Weekend Roundtable: Alien Invasions

Aliens are everywhere these days. No, not the immigrant type that certain blowhard political candidates want to build a wall to keep out of our country, I’m talking about extraterrestrial aliens who’ve come to take over our planet. They’re on TV this week in ‘Colony‘ and in theaters with ‘The 5th Wave‘. While neither of those may be the best example of the genre, let’s look at some of our favorite alien invasion stories from movies and TV.

By “alien invasion,” we’re talking specifically about stories in which extraterrestrials come to Earth to either rule over humanity or wipe us out. Stories set in galaxies far, far away don’t count for this topic.

Shannon Nutt

Imagine waking up, going outside, and finding a giant spaceship hovering in the sky – not only over your city, but over every major city in the world. No, I’m not talking about ‘Independence Day’. I’m talking about the original 1983 NBC miniseries ‘V‘, which was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson (veteran of such TV genre shows as ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘The Bionic Woman’). What made ‘V’ great wasn’t just its alien invasion premise, but the fact that the original miniseries was essentially an allegory for the Nazi terror of World War II.

The premise set up in the first miniseries was resolved in 1984’s ‘V: The Final Battle’, but Johnson had zero to do with that one and much of what he tried to convey in the original was lost in the sequel. A short-lived weekly TV series followed, which was even worse. The show was noted more for repeating… and repeating… special effects shots from the two miniseries. ABC tried to revive the franchise in 2009. It managed to last two seasons, but again paled in comparison to Johnson’s original concept.

For years, Johnson tried to bring back ‘V’ on his own, coming very close to making a deal for a big-budget movie. In the end, Johnson refused to sell out and lose creative control (again) of his concept, although he has yet to give up hopes of financing the idea independently. While that may never happen, fans of the original who would like to know what Johnson really wanted to happen after his original miniseries should check out his novelization, ‘V: The Second Generation’, from Tor Books, which is available at Amazon and all major book retailers.

Mike Attebery

I’m not a big alien invasion guy, but if you’re loose with the definition, I suppose you could say that ‘Superman II‘, in which banished Kryptonian criminals General Zod and his accomplices Ursa and Non terrorize Earth, is my favorite. I used to wait with bated breath whenever that movie was scheduled to air on TV.

Brian Hoss

My pick is likely influenced greatly by a recent visit with my nephews, but I think the initial story arc for ‘Dragon Ball Z‘ is one of the best alien invasion stories to date. A key to the drama is the early preview given by the arrival of Raditz, which along with the lead character, Goku, who happens to be an alien (of the same race) turned hero, creates a menace for the rest of the heroes (and former villains) to train for and face. Compared to the extremely forgettable aliens of say, the first ‘Avengers’ movie, the Saiyans have personality, culture and abilities that really raise the stakes. It’s no wonder that Vegeta became such an enduring character for the series.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

I agonized over whether or not to write about ‘The Thing’ here, but with just one alien creature in such a hopelessly remote location, “invasion” didn’t seem like quite the word for it.

As it turns out, I just needed to look a little further forward in John Carpenter’s filmography. While so many other alien invasion flicks revolve around creatures from another world trying to get a chokehold on our little blue ball of mud, ‘They Live‘ opens with the invaders already reigning supreme; we just haven’t gotten around to noticing quite yet. These aliens rule not through fear or force but by inescapable subliminal messages. Obey. Consume. Conform. Marry and reproduce. We walk right past these creatures day in and day out, blissfully unaware that they hide among us in plain sight. A premise like that would have my attention no matter what, but add in Carpenter’s biting satire of 1980s consumer culture and economic disparity, an inventive visual eye, one of the decade’s most endlessly quotable screenplays, and endless chest-thumping action courtesy of Rowdy Roddy Piper, and you’re staring down the barrel of an instant classic.

M. Enois Duarte

One of my personal favorites since childhood, ‘They Live‘ happens to be an awesome alien invasion feature. What makes this such a fantastically entertaining sci-fi flick is the hilariously offbeat notion that the bourgeois upper class of American society, those with the real power to influence politics and culture, are actually aliens in disguise. They manipulate the middle and lower classes into an apathetic acceptance of the status quo, into believing the hierarchical social order as the natural way of things. And they do this by controlling and exploiting the influential power of mass media, from marketing and advertising to popular trends and entertainment, convincing the public that greed and consumerism are the keys to happiness. The only man capable of bringing this illusion of reality to an end is a nameless drifter played by WWF legend Roddy Piper, with the help of Keith David. Best of all is the way John Carpenter made this sci-fi satire as if it were some big-budget B-movie blockbuster. He gives the plot a comical feel and made one of my favorite alien invasion films.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

While the special effects in the original ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still‘ may seem cheesy today, I’d imagine they were pretty effective to movie viewers in the early 1950s. As the relations between the U.S. and Russia grew colder, and the possibility of mutual annihilation grew more distinct, a movie came along to point out the obvious: Humankind needs to chill. An emissary from an advanced alien race comes to Earth to warn us to cease our aggressive and destructive ways, else face the consequences. When this alien is shot and injured by a soldier, his robot protector goes on a rampage and destroys the attacking army. The story is well told and insightful, relying more on careful dialog and observation to elicit a response from its audience than flashy special effects. As mankind’s fate hangs in the balance, will we rise to the challenge? Or bring about our own destruction? It’s a sci-fi film that makes you think, and that’s the very best kind.

Honorable mentions to John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing‘ for its superb pacing and psychological tension, and to ‘Independence Day‘ for its masterful use of effects. For those who want to know what it would look like for an alien race to destroy New York City or blow up the White House, watch ‘ID4’.

Josh Zyber

I made a point of including TV in this topic specifically so that I could talk about the original ‘V’ miniseries, and then Shannon went and claimed that before I could write my entry.

To go in another direction, I’ll cheat a little and pick ‘Dark City‘. Forgive me for spoiling an 18-year-old movie, but the ending reveals that the aliens haven’t actually invaded Earth, per se. However, the main characters think they’re still on Earth, so as far as I’m concerned, it counts. Alex Proyas’ crazy fusion of the film noir, sci-fi and horror genres is a delirious exercise in style, centered around a race of aliens who mess with people’s minds and their perceptions of reality as part of an experiment to see what makes human beings tick. I’m undecided as to whether I prefer the original theatrical cut of the much later Director’s Cut. The latter fixes a few narrative problems with the original version, but it also does away with the very memorable and effective rapid-fire editing rhythm for a more traditional pace. Both versions have their merits.

Tell us about your favorite alien invasion stories from movies and TV in the Comments.


  1. photogdave

    Two classics of anime:
    Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato)
    Robotech (Macross)

    Both series feature similar storylines of the Earth nearly being destroyed by a war-like alien race, with only a plucky group of defenders in a single spaceship able to save our planet with mysterious alien technology.
    Star Blazers was especially influential for me, introducing me to a higher standard of animation and more sophisticated storytelling, leading to a broader interest in comic books, art and sci-fi.

    • Brian Hoss

      Robotech was pretty great. Like Transformers, the mishmash of other properties made for a great alien-invasion type story. Anything with a Space Battleship Yamato theme (one awesome ship) is a promising property in my book.

      • Deaditelord

        I’ll cast another vote for both Robotech and Star Blazers and add the first Captain Harlock movie, Arcadia of My Youth, to the mix. A sort of companion piece to the original Harlock TV series (although it can be enjoyed with no knowledge of the TV series), Arcadia of My Youth takes a decidedly downbeat approach to the alien invasion premise. Here the aliens have already established firm control of Earth with the majority of the population having sworn their allegiance to the alien empire to avoid execution. Although there are rebels like Harlock who continue to resist while calling for Earth’s citizens to rise up against their alien oppressors, their numbers are dwindling rapidly and they are soon faced with the decision of either submitting to a life of slavery or making one last attempt at gaining their freedom.

        The movie is a bit melodramatic at times and the early 80’s animation is certainly dated. However, Arcadia of My Youth’s central themes of honor and standing for what you believe in still resonate and the overall arc of the story contains a few unexpected twists and turns to keep things interesting during its two hour plus running time. Not for all tastes (those who are subtitle phobic need not apply), but one that I think is worth watching at least once to see if it grabs you. If it does then I’d recommend looking at the original TV series along with Galaxy Express 999.

  2. Csm101

    Favorite all time alien take over would probably be John Carpenter’s The Thing. It ranks among probably top five all time favorite flicks. Attack the Block put a fresh and new spin on the alien invasion genre and I very much enjoy that one as well. Pacific Rim is another favorite although it’s more a giant monster flick, but they are aliens and they do mean to take over the world.

    • Deaditelord

      Love John Carpenter’s The Thing. One of the few remakes that surpasses the original. I think one of the reasons The Thing works so well is because it solves the horror movie problem of “why the hell wouldn’t everyone run for the hills once bad things start happening”.

    • EM

      To remember all of them would be a bit much, and they may not all be worthy. Chris has already cited The Day the Earth Stood Still, though I think that’s a little on the edge of alien-invasion territory.

      Also, this is a new blog entry, with only a few responses so far. In fact, I’m still putting mine together.

      If you think those 1950s alien-invasion movies are so great, why don’t you cite at least one of them?!?

  3. Elizabeth

    The V miniseries was an incredible work. I actually watched the first half of it just a few weeks ago and it still holds up really well (and the DVD looks surprisingly good upconverted to 4K). And Leonardo Cimino’s performance as a Jewish WWII survivor is still moving and powerful. It would be awesome if Warner would follow Paramount’s lead with Star Trek and rescan the original film elements and update the special effects (and while I’m dreaming, they could regrade it for HDR and release it in 4K).

    Kenneth Johnson’s Alien Nation series was good too though not technically an alien invasion story.

    • Deaditelord

      I need to watch the V miniseries. I’ve heard so many people sing its praises, but I still haven’t seen it after all these years.

    • Just an update for those interested. Back in my DVD Empire days, I struck up a long-distance friendship with Kenny Johnson, and we talked a lot about “V’, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ and ‘Alien Nation’ over the years (he even set me up with interviews with the whole ‘Alien Nation’ cast!).

      Anyway, after a long break in communication, I reached out to Kenny again this week to let him know we’d be mentioning ‘V’ again in this post. The latest on ‘V’ is that he WAS made offers by big studios for a motion picture version, but he turned them down because he’d have to give up creative control. Currently, he’s still trying to independently finance the thing, but he needs around $60 million to do it right. He actually asked me if I knew anyone in the industry with that kind of dough, and I had to tell him that even back in the days when I DID have a few industry contacts, I didn’t have THOSE kind.

      Anyway, I thought everyone would appreciate an update. BTW, Kenny is VERY approachable to fans, so if you’d just like to say “hello” and “thanks for all the great work over the years”, I’m sure he’d love to hear from some of you.

  4. EM

    The original V is awesome.

    Here are some others.

    A few have cited John Carpenter’s The Thing, which is a masterpiece…but it harks back to another masterpiece, 1951’s The Thing From Another World. Both films are adapted from the same short story, but they’re very different from one another…and both are truly great. The ’51 version pits a lone alien invader against a small group of humans isolated from the rest of the world, as it dawns on them that if they don’t stop this seemingly unstoppable menace, there will be a wholesale invasion of the planet that Man will be powerless to check. There’s some weird sci-fi, there are some genuinely chilling moments, and the besieged humans brim with enough personality to make the viewer care.

    Often called the worst film ever made, Plan 9 From Outer Space is too entertaining for that dishonor. It’s certainly rife with ineptness, but there’s much glee to be had as we follow an invasion of flying saucers and their occupants’ insidious plan to activate human corpses as foot soldiers in their war against Earth’s living! Still, the war is kind-of slow going, as the silver-suited aliens manage to “recruit” only three corpses, including that of a weak old man and his wife who looks like she died of anorexia. Oh, well. The inane dialogue, the poor acting (don’t rub your head with that pistol!), and the flimsy sets ooze with charm. Plan 9 manages to conquer me every time!

    The annals of ’50s sci-fi classics give prominent space to Invasion of the Body Snatchers…but to tell the truth, I much prefer the 1978 remake, which I find far creepier. Whereas the original painted a tragedy of the subversion of a small town where everyone knew everybody else, as an urban dweller I can better relate to the remake’s setting of a city where you couldn’t possibly know everyone, making it all the more likely that once you discovered that everyone was being replaced by alien lookalikes, it would be far too late…

    • I’ve heard for years that the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers was actually a cautionary tale born out of the paranoia and fear of communism in the 1950’s. The aliens are really just stand-ins for the dirty ruskies! Not sure if it’s 100% true, but it certainly seems likely given the political climate at the time the movie was made.

      • EM

        Both Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the similarly themed It Came From Outer Space trade on the Red Scare but form radically different conclusions.

  5. Bolo

    A lot of great ones mentioned here.

    I’ll also throw in the very recent ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (also titled ‘All You Need Is Kill’ and ‘Live Die Repeat’). It was a solid summer blockbuster. Good snappy rapport among the characters, and Cruise’s character had a good arc. The action was exciting, but it never felt like the plot just stopped to have an action sequence take over for 20 minutes like a lot of modern action movies. It told a nice self-contained story, which I appreciate.

  6. C.C.

    In War of The Worlds, and Five Million Years to Earth (Aka Quatermass and the Pit), they mine the idea that we have ALREADY been invaded a long time a ago and time is up.

  7. derek

    here’s a few of my favorites:
    “Attack The Block” = a recent creatively executed independent film that satisfies on ALL levels if you ask me, (stars the then new to acting John Boyega in what i believe is his first acting job ever!)

    “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”=both versions, though i recall the 1978 version being the creepier of the two (plus you get the late great Leanard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum!)

    “Childhoods End”=recent TV adaption done by the Sci Fi Channel. Sci Fi Channel is kinda known for extra cheesy scifi flicks…but THIS one was different. I thought it was well done and actually treated the source material seriously, so cheers to Sci Fi for that!! Its based on one of my favorite books from years gone by (Arthur C Clarks “Childhoods End” novel from the 60’s). Some have said that at least some of the ‘good’ elements of “V” were somewhat based on themes/imagery from the Childhoods End story. read it/watch it and you be the judge.

    “The Thing”= John Carpenters version was so well done. modern classic.

    “War Of The Worlds”=the original has been a long time fave. The newer Tom Cruise version had several greatly executed elements in it as well though.

  8. Dimwit

    I’m shocked that no one has mentioned District 9 yet! Invasion, yes, but not maliciously. Very applicable to today’s issues.

    How about UFO? Gerry Anderson’s take on alien invasion.

    • Lol….people love to shit on Signs nowadays. I think it’s a great movie and still enjoy it to this day. The whole climax when Joquin Phoenix grabs the bat and puts in work is awesome.

  9. derek

    oh crap, how could i forget THOSE two?? Dimwit you are totally right…i loved District 9 completely and i am a HUGE fan of Gerry Andersons “UFO” series as well..own the full set and some vintage toys too. so yes, those two MUST be added to my list. (And Jason Radcliff, i’ll support you on Signs pick too.)

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