We really felt for the Faculty.
Most alien invasion movies focus on a group of diverse survivors charged with saving the world, or civilization itself banding together (and thus revealing humanity’s best traits) to fight an invading horde. While it’s fun to watch the Hero lead a Hot Girl, a Smart Guy and a Sarcastic Loudmouth (or, in the worldwide version, America, Sweden, Japan, and England) through the fray, sometimes the main characters aren’t the best people. Or the most compassionate. Or the smartest. In fact, sometimes, they’re the kind of self-centered jerks who, by the end of the film, sort of deserve their fate. In honor of The Darkest Hour, here are five alien invasion movies that make you root for the visitor.
Cloverfield stars Rob, a short-sighted yuppie whose friends are throwing him a farewell party. Just before the initial attack, Rob’s brother gives a maudlin speech telling his brother to “hang on to the people you love most.” This is followed by Rob getting all of his friends (including his brother) killed in order to rescue Beth, a girl Rob had dated for a couple weeks. Cloverfield ends when Rob pulls Beth off the piece of rebar she was impaled on and saves her life… for about ten minutes, at which point the pair are killed by a bomb meant to destroy the monster. The moral? Never confuse your desire to not die alone with chivalry, and never let someone else’s desire to get you laid lead you into the NYC subway.
2. Independence Day (1996)
While none of these films would be complete without a selfless act of heroics, the characters in Independence Day fall all over themselves trying to blurt out the next heartwarming speech. Throughout the alien invasion and subsequent attacks, President Bill Paxton (er, Pullman) maintains a wooden exterior that makes John Wayne look like Conor Oberst. Nothing, not even his wife’s death, can change the single expression he uses the entire film. Also, lest you tear up at Randy Quaid’s death scene, remember that he’s a drunken, negligent father who’d rather be blown up than spend some sober time with his kids. Fortunately, Smith and Goldblum had catchphrases like “We must go faster” and “Aw, hell no!” left over from previous films, reminding us that at least humanity will retain its characteristic poise and wit in the face of insurmountable disaster.
3. The Faculty (1998)
Combining an alien invasion and teen drama really makes the problems of a bunch of really good-looking high schoolers seem petty: anything about the actual invasion takes a back seat to establishing sexual tension and reinforcing stereotypes. The students could have easily been pulled from The Breakfast Club — The Brain, the Weird Girl, the jock, the Princess, the Badass, and the New Girl Whose Lack of Context and Backstory Means She’s Clearly the Alien. The Faculty shows that no there’s always time in an alien invasion to tell someone you like them and awkwardly make out.
4. Skyline (2010)
A key element in invasion films is sympathy for the characters. Unfortunately, Skyline avoids that, jumping right into yet another poorly-timed party with a bunch of yuppies. While the rest of Los Angeles is sucked up into the mothership, our walking jawline of a hero sets about protecting the pretty girl he knocked up a few weeks ago because, responsibility. However, most of the “protecting” involves opening and closing blinds and running (though later, there is some limping!). The main problem is that Skyline gets characterization out of the way to make room for effects: all we’re shown is the character’s worst points (jealousy, in-fighting, materialism) before the action and CGI leap to the fore. But on the plus side, Skyline fulfills your long-held fantasies of seeing L.A. destroyed.
5. District 9 (2009)
District 9 is the most obvious example of “The monster was us!” school of filmmaking (besides any George A. Romero film).The set-up: a group of alien refugees take shelter in (and above) Johannesburg, and the people of South Africa treat the extraterrestrials with, ahem, disdain (Allegory alert!). After a mid-level bureaucrat attempts to evict the creatures from their homes, a freak accident turns him into one of the very same aliens he’s trying to displace. District 9 features both a compelling story and well-developed characters: here, humans are the ones exploiting and marginalizing. The film’s haunting final shot of our now fully-transformed protagonist is a subtle, bittersweet moment and a potent metaphor for seeing conflicts from both sides of the fence.