Thursday, August 20, 2009

Weekly Top Tens: Top Ten Alien Movies

So last weekend I watched one movie about aliens, and another about time travel, which gave me the idea to do top ten lists about each subject. While I was scrolling through my own lists, and website after website, to come up with titles to include, I also kept stumbling upon dystopian movies, so I decided to do another top ten list for those – bring the total to three this week. But I start with the aliens movies. There have been countless over the years, so when I made up this top ten list, I tried to get a wide swath representative of the different types of stories that have been told using aliens – I also decided against putting two films from the same series on the same list (hence why Aliens is not included – Alien is much better). Finally I also decided that if a film could conceivably fit onto two different lists, I would only put it on one. So, with all that being said, let’s get to the alien list.

10. Signs (M. Night Shyamalan, 2002)
Yes, in the past few years it has become increasingly easy (and rather fun too!) to pick on Shyamalan for his increasingly absurd films. But Signs remains a classic in the genre of alien invasion movies. This is not a movie full of action sequences, and military interventions and everything else that normally mark a movie of this sort. Instead, it is a simple film of one family in spiritual and emotional crisis, who are brought together when aliens invade the earth. The film hardly ever leaves the family farm – the aliens themselves are glimpsed only in fuzzy TV images, or in the quick shot of hands coming to get them. Shyamalan masterfully builds the suspense to an almost unbearable level. Yes, we can mock Shyamalan for his over seriousness, and who hasn’t used “Swing away Billy” as a punch line every now and then. But the bottom line is that Signs is still a wonderful movie.

9. District 9 (Neil Bloomkamp, 2009)
Did I put this film on the list because it is so new? I’m not sure, but I do think that District 9 is one of the few films in this genre this decade that is a true original. The movie takes place in South Africa, two decades after a huge spaceship came to a stop above the country. The aliens inside have spent the past 20 years being treated like crap, shoved into ghettos, where crime runs rampant, and taken advantage of by everyone around them. Bloomkamp’s film is a brilliant allegory for Apartheid, that he plays perfectly in the films first two acts, centered on a wonderful performance by newcomer Sharlto Copley. The final act is a giant shootout between Copley, who has started to turn into an alien, his alien partner Thomas Johnson (who is brilliantly conceived by the way) and the army trying to continue the repression. District 9 is a new classic in the genre.

8. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
I’ll admit that it took me an almost embarrassingly long time to see the genius in Verhoeven’s war of the worlds classic. In 1997, when I saw it, I assumed that coming on the heels of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, it was yet another of Verhoeven’s films obsessed with sex and violence, that was all style and short of substance. Sure, I enjoyed watching the troopers shoot down one huge alien insect after another, and the co-ed shower scene was fun, but I assumed that this was just another mindless exercise in style over substance. Watching the film again a few years ago, I started to pick up on what Verhoeven was really going for. He draws parallels between the bugs and the humans – both mindlessly destroy everything in their path without thinking of the consequences. The brilliant satire on propaganda films, also seemed hollow at the time, now seems pretty much dead on. I still think that Starship Troopers would have been better had Verhoeven cast better actors (with the exception of Neil Patrick Harris, who is brilliant as the minister of propaganda) instead of mindless, pretty people – but then again, maybe that was Verhoeven’s point. Starship Troopers is one of the few films that I have no trouble admitting I was wrong about at the time. This really is a brilliant film.

7. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
I know that Spielberg’s War of the Worlds is not one of his most popular films, but it should be. Other than the cheesy ending (which really is indefensible), War of the Worlds is a great film throughout. Like Signs, instead of concentrating on the massive fight back by the army against the invading aliens, Spielberg focuses his film on one trouble family, which really has already broken apart at the seems following the divorce of the parents. As Tom Cruise (in a great performance that was overshadowed by his nutty performance on Oprah’s couch) tries to get his two kids to their mother in Boston, Spielberg uses the opportunity to show America in crisis. Echoes of 9/11 run throughout the film – the constant swirling paper, massive panic in the streets, and uncharacteristically of Spielberg, he shows the dark side. This is not a people who pull together when times get tough, but rather seem to be ready to rip out each other’s throats. The film is a technical marvel, with one wonderful sequence coming after another (none better than the brilliantly choreographed sequence in Tim Robbins’ basement). Yes Spielberg chickened out in the ending – not giving the film the dark conclusion it needed – but everything up until is masterful.

6. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
Forget last year’s terrible remake. The 1951 original film is infinitely superior in almost every way. Klaatu arrives on earth, and says he has a message for everyone, and is informed that the world leaders would never be able to agree on a meeting place, or anything else. When he is attacked by nervous soldiers, his robot protector Gort steps in and disintegrates all the weapons in the area, without hurting the people. Klaatu spends a few days among normal people after escaping, seeing both the good and bad that humanity has to offer. When he is brought to Arlington National Cemetery, he is dismayed by how many dead soldiers there are that have all been killed in wars. His message for humanity is simple – if they want to destroy each others, than he and others like him (not to mention Gort) will not stop them. But if they pose a threat to other planets, then they will be destroyed. “The Decision rests with you” is his final words before boarding his spaceship bound for home. Coming at the height of the cold war, and the arms race, The Day the Earth Stood Still was a film that used its science fiction premise to address a serious issue. One that over 50 years later, still really needs to be addressed.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegal, 1956)
I could have put the 1978 version, or even the 1994 version, of this same story on the list, but the original remains, in my mind anyway, the best of the lot. A classic cold war science fiction film, where the residents of a small town slowly start to change. At first, people think things are just a little strange, but then it seems like everyone in town is not quite right. Kevin McCarthy gives a brilliant, paranoid performance as the last man in town that can see what is going on, but is powerless to stop it. Pods keep showing up in town, and once you fall asleep, you are replaced by a pod person. This is B-level filmmaking at its best, and director Don Siegal does it brilliantly. Much like many of the lower budget films of the 1950s, this is a film that addressed issues – paranoia, the cold war, McCarthyism – in a time when mainstream Hollywood films rarely did. Absolutely great.

4. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
The Man Who Fell to Earth is a completely different, completely original type of alien story. In one of the best, most appropriate casting of a rock star of all time, David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who looks like a human who comes to earth to try and find a way to save his dying planet, who is in desperate need to water. He uses his wealth of experience and technical knowledge to become a wealthy man with his patented inventions, and through his relationship with Mary-Lou discovers the joys of being human – mainly sex. But he also becomes an alcoholic and TV junkie, ruining his relationship with Mary-Lou. When the government finds out his in an alien, he is locked in a luxury apartment for years, and forced to undergo test after test. When he finally does get out, he has to deal with the fact that his few friends have aged, and he has failed miserably at saving his home planet. Like the best films in this genre, director Nicolas Roeg (who never did anything like anyone else), uses the genre not just to show off special effects, but to expose a weakness or truth about humanity. Are we really all that different from Thomas Jerome Newton?

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a movie unlike most of the others on this list, in that the aliens in this movie are not looking to enslave, destroy or exploit mankind or earth, but simply to interact with it. The aliens show up, and after a close encounter, Richard Dreyfuss becomes obsessed with them, seeing strange things, propelled to build giant mountains out of his mashed potatoes. Others have similar experiences, and eventually everyone converges by a mountaintop in Wyoming, where the mother ship is going to land. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is about that awe that wonder, that fascination we have with UFOs and aliens, and their inexplicable draw they have on us. That the aliens do not want to kill or harm us is somewhat different for a science fiction film. I have always been somewhat dismayed, yet moved, by the ending of the film. Yes, it is magical, when the alien uses sign language to communicate back to the earthlings, before flying off into space. But would Dreyfuss really leave his wife and three kids behind to go on some sort of journey? I’m not sure, but I do think that Close Encounters of the Third Kind is one of Spielberg’s best films. (Note: About the poster I have included in the movie. Yes, it is for this movie – the credits indicate that. No, I have no idea who came up with the poster or what it really has to do with the movie – I have a suspicion that it is the Polish poster, since they always come up with some pretty fucked up posters. I included it, because, well, it does look kind of cool, right? And when else am I ever going to have a chance to include that poster on my blog?)

2. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Alien is one of the best horror films of all time, and also the best hostile alien movie ever made. It is Ridley Scott’s masterpiece of low budget moviemaking at its finest. I know some people prefer James Cameron’s more action oriented sequels Aliens (and, it is another great film), but it cannot come close to matching this one. A crew on their return journey to earth is alerted to a beacon on a nearby planet, and stop to investigate. There they find a bunch of alien eggs, one of which burst opens and attached itself to the face of a crew member. But back on the ship, everything appears to be fine, until the alien bursts from the crew man’s chest, and takes off. The alien grows at remarkable speed, and slowly picks off the crew members one by one, until only Ripley (Sigourney Weaver, the best female action character in cinema history) is left. Scott keeps the alien in the shadows for much of the film, so we never quite get a good look at it. It also seems to keep evolving. Call me a pervert if you want, but when the alien bursts out of John Hurt’s chest, it has always struck me a very phallic looking alien, and it’s dripping mouth has a definite vaginal appearance to it (I am not sure what Scott is saying about sexuality in this film, but it cannot possibly be good). But Alien is all the scarier for leaving things in the dark. Ridley Scott described this movie as being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of horror – his film is even scarier that that classic.

1. E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
Call me a sap, or a crybaby if you want to, but I cannot help crying every time I see Spielberg’s masterpiece E.T (I’m misting up right now just thinking about it). Spielberg’s movie is one of the magical, most innocent kids movies of all time. Poor Elliot, feels all alone in the world after his parent’s divorce, but his encounter with E.T. gives him something to believe in and hold onto. As he becomes closer to ET, he grows to love him, and the frantic chase at the end the film, E.T.’s apparent death, and then his revival and final goodbye are among the best scenes that Spielberg ever filmed. Yes, E.T. tugs shamelessly at your heartstrings throughout the film. But when a film is this good it hardly matters. All of the films on this list are great, but even the best of them cannot compare to this one. Pure cinema magic.

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