Whether they come in peace or as a conquering force, alien arrivals on Earth always make for a good spectacle.
As alien enthusiasts observe World UFO Day today, 2 July also marks the 25th anniversary of Independence Day — the Roland Emmerich blockbuster that marked the resurgence of large-scale disaster films. The iconic scene of a hostile alien race’s mothership appearing over Earth, launching a countdown to all-out decimation is one that would be subverted 20 years later in Dennis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
Between the opposite viewpoints of these films are a whole host of tropes about alien invasions or their interactions with humanity. Interspersed with a lowdown on the most common ones are recommendations from people’s favourite pop culture offerings in the genre:
‘Bow down to your new masters’
From the time of HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds, alien forces waging war on Earth have been a trope standing in for whatever anxieties the current age is experiencing. Alien forces quite literally embody outsiders, enemies onto whom we can project the vilest of attributes, strip away their humanity and draw clear us versus them boundaries. Wells wrote WOTW as an allegory for the devastation wrought by British Imperial forces in Tasmania; the Martian attack on the UK in his story could have been any colonial army invading a peaceable land to strip it of resources and make it a vassal state.
Read on Firstpost: Aliens in India ‘landed’ a long time ago.
I have always been intrigued by the unknown and unexplained. The existence of extra-terrestrial life is a subject I have keenly followed over the years and popular culture has further fuelled my interest. As a genre, films about extra-terrestrial life have tended to navigate towards portraying dread and destruction, though some of them have attempted to address the subject in a more nuanced fashion.
Ridley Scott’s ALIEN (1979) gave it a spin suited more for a horror film, while Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) introduced a more friendly alien suited for the American family audience. The unidentified nature of the subject itself gives directors and authors more creative freedom to design and script alien contact. Carl Sagan’s 1985 novel CONTACT, a personal favourite, is a prime example of how even detailed communication with an advanced, unknown species could be a riveting read.
I hope the genre continues to expand and experiment across literature and popular culture, and takes inspiration from real-life breakthroughs in alien contact.
— Saptarshi Dutta
‘We’re inside you’
Far more insidious than the flying saucer in the sky is the kind of alien invasion that grows from within. An alien life form either enters a human body and takes it over, or mutates everything in sight. Alien tentacles ripping out an ill-fated character’s chest? Check. Human DNA transformed by some mysterious element to create wholly strange cells? Double check. Natalie Portman venturing into a shimmery haze where plant, animal and ultimately human life are morphing beyond recognition? Check, check and check.
LIFE (2017) by Daniel Espinosa, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson is a film that sort of stayed (for the want of a better word) with me for the sheer nihilism it brings with it. I think it speaks to the cynic inside me who believes this world is going to shit because of unnecessary human intervention and our need for conquest.
Also, the fact that a grotesque and murderous creature was given a benign name, the kind you’d imagine for a Labrador puppy — “Calvin” — sort of added to the darkness the films brings where a bunch of astronauts are in the great unknown, trying to hold on to their dear lives and save themselves from a rogue slimeball that also manages to invade earth eventually. We don’t know how that goes, we can certainly imagine though, and I believe this film is a great metaphor for what happens when humans become audacious enough to mess with things they have no clue of, but go on to do so anyway and then take everyone else down with them. Sounds very similar to the pandemic, I think.
— Arshia Dhar
When a tentacle or decorous DNA mutation won’t do it, an alien story will have a member of the species cross-breeding with a human to propagate their numbers. This usually takes the trope of them taking on a human form, doing the deed with an initially happy-then-hapless prey, and hatching a whole clutch of eggs with suitable slimy progeny emerging from within. Body horror, here we come.
Movies: INDEPENDENCE DAY (a perfectly made, fun blockbuster thriller), ARRIVAL
TV shows: BATTLESTAR GALACTICA, THE EXPANSE, FALLEN SKIES
Video games: MASS EFFECT
— Vikram Viswanath
Some stories choose to focus less on the moment of impact/invasion and what happens once the aliens have properly taken over and made the Earth their home. (Spoiler alert: Nothing good.) Humans are then left having to muffle some aspect of their senses (vision or language, for instance) or hide in bunkers, to escape these alien predators. In some cases, an entire secret organisation needs to be set up to deal with our new extraterrestrial planet-mates.
THE ABYSS (1989, directed by James Cameron) impressed me with its alien plot reveal and underwater setting. It was high-stakes in a different way from the usual fare.
— Rohini Nair
‘We come in peace’
Not all aliens are bad, some come with benevolent intentions, usually to warn ignorant Earthlings of their less than salubrious futures. Earthlings, being ignorant (and no doubt primed with all these hostile takeover/breeding narratives), usually try to attack these good aliens and nearly end up missing their most vital message. Gah, humans. Nothing good ever comes of them.
I loved 3rd ROCK FROM THE SUN, for its sheer goofiness.
— Deven Kanal
‘Lost and found’
A lone alien separated from their tribe, left behind on Earth, must find their way back to their spaceship and home planet. We see you
A critical driving force of scientific exploration has always been the fear of the unknown. What if we reached out to the universe and ‘someone’ answered back? What if we are not ready for the answer? This fear of a hostile response from endless expanse that is space is deep rooted in human psyche. A large chunk of the ‘alien invasion’ genre is based on exploring this fear and the despair and hopelessness of facing a life form that might be a far more evolved, brutal and ruthless mirror image of our own human nature.
John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) plays on this fear of a grotesque reflection of human evil by effortlessly combining the inhospitable bleakness of the Antarctic with a shape shifting alien that assumes the appearance of its victims. The constant mistrust among the scientists questioning who among them is an extra-terrestrial and who is human is an accurate representation of the blurry lines separating our own humanity and inherent violent nature in society.
Ridley Scott’s PROMETHEUS (2012), on the other hand, takes a uniquely biblical stance on this genre by asking the question — what if our own Creators, shamed by our sins, send an alien race against us to wipe the slate clean? The film effortlessly shifts between the concepts of Man, The Creator and Free Will. From the human assuming the role of a creator through the creation of the android David while denying him the one basic right to evolve – Free Will, to the larger than life Creator, represented in the film as “Engineers”. Through David’s dark journey of self-discovery, Prometheus creates raises several poignant questions on our human humanity and the need for self-reflection in the face of annihilation.
— Hirak Chakraborty
‘We’re just like you’
Superman aka Kal-el aka Clark Kent may be one of the most famous examples of it, but aliens passing themselves off as humans has been a much-used trope in other stories as well. Think Roswell, Earth Girls Are Easy, 3rd Rock from the Sun. These narratives have led a whole bunch of us more gullible types to wonder if our weird neighbours are really aliens masquerading as humans. And considering just how weird they are, do you really blame us?
ALIEN, because it’s a perfectly made movie. The plot, the cinematography, the tension and atmosphere…I could not get the movie out of my head when I first watched it, and not too many movies do that to me. I’m always amused when people say Aliens is a better movie than Alien. SMH.
ARRIVAL, for the way it subverted every “alien invasion” movie and story trope and did it so beautifully.
EDGE OF TOMORROW — the repetitive component of the movie and the “time loop-iness” is often compared to Groundhog Day, but it feels more like a classic video game thing (which, if I’m not mistaken, is what the writer of the source material Hiroshi Sakurazaka meant for it to be). Multiple lives and you keep trying to do better, improve yourself and go further. Such a novel idea and very enjoyable too. ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the short story that The Edge of Tomorrow is based on, is also a favourite.
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE… I’m sure I’m not saying anything new here, but the human interactions in the aftermath of an alien invasion make this movie so much more gripping than any human-to-alien combat. Terrific performances too.
Honorary mentions in films: ANNIHILATION, INDEPENDENCE DAY, SIGNS.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (2004)’s political-human-military-philosophical drama in a post-apocalyptic dystopian world is so enthralling, it might’ve been enough in and of itself. But the show then also managed to weave together this mythic story of epic proportions in such a gorgeous manner with such a brilliant premise and ending that you can’t fault it at all. “Aliens” are a whole different deal on the show. BSG is considered to be a space opera and you just need to listen to the opening theme (it’s a haunting version of the ‘Gayatri mantra’!) to understand why it’s the very best of its kind.
FRINGE — I haven’t watched The X-Files (I know, quite shameful) but I remember Fringe was touted as the next best thing when it first premiered. I loved this show! You can tell JJ Abrams was riding a post-Lost high when he created Fringe — the first four seasons have the most narratively satisfying edge of the seat action, and while aliens don’t necessarily invade Earth, there’s an ‘others who look like us and act like us but aren’t us’ mystery that sets up the entire story arc for the series. It’s a lot of fun…I wish there was a show like Fringe on air right now.
— Sneha Khale