Invasion Movies are getting their mojo back

Jess Ennis /
Nov 18, 2016 / Film & TV

You will have several moments within your lifetime during which you are endlessly grateful for recipes. When you’re raiding the fridge for dinner and can find only a tin of tuna, some milk and a few frozen peas – et voila, tuna pasta bake from a sauce-stained student cookbook your grandmother lovingly bought you before university. Recipes are sources of comfort, of stability, of tradition, and that’s good, right? Sure, except if we’re talking about films.

For a film, a recipe spells – pun intended – disaster. It seems to be a trend as old as time, but one we’re seeing so frequently these days, that if a good thing works once, you can be damn sure a hundred different studios will try and copy it. Inspiration is an integral part of filmmaking, no doubt, but the ‘add this, this and do this to it’ complex is something that needs demolishing. Pronto.

The beloved invasion movie is one that has suffered at the hands of this. Way back when, films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) did something monumentally different in cinema, effectively creating an entire sci-fi subculture borne out of Cold War paranoias. But as time went on, the invasion movie developed a formula of sorts, something exemplified by films like Independence Day (sorry, Jeff Goldblum) and, more recently, disasters like Battle: Los Angeles and (sorry again, Jeff Goldblum) Independence Day: Resurgence. They’d become samey, sterilised by Hollywood’s desire to fill the summer blockbuster void without really having to think about it. Monster after monster attacked Earth, and strapping gentleman after strapping gentleman was employed to save it.

(Author’s note: There is, however, a very special place in my heart for Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, even with the two hours of Dakota Fanning screaming in Tom Cruise’s ear. I was ten, and the aliens looked like giant camera stands, what can I say?)

But, as all of these films like to tell us in the strapping gentleman’s voiceover at the end of the movie, a new day is dawning. In the last few years, the renaissance of the invasion movie has begun to come to fruition. From London-based comedy-horror-fantasy Attack the Block to the rounding out of the Cornetto Trilogy with The World’s End, we’re slowly starting to see new takes on a genre that dates back 70 years – invasion movies are beginning to get their mojo back. Even films like Edge of Tomorrow, which take so blatantly from other movies (cough, Groundhog Day) begin to approach alien attacks in new and exciting ways.

In the Screen Rant review of Pacific Rim was the sentence, ‘While the storyline and emotional core aren’t strong, the action and spectacle are.’ For too long, invasion movies have been about the brashness, about the spectacle – after all, there’s no attack without an overspend on a CGI budget, is there? But for a genre whose roots are found in humanity, in its fear, its anxieties about the unknown, it feels stupidly reductive to value this above the film’s heart. If they’re supposed to evoke our fears, our amazements, it seems undeniably idiotic to neglect the human element.

This is what Arrival, this year’s latest alien release, looks set to subvert. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, one of the finest working directors at the moment, we’re offered one hell of an olive branch. Villeneuve’s two most recent releases, Sicario and Prisoners, deal intimately with human fallibility, with our fears and our flaws – so in a way, it’s oddly fitting that he’d tackle the invasion genre next. Judging by reviews, he’s brought a touch of intimacy to the big-budget badboy, creating a contemplative new way to perceive contact with creatures from other worlds. Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post called it ‘an imaginative, escapist what-if scenario overlaid with semi-profound questions about fate, loss and the meaning of love.’ If she’s right, we may have just found the catalyst for a resurgence (Christ, sorry Goldblum) in Hollywood’s most beloved genre.

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Words by Jess Ennis

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