Alien invasion movies tend to have a lot of things in common with each other. This article investigates the source of those commonalities and illustrates films which follow and diverge from those genre signatures.
H.G. Wells wrote his novel The War of the Worlds in 1897. When it was published a year later it was one of the first known stories where mankind found itself in conflict with hostile extraterrestrials. This novel was very important to the science fiction genre, and began a fascination with beings from outer space. Fast forward to today, and it is easy to see how many science fiction works are influenced by this great piece of fiction. In particular, stories and films involving conflict with aliens tend to knowingly or unknowingly relate back to this original story.
In the realm of film, alien invasion films are relatively common because they have an inherently high entertainment factor (explosions, opportunity to unite as a species and kick alien ass). These types of films can vary in the type of story they tell and the scope, but they usually have a few things in common. Those commonalities tend to riff off of the particulars pertaining to alien invasion stories established in H.G. Wells’ original story. Below I have outlined some of these common attributes, and how they have become cliches pertaining to this type of a film. For each I give examples of films which have followed by example, and those which have made some exceptions. But for every film that has an exception in one area, it seems to work as a good example in another…
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #1 – The Aliens Are Hostile
In War of the Worlds, the Martians basically show up and start shooting once they get acclimated to Earth. The government even tries sending in a welcoming party and they are killed as soon as they approach. Nearly all other alien invasion movies follow suit. I mean, an alien invasion would not be much fun to watch if the aliens were not openly hostile. Even in films such as The Arrival or They Live, where the aliens are not actually killing people right off the bat, they are nonetheless hostile in their intentions. They are just sneakier than what we saw in War of the Worlds.
Examples: Independence Day, The 5th Wave, A Quiet Place
Exceptions: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Arrival, District 9
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #2 – The Aliens Want Our Resources
While we don’t actually get a chance to talk with the Martians and find out their motivation in War of the Worlds, the narrator explains how it is believed that Mars is running out of resources, and that is the reason for the invasion of Earth. Many other alien invasion movies follow suit. Earth isn’t particularly noteworthy to these alien species because of its beauty, or its manpower, or its habitability – they just want to drain our Oceans and strip mine the crap out of it.
Examples: Independence Day, Battle: Los Angeles, Oblivion
Exceptions: Cloverfield, Skyline, The World’s End
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #3 – We Don’t Realize The Invasion Is Happening Until It Is Too Late
When a welcoming party is sent to investigate the first landing of Martians in War of the Worlds, we suddenly realize their hostility. By that time, they have adapted to Earth and soon begin their attack. Yet humanity did nothing preemptively to avoid this war, despite having opportunities to do so. The novel starts with an observation of lights on Mars, and then the narrator gets a first-hand look at the Martians when they first land and are weakened by our air and gravity. Alien invasion movies tend to also have many missed opportunities for humanity in the early stages of invasion….
Examples: Signs, The Watch, Earth vs. The Flying Saucers
Exceptions: Men in Black, The Arrival, They Live
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #4 – The Aliens Have Vastly Superior Technology
If aliens are able to travel through the vast distances of space, it is assumed that the only way to do this would be with advanced technology. Indeed, alien invasion films nearly all feature beings of enhanced intellect, and thus having access to advanced technology. Even in films where the life forms invading Earth may not have technology, such as Pacific Rim and The Invasion, they are still doing so on behalf of what is assumed to be a technologically advanced species.
Examples: Skyline, The 5th Wave, Arrival
Exceptions: Cloverfield, The Blob, Attack the Block
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #5 – We Try For Peace, It Doesn’t Go Well
The first thing the government does in The War of the Worlds after the Martians land and don’t respond is send in a welcoming party. A man literally waives a white flag as if the Martians would understand what this meant. Of course, the welcoming party is unceremoniously obliterated, showing the hostile intent of these visitors. Many films have followed suit, but at the same time there have been some prominent examples when things did actually get off to a good start.
Examples: Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, Marvel’s The Avengers
Exceptions: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Arrival, The Man From Planet X
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #6 – The Aliens Used a Scorched Earth Technique
Once the aliens do make landfall, their thirst for our natural resources and their advanced technology makes short work of whatever initial military resistance humans can muster in retaliation. In War of the Worlds the late 19th-century setting means that mankind is hopelessly outclassed, and so we can’t put up much of a fight. But rather than just taking out key targets, the aliens level entire towns in their bid for global domination. Alien invasion movies have followed suit, often focusing on widespread destruction and post-apocalyptic settings which result from the trigger happy invading forces.
Examples: Independence Day, Battle: LA, The 5th Wave
Exceptions: They Live, The Watch, The Day the Earth Stood Still
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #7 – There is a Loosely-Organized Human Resistance
When the first attempt to combat the alien invaders fails, all hell breaks loose. In War of the Worlds the narrator gets separated from his wife and spends weeks trapped underground in the wreckage of a building to survive. When he is able to reemerge he finds a man who speaks of a resistance. This idea would be followed in many of the alien invasion films which followed. Specifically, if the alien invasion film takes place in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of an invasion, there is usually a rag-tag group of resistance fighters who remain as humanity’s best hope for survival.
Examples: The Host, Oblivion, Captive State
Exceptions: Signs, Battle for Terra, Save Yourselves!
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #8 – The Aliens Have A Glaring Weakness Which is Exploited
In War of the Worlds humanity has no chance against the Martians. There is nothing we can do to slow their onslaught. Luckily, the invasion fails because the Martians get sick. They don’t have immunity to the bacteria and viruses on Earth, and that becomes their downfall. You would think a highly advanced civilization would have thought of this, but nope. Interestingly, this strong but weak theme regarding our invaders is seen in a majority of the alien invasion films. It isn’t always a physical weakness that is exploited, it can also be a tactical one.
Examples: Signs, The Darkest Hour, A Quiet Place
Exceptions: Arrival, Cloverfield, The Day the Earth Stood Still
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #9 – The Protagonist Miraculously Survives
This isn’t just a cliché of alien invasion movies, but action or horror-focused films in general. Despite the widespread destruction, and low odds of survival, the protagonist doesn’t die. They often persevere through very difficult conditions. I bring this up only because in standard science fiction films where aliens are featured, filmmakers usually have no problem killing off major characters. The reason alien invasion movies tend to have greater survival odds for major characters is because of the fact that they are tales of survival, and so someone actually needs to survive. This could be considered as homage to the approach of H.G. Well’s original alien invasion story.
Examples: Independence Day, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Signs
Exceptions: Edge of Tomorrow, Annihilation, Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Alien Invasion Movie Cliché #10 – We Don’t Learn Our Lesson
At the end of the film, the aliens are gone, and the world is safe again. What happens next? Well, in the long run we just get on with our lives as if we didn’t get really close to extinction. Alien invasion films highlight our weaknesses as a species, but we don’t strive to address those weaknesses after they almost get us killed. In War of the Worlds things are certainly different than before, but the narrator makes note of how we lack the understanding to explain what had happened. Indeed, in many films humanity is elated for their survival, but you have to consider how many times it was just a matter of luck. What happens when the aliens come back? You would think they would be able to resolve their weakness(es) and try again. Then what happens?
Examples: The Day the Earth Stood Still, Independence Day, Annihilation
Exceptions: They Live, Avengers: Endgame, Arrival