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Alien Nation

For Hollywood, extraterrestrials are a reflection of what Americans think and fear about themselves

Humanity has long wondered if we’re alone in the universe. But at the movies, extraterrestrials are stopping by to say hello on a pretty regular basis. Already this year, we’ve been invaded by aliens in 10 Cloverfield Lane, watched as the Dark Knight tried to defeat a notable Kryptonian in Batman v Superman and been forced to recover from an all-out alien war in The 5th Wave. But those films were just the opening act, making way for Independence Day: Resurgence — the sequel to 1996’s Independence Day, which remains modern Hollywood’s premier alien-takeover movie.

Cinematic trends come and go, but interstellar visitors have been a movie staple for 65 years — starting with one of the greatest alien-invasion films, The Day the Earth Stood Still, which hit theaters in the fall of 1951. In subsequent years, aliens have appeared in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps their most common attribute is that they’re not really aliens at all. Sure, they may hail from faraway planets and shoot super-advanced death-rays at us, but they’re merely stand-ins for obsessions and fears that are plaguing the people of Earth — specifically, Americans. Those societal hangups have evolved over the years, but rather than discussing them publicly, we just invent alien hordes to come to our planet so we can hash them out that way.

The Day the Earth Stood Still didn’t just help kick-start Hollywood’s alien-invasion craze — it reflected the societal anxieties of the time, a technique that became a staple of the genre. In this way, movies were following in the footsteps of science-fiction literature: Novels like The Time Machine and 1984 were thinly veiled commentaries on their times, responding to, respectively, rigid class structures and growing fears of tyrannical governments.

In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a UFO lands in Washington, D.C., and an alien named Klaatu emerges to observe what makes Earthlings tick. He learns that humans are a violent, distrustful species that tends to resolve conflicts through war. At the movie’s end, Klaatu lets the humans know that if they don’t become a more peaceful civilization, they will be eradicated by the galaxy’s other inhabitants, who don’t want the warmongering to ruin the rest of the universe. A relatively simple social commentary disguised as sci-fi, The Day the Earth Stood Still preached tolerance and an end to violence in the wake of World War II and the ensuing Cold War. Klaatu wasn’t an alien so much as an otherworldly Jiminy Cricket, scolding us for behaving like monsters.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

That same year, the other major alien-invasion template was established with The Thing — which served as the source material for John Carpenter’s well-regarded remake 31 years later. In this horror movie, a group of scientists and military personnel accidentally thaw out a killer E.T. who long ago crash-landed in the Arctic. (It doesn’t end up well for the humans.) If The Day the Earth Stood Still aspired to speak to our better natures, then The Thing just wanted to scare the hell out of us, letting the aliens represent all the frightening unknowns out there in the world — in this movie’s case, the looming possibility of nuclear war and the paranoia that scary Communists were going to infiltrate America and destroy our way of life.

With those two films, studios found their alpha and omega for the alien-invasion genre. But no matter the tone, they often feel like bulletins from our collective consciousness — mass entertainment revealing what we’re all thinking. 1953’s The War of the Worlds (based the H.G. Wells novel) is awash in fear over nuclear holocaust; 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers used the replacement of ordinary citizens in a sleepy California community by aliens as a metaphor for the era’s anti-communist fervor. Tellingly, since then both movies have been remade to reflect societal shifts: In Steven Spielberg’s hands, War of the Worlds (2005) became a harrowing, somber allegory for the 9/11 attacks; Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) attacked American anxiety in the aftermath of Watergate and Vietnam. The times had changed, but the aliens were the same.

Basically, no matter how you feel about your fellow humans, Hollywood has an alien movie for you. Think we’re a hopelessly primitive species that deserves to be wiped out? Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! created a subversive scenario in which you’re actually rooting for the invaders — after all, the human characters are all shallow, greedy dummies who ought to be obliterated. Believe we’re fundamentally decent creatures living in a benevolent universe? Then you’re more aligned with Spielberg’s twin hits Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. — two of the most beloved sci-fi films, no doubt in part because they radiate such optimism that super-sophisticated alien races would totally want to hang out with us. Seems like wishful thinking.

A sign of how fundamentally narcissistic the alien-invasion genre is that, for as many movies as there have been, so few of these extraterrestrials have any discernible personality. Who’s the most famous movie alien? Maybe the freaky monster from the Alien franchise? Can you name one quality about him beyond how scary he is? Whether it’s the beast in The Thing, the Earth colonizers in War of the Worlds, the kindly mutes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or the ruthless killing machine of Predator, our interstellar visitor is mostly just a blank slate, something that goes bump in the night. Even the admittedly lovable E.T. isn’t the most scintillating of heroes — really, he’s just a new twist on the loyal-pooch character in those boy-and-his-dog family films. It’s Elliott who grows and changes over the movie, learning the value of friendship.

But if previous alien-invasion movies articulated suppressed societal concerns, 1996’s Independence Day was, quite simply, a celebration of blowing shit up.

Remember the Independence Day trailer? It included a gaudy (yet now-iconic) shot of the White House being blasted to smithereens by a menacing, gigantic flying saucer. The image should have elicited dread — a relatively realistic depiction of aliens destroying one of America’s most emblematic structures. But it only produced cheers. And the entire film was like this: Opening with a scene in which a character is listening to R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” Independence Day treated our possible annihilation as a goof. The cultural critiques and political commentary of the past were all gone — suddenly, this alien assault was just an excuse for another kick-ass blockbuster. The action sequences and explosions were all big and impersonal, and the extraterrestrials were unimaginatively designed, blandly menacing monsters that we only could defeat after the president delivered a rousing speech to planet Earth. In a way, Independence Day contained its own sort of political commentary. In the innocent days before 9/11, it treated widespread destruction and untold numbers of deaths as just “awesome” summer-movie fare.

Not surprisingly, 9/11 changed all of that. The rampaging creatures of Cloverfield, Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, Signs and Pacific Rim created the sort of devastation that intentionally reminded us of what we’d seen on our television during that day in 2001. Although just as unknowable as the aliens who attacked us in earlier decades, these new monsters were now a perfect symbol for the shadowy, frighteningly foreign terrorists we were sure would strike again at any moment.

Does Independence Day: Resurgence add a new chapter to this ever-shifting narrative? Not at all, but other filmmakers continue to tinker with this well-worn genre, finding fresh angles. Last year, the little-seen documentary The Visit imagined how the planet would actually react if extraterrestrials arrived. Speaking with scientists, diplomats, NASA officials and U.N. representatives, Danish director Michael Madsen stripped away Hollywood’s sci-fi razzle-dazzle to present a realistic sense of humanity’s preparations for an alien encounter. Brilliantly, he lets the camera serve as the aliens’ POV, so that we’re, in a sense, listening to the human subjects from an outside, otherworldly perspective. (For once, we literally are the aliens.) And soon, Madsen’s subjects move from being curious about the aliens to wondering if humanity is worthy of coexisting with them.

In its own way, The Visit underlines what’s been true about alien-invasion movies for 65 years. For our entire existence, people have looked to the stars, speculating if there’s intelligent life out there and what it might look like. But the movies we make express the other side of that speculation. Deep down, we wonder what those invaders would think of us.