September, 1997
Published in The Hearsay
at The OSU College of Law

Invasion of the Space Alien Movies

Independence Day was the biggest hit a summer ago. This summer, Men in Black topped the movie charts, with Space Jam, Contact, and many others as recent entries. The invasion of the Space Alien Movies is upon us, and it's time to understand why.

The answer is pretty simple. Space alien invasions offer everything the modern movie-maker needs: bad guys, good guys, the latest film technology, scope for creativity, and a surprisingly large dose of the truth.

Bad guys.     First realize how hard it is these days to find the right kind of bad guy. A proper bad guy is totally evil and overwhelmingly powerful. It is handy if film-goers also know they are supposed to hate or fear the bad guys. In earlier times this meant Nazis or Communists or, in the old Westerns, Indians out for scalps.

But peace and prosperity have really put the movie industry in a bind. Ethnic stereotyping is strictly out, so that about eliminates any group on Earth. And there aren't very many candidates for total evil and overwhelming power (well, maybe lawyers). After a few movies about terrorists or drug cartels we all start to realize that they can't take over the world.

Space aliens fill the gap perfectly. The degree of their evil and power is limited only by the imagination. And there is no anti-defamation league anywhere for light years around.

Good guys.    On the good guy front it helps to have the individual hero, the group that the hero saves, and some benevolent outsiders. Alien movies provide it all.

For individuals, Jung writes that the great story is the young hero overcoming the dragon to win the beautiful princess. The formula works perfectly when aliens come to Earth. First, we humans are the young heroes in the face of the older Galactic culture. Second, the dragon is still a dragon -- just watch the last scene in Men in Black. Third, the beautiful princess is still around, although these days she might shoot the dragon herself.

On the group level, the theme is inclusion. Every single actor in the world, of any race or nationality, can be cast in the fight against extra-terrestrials. Every single watcher in the theatre (if human) is on the good guy team. Marketing directors really love that.

Then there is the entire realm of helpful aliens. In the old days we might have called them angels or fairies (hey, there are new movies about them, too). Today a screenwriter can cite NASA itself on the possibility of life out there, and can give these nice aliens just enough power to help the humans win in their struggle with evil.

Technology and special effects.    Alien movies almost uniquely fit the modern taste and economic imperative for special effects and shiny new technology.

Special effects are key to today's movie economics -- they draw people to the big screens and play well in the growing international market. Modern special effects also score on an artistic and psychological level. Many of us love to see things in the movies that we have never seen before. As computer technology rushes forward in the 90s, so do special effects. The big breakthrough is that so many of the effects look real, not like the obvious fakes in Grade B movies from the fifties.

What movies can best make use of the wonderful new effects? We have already seen every sort of disaster movie, plus huge dinosaurs that come back to life on a remote island (there are those dragons again). Just as there is a shortage of bad guys, however, there is a dearth of genres that use enough special effects. Westerns are definitely out -- we don't want to see a horse transforming into some grotesque creature. In fact, almost any story that purports to portray real life is questionable.

Once again space alien movies ride to the rescue. Any self-respecting alien invasion will include lots of special effects. At a minimum, Industrial Light and Magic or its competitors can create vivid images of the aliens themselves, the spaceships they drive, and the amazing technology they wield. Take the latter. James Bond always came up with nifty gadgets, but there's a limit to how many miracles can come out of that small basement where the British scientists always worked. When it comes to space aliens, your manufacturing problems are solved. The enemy galaxy has plenty of room to build a Death Star or whatever else the director orders.

Of course, technology does still impose some limits on moviemakers. That's why we see The Invasion of the Body Snatchers theme over and over again. You know, the space alien who just happens to take over a human body. This summer the gimmick shows up in Men in Black, Contact, and The Fifth Element. Here the special effects work in reverse -- through the magic of movies, we can make space aliens look just like humans. Amazing. And lots cheaper to film than creating those expensive puppets or painstaking models.

Creativity and truth.    Given the basic plot -- aliens threaten humans -- a writer has almost unlimited creativity on genre, technology, and nature of the aliens. The genre can be horror movie (Alien), heroic struggle against evil (Independence Day), or hip comedy (Men in Black). The technology is limited only by the budget for special effects. And the aliens can be as different as the faces of good and evil. In short, the alien threat is a template for as many movies as the public is willing to see.

Perhaps most strangely of all, the alien movies offer enough truth to let us suspend our disbelief. No, Men in Black does not correspond to current reality. I do not believe 1500 space aliens are now living in Manhattan, many of them driving cabs. These alien stories do, however, express ancient truths about what we long for in a story: the heroic fight, the noble cause, and an enemy worthy of the struggle. They give humans a chance to unite -- We Are the World in technicolor.

The alien movies, or at least the better ones, can also provide a coherent story. If you accept the premises, then the plot can be internally consistent. That's pretty good for a movie, and something that is hard to provide in a world remarkably free of powerful enemies.

Best of all -- it might be true. There are billions of stars out there, and a ship might be heading this way from one of them, even now. If it arrives, at least we'll have seen the movie.