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Weekend To-Do List

Sunday, June 26, 2016

When aliens invade!

Angry aliens bring death from above back to Earth this weekend with the opening of "Independence Day: Resurgence," almost 20 years to the day after the original "Independence Day" invaded multiplexes. While the original "Independence Day" may have upped the CGI ante — the infamous trailer with the exploding White House sparked rock-concert cheers from enthusiastic audiences — it’s just part of a long, terror-inducing line of dyspeptic extraterrestrials trying to take down humanity.

Contact with other worlds has been a staple of cinematic science fiction, going all the way back to "A Trip to the Moon" in 1902. But the genre mushroomed in popularity in post-World War II, B-movie America, mirroring the growing fascination with outer space while also tapping into the jitters about Cold War conflict, nuclear annihilation, and shifting geo-politics that trembled under the staid world of "Leave It To Beaver."

Creative special effects, nerve-jangling suspense and, occasionally, a sense of humor help make the best of these films — disturbing nightmares cranked out by the Hollywood dream machine — mandatory viewing.

In honor of the 20 years since "Independence Day," here are 20 essential alien-invasion movies other than "ID" itself — which really isn’t a very good movie though, after grossing more than $300 million in the U.S. alone, it’s certainly a landmark one. "Resurgence" wasn’t screened in advance for critics so it’s quality can only be inferred.

Also not included are those about super-friendly aliens ("E.T.," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"), unfriendly aliens in space/on other planets (much of the "Alien" franchise), or superhero/comic-book extravaganzas like "Superman II" or "Transformers" (those deserve their own, separate list). If you’re not looking up to the sky in fear after watching these, then maybe you are the alien.

1. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" (1956) — Based on a novel by Jack Finney, this chilling tale of think-alike pod people taking over the bodies of your family and friends so they look familiar on the outside but are as cold and foreign as Siberian ice on the inside has been championed by both those on the left (as a critique of McCarthyism and American conformity), the right (as a critique of collectivism), and those who just like a frightening story well-told. The film’s growing panic and paranoia is perfectly capped by a downbeat, "you’re next" ending. It has been re-made three times, most recently with an unwatchable version starring Nicole Kidman in 2007, but the original is the best.

2. "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1953) — Klaatu and his watchful robot Gort may have come in peace but they have a sobering message to deliver: If humans don’t change their ways, Earth will be blown to pieces. More thoughtful than much of the monster-of-the-week science-fiction of the era, it’s ultimately less about killing us than uplifting us. It’s now considered a classic, having been added to the list of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1995.

3. "Men In Black" (1997) — Alien invasions don’t have to be frightening. They can be funny, too, as this adventure-comedy with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones proved. As agents working for a secret organization that polices undercover aliens amongst us, they have a tough and sometimes slimy job but someone’s gotta do it. The film won an Oscar (for make-up) and spawned two sequels and an animated series.

4. "The Thing" (1983) — John Carpenter’s masterful exercise in suspense and horror starring Kurt Russell is a riff on the "Body Snatchers" idea. Researchers at an Antarctic station are confronted by an alien that can absorb other life forms and then mimic them. Not only do they have to figure out how to survive but stop it from reaching civilization. Though some critics dismissed it at the time, it has since been reevaluated with the Chicago Critics Association ranking it as the 17th scariest movie of all time out of 100.

5. "War of the Worlds" (2005) — The original 1953 film — based on the classic H.G. Wells novel — in which Earth is attacked by Martians is emblematic of the invasion films of the '50s. What’s more iconic of the time than flying saucers with death rays? But Steven Spielberg’s remake, starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning, cranked up the tension and the terror, not to mention the special effects. For those waiting for Spielberg to give us the flip side of "E.T.," "War of the Worlds" delivered.

6. "District 9" (2009) — Until recently, alien invasions were generally viewed through an American lens. Despite the requisite shots of extraterrestrial craft flying over landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, most films depicted aliens as mostly being interested in the U.S., and white Americans specifically. South African director Neill Blomkamp turned that idea on its head with this gripping story about insect-like bipeds coming to his country not to wage war but seeking refuge. They get it but are forced to live separately in shanty towns, reviled by both blacks and whites. The parallels to both apartheid and global immigration aren’t subtle but thanks to a terrific performance from Sharlto Copley and Blomkamp’s visual style, "District 9" succeeds.

7. "The Blob" (1956) — Teenagers and aliens were a potent, campy combo back in the '50s and no more so than in this ultimate B-movie starring a very young Steve McQueen about a weird substance from space that devours everything in its path. The bowling-alley and movie-theater sequences alone are enough to make it worthwhile. That it was released on a double bill with "I Married a Monster from Outer Space" and showcased a young songwriter named Burt Bacharach who co-wrote a song for it is just icing on a very tasty pop-culture cake.

8. "They Live" (1988) — John Carpenter returned to his theme of people not being who you think they are in this smart satire on mass media manipulation and consumerism. Roddy Piper plays a man who stumbles across a pair of glasses that reveal the evil subliminal forces at work in everyday life. What seem like harmless ads really just say "Obey" while those in power are actually hideous aliens.

9. "Attack the Block" (2011) — Much as Blomkamp did with "District 9," British director Joe Cornish took the alien-invasion tropes and craftily dropped them into a new context: low-income apartment blocks in South London. Heading up the teenage toughs fighting off the incursion is John Boyega (who would go on to "Star Wars: The Force Awakens"). Alternately frightening and funny, "Attack the Block" is as nimble and fleet-footed as its young cast.

10. "Predator" (1987) — This one has got it all: a really mean, ugly alien who can’t be reasoned with; Schwarzenegger at his most invincible; and some pummeling action scenes from director John McTiernan who would direct "Die Hard" the next year. There’s nothing subtle or metaphorical about this one. It’s simply kill or be killed, rarely a bad thing when it comes to alien-invasion movies.

11. "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014) — "Groundhog Day" meets "Independence Day" in this surprisingly smart and terrific thriller about a soldier’s repeated attempts to thwart the aliens. Featuring an unexpectedly funny and vulnerable performance from Tom Cruise and a strong turn from Emily Blunt, as well as some solid action set-pieces, it’s a joyride from start to finish.

12. "Monsters" (2010) — Before he re-imagined "Godzilla" in 2014 and was signed to do the upcoming Star Wars spinoff, "Rogue One," British director Gareth Edwards made his mark with this promising, low-budget thriller. Set in the years after aliens have landed in the Mexican desert near the American border, turning the entire area into an "infected zone" and forcing the U.S. to drop bombs and build a large wall, a journalist (Scoot McNairy) has to get his employer’s daughter (Whitney Able) safely back to the U.S. from Mexico. Though obvious in its allusions to issues of immigration, drug cartels, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s an absorbing tale that was partially shot in Galveston amid the destruction left in the wake of Hurricane Ike.

13. "10 Cloverfield Lane" (2016) — This kinda-sorta-but-not-really sequel to the 2008 invasion movie "Cloverfield" divided audiences because, for most of its running time, it’s about a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) trapped in a house with a threatening loner (John Goodman). For some, the alien element seems to come out of the blue from a different film. But, taken as part of the "Cloverfield" universe, it’s not so strange. On top of that, the film’s suspenseful intensity — and the actors’ persuasive performances — are hard to resist.

14. "Signs" (2002) — M. Night Shyamalan’s last really good film before his well-chronicled string of disappointments is set on a farm where a family, headed by a dad played by Mel Gibson, finds itself dealing with an influx of aliens. Featuring a good performance from Gibson, "Signs" is suspenseful and well-crafted.

15. "The Andromeda Strain" (1971) — Based on the Michael Crichton bestseller and with effects from Douglas Trumbull ("2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "The Tree of Life"), this is a sweat-soaked exercise in claustrophobia about scientists trying to unlock the secrets of a killer alien organism. It’s slow but the payoff is worth it. It was made into a miniseries in 2008.

16. "Pacific Rim" (2013) — Guillermo del Toro’s tribute to monster and robot movies is a big, impressive spectacle starring a commanding Idris Elba as a military leader waging war against the undersea monsters that have arrived here through an inter-dimensional portal. I hate when that happens. A sequel, "Pacific Rim: Maelstrom," is in the works.

17. "The Day of the Triffids" (1963) — A meteor shower that blinds much of the population is just the beginning of an invasion of alien plants intent on domination. While it may not hold up as well as similar films from the era, it has its share of affecting moments. In 2009, it was revived as a TV miniseries with Vanessa Redgrave and Eddie Izzard.

18. "The Faculty" (1998) — Robert Rodriguez ("Spy Kids") and writer Kevin Williamson ("Scream," "The Vampire Diaries") have a lot of fun with the premise: High-school kids discover that all of their teachers have been taken over by aliens. It sports a great cast (Salma Hayek, Josh Hartnett, Usher, Elijah Wood, Robert Patrick, Bebe Neuwirth, Piper Laurie, Shawn Hatosy, and Jon Stewart as a science teacher who gets stabbed in the eye) and a spirited tongue in cheek sensibility.

19. "Under the Skin" (2014) — Scarlett Johansson stars in this disturbing story of an alien who has taken the form of a beautiful (and often naked) young woman who is the modern personification of the poetic sirens of lore: a woman who lures men to their untimely deaths. Enigmatic, haunting, and unexpectedly quiet — there are long moments of wordlessness — Jonathan Glazer’s handsomely shot film is thin on plot and doesn’t give up its answers easily. Yet, as a whole, it’s mesmerizing.

20. "The World’s End" (2013) — This comedic takeoff on invasion films from director Edgar Wright and stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, isn’t nearly as successful or engaging as their zombie parody, the classic "Shaun of the Dead" from 2004. But it has enough amusing moments — as well as a killer '90s Britpop soundtrack featuring the Stone Roses and the Soup Dragons among others — that it’s always pleasantly entertaining.

More things to do

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