Extraterrestrials seek to conquer our planet and claim it as their own. Whatever their justification for invasion, the aliens regard humanity as an obstruction to be smashed, or as a pest to be squashed. This is a generic silver screen scenario. Overwhelmingly, Hollywood’s aliens have been malevolent creatures – sometimes monstrous, sometimes invisible and parasitic, but almost always invasive.
To mark the release of The 5th Wave on January 22, here are ten essential alien invasion movies…
The Thing from Another World (1951)
In 1951, four years after the events that would eventually put the sleepy town of Roswell on the map, a film was released that had striking parallels with the Roswell narrative as we know it today. Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World saw a US Air Force crew and a journalist dispatched to a scientific outpost at the North Pole to investigate the wreckage of a crashed flying saucer. During their investigation, the Americans discover an alien body frozen in the ice, which is then hauled back to their base. Inevitably, the extraterrestrial Popsicle soon thaws-out and begins terrorizing its human captors.
The parallels between The Thing from Another World and the Roswell incident have not gone unnoticed in the UFO community, or in Hollywood. Filmmaker Paul Davids, who wrote and produced the popular TV movie Roswell (1994), starring Kyle MacLachlan and Martin Sheen, notes:
The Thing was the story of a flying saucer crash... all the themes of the Roswell Incident were there. The military covered it up. A newsman pleaded for disclosure. There was buried saucer wreckage. There was an alien body (that turned out to be still alive). There was secrecy. And, in the movie, there was danger.
Davids wonders if the purpose of The Thing may have been to take a factual and highly sensitive event and to couch it in fiction, the goal being to ridicule the idea of saucer crashes by associating them with superficially outlandish sci-fi cinema, and/or to subtly drip-feed these realities into the popular consciousness. Hawks’ movie was based on a science-fiction story called Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr., “But there are thousands of science-fiction stories,” says Davids, “and only a small fraction of them are produced as films. Was it a coincidence that a great producer put this tale to film just three years after [the Roswell incident]?”
Intriguing as it is, the idea of a conspiracy behind The Thing would seem to be ruled out by the fact that the USAF had officially denied its cooperation to the filmmakers specifically on the grounds that their movie dealt with the thorny issue of flying saucers.
Still, this does not preclude the possibility that certain individuals may have acted independently of their colleagues at the Pentagon to influence Howard Hawks’ distinctly Roswellian UFO movie. Such influence could, for example, have been exerted through Howard Hughes, the billionaire industrialist and defense contractor who, at the time of The Thing’s production, owned the movie’s distributor, RKO, and had an intimate working relationship with the US Department of Defense. Indulging the conspiratorial reading of The Thing, perhaps in return for business favors down the line, Hollywood/defense mogul Howard Hughes allowed his lofty contacts at the Pentagon to tweak his movie’s script in accordance with their own UFO-related goals (“I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.”) In any case, and for whatever reason, the parallels between Roswell and The Thing are plain to see.
Invaders from Mars (1953)
A fascinating addition to the burgeoning UFO subgenre, Invaders from Mars opens with young David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt) witnessing a classic flying saucer from his bedroom window – the vanguard of a looming Martian invasion force. Soon the Pentagon is involved and the Army uncovers an alien plot to use mind-controlled human slaves to sabotage an atomic rocket project at a nearby government research plant. Invasion through infiltration.
The Martian leader is a diminutive being with a distinctly oversized cranium and powers of telepathy and mind-control – classic characteristics of alien Grays as described by experiencers. Even the Grays’ hypnotic black eyes are present in the movie’s alien drone soldiers, who wear tight-fitting one-piece suits (also a typical detail in abduction reports).
Alien implants serve as a major plot device. Following his sighting of a flying saucer the night before, our child protagonist, David, notices a red puncture mark at the base of his father’s skull. We later learn that the big-eyed drone soldiers have been implanting townsfolk with these devices in order to control them from afar in much the same manner as modern experiencers report.
After the Martians are finally defeated with the help of the US military, the movie ends bizarrely with David suddenly back in his bed, as in the opening sequence. He then runs into his parents’ bedroom, confused and frightened. They reassure him he was merely suffering night terrors. David looks through his window once again and witnesses the very same flying saucer of his dream, descending slowly, exactly as it had in his sleep-state. The film ends here. Is the child still unconscious, trapped in a recurring nightmare, or was his bad dream a premonition of this now real event?
This ‘was it all a dream?’ ending brings to mind many abduction accounts to follow, in which the experiencer, during or immediately after a period of sleep, is initially unsure if the vivid alien encounter they have experienced was real or merely a hypnogogic hallucination.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
In 1956 came Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which alien invaders replace humans with ‘pod people’ – duplicates superficially identical to the original victim, but which are utterly devoid of individuality or emotion. Film critics have since interpreted Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as many other sci-fi movies of the Cold War era, as political allegory.
Discussing the idea of allegory in alien invasion movies of the 1950s, film writer Peter Biskind notes that “critics of popular culture have always been quick to point out that the Other is always other than itself, which is to say, the pods and blobs are “symbols” standing for something else.” Because the Other in films of this period frequently was linked to radiation (as in Them! (1954)), or to mind control and loss of identity (as in Invaders from Mars (1953)), it has been customary in film studies to equate aliens with the dangers associated with atomic power or communism. But Biskind argues that critics often give Cold War sci-fi movies too much credit and that many of them were not political allegories at all, but literal reflections of cultural preoccupations. For the preferred reading of many of these films, says Biskind, “all we have to do is look at what’s before our very eyes.” When asked how to account for the tremendous appeal in the 1950s of the science fiction genre (dominated at the time by the UFO movie), actor Billy Gray (who played the character of Bobby Benson in the original The Day the Earth Stood Still) was unequivocal: “It correlated with reports of UFOs. At the time it was just rampant – every other person had seen something mysterious in the sky. I think that’s what made science fiction popular at this time.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers would be memorably remade in 1978 by Philip Kaufman with Donald Sutherland in the lead role, before being lamentably ‘re-booted’ by Oliver Hirschbiegel in 2007 as the Nicole Kidman vehicle, The Invasion.
Invasion of the Saucer Men (1957)
1957 saw teenagers do battle with anti-social Martians in Invasion of the Saucer Men. The movie is gleefully outlandish, especially when a dead alien’s hand detaches itself, grows an eye, and runs amok. But, as with other invasion movies of the 1950s, the influence of real-life UFO encounter reports is evident. The movie drew considerable inspiration from the famous Hopkinsville Kentucky case of 1955, in which impish creatures are said to have terrorized a farming family for several nights. In Invasion of the Saucer Men the aliens are aggressive little creatures with green skin who get their kicks by violently harassing the residents of a rural American town. In one scene, the heroine of the piece (played by Gloria Castillo) even refers to one of the aliens as “a little green man,” just as the press had (erroneously) used the “little green men” term when reporting on the Hopkinsville case.
The movie is also notable for dialogue alluding to real-world government secrecy surrounding the UFO phenomenon. When the eponymous saucer men begin their small-town siege, military personnel show up to investigate, remarking at the sight of a grounded saucer, “Amazing! One of them actually landed intact!” The implication is that saucer wrecks have been recovered by authorities in the past. Observing the saucer, one of the military men states, “Only us and the President will know,” which suggests that his unit is tasked specifically to UFO-related matters. There is even an allusion to compartmentalization of classified information in dialogue referring to “other secret units covering-up other secret things.”
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Adapted from Michael Crichton’s novel, The Andromeda Strain relied upon methodical procedure and clinical detail as opposed to more traditional, action-based thrills to engage audiences, and its portrayal of an uncontrollable extraterrestrial virus was inspired by serious scientific debate of the time. It had been two years since Neil Armstrong had taken his giant leap for mankind, and the Apollo program was now well under way. Within this new astronomical context, genuine public fears existed concerning the possibility of an ET virus accidentally finding its way to earth via a lunar module.
In 1967, four years prior to the release of The Andromeda Strain, the United States, Britain, and Russia had signed an agreement covering “outer-space activities,” which took into consideration concerns regarding “harmful contamination” and “adverse changes” to “the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.” The Andromeda Strain tapped these concerns to great effect, and the film proved top draw for terrified audiences everywhere.
The Thing (1982)
The 1980s saw an influx of heart-warming UFO movies in which aliens arrived as saviors. This new genre trend prompted cinema theorist Vivian Sobchack to observe that aliens had become “our friends, playmates, brothers, and lovers.” This was true enough, although ‘80s sci-fi was not without its fair share of malevolent ETs either. None were more terrifying than the shapeshifting (or, rather, shape-hijacking) alien of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) – a deeply unsettling throwback to the paranoid invasion flicks of the 1950s and a loose remake of Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. Despite being perhaps the best movie of Carpenter’s career, it tanked at the box-office. Released hot on the heels of the warm and fuzzy E.T., audiences were repelled by the horrific imagery of Carpenter’s ice cold creation, and its failure was regarded within the industry as a death knell for the ‘alien invader’ archetype of old. In Hollywood, hostile aliens took a back seat to the benevolent variety for the remainder of the decade.
They Live (1988)
Though not directly inspired by any particular UFOlogical event, John Carpenter’s They Live captured lightning in a bottle for the increasingly paranoid UFO-conspiracy community as it tapped into, and arguably helped shape, prevailing ideas about extraterrestrials colluding with human elites.
Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story Eight O’clock in the Morning, They Live follows a blue collar drifter (played by Roddy Piper) who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the stark reality of corporate America where shops are covered with subliminal signs that say “SUBMIT,” “STAY ASLEEP,” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY.” The world is being secretly run in this Orwellian fashion by malevolent, skeletal-faced aliens who are allied with the US establishment – the human elite having been promised tickets off-planet when Doomsday arrives.
Unfortunately for Carpenter, his film’s searing political vision may have been a key contributing factor to its undoing at the box-office. They Live was pulled just two weeks after its 4 November 1988 release date. While Carpenter blamed audiences who “don’t want to be enlightened,” co-star Keith David had a more conspiratorial take on the film’s failure: “not that anybody’s being paranoid,” said the actor, “but it was interesting that They Live was number one at the box office... and suddenly you couldn’t see it anywhere – it was, like, snatched.”
Independence Day (1996)
With a budget of $75 million, Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day was one the most expensive films of the 1990s, and, with a worldwide box-office gross of some $800 million, it was also one of the most successful.
In the movie a mammoth alien mothership in Earth-orbit deploys dozens of city-sized flying saucers over the major cities of the world, causing mass panic in most quarters and feverish celebration in others. When the saucers obliterate their chosen cities using directed-energy weapons, Earth’s only hope is a team lead by the US President, Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman), brilliant but misunderstood scientist, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), and top gun fighter pilot, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith).
Among Independence Day’s millions of fans is President Bill Clinton, who referred to the movie publicly on five occasions. “I loved it… and I was glad we won,” Clinton told Tom Brokaw during a 15 July 1996 interview for MSNBC. When asked by Brokaw if he thought America could actually win a war against extraterrestrials, Clinton replied, “Yes, I think we’d fight them off. We find a way to win. That’s what America does – we’d find a way to win if it happened.”
Famously, the US Department of Defense denied its cooperation to the movie. Tom McCollum of the Army Public Affairs Office in Los Angeles submitted a long list of concerns to producer Dean Devlin. Most notable on this list was the request that any government connection to Area 51 or to Roswell (both crucial to the film’s plot), be eliminated from the film. Major Nancy LaLuntas of the US Marines’ Los Angeles Public Affairs Office stated explicitly that the Pentagon would not support a film that perpetuates the Roswell “myth” and added that the “DoD cannot hide info from [the] President (i.e. aliens and [a space]ship in custody).”
Monsters Vs. Aliens (2009)
This family-friendly animation successfully lampooned 1950s B-movies, presenting heroic monsters squaring-off against an alien invasion force. Commanding an army of clones, the diabolical Gallaxhar (voiced by Rainn Wilson), has come to earth seeking quantonium, a rare and powerful material that has recently arrived on our planet by way of meteorite. Upon obtaining this precious natural resource, Gallaxhar uses it to power a machine that creates an army of clones in his own image. As he prepares for invasion, Gallaxhar announces:
Humans of Earth, I come in peace. You need not fear me, I mean you no harm. However, it is important to note that most of you will not survive the next 24 hours. The few of you that do survive will be enslaved and experimented upon. You should, in no way, take any of this personally. It’s just business. So, to recap, I come in peace, I mean you no harm, and you all will die. Gallaxhar out.
UFO conspiracy ideas are notably incorporated. In the movie, the US government, for decades, behind a thick wall of secrecy, has maintained its own “monster” agency. To anyone broadly versed in UFO conspiracy lore it is clear that this “monster” agency is inspired by UFOlogy. The character of General W. R. Monger (voiced by Kiefer Sutherland) explains:
In 1950 it was decided that Jane and Joe Public could not handle the truth about monsters and should focus on more important things like paying taxes. So the government convinced the world that monsters were the stuff of myth and legend and then locked them away in this here facility... This place is an X-file, wrapped in a cover-up and deep fried in a paranoid conspiracy.
The “facility” to which Monger refers is based on Area 51. In one scene, set in the government’s War Room, the facility is described as “so secret that the very mention of its name is a federal offence.” At this point, a military officer leans into another and asks, “Is he referring to Area 5...?” But the man is rendered unconscious by a dart to the back of the neck before finishing his sentence.
Under the Skin (2013)
A beautiful nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) seduces random men off the street and lures them to their doom. But she is not human, only playing at it. Something cold and otherworldly moves beneath her skin. The precise nature of her mission on Earth is never specified and, like most everything else in this striking and challenging film, is left open to viewer interpretation.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin divided critical opinion, with some commentators dismissing it as pointless and impenetrable, and others hailing it as a masterpiece. Certainly it is unique; a bizarre clash of Kubrickian precision and a gritty naturalism more identifiable with British realist cinema. The plot plays second fiddle to disturbingly beautiful imagery, which evokes themes of urban alienation, isolation, sexual identity, humanity, and compassion.
The aliens here are hostile insomuch as they abduct humans and, but for one exception, never return them. The abductees’ fate is a grisly one, never fully explained in the movie but made clear in Faber’s source material (clue: they’re a delicacy). But labelling the aliens in Under the Skin as ‘hostile’ seems redundant given their harsh terrestrial surroundings and the, at times, predatory nature of the humans we meet. We see our world (specifically Glasgow in Scotland) exclusively through alien eyes, and it’s a scary place indeed. Eventually we begin to empathize with Johansson’s alien as she suffers an identity crisis and the world around her begins to suffocate both her and us. The ending is devastating as the hunter becomes the hunted and the final reveal of ‘what’s under that skin’ is realized through jaw-dropping, photorealistic CGI.
Robbie Graham is the author of Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies (White Crow Books, 2015). A leading authority on the cultural and political interplay between UFOs and Hollywood, Robbie has been interviewed for BBC Radio, Coast to Coast AM, Canal+ TV, and Vanity Fair, among others. His articles have appeared in a variety of publications including The Guardian, New Statesman, Filmfax, Fortean Times, and the peer-reviewed Journal of North American Studies, 49th Parallel. He holds a First Class Honors Degree in Film, Television, and Radio Studies from Staffordshire University, and a Masters Degree with Distinction in Cinema Studies from the University of Bristol.