Total Recall

Total Recall: Alien Invasions

With Battle: Los Angeles hitting theaters, we run down some memorable films featuring intergalactic visitors.

by | March 11, 2011 | Comments

Alien Invasions

Brace yourselves, Earthlings — this weekend, when Battle: Los Angeles lands in theaters, we’ll be defending ourselves from another wave of invading extraterrestrials, with only Aaron Eckhart and his plucky platoon of hard-charging Marines standing between us and utter destruction. This has been a recurring theme at the box office lately, and we certainly haven’t seen the last of it — so we decided to dedicate this week’s feature to a random sampling of cinematic alien invasions of the past. We narrowed the list by focusing on movies featuring groups of intergalactic visitors (sorry Starman, E.T., and Predator), but still only scratched the surface of a time-honored Hollywood tradition. Which of your favorites made (or missed) the cut?

The Arrival

66%

Fifteen years before he dedicated himself to full-time winning, Charlie Sheen starred in this eco-suspense-sci-fi-thriller from writer/director David Twohy (The Fugitive), about a scientist (Sheen) who goes hunting for the source of a mysterious signal from outer space and learns that a secret cabal of aliens is intentionally speeding up global warming so they can take over the planet. It’s better than it sounds — and certainly better than the poster, which a bug-eyed Sheen had to share with an alien, made it look. The franchise would descend into outright silliness with 1998’s wonderfully titled The Arrival II: The Second Arrival, but the original is, in the words of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick La Salle, “a strong, lean piece of writing that moves quickly. Nothing is wasted, and nothing happens the way you’d expect.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

94%

By the late 1970s, Hollywood had cranked out so many alien invasion movies that filmgoers had started taking it for granted that flying saucers in the sky meant we were all in a lot of trouble. Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind took this notion, turned it on its head, and gave us one of our most enduring all-time sci-fi classics. In Spielberg’s vision, our extraterrestrial guests meant us no harm; they were merely curious, and their presence, rather than being a harbinger of doom, signaled our collective evolution and hinted at our limitless possibilities. (And okay, they had to land here to return all the people they’d abducted over the years, but what’s a few kidnappings between friends?) It all might seem a little quaint and soft-hearted now, but during the Cold War, there was something revolutionary about an alien movie that ended with a smile — and it remains, in the words of Roger Ebert, “One of the great moviegoing experiences.”

District 9

93%

We human beings tend to be pretty attached to our planet, and most of our sci-fi invasion stories reflect those feelings, imagining Earth as a prize to be fought for when the rapacious alien hordes try to steal it from us. But what if they arrived here accidentally — and we ended up turning them into a persecuted, disadvantaged minority? This is the rather brilliant idea behind Neill Blompkamp’s District 9, which imagines a ship full of aliens that breaks down over Johannesburg. The visitors (derisively referred to as “prawns”) find safe harbor, of a sort, in a segregated area of the city (the District 9 of the title) — along with discriminatory laws and rank poverty. Extending science fiction’s long tradition of exploring sociological themes by placing them in far-fetched contexts — and, of course, adding in some nifty special effects and plenty of nail-biting action — District 9 took its small budget and star-free cast and turned them into one of the year’s biggest critical and commercial hits. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, no pushover, added to the chorus of approval with his review, writing “You don’t feel bamboozled, fooled, or patronized by District 9, as you did by most of the summer blockbusters. You feel winded, shaken, and shamed.”

Earth Girls Are Easy

68%

The textbook definition of a movie that’s better than it has any right to be, Julien Temple’s Earth Girls Are Easy used a 1984 Julie Brown novelty song as the inspiration for a thoroughly goofy, thoroughly 1980s romp about a lonely hairdresser (Geena Davis) who finds love after a trio of furry, brightly colored aliens (Jeff Goldblum, Jim Carrey, and Damon Wayans) crash-land in her pool. All things considered, it’s probably more of a dating comedy than a real alien invasion movie, but with Charles Rocket in classic cad mode, Hall and Oates covering “Love Train” on the soundtrack, and an Angelyne cameo, how could we resist? It is, as Hal Hinson observed for the Washington Post, “The movie equivalent of cheap champagne — even though it’s lousy, it still gives you tickles up the nose.”

Independence Day

67%

More often than not, Hollywood has imagined alien invasions as covert affairs, or the kind of thing that happens in small towns while no one is watching — but not Roland Emmerich, who dreamed up a full-scale intergalactic apocalypse for 1996’s Independence Day, complete with gigantic spaceships, horrific destruction, and alien bad guys who were every bit as nasty as they looked. Blending old-school B-movie tropes (including a cast stuffed with character actors like Robert Loggia, Randy Quaid, and Judd Hirsch) and state-of-the-art special effects, Independence Day ruled the 1996 box office, reinvigorated the moribund alien invasion genre, and was, in the words of Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, “the first futuristic disaster movie that’s as cute as a button. Which, when all the special effects blow over, is what we Americans like in a monster hit.”

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

92%

Its themes have resonated throughout pop culture since they were originally published in the 1950s — particularly on the big screen, where they’ve served as the source material for four films — but for pure Tomatometer power, the edge goes to 1956’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Adapted from Jack Finney’s 1955 novel The Body Snatchers, this eerie sci-fi classic takes viewers to fictional Santa Mira, California, where sentient pods from outer space have set up shop and started churning out dead-eyed replicas of the townfolk. Snatchers‘ supposed political allegories have been debated for years, but you don’t have to believe it’s a metaphor to enjoy it; as James Rocchi wrote for Netflix, “At the time, the film could have been seen as a metaphor for the Red Menace, or McCarthyism, or whatever; the fact remains it’s a creepy little film.”

Killer Klowns from Outer Space

76%

We love classic cinema as much as the next film website, but there’s something to be said for a movie that cheerfully takes an insane premise to its thoroughly illogical conclusion. Case in point: 1988’s Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which delivers on the oddball promise of its title by sending a murderous brigade of clownish (sorry, klownish) aliens to a small town, where they immediately set about harvesting the unsuspecting residents by wrapping them in a cotton candy-like substance and turning their bodies into goo. It’s exactly the sort of thing late-night cable was made for — but unlike most 2 AM Cinemax offerings from the late 1980s, Killer Klowns is actually pretty entertaining. As eFilmCritic’s Brian McKay astutely observed, “IT’S GOT CLOWNS! FROM OUTER SPACE! AND THEY’RE KILLING PEOPLE! What’s not to like?”

Mars Attacks!

56%

The same year Roland Emmerich gave us invading aliens on a massive scale with Independence Day, Tim Burton took a decidedly more tongue-in-cheek approach to the genre with Mars Attacks!. Inspired by a short-lived series of trading cards from the early 1960s, this all-star spoof of cheesy alien B movies like Invaders from Mars and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers satirized contemporary American culture while treating audiences to the sight of zapgun-toting Martians vaporizing celebrities like Jack Nicholson, Glenn Close, Michael J. Fox, Danny DeVito, and Jack Black. One of Burton’s less successful efforts, Attacks! was a box office disappointment and missed the mark with most critics — but a number of scribes defended it, including TIME’s Richard Schickel, who wrote, “Perhaps they don’t create quite enough deeply funny earthlings to go around, but a thoroughly meanspirited big-budget movie is always a treasurable rarity.”

Plan 9 from Outer Space

66%

There was no way we were leaving this one out. Arguably the quintessential Ed Wood movie, Plan 9 from Outer Space will never win any technical awards — in fact, its most notable accolade came from author Michael Medved, who dubbed it the worst film (and Wood the worst director) of all time. But in spite of its many goofed-up shots, continuity errors, and awkward attempts to cover up for the death of its “star,” Béla Lugosi, Plan 9 has become not only a cult classic, but something of a critical favorite, enjoying a robust 65 percent on the Tomatometer and praise from critics like Ken Hanke of the Asheville Mountain Xpress, who concluded, “It’s really rather glorious, in its own way.” (And perhaps most importantly, if aliens ever decide to prevent World War III by reanimating our dead, we’ll know exactly how to defeat them. Bonus!)

Signs

75%

It takes a lot of guts — and just as much panache — to pull off a movie that uses an alien invasion as the backdrop for an examination of religious faith, but that’s just what M. Night Shyamalan did with 2002’s Signs. Starring Mel Gibson as an ex-priest who rejected God after his wife was killed, Joaquin Phoenix as his younger brother, and some rather unfriendly green creatures who announce their arrival by leaving crop circles all over the place, Signs has plenty of silly moments and plot holes, but it’s also a suspenseful, well-acted film that isn’t afraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. Critics were definitely starting to see past Shyamalan’s bag of tricks at this point, but most of them were able to forgive Signs‘ flaws, including Eric Harrison of the Houston Chronicle, who called it “A heartfelt movie that deals more nakedly with [Shyamalan’s] core concerns than any of his other Hollywood films, and it doubtlessly will deeply touch many people as well as frighten them.”

They Live

85%

The 1980s were a rather uneven decade for John Carpenter, but he closed them out on a high note with They Live, which combines smart social commentary with pure, unadulterated B-movie thrills. Shot for a paltry $3 million, the film puts humanity’s hope in the hands of a drifter (Roddy Piper) who stumbles across a box of sunglasses that reveals the freaky-looking aliens among us. Immediately resolving to kick ass (and chew bubblegum), he does just that, waging war against the invaders until the iconic final shot. While it wasn’t a huge hit at the box office, They Live has grown into cult classic status, partly on the strength of the killer fight sequence between Piper and Keith David — and partly thanks to the praise of writers like Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, who called it “Carpenter’s best film — I don’t care what you say.”

Transformers

58%

There have been more culturally relevant films — and certainly more critically respected ones — but when Michael Bay settled into the director’s chair for Transformers, it represented arguably the most perfect union of filmmaker and subject matter in the history of cinema. Say what you want about Bay’s movies, but the man was simply born to direct a movie about giant alien robots waging war on Earth — and audiences agreed to the tune of more than $700 million at the box office, affirming Paramount’s hopes for a franchise (the third and allegedly final installment, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, will arrive on 3D screens this year). Most critics were less impressed, but that’s because they were foolishly fixated on things like plot and character development, rather than giant robots waging war on Earth. Among the appreciative minority, Roger Moore of the Orlando Sentinel wrote, “We knew it would be dumb. But we had no idea it would be so much dumb fun.”

War of the Worlds

89%

One of the greatest alien invasion stories of all time, H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds has inspired countless adaptations and homages, including multiple films — but it’s Byron Haskin’s 1953 film that critics felt most closely captured the spirit of the book. Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation may have boasted Tom Cruise, Dakota Fanning, and some amazing special effects, but in spite of its technical limitations, the 1953 War made full use of Wells’ timeless themes while incorporating Cold War commentary. Looking back on it, the Hollywood Reporter’s Douglas Pratt wrote, “A half-century after its creation, the film’s best moments are still so enjoyably unnerving that they easily carry a viewer through the necessary but inevitably dated exposition.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Battle: Los Angeles.

Finally, here’s the trailer for Robot Monster, one of the most terrifying and realistic alien invasion movies of all time: