side — is just the kind of big-budget full-scale alien invasion movie that you’d expect from Roland Emmerich, who went on to make The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and last year’s 2012. The moments leading up to the arrival of the alien spacecraft and the first attack itself are fantastic, but unfortunately the rest of the film — while entertaining — frequently lapses into stupidity and never quite lives up to the intensity of the first act. Still a fun ride though, if you can get past our heroes’ ludicrous final plan.
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War of the Worlds (2005). “They’re already here.” Steven Spielberg directs one of two movies on this list from H. G. Wells’s 1898 science-fiction classic. The adaptation by Josh Friedman and David Koepp is rather loose, but the film does contain Wells’s opening and closing narration (spoken by Morgan Freeman), and the alien war machines do somewhat resemble the tripods as described in the novel. This version follows the events through the eyes of a dock worker (Tom Cruise) as he tries to survive the ensuing shitstorm with his daughter (Dakota Fanning) and son (Justin Chatwin), taking a marvelously dark turn when they encounter a fellow survivor played by Tim Robbins.
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The Thing (1982). “The ultimate in alien terror.” An Antarctic research station is infiltrated by an alien life form with the ability to perfectly mimic the appearance of any other organism, from dog to fellow human. Once the team eventually discovers what’s happening — that any given moment any one of them could be infected — paranoia naturally ensues. John Carpenter directs an excellent screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from the 1938 novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. (which was also the inspiration for the 1951 original The Thing From Another World).
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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). “From deep space …” I know it’s blasphemous to list this version instead of Don Siegel’s 1956 original, but I am a child of ’70s filmmaking and so (as much as I like the original) I find Philip Kaufman’s grittier approach to be the definitive telling of the 1955 Jack Finney novel (titled simply The Body Snatchers), about strange extraterrestrial life forms with the ability to perfectly replicate human beings. Kevin McCarthy, the star of the original who passed away this year at the age of 96, has a seriously cool cameo — a nice nod to the original.
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The War of the Worlds (1953). “A mighty panorama of earth-shaking fury!” This George Pal production with Oscar-winning special effects was the first filming of H. G. Wells’s novel. The Martian war machines attack with no purpose other than to wipe out mankind — in one memorable moment a pastor approaches one of the machines and is mercilessly disintegrated by the Martian heat ray. Director Byron Haskin delivers a taut, suspenseful, chilling experience.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). “From out of space … a warning and an ultimatum!” A flying saucer lands in Washington D.C. with an alien ambassador who calls himself Klaatu (Michael Rennie), accompanied by an indestructible “robot” called Gort who demonstrates in the opening confrontation that he can melt the guns right from the hands of the military. Klaatu has an important message to deliver to the people of Earth, but discovers the world’s leaders are far too divided to hear his message. At one point while attempting to live as one of us, Klaatu is taken to Arlington cemetery where he is disheartened to learn that most of the dead there were killed in various wars. Director Robert Wise’s powerful and moving film has stood the test of time, containing a message that is still (unfortunately) relevant to this day.
District 9 (2009). “You are not welcome here.” Currently my favorite alien invasion film is this gritty documentary-style effort from director Neill Blomkamp and producer Peter Jackson. South African actor Sharlto Copley stars as a very unlikely hero, a clueless Ricky Gervais type, who is simultaneously sympathetic and frustratingly selfish at times. It’s also one of the realistic accounts of what the arrival of an extraterrestrial species might be like, with aliens quarantined by the government to their own heavily-guarded slum and being treated as second-class citizens.