Most alien encounters tended toward the man versus monster contest, from It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958) through the film it inspired decade later: Alien (1979), Ridley Scott's space age gothic horror monster movie. Set in the industrial gloom of a intergalactic freighter, where seven contract employees find themselves hunted by the most perfect predatory organism in the universe, it's an exercise of pure mood and style, lubricated with blood and acid, decorated in grime, and presided over by the most feral space creature to burst from a human chest. The James Cameron-directed sequel Aliens (1986) trades the haunted house mood for war film camaraderie and creates a balls-to-the-wall action film with a conspiratorial undercurrent: Earth versus an army of the acid-dripping creatures. The two form a complementary pair unmatched by any further sequels as well as two of the most adrenaline-driven space adventures from the dark side of science fiction.
The most extreme example of the assault from outer space is Independence Day (1996), Roland Emmerich's high-tech revision of War of the Worlds, where all that stands between the future of humanity and a holocaust from beyond the stars is a computer virus. I prefer Paul Verhoeven's oddly fascistic Starship Troopers (1997), an intergalactic platoon movie with an undercurrent of satire that suggests that the control of information and propaganda and the blind obedience of driven, patriotic soldiers are the costs of victory. For a lighter take, Tim Burton's tongue-in-cheek spoof Mars Attacks! (1996) offers bug-eyed pranksters from outer space with a seriously demented sense of humor who play fatal practical jokes on the population of planet Earth. The script is too loose to call it a story (it was adapted from a series of bubble-gum cards!), but the disjointed series of sight gags and set pieces revels in a love of 50s invasion movies.
Steven Spielberg championed a more idealistic meeting of races in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T. (1982), a pair of films filled with a genuine childlike wonder. The legacy was continued in Ron Howard's Cocoon (1985) and the Joe Dante's Explorers (1985) - where senior citizens and schoolboys, respectively, discover the benevolence of our brothers from outer space - and John Carpenter's underrated Starman (1984). More ambiguous is The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Nicolas Roeg's trippy transformation of an allegorical Walter Tevis novel into a surreal meditation on an alien and alienating culture. David Bowie is a true stranger in a strange land, a space traveler on a mission to Earth for the sake of a dying planet who becomes seduced by sex, alcohol and the media, his life destroyed from without by some vague conspiracy.
Part offbeat horror film, part UFO conspiracy and part tribute to 1950s alien invasion pictures, Strange Invaders (1983) finds a town that time forgot populated by bug-eyed monsters that shoot lasers while living in Happy Days nostalgia. Michael Laughlin directs the hazy scenes of the stuck-in-the-50s small town like some misty-eyed time warp with a few weird twists. The Brother From Another Planet (1984) is a mute extraterrestrial who crash lands in New York's inner city and is adopted by the community while intergalactic slavers come looking for him. John Sayles's witty, warm comedy is less science fiction than social commentary, but engaging nonetheless.
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Atomic Scare
Is a giant monster movie really science fiction? It ain't good science, to be sure, but the atomic scare was a very real part of America in the 1950s, from "duck and cover" drills to backyard bomb shelters. The oversized menaces of Them! (1955), a plague of giant ants in a desert community, and Jack Arnold's Tarantula (1955), two of the best of the genre, visualized the unknown in ways both fantastic and concrete. They weren't the first of the creature features - the genre had been largely dormant since King Kong (1933) was revived with The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), a pair of low budget spectacles brought to life with Ray Harryhausen's stop motion animation. But where these two films featured "prehistoric" creatures revived by atomic experiments, the later films featured the familiar made unfamiliar and menacing. Mutated by radiation, they represent nature reacting to the poison and death that mankind has unleashed on Earth. The roll call of benign creatures turned into giant rampaging monsters is almost endless: The Black Scorpion (1957), The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Monster That Challenged The World (a caterpillar; 1958), a whole series of Bert I. Gordon quickies including The Beginning of the End (locusts, 1957), Earth Versus the Spider (1958), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Village of the Giants (1965), the latter with giant teenagers (they don't call him Mr. B.I.G. for nothing), and the infamous Night of the Lepus (1972), an invasion of giant bunny rabbits!
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