“The biggest thing ever to happen to our world!” Movies viewed for Alien Visitors

Alien Visitors will, of course, cover Alien Invasion films so I’ve been watching a few. In the few I’ve seen already (including Day of the Triffids) some patterns and tropes are becoming noticeable.

There’s the military, struggling heroically against the enemy until someone — typically a super-smart scientist — figures out a solution. There’s chaos as everyone loses their shit and panics — it’s every human for themselves, dragging drivers out of vehicles to take them and escape. There’s the desperate need to evacuate cities and people wandering around an empty downtown (e.g., Target Earth). Frequently someone searching for a lost love or family member. And the destruction of countless monuments — the Capitol building in DC, the Eiffel Tower. Not that all of these elements are present in every single movie, but they’re common enough, I think, to count as genre tropes. Though I may revise the list after watching a few more.

The movie I’ll build the chapter around is, logically, WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953), George Pal’s superb adaptation of the Wells novel (seen on my library’s Criterion DVD so it looks gorgeous and bulges with special features). Set in the present, it starts with an opening reminding us of technology’s role in WW I, WW II and the atomic age — and now we face a new battle against weapons of super-science, a … War of the Worlds (the quote in the title is from the trailer, included on the DVD). Then Cedric Hardwicke’s narration discusses how the intellects of Mars, a cold and inhospitable world, had decided it was time to relocate: scanning the Solar System it becomes obvious Earth is the most viable alternative. Before long what appears to be a meteor lands in Southern California, drawing the attention of excited locals — what a tourist attraction! — and Forrester (Gene Barry), a brilliant scientist fishing in the area.

When it turns out it’s not a meteor, the military step in, but to no effect. Unusually for a 1950s SF film, neither is science: neither the atom bomb nor anything else can stop the eerie alien ships and their horrific heat rays. Forrester’s role is to run, protect pretty Sylvia (Ann Robinson) and fall in love with her.It’s an excellent film; the emphasis on religion at the climax would probably annoy the agnostic H.G. but it feels appropriate for the film. While some people dislike Forrester falling desperately hard for Sylvia after knowing her so briefly, I can accept that kind of rapid love as a fictional convention. It might not have seemed strange at all to people coming out of WW II, when rushed romance before a soldier shipped out was a thing (check out the Judy Garland film The Clock as an example).

And those alien ships are just gorgeous, like manta rays with a serpentine tentacle/eye stalk rising out of them. The aliens are indeed alien, doing everything in threes even though, as the commentary track points out, one ship alone is unstoppable. Indeed, that’s something of a weakness: unlike Wells novel and the first drafts of Barré Lyndon’s script the ships are absolutely unbeatable. That ramps up the threat but it makes talk of heroic resistance around the world (and the movie does make it clear this is a global fight) kind of pointless — fight or run, it doesn’t make a difference. Overall, though, this is a great film. “Once they begin to move, no more news comes out of that area.”

Stephen Spielberg’s  WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005) has Tom Cruise as a hardhat jerk who finds himself struggling to keep his family alive during an invasion by — well, not Martians, but comparably  nasty aliens. In contrast to the ’53, this has a real feeling of despair about it, as the characters go up against unstoppable force with superior technology and struggle to survive, usually by running (though Cruise does find a way to take down a tripod at one point). Just as Wells used the aliens to question British colonialism — this is what it’s like being a tribesman with an assegai facing a Gatling gun! — I assumed Spielberg was making a point about our invasion and occupation of Iraq. Instead the film’s tone (as I learned from some interviews) was actually meant to reflect our shock and horror at 9/11 which feels slightly ridiculous to me. Sure, 9/11 was a shocking moment in history, but despite all the propaganda about the terrible threat of Muslim terrorism it was never comparable to the aliens here (“They defeated the greatest power on Earth in a couple of days.”).

A bigger problem is that unlike the Pal version, the aliens don’t make any sense. They teleported their tripods to Earth millennia ago, buried underground — Spielberg wanted an alternative to coming down from the sky — but why are they only now teleporting down to activate them? Why are they disintegrating humans when they see us as a food source? And while the tripods are impressive, they feel, I don’t know, more F/Xish than the sinister ships of the Pal version.  “Watch the lightning — that is them.”

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS (1956) is Ray Harryhausen’s War of the Worlds riff (he’s one of many filmmakers who unsuccessfully pitched adapting the book over the years) in which UFOs demand the Earth surrender — though despite the title, the battle focuses almost entirely on Washington DC, which gives the alien ships a chance to destroy prominent memorials and crash into the Capitol building after they go down in defeat. The movie shows the influence from the Pal film — both movies have a similar discussion of the spaceships’ mechanical eye, for instance and these have a similar force-field — but it doesn’t catch fire the same way (protagonist Hugh Marlowe doesn’t have anything as intense as Gene Barry’s search for Robinson to occupy him, for instance).  However the ships are absolutely awesome, with far more personality than the aliens inside them. “Earth, crippled by these events, waited for the first sign of an invasion from outer space!”

COLOR OUT OF SPACE (2020) has Nicolas Cage and his family raising alpacas on his late parents’ farm when a chartreuse-glowing meteor (one drawback to doing this in color is that the meteor doesn’t get to be a color never seen before by human eyes) crashes to Earth, causing a catalog of ominous effects ranging from telephone static to mutations and insane behavior. This H.P Lovecraft adaptation got several good reviews, but I just found it aimless — all the weirdness never adds up to any sort of building tension, let alone horror. Karloff’s Die, Monster Die adaptation of the story was more fun. “It smells like someone burned a dog.”

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