By Robert W. Butler
Watch the skies. They’re coming to get us all.
“They,” of course, are aliens.
Not from South of the Border. From outer space.
Hollywood is in the midst of an alien invasion unequaled since the paranoid Cold War fantasies of the early 1950s.
At theaters now you can enjoy “I Am Number Four” (alien teens outwit intergalactic pursuers) and, opening Friday, “Battle: Los Angeles” and the animated comedy “Mars Needs Moms.”
At least eight more alien-themed films will open this year, with several more planned for 2012.
These come on the coattails of “Cloverfield” and “Skyline,” in which creatures from other worlds have their nasty ways with us. In the Oscar-nominated “District 9,” alien refugees become third-class citizens on Earth.
And it’s not just at the megaplex. Alien invasion is hot on the TV screen, too. Witness the ongoing series “V” and “The Event.”
The 1950s was the heyday of the alien invasion movie.
The concept goes all the way back to H.G. Wells’ 1897 novel “The War of the Worlds,” but it was in the uncertainties of the Cold War that little green men from beyond became rooted in our consciousness.
Encouraged by a rash of post-war UFO sightings, scores of films about aliens landing on Earth with evil designs were produced between 1948 and 1962.
Some were quickie exploitation efforts memorable for their cheesiness. Others – like 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (a Christ-like visitor arrives to save humanity from nuclear self-destruction) or 1956’s “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (alien seed pods replace humans with emotionless clones) – are genuine works of art.
Their popularity was born in the fears of communism and atomic annihilation.
Aliens became a potent metaphor for all the scary outside elements that could undermine Eisenhower’s America.
Perhaps the new surge of alien movies – which got the green light from studios a couple of years ago at the worst point in the economic downturn – also reflect our anxiety about the unknown.
These are fearful times. Many of us feel threatened by a scary financial future, terrorism and illegal immigration.
“I recall from my own childhood in the ‘80s, when nuclear war was still seen as a real possibility, that these movies gave me a kind of release,” said Jenna Busch, who writes about geek culture for the Huffington Post and other Web sites.
“It was a way for me to focus my panic on a different threat, to cope with something that was more manageable because it was fiction. It was actually kind of comforting.”
Alien movies are therapeutic in another way, Busch said.
“It’s very dangerous to focus your anger on a group of fellow humans, but it’s OK to direct it at aliens. They’re like bank robbers wearing masks, or storm troopers in ‘Star Wars.’ You can’t see their faces, so it’s OK to hate them.”
Some argue that alien invasion movies satisfy because they show human beings putting aside their differences to combat an external foe.
“That strikes me as a bit of an easy explanation,” said Heather Urbanski, the author of “Plagues, Apocalypses and Bug-Eyed Monsters: How Speculative Fiction Shows Us Our Nightmares” and an assistant professor at Central Connecticut State University.
“But one thing that has persisted in this genre is the idea that you can go to bed and when you wake up the next morning, the world has changed.”
Empires crumble and jobs vanish, Urbanski said. And an alien invasion represents a situation where everything we think we know is turned inside out virtually overnight.
“One of the persistent questions raised by SETI”– the organization devoted to searching for extraterrestrial intelligence – “is: ‘What happens if we do find an alien race out there?’
“It so fundamentally shifts our understanding of everything – religion, science, our place in the universe. And it raises another question: Do we really want to be calling attention to ourselves? Maybe we should just lay low.”
Not everyone thinks the new alien movies represent our deepest anxieties.
“I honestly don’t think it’s a reflection of our fear of another mortgage meltdown,” said industry observer Paul Degarabedian of Hollywood.com. “I think there are more obvious reasons.
“Really, it’s hard to determine the sociological or anthropological cause of a certain film genre surging. But you can be sure that the studios are all banking on certain genres heating up and becoming the next big thing. We saw that over the last couple of years with vampires. Now aliens seem to be the next big deal.”
Hollywood, he noted, is always on the lookout for films that are “action-based, conducive to big special effects and able to bring in younger audiences and play well overseas.”
Alien invasion movies fit the bill perfectly.
“Plus, today’s audiences, when they pay their money, want to see it up there on the screen. Alien invasion movies allow for a very obvious use of big budgets.”
Don’t expect an uncluttered exUrbanski advises.