With Ken gallivanting around sunny Florida this week, the duty of producing a Screening Room has fallen into my well-manicured hands. For those of you looking for the usual Hanke wit and wisdom, do not be disappointed, because I give you something better, the most important, insightful bit of film criticism you will read in the next five to seven minutes, an article on how movie aliens are stupid.
While screening Aliens in the Attic just a few months ago, I got to thinking about something that crops up often in Hollywood Sci-Fi, which is that space aliens are downright dumb. In the movie, aliens come to Earth for the sole purpose of taking it over, nothing more, nothing less. But on top of all this, these creatures—who’ve presumably traveled light years to get to this tiny planet of ours—get handled by a bunch of pubescent 14-year-olds with a potato gun.
Now granted, Aliens in the Attic is a movie made for and aimed squarely at an audience of preteen boys, so realism or creative accountability is going to suffer in exchange for high-flying CGI adventure and tween empowerment. But this rampant extraterrestrial stupidity pops up all over the place. Take Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996) for instance. Emmerich has never been the most—how can I put this nicely—thematically intelligent directors out there. He did, after all, make a movie with pyramid-building Egyptian mammoths just last year—and Independence Day’s isn’t much better.
In it, we have an armada of space aliens that decide to park their interstellar spaceships over lots of historic landmarks, only to blow them up, because, really, who doesn’t want to see an exploding Empire State Building? Later on we find out the aliens have come here to mine Earth of its natural resources. Why they can’t go to any other planet is never explained, of course, but we all know the collateral damage wouldn’t be as spectacular on Venus. Humanity tries to fight back, but—with their ships protected with some sort of force field—the aliens are simply too technologically advanced for poor, defenseless Earth to stand a chance. But what these extraterrestrials didn’t count on was our greatest secret weapon—Jeff Goldblum.
Goldblum—playing some sort of wunderkind scientist—figures out that the alien’s shields can be disabled with a computer virus. A virus, it should be pointed out, he writes on his Mac. And, sure enough, he’s right, dooming our alien overlords to fiery, explosive deaths (some—adding insult to injury—by the hand of an alcoholic Randy Quaid) because they’re advanced technology wasn’t running Windows.
Not every alien race, however, is defeated by humanity’s cleverness or cunning. A lot of times it’s simply just bad luck. In Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty (1998), an Invasion of the Body Snatchers-styled alien invasion takes place at a high school in a small Texas town. It seems a giant fish-like woman disguised as a teen from Georgia is taking over the minds of the school’s faculty with her offspring in an attempt at colonizing Earth. In theory, the plan’s not bad—start small and go from there. And for awhile, everything appears to be going to plan until a ragtag group of misfit teens figure out what’s going on (note to aliens: stay away from teens in need of empowerment; things can only end in tears). Even this isn’t much of an issue, until these kids find the aliens only weakness: some homemade drug the local bad boy (Josh Hartnett with a really awful haircut) has been cooking up in his garage. Of course, the kids go on to defeat the aliens with their bathtub crank, but the aliens shouldn’t really be to blame. Just think about it. Any other town in America and they probably would’ve succeeded, but they had to go and pick the one where Josh Harnett has his meth lab set up. C’est la vie.
Other times, it’s not just bad luck, but poor planning, too. In Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) (and granted, this pops up in H.G. Wells’ novel as well) the aliens get to our planet, proceed to tear the place apart (well, everywhere except affluent, upper middle class neighborhoods, but that’s a completely different subject for another Screening Room) and then get offed because their immune systems can’t handle the bacteria here on Earth. Call me crazy, but one might think, after flying through space who knows how far, that the powers that be might have taken this into consideration. Even we’re technologically advanced enough to have invented Purell.
But not every alien race comes here to take over. In the Alien franchise, they just want to eat us. Fair enough. In the Predator movies, big, beefy, dread-locked aliens with all kinds of fancy technology—like heat vision, invisibility cloaks and laser guns that blow up lots of stuff—drop by to hunt humans. In the original Predator (1987), our extraterrestrial buddy is after a group of commandos running around Central America. Actually, the film is a unique document of American greatness, since it includes two future American statesmen, Jessie “The Body” Ventura and Arnold Schwarzenegger. In this case, the film is believable in a far-fetched, dumb action movie kind of way, in that our alien baddie runs around causing jungle mayhem until he’s knocked off in the last reel by Schwarzenegger. OK, that I can buy. What I find hard to swallow is that the sequel, Predator 2 (1990), has our giant, invisible interstellar villain going against Danny Glover of all people. And Danny Glover wins. I’m sure he’s a nice enough guy and everything, but talk about credulity.
While some aliens have simple plans—world domination, hunger—others are a bit more on the complex side. Take Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm (1979) for instance. Here, we have the succinctly titled Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), an alien who’s traipsing around a small town disguised as an undertaker. Now, that may not sound like a big deal to begin with. He’s working hard, trying to make a living. Good for him. The only problem is that he’s reanimating the dead and turning them into cloaked dwarves (which sets up my second favorite movie line of all time, “Ew, dwarves!”) and shipping them off to his home world for slave labor (luckily, they’re conveniently kept fresh inside plastic barrels for easy storage and transport). OK, so you get some cheap labor out of all this, but the entire idea is a bit, well, eccentric.
All of this, of course, plays into our fears of outside invaders and the unknown, both the scary and the thrilling. But at the same time we Earthlings, the people paying for the movie tickets, want to come out on top. So the deck must get stacked a bit in our favor because no one wants to watch a movie where bad guys come out on top. And while I understand that Hollywood is often formulaic and I get suspension of disbelief, this still doesn’t excuse the mother of all dumb, harebrained alien movies, M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs (2002). The movie is your basic invasion plot, with aliens coming to Earth in an attempt to takeover for no reason that’s ever given. Nothing special in and of itself, but there is—for a lack of a better word—a twist, in that the audience is seeing this incursion simply through the eyes of one family. No big, epic action picture here, and for awhile, this works. That is until the aliens start showing up.
Soon, we realize they have the wherewithal to traverse the universe, but aren’t quite clever enough to break out of a pantry. On top of all this, we find out they’re only weakness is water, which wouldn’t be a big deal. Except they’ve landed on a planet that’s mostly water. And they’re running around naked. It’s hard to take any villain who can be soundly defeated with a well-aimed Super Soaker seriously.
Of course, occasionally movies get this right. The recent District 9 did an excellent job of explaining itself and creating its own mythology, blaming the alien’s aimlessness on a leaderless hive mentality, all simply illuminated in a single sentence. E.T. was really into Reese’s Pieces. Who can blame him? They’re delicious! But for the most part, the movies leave us with an easily defeated foil. I’m not about to be generous enough to say that this is somehow empowering, but it certainly can’t hurt to hope for some truth in all these movies. So the next time you’re faced with alien invasion, go grab every computer whiz, drug dealing teen and Austrian bodybuilder you can find and a bucket full of water balloons and have at it. I wish you the best of luck.