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Battlefield: Earth

When alien visitors do not come in peace

The White House was one of several iconic sites destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film, “Independence Day.’’ The White House was one of several iconic sites destroyed by aliens in Roland Emmerich’s 1996 film, “Independence Day.’’ (20th Century Fox via AP)
By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2011

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“We’re facing an unknown enemy,’’ barks a Marine officer once the alien spacecraft have begun their assault in “Battle: Los Angeles.’’ In the film, which opens today, the attackers arrive in metallic ships. Other times, they arrive in asteroids, as in “The Day of the Triffids’’ (1962). Or they use asteroids as weapons: in “Starship Troopers’’ (1997) the Arachnids, or “Bugs,’’ from planet Klendathu launch a large space rock that flattens Buenos Aires.

But no matter the mode of transport, nothing gets our flags waving and patriotic juices flowing more than the threat of Earth’s destruction at the hands of ruthless, repugnant, anonymous aliens.

Here’s one reason: Because our angsty, modern-day wars don’t let us demonize the enemy as in decades past, it’s hard to get excited about blowing apart Iraqis and Afghans, whether in the real world or onscreen. Hence the appearance of “Battle: Los Angeles,’’ or last year’s LA-invasion “Skyline.’’ Combating hulking spacecraft and silvery foot soldiers whose weapons are surgically implanted ends up dicier than anything Al Qaeda can throw at us. In one scene, the platoon’s Nigerian medic grumbles, “[Expletive]! I’d rather be in Afghanistan.’’

Not all alien invasion movies are created equal. Earthlings might be mere bystanders in a battle between alien races: Take “Transformers’’ (2007) and its tagline “Their war. Our world.’’ Or “AVPR: Aliens vs Predator — Requiem’’ (also 2007). Watch “Invasion of the Body Snatchers’’ (1956, 1978) and you will notice the aliens don’t rub out metropolises; the Pod People colonize one citizen at a time. Or they walk unnoticed among us, as in “Men in Black’’ (1997). In the Godzilla “giant monsters’’ genre, or even “Cloverfield’’ (2008), they’re not even technically aliens, since the monsters (mostly) hatch from our atomic waste. The cartoon “Monsters vs. Aliens’’ (2009) combines these elements: A human beaned by a meteorite grows gigantic and joins forces with creatures to battle an invading alien robot.

You could argue these invasion films serve a higher cultural purpose. They can be seen as metaphors for some nameless fear — communism, viral infection, illegal immigration. Or think of these films as talismans. Directors imagine the worst, then the ruination won’t happen in real life.

But to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, “War is a war is a war is a war.’’

What follows are battlefield reports from a few memorable movies where the little green men invade armada-style in a coordinated attack, unilaterally and unprovoked. They storm the beaches of, say, Santa Monica, like it’s the Normandy invasion, ray guns a-blazin’. They harvest our resources, take no prisoners, and destroy our beloved strip malls and skyscrapers. When they do, we guiltlessly circle our wagons and fight back. As in “Battle: Los Angeles,’’ there’s only one rightful response. “You kill anything that’s not human.’’

“War of the Worlds’’ (1953, 2005)

You might say H.G. Wells’s 1898 book kick-started the whole alien-invasion genre. At least two major film adaptations (and one freaky radio broadcast) have followed, transposing the battleground from London to US cities. In the 1953 film version, the setting is Southern California. A meteorite falls, and out pop the manta-like Martian ships. A friendly greeting is answered by heat rays and electro-magnetic pulses that vaporize our backyards. Even our A-bombs are useless. When all hope seems lost, it turns out the aliens have no defense against our germs. Should have had their flu shots! Weirdly, 2005 gave us three remakes: two low-budget, straight-to-video affairs, and the Spielberg-Cruise megalith that takes us on a paranoid road trip from destroyed New York through the ravaged New England countryside to Boston, all the while the tripedal aliens hot on the refugees’ tails.

“Mars Attacks!’’ (1996)

Think of “The Day the Earth Stood Still’’ (1951, remade in 2008) or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind’’ (1977). An alien ship arrives. Do we strike first or parley? Do they talk back in musical tones or English? Do they play fair? In Tim Burton’s spoof starring a Hollywood who’s-who (Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Glenn Close, Jack Black, Natalie Portman, and more), the conventions are overturned. When Martians surround Earth with their flying saucers, negotiations begin. But the tricksy aliens infiltrate the White House and the destruction commences. The evil invaders even redo Mount Rushmore with Martian faces. Luckily, there’s always a weakness: This time their demise is Slim Whitman, whose yodeling voice in “Indian Love Call’’ causes alien brains to explode. Makes you want to place your K-tel order today.

“Independence Day’’ (1996)

The xenophobia and hawkishness of some of these invasion dramas aside, perverse pleasure can also be found in seeing beloved cities and monuments obliterated: the Eiffel Tower, White House, Golden Gate Bridge. That’s what we get in Roland Emmerich’s alien-inundation flick. Ragtag survivors gather in the Nevada desert in a last-ditch effort — on July 4 — to plan retaliation. But first the audience is treated to the deployment of dozens of 15-mile-wide saucers whose blue energy blasts decimate some of our favorite urban vacation destinations: DC, LA, New York. Eventually, a computer virus (not the common cold) defeats the ship’s force field, and Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith prevail. Yay, Earth!

Ethan Gilsdorf, author of “Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks,’’ can be reached at www.fantasyfreaksbook.com.

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