Golan-Globus Productions/David Foster Productions/Solofilm
Battle: Los Angeles blasts into theaters today, yet another warning that audiences are facing a full-on invasion of alien-invasion movies. Late last year, Skyline and Monsters imagined different parts of the earth laid to waste by extraterrestrials, as apparently do summer 2011 releases Cowboys & Aliens and Super 8. In the midst of these fights for survival, with all their toppling infrastructure and menacing creatures, it's worth retreating to the television (or computer) to consider the genre's evolution.
Alien life forms started appearing at the movies en masse in the 1950s, in B-movies like Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Blob, and earnest Cold War parables running the gamut from anti-nuclear sermons (The Day the Earth Stood Still) to nightmares of collectivization (Invasion of the Body Snatchers). This material proved rich and thematically fungible, meaning lots of remakes, some of which remain the most enduring specimens of the genre.
The most completely sobering alien-colonization scenario unfolds in Steven Spielberg's 2005 version of War of the Worlds (this from the director of benign-flying-saucer films Close Encounters and E.T.), but Philip Kaufman's 1978 riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers rates a close second, its mordant sense of humor paving the way to a defiantly unhappy ending. Like Kevin McCarthy's small-town doctor before him, Donald Sutherland's San Francisco health-department inspector confronts pod-people panic as a public-health concern before it infiltrates his circle of friends (Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams).
It dawns on the worn-thin motley crew that once they fall asleep they're at the mercy of hairy-tendriled alien seedpods, which then give birth to affectless clones in a fantastically gross fashion. The film's most memorable scenes, though, are the what-to-do bull sessions that put the principals together in the same room. The differences between the other Body Snatchers films are perhaps best summed up by what the pods look like: In the Don Siegel original, they look like teardrop-shaped Brussels sprouts, and ooze soap bubbles when burst; in Abel Ferrara's vaguely skeezy 1993 Body Snatchers, which plunks its teen-girl protagonist down on an Alabama military base for summer vacation, they resemble a certain part of the male anatomy. Best not to speak of the 2007 iteration starring Nicole Kidman.
For its part, the 1951 Howard Hawks film The Thing From Another World was successfully remade in 1982 as The Thing (another instance of title erosion). The space-invaders film has long been something of a house specialty for director John Carpenter, who made They Live (1998) in addition to the 1995 reimagining of Village of the Damned. But The Thing, starring Kurt Russell, is perhaps the filmmaker's finest work, primarily on account of its subdued foreboding, which erupts occasionally in graphic creature attacks. They Live, which Jonathan Lethem has recently written a terrific short book about, has its ghouls and its fabulously obvious critique of consumerism. Its tone, however, is a good deal harder to nail down. The Thing builds more steadily, with the terror of its walking-among-us scenario (the Thing here has a knack for replicating helpless humans) compounded by its lived-in Antarctic-outpost setting.
As for non-remake alien-invasion films of recent years, they can for the most part be classified as big-budget-dopy, both deliberately (Men in Black, Mars Attacks!) and not (Independence Day, Signs), or gonzo cult objects (The Arrival, Dark City). Some of these, notably Dark City, have been quite good. But a final word should be devoted to the stragglers: magnificently misbegotten chimeras like Dreamcatcher, adapted from a baggy Stephen King novel, and Lifeforce, from a book called The Space Vampires by Colin Wilson.
The latter film was director Tobe Hooper's follow-up to the massively successful Poltergeist, and it cost a then-exorbitant $25 million to produce. After a troubled production, the extraterrestrial-energy-vampire tale didn't fare so well at the box office. Today, though, it boasts a Wikipedia page that kindly ignores its critical reception ("hysterical vampire porn," wrote Janet Maslin in the Times), and you can find it on DVD. Lifeforce is not so much a genre film as a parade-of-genres film: The free-for-all includes the aforementioned vampires, zombies, giant desiccated bats, aw-shucks astronauts, bare-naked superbeings who reduce humans to mummies with blue lightning, a hospital for the criminally insane run by Patrick Stewart, large-scale London conflagration, and many, many time-elapsing in-scene dissolves. They don't make—or remake—nonsense like this anymore.
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