There are alien invasions and then there are alien invasions.
There are some — like Invasion of the Body Snatchers — where the aliens use stealth to take away our very humanity in order to control us. I have some experience with this kind, having created NBC’s season-long paranoia-fest Dark Skies in the later 1990s. Imagine those victorious aliens, having co-opted our bodies and our minds, sitting around in our own homes post-humanity, nothing so much as smug interlopers.
This Smack is not about that subtle, paranoid kind.
No, this Smack is about the ones where the aliens swoop in, lasers blazing, hell-bent on some balls-to-the-wall human ass-kicking. No demands, no negotiations, just straight-ahead mayhem where the Earth is torn up with no regard whatsoever. It’s as if they’re treating our planet like a condemned building that just needs to knocked down as fast as possible so the new construction can get started. I know some folks think we’re already doing that ourselves but let’s skip the politics and just define this as apocalyptical visitation.
On June 14, Battle: Los Angeles will be out on Blu-ray and DVD, only a few months after its $202-million (as of May 30) worldwide march of destruction. Not bad.
Battle: Los Angeles wasn’t the first alien apocalypse film. The most prominent of our age are, of course, the Transformers franchise (just because they’re robots doesn’t mean they aren’t extra-terrestrial intelligence), Steve Spielberg’s The War of the Worlds and the one that really kicked it up a notch or five when it came out, Independence Day. I’m not including Knowing or The Day the Earth Stood Still because they’re not as straight-ahead in their destructiveness.
We’ve put each one of our contenders in a corner of our enlarged ring at the Smack.
Not That We Care About Money…
But this Is How Much These Movies Made (so far) Worldwide
Independence Day ($817-million)
War of the Worlds ($592-million)
Battle: Los Angeles ($202-million)
So the almighty box-office has had its say about which was the best one. Thank you studio accounting departments. Moving on.
We know that our readers see a lot of films out of hope and hype and that you don’t always love what you’ve seen even though you’ve voted with your box office dollars as if you do.
There’s a poll later in this Smack. Express yourself now. When the space armadas do show up and you haven’t voted, well, you are so going to be kicking yourself…
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Challenger #1: Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
This film asks very little of its audience except to enjoy it. Supremely confident in its mission statement for itself, Battle: Los Angeles reduces a war of annihilation waged against humanity to a street fight in Santa Monica with gritty Marines determined to give their lives to save the rest of us. Aaron Eckhart proves himself to be an action hero to come as Staff Sergeant Nantz, a man with a monumental bad call in his past work leading men and women into combat. This is his chance to make up for it.
There’s not a lot of logic in the premise; clearly the filmmakers didn’t believe they needed it. Meteors fall from the sky, alien-machine fighting hybrids emerge from the waters and it’s on. The movie wants to have it both ways as regards how it sees the battle. It wants you to believe that the other side has an asymmetrical superiority but, at the same time, to believe our plucky side will still beat them. Kind of like Afghanistan with the U.S. cast as the aliens.
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Challenger #2: Transformers (2007)
Legend has it that this film was pitched as a film about a boy getting his first car. That car, however, happens to drive Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf) straight into a Demolition Derby of two groups of alien robots whose intergalactic war has crashed landed on Earth. Fearful of the evil Megatron and his Decepticons, the monologue-fueled Optimus Prime and his Autobots enlist Sam to help them find the Allspark, a techno-mystical cube with the power to animate any mechanical form.
Back to the car. It’s actually one of those toys we played with in the 80s named Bumblebee. It can turn into other things. It makes hot girls like Mikaela (Megan Fox) notice its nerdy driver. Boy Meets Girl, Boy and Girl Fight Evil Alien Robots.
Like Battle: Los Angeles, this one doesn’t ask much of its audience but to enjoy seeing things brilliantly destroyed. It adds a rom-com like love story in between the action. Look at the box office, this is obviously a very successful formula. Transformers also turns attention on the nation’s military who manage to look overwhelming odds in the eye and light them up with automatic weapons fire.
My favorite line: “You gonna lay the fate of the world on a kid’s Camaro?”
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Challenger #3: War of the Worlds (2005)
Ray (Tom Cruise) is just a basic guy who, despite being incredibly handsome, still lives a working class life and has family problems. The absolutely last thing he needs on his plate is an alien invasion.
Steven Spielberg’s version of this material, War of the Worlds, does far more than update the 1953 The War of the Worlds which drew inspiration from the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast which was based on the 1896 book originally penned by H.G. Wells. It accepts some of the core principles but it chooses to tell the story through the horrific experiences of this single family. It succeeds in being the most personal version of this story ever told.
You already have the basics in your sci-fi DNA. Lumbering tripod machines, check; rising from the ground, check; blue rays of destruction, check.
It’s a big story and Ray brings it down to size because he and his kids must make a harrowing journey from his home in New Jersey to his ex-wife’s home to escape the marauding invaders. It’s a road show on a very dangerous highway as humanity falls apart at the seams and aliens pursue humans with a “no place to hide” policy.
Spielberg’s vision plays straight to the heart of the fear-ridden, anxiety-prone human world, tapping into the palpable tension around the globe. Coming four years after 9/11, it seemed to be saying, “Well, it could be even worse.” And it did well enough that Spielberg is doing it more or less as a TV series now on TNT with Falling Skies.
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The Champion: Independence Day (1996)
Packed with as much patriotism as the Star Spangled Banner, Independence Day came out on the Fourth of July during the Age of Clinton and had crowds cheering in theaters across the United States by managing to make standing up to evil alien invaders something that would have made the Founding Fathers very proud. The film follows a group of radically eclectic humans uniting through determination and chance to fight an aggressive alien invasion that cripples Earth within minutes. The film manages to transcend its jingoistic origin to appeal to a vast global audience that apparently demanded their right to stick their chests out to extra-terrestrials.
The pesky aliens here may have complex technology but what they want out of life is so exceedingly simple: the extermination of the human race. This is cosmic genocide. They really do want to turn the Earth into a parking lot for an occupation or use that obviously does not include us. We are simply in the way.
So, again, those plucky humans — led by the always great Will Smith — manage to defeat the aliens who are vastly ahead of us in technology by taking on the tactics of guerilla war. In addition to guts and pluck, they have a (almost) magic laptop computer. It’s fun, not scary, given that any film that puts a drunken Randy Quaid in a jet fighter, next to the President of the United States, in the climax, shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
I accepted all four of these films as they wanted to be accepted and went in the theater hoping to be entertained. Each time I walked out, I felt at minimum like I’d gotten a film experience that can only come when hundreds and hundreds of very talented people spend gobs and gobs of studio money to make what they hope will be a blockbuster.
If you can look at these films only as films, good for you. I have spoiled my ability to do that by studying and writing about UFOlogy, and I always see the material through that prism of perception. When it comes to thinking about an alien invasion film, your own belief system does have something to do with the viewing experience.
Some people like me believe we are being visited by extra-terrestrials right now, for real, and we hope to hell that they have better intentions toward us than we do to ourselves.
Most people these days do believe there is other life in the universe and that we are not alone. Most of that most, however, don’t believe this other life has come here to Earth. Most of that most of the other most, don’t think if ET does come calling that it will necessarily be a bad thing.
On the standard of whether or not these films are made well enough to “feel” real, every single one of these four films manages to make its premise come to life, given the givens. Technically, in their abilities to allow us to suspend our disbelief, all of these films are first rate.
Four alien invasion blockbusters. All four deliver thrills. Two of them deliver some comedy with their action. None of them really put much thought into why the aliens are acting the way they do. Things must really suck where they’re from to have put them in such a bad mood.
Transformers is still just a toy grown large. Battle: Los Angeles is like a loud first-person shooter videogame. Independence Day needs popcorn to aid digestion.
They’re all very competently rendered. Each one has fans.
Even so, the one that works the best (for me) is War of the Worlds. It’s the only truly scary one of the bunch. It’s more personally compelling. My number two would be Independence Day, if for no other reason than a chance to go to Area 51.
Opinions may vary. There’s that poll over the right of this post, asking you to do your civic duty and vote your conscience.
Watch the skies. Then duck!