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Mars Attacks: Breaking Down 5 Types of Alien-Invasion Movies

From ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ to ‘Close Encounters,’ how to recognize what type of extraterrestrials-among-us sci-fi movie you’re watching

Multiplexes across the country are going to be invaded this weekend by Arrival, a moving sci-fi drama starring Amy Adams as a linguist who helps the U.S. government communicate with mysterious visitors from another world. The film represents Hollywood’s latest attempt to speculate on what might happen if we’re ever actually contacted by extraterrestrials. Will they be green-skinned warlords with creepy antennae? Grayish waifs who come bearing gifts? Sexy supermodels with nefarious agendas? Or something else altogether?

Since the 1950s, movies have sent so many aliens to Earth that it’s possible now to categorize their stories, from the nail-biting action-adventures to cerebral headscratchers. So do you identify which particular type of watch-the-skies spectacle you’re at? Here’s everything you need to know about the five different alien-invasion movies you’re likely to have a close encounter with.

1. Bow Down to Our New Alien Overlords
Back in the 1890s, writer H.G. Wells offered one of the first impressions of what an alien encounter might be like …and let’s just say he wasn’t a fan. His novel The War of the Worlds established what for a long time would become the most common form of they-came-from-outer-space invasion, seen in movies as wide-ranging as 1956’s cheesy Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and the much more expensive 1996 blockbuster Independence Day. In nearly all of these films, enormous spacecrafts descend from on high, and they unleash hell. That’s pretty much it.

There have been winning variations on the concept, however – from wild parodies like Tim Burton’s expensive 1996 goof Mars Attacks! to Steven Spielberg’s low-to-the-ground 2005 take on Wells’ book. This latter-day War of the Worlds has Tom Cruise playing an ordinary guy trying to protect his children when global disaster strikes. That “one brave soul against a malevolent horde” premise represents a lot of what’s so appealing about these stories. Whether it’s a big-budget spectacle or a scrappy indie like the 2011 UK action-comedy Attack the Block, there’s something inspiring about seeing humankind stand strong against seemingly unstoppable forces of extraterrestrial evil.

2. They Walk Among Us!
Not every alien attack is as splashy as Independence Day. In 1955, Jack Finney’s classic pulp novel The Body Snatchers imagined a stealthier coup, with strange creatures literally replacing our friends and neighbors by copying the way they look. The book has been adapted to the big screen multiple times – twice under the name Invasion of the Body Snatchers – and in each version, the filmmakers comment on cultural conformity, and how easy it would be for an aggressively “normal”-seeming monster to infiltrate society and take it over, one person at a time.

This idea has been spun cleverly in multiple cult-favorite science-fiction movies, including one that predates Finney’s book: 1953’s Invaders From Mars, where a bright kid discovers that the adult authority figures in his life are all automatons. (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper later remade that film in 1986, turning it into a sly satire of Spielberg’s cosmic optimism.) Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s 2013 comedy The World’s End uses the arrival of alien android lookalikes as a metaphor for the creeping corporate takeover of English small towns. And one of the most inspired interpretations of the “evil extraterrestrials in disguise” is director John Carpenter’s Reagan-era critique They Live, where a special pair of glasses helps the hero identify the skeletal creeps who are masquerading as patriotic American conservatives.

3. What If We’re the Aliens?
Aside from the traditional “a spaceship lands on Earth” movies, the Fifites and Sixties saw a wave of “an Earth ship lands on another planet,” as in 1950’s Rocketship X-M, where a Moon mission diverts to Mars and finds a whole other civilization. Similar to War of the Worlds and its ilk, the dominant theme of these films is hostility: We meet the stranger, and the stranger isn’t kind. The peak example of the plot is found in Alien and its sequels, where humanity’s intrusion into other galaxies leaves us with our own deadly intruders to deal with, right in our own off-world colonies and interstellar vehicles.

But there are also plenty of examples of motion pictures where our journeys to new worlds are inspired by our initial contact with other species. 2001 would be the blueprint for this kind of film, later copied by the likes of Contact and Mission to Mars, where Earthlings discover a message from some ancient alien race and follow its instructions. The result of that initial communication is usually a trip – in both the literal and psychedelic senses of the word – that ends with humanity evolving.

4. Have You Got Anything From the Extraterrestrial’s Point-of-View?
Not every incoming dispatch from the heavens is a blessing. In the 1995 thriller Species, aliens troll us hard by teaching us how to grow our own beautiful woman, who then turns out to be a sex-crazed killer named Sil. What’s remarkable about the movie isn’t its twist, but the many scenes of Sil navigating life on Earth, giving the audience some idea of how curious our customs must seem to an outsider. That idea gets expanded on brilliantly in director Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 art-film Under the Skin, which has Scarlett Johansson playing a predator who seduces men to their deaths, and gradually becomes fascinated by what it actually means to look and act human.

For some less violent “what if feels like for an extraterrestrial” action, start of course with E.T., Steven Spielberg’s heartwarming 1982 masterpiece about a squat, lumpy brown botanist and the suburban latch-key kid he befriends. After that, make time for John Sayles’ quirky 1984 morality tale The Brother from Another Planet, with Joe Morton as a humanoid alien whose resemblance to an African-American male in New York City gives him a very different perspective on Earth life than the one in Spielberg’s middle-class California. And for one of the most on-point depictions of “otherness,” check out David Bowie’s performance in the mind-bending 1976 drama The Man Who Fell to Earth, where the rock god plays a miraculous creature who gets spoiled and poisoned by life on our planet.

5. The Age of Enlightenment
Without giving too much away about Arrival – which has some heart-stopping twists and turns – the movie represents the most hopeful vision of what visitors from another world could bring. In a way, Denis Villenueve’s contribution to the genre is in the tradition of one of the cornerstone films of science-fiction cinema: 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, about an invader who promises to share the universe’s latest technological advancements, provided that we can abandon our warlike tendencies. Given how broken our planet can seem, stories like these are alluring escapist fantasies, suggesting that no matter how badly we screw everything up, there might be someone waiting up in the stars to bail us out.

Which brings us to Spielberg, whose earliest take on aliens came via 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a movie that toys with the audience’s memories of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers in multiple terrifying abduction scenes. Then it makes a hard right turn and goes the Day the Earth Stood Still route by making the extraterrestrials friendly and helpful. This is the invasion picture distilled to its essence: fear of the unknown, giving way to the euphoria of making new friends. That was a positive message 40 years ago. Today it may be even bolder – and far more necessary.

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