Looking back over the history of science fiction cinema, it’s fascinating to note just how long it took aliens to invade the big screen. HG Wells’ The War Of The Worlds popularised the alien invasion subgenre in 1897, but it would be more than 50 years before an adaptation made it to the big screen.
Before the 1950s, sci-fi cinema was dominated by mad scientists and monsters on the rampage, from James Whale’s 1931 classic Frankenstein to Ernest B. Schoedsack’s brilliantly odd Dr. Cyclops (1940), in which a mad professor shrinks a group of explorers using radiation.
It took the post-war paranoia of the Cold War to usher in a golden age of sci-fi, and with it, a rash of alien invasion movies. These invasions came in many forms, and the nature of alien visitations changed notably as the 50s wore on.
In The Man From Planet X (1951), a bargain basement picture set in Scotland but shot in California, its extraterrestrial visitor is a peaceful one, only becoming violent when an evil scientist attacks him.
Robert Wise’s better known The Day The Earth Stood Still, released a few months later, has a similar scenario. Michael Rennie’s benevolent alien, Klaatu, comes to Earth to issue a dire warning about its inhabitants’ aggressive nature.
1953’s It Came From Outer Space introduced an initially sinister breed of alien, who kidnap the inhabitants of a small Arizona town and replace them with emotionless duplicates, a sci-fi trope that would appear repeatedly in 50s sci-fi cinema. It later transpires that the aliens are harmless, and merely need time to repair their broken down ship, and after returning the kidnapped inhabitants to their loved ones, the creatures make their dramatic exit.
Later that same year, the big screen adaptation of The War Of The Worlds finally arrived courtesy of director Byron Haskin, and its aliens were anything but benevolent or friendly. Crashing to Earth in what appear to be meteorites, the Martians emerge in vast, eerily-designed war machines, and immediately begin obliterating everything they see.
The epic sweep of Wells’ novel made the cut, but his sly allegory didn’t. Originally written as a cutting indictment of the British Empire’s inhumane foreign policy, The War Of The Worlds became a straight ‘us versus them’ war movie in the hands of Hollywood, and ends on a clanging note of religiosity that would have, no doubt, irritated the original novel’s rationalist author.
Nevertheless, Haskin’s adaptation, produced by George Pal, is an effective one, and its visual effects are startling, considering the technical limitations of the era.
The varying tone of these early 50s movies, with their alien visitors alternately friendly or malevolent, were inextricably bound up with the mood of the time. The Second World War had ended with the horrifying image of the nuclear bomb, and the Cold War era had begun.
As anti-communist sentiment grew in late 40s America, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, reports began to flood in of strange, disc-like lights in the sky. The fear of invasion and destruction, both physical and psychic, was apparently everywhere.
Suddenly, the threat of aliens introduced by HG Wells back in the Victorian era had a greater sense of immediacy than ever before, and the possible outcomes of such an invasion were played out in science fiction films throughout the decade.
In Earth Versus The Flying Saucers (1956), aliens seek to overwhelm our planet with shock and awe, destroying several famous landmarks in the process.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, released the same year, suggests an alien threat that is silent and insidious. Initially dismissing their claims as mere paranoia, a small town doctor (Kevin McCarthy) realises his patients are gradually being replaced by emotionless Pod People. It’s a nightmarish, brilliantly directed film that taps into the era’s preoccupation with a loss of identity, and is inarguably one of the best science fiction movies of the decade.
As the 50s drew to a close, the alien invasion theme was played out with less conviction, and with sometimes hilarious results. Films such as Invasion Of The Saucer-Men (1957) and Edward D. Wood Jr’s Plan 9 From Outer Space are hugely entertaining, but not, perhaps, for the reasons their creators intended.
By the 60s, the era of the alien invasion movie appeared to be over. Fifties anxieties of communist invasion were replaced by new fears of nuclear war, which manifested themselves in such films as Fail Safe and Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove.
Of the few alien invasion movies to appear in the 60s, only Wolf Rilla’s Village Of The Damned, a well-handled adaptation of John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, is genuinely worthy of note. Others, such as The Day Mars Invaded Earth or 1969‘s daft Monitors, are mere curiosities.
In the decades that followed, filmmakers returned to the theme of alien invasion only sporadically. Some, such as Philip Kaufman’s satirical updating of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978), were brilliant. Others, like Roland Emmerich’s expensive and rather daft Independence Day (1996), were merely diverting exercises in special effects.
The 50s period of UFOs, Cold War anxiety and remarkable technological progress brought with it an explosion in sci-fi cinema, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since. The alien invasion subgenre, popularised by Wells, suddenly seized the imagination, and the movies that came as a result mark a unique moment in history.
It’s odd, therefore, that in 2010, we stand on the cusp of the largest wave of invasion films to hit cinemas in 60 years. Spearheaded by the Strause Brothers’ Skyline, the next few months will see the release of around a dozen such films, including Monsters, Battle Los Angeles and Cowboys And Aliens, while directors Sam Raimi and Roland Emmerich are both said to be preparing similar projects of their own.
So, what has brought about this sudden resurgence of interest in a premise that is over a hundred years old? Some have suggested it’s simply a result of the cyclical nature of the Hollywood movie making system. Recent years have seen a constant barrage of horror and vampire films, and the industry is now looking for ideas in the science fiction genre, perhaps hastened by the success of Avatar.
Others have claimed that the armada of incoming invasion films is an attempt by the world’s governments to mentally prepare us for a mass ‘decloaking’ of extraterrestrials in the real world, following an alleged mass sighting of UFOs over New York on 13 October.
While I’d love to believe that aliens are about to land in my back garden, I think the former theory is the more plausible one. Staging convincing alien invasions on a relatively small budget is now easier than ever thanks to computer graphics, as Skyline and Monsters demonstrate.
And although the alien invasion theme doesn’t have the same terrifying resonance for us as it did to audiences in the 50s, the subgenre nevertheless taps into enduring, basic human anxieties that are as old as society itself.
Steven Spielberg’s 2005 adaptation of War Of The Worlds, for example, took Wells’ Victorian premise and updated it for a post-911 audience, evoking contemporary fears of terrorism and its chaotic effects.
Whether aliens attack in flying saucers, or assume our identities and walk among us, the threat of attack from unknown aggressors continues to hold a fascinating sway.