Written by Sean Ledden
Those whom the Gods would destroy, they first send to invade earth.
Newly discovered piece of ancient wisdom
Aliens make terrific villains. Just by virtue of travelling all the way to earth, they prove themselves to be very intelligent and very powerful. At least that’s how it should be. But movies about alien invasions are made by people; show business people. Show business people who have strange obsessions and ambitions, who must answer to a shadowy cabal of bankers and “suits,” and who are tragically unable to put together a coherent story.
I should state that the movies in this list are not necessarily terrible, per se. In fact, it includes a few examples of good film-making. But in each case they present alien invaders who fail because they are:
- 1 laughably unprepared
- 2 impressively over-prepared, but egregiously stupid.
- 3 starring in a low-budget comedy
This list reminds us that the refrain, “What were they thinking?!?” shouldn’t be reserved for political campaigns, mascot designs, and Oscar nominations. It has “universal” relevance.
#5: Plan 9 From Outer Space
God bless Ed Wood. Are the aliens of “Plan 9” trying to invade earth, or save mankind from self-obliteration? I don’t know, and neither do you. And I’ll wager neither did Ed. But whatever it was that he was trying to say, he was very, very sincere. And whatever it was the aliens were trying to do, they failed spectacularly.
Coming out in 1959, “Plan 9” closed a decade that had opened with the sublime “The Day The Earth Stood Still.” The Cold War was on, nuclear bombs were still fresh and exciting, and formations of UFO’s were sighted over Washington, D.C. It was all fodder for the perfervid imagination of a frustrated and impoverished auteur who would suffer, die, and be resurrected in a masterpiece directed by Tim Burton. Canonized as the Worst Movie Ever Made by the 1980 book, “The Golden Turkey Awards,” “Plan 9” opens with a bizarre, if entertaining, mix of funerals, zombie attacks, UFO sightings, and traffic accidents. Things start to come into focus when we visit an alien space station and listen in on an extra-terrestrial upper-middle-management progress report. In it, Commander Eros reports to Ruler that he has been unsuccessful in contacting the various governments of the earth. And Lord knows, he tried. He tried by maintaining an unsettling radio silence while buzzing a random assortment of civilian earthlings with his terrifyingly advanced flying saucers. He also, the script hints, obliterated a small town. The response was canon fire from a freaked-out military, and this nearly causes Eros and the Ruler to lose faith in humanity’s intelligence.
Flying saucers over Hollywood!
But being super-advanced aliens, neither Eros nor Ruler is ready to throw in the towel. In fact, Eros has already begun “Plan 9.” As Ruler helpfully explains, “Ah, yes. Plan 9 deals with the resurrection of the dead. Long distance electrodes shot into the pineal and pituitary gland of the recently dead. ” It should be noted that these resurrected human dead are both mute, and homicidal. How can the people of earth fail to get the message now?
Just another day at Alien Invasion HQ
And yet, somehow, they do. Fail to get the message, I mean, and soon an angry party of armed men are banging at the space door of Eros’s parked flying saucer. Eros lets them in. Once inside they, and we, are assailed with an impassioned speech about “Solaranite,”
“Take a can of your gasoline. Say this can of gasoline is the sun. Now, you spread a thin line of it to a ball, representing the earth. Now, the gasoline represents the sunlight, the sun particles. Here we saturate the ball with the gasoline, the sunlight. Then we put a flame to the ball. The flame will speedily travel around the earth, back along the line of gasoline to the can, or the sun itself. It will explode this source and spread to every place that gasoline, our sunlight, touches. Explode the sunlight here, gentlemen, you explode the universe. “
Needless to say, they don’t get it, and Eros ends up getting all blowed up along with his flying saucer. So endeth the invasion.
#4: Prince of Space
It’s the “near future” and mankind, with the help of Dr. Macken’s amazing new rocket fuel, is about to begin a glorious new era of exploration. (I’ve only seen the English language version, so I’m using the American names in the dubbed version. 申し訳ありません。) But right at that moment TV signals everywhere are hijacked by one Phantom of the planet Krankor. He is on his way to earth in a shiny new drill-nosed spaceship, and as the world listens in horror and amazement he makes extravagant threats of complete destruction unless we all surrender immediately. Upon his arrival he brazenly buzzes Tokyo, filling the nighttime sky with the unearthly whine of his super-advanced space propulsion system.
So far so good. But troubling indications that Phantom has bitten off more than he can chew begin immediately when he flies off to the outer suburbs and hides his ship under a pleasant stand of pine trees. Perplexed by all that is happening, everyone rushes to Dr. Macken for an explanation. Being a rocket scientist, he has one. For somehow he knows that while the people of Krankor are in most respects way more advanced than we are, when it comes to rocket fuel, they “lag far behind.” If they had something as good as his new super-fuel, they could send 100 spaceships to earth, instead of just one.
OK, we’re just starting out, but let’s review. Phantom is invading earth to capture our new super-advanced rocket fuel. He needs that new super-advanced rocket fuel to successfully invade the planet earth. It’s the plot-line equivalent of an Escher drawing!
Back to that pleasant stand of pines trees, where Phantom and Co. seem to be hiding out from the authorities. Indeed, the viewer can’t help but feel he has blown the psychological advantage of his big entrance, and has already fallen back onto the defensive. Sure enough, the police soon arrive and begin closing in. At this point a nifty lemon-shaped periscope/microphone/space gun peeps out from under the grasses and starts blasting the cops with a laser beam. So at least the Krankorites are not completely helpless. But then who should arrive in a kind of space wheel-barrow ship thing? Prince of Space – nemesis of Krankor! Complete with cape, tights, and a goofy helmet.
The impish Prince of Space laughs as he merrily evades Phantom’s laser beam. Imagine a laser duel as choreographed by the Lord of the Dance troupe, and you’ll get the picture. The stand-off continues for a couple of minutes, until Phantom is informed by one of his minions that their power is running low, so they’ll have to return to Krankor. Already?!? Apparently. And so, having accomplished nothing except alerting both earth and Prince of Space to the presence of an enemy, they retreat back to outer space.
Most of the remaining run-time is dedicated to Phantom returning to earth, only to retreat again having failed or only partially succeeded in his mission. To be fair, he and his crew do manage to take down a fighter jet and blow up an earth rocket, so it isn’t a complete washout. But he never does get that rocket fuel, he never even comes close to conquering the earth, and when the not very intimidating Prince of Space follows him back to Krankor, he and his kingdom are blown to Kingdom Come. I for one couldn’t help but feel sorry for this bunch of space clowns, as they were the clear underdogs. Cue sad trombone sound.
Well, at least he tried
#3: King Dinosaur
Here I’m thinking outside of the box and awarding “King Dinosaur’s” violent, accident prone human expedition to the planet Nova with a spot on this list. Was it an invasion? Technically, no. It was supposed to be a mission of scientific exploration, but just look what happened!
King Dinosaur opens with one of the 1950’s most impressive collections of stock footage, as somewhere in outer space “Planet Nova” is discovered, and a manned space expedition is built to explore it. In the process we see: astronomical observatories, factory buildings, chain link security stops, telephone switchboards, and many, many storage rooms filled with various electrical gauges and meters. Keys are turned, switches are flipped, jet engines are tested, more jet engine are tested, World War II era bombers are dropped from cables, shiny new post-war jet bombers roar down the runway, acrobatic teams of jet fighters do loop-de-loops, missiles are launched carrying mice that freak out in zero gravity. And an atomic power regulator device is prepared. A very portable atomic power regulator device.
In the middle of this massive stock footage dump we are introduced to the four members of our crew. As each stares thoughtfully at something “scientific” (a rock, a test tube, a saber-tooth cat skull) the narrator fills us in on their professional qualifications. Dr. Richard Gordon, zoogeographer, has the hardest job of looking “intelligent” as he ponders the giant cat fangs, like Hamlet pondering poor Yorick. This take goes on so long in fact, that it looks like he’s pleading with the skull to yell “Cut!”
Finally, the launch day is at hand, and our All-American crew blasts off in a shiny, brand-spanking-new German-built V2 rocket. Seconds later they land on Nova, a world composed of pleasant meadows and scenic North American pine forests. First out of the V2 Interstellar Space Ship are Patricia Bennett, the chemist, and Ralph Martin, a medical doctor who has “studied most diseases and fatalities” while back on earth. The forth member of the crew is Nora Pierce, a mineralogist, and at first it seems pretty liberated to have a half-female crew. But when we see Patricia and Ralph, both in space suits, stroll hand-hand through the pleasant meadow that surrounds their ship, we realize that the sex equality was just a way to turn the expedition into an extended double-date.
Exploration, like love, can be wonderful
In a bold nod to scientific method, we see Patricia and Ralph test the air and examine the prairie grasses and wildflowers under a microscope to determine whether or not Nova is safe for human habitation. Patricia declares her tests “in no way conclusive” – then gives the OK for everyone to shed their protective gear. (!?)
Once outside, our intrepid crew wanders off in a random direction to collect samples. Nora looks thoughtfully at another rock and declares that Nova is younger than the earth, and therefore “prehistoric.” That’s enough for Patricia. Earlier, she was charmed by the stock footage deer and baby bears that inhabit the scenic pine forests of Nova, but now all she wants to do now is go home, “before something awful happens.” She’s right to be worried. For in addition to being a chemist, she’s the expedition’s Designated Girl. That means the first python the group encounters zeroes in on her, so she screams and screams and screams. The men react by shooting the python. The greater part of this scientific expedition is, in fact, composed of screaming and shooting. Along with tripping, bumping, knocking, and stumbling.(No time for re-takes here! The women, in particular, suffer whenever the menfolk push them out of the way of danger, and into a nearby rock, etc.)
Then we have the Incident of the First Night’s Watch. The men insist on doing the watching so the ladies can relax, but during Ralph’s turn, Patricia, worried, horny, and unable to sleep, wakes up and starts making out with him. So they decide to take a romantic moonlit stroll, leaving their two sleeping crew-mates alone and defenseless. Well, before you know it, Ralph trips over a branch, tumbles down a slope, and lands on top of an alligator. He and said alligator start to wrestle, and though Ralph emerges victorious, he quickly passes out from his wounds. Patricia screams. Then she cries as Richard and Nora administer emergency first-aid to their unconscious medical doctor. – Patricia is quickly becoming a load, just like her comatose boyfriend.
It’s now up to Richard and Nora, the (relatively) competent brunettes to take up the slack for the dumb blondes, so they go back to the rocket to get something important. Patricia, of course, decides to take an afternoon nap next to the still wounded and unconscious Ralph. What could go wrong? The arrival of a freaky insect the size of a moose, that’s what. Happily, Ralph pops awake and shoots the thing. Patricia pops awake and screams. So, situation normal.
At several points during all this fun the movie notices a somehow sinister “island” on the other side of a nearby lake. (Uh – oh never mind.) Nora, the mineralogist, develops a strange obsession with it and pesters everyone for a chance to visit it, though she gives no reason for her interest. In fact, the general lack of interest this crew of scientists express for their new, alien environment is striking. Richard, the zoogeologist, seems especially blasé about the deer, baby bears, pythons, alligators – and moose-sized insects. Never-the-less, he finally indulges Nora, and the two of them paddle off in an inflatable boat to the strange “island.” It’s rocky and barren, but suddenly they spy a giant lizard sitting back on its haunches. So Richard sneaks up closer and opens fire. Nora screams. Reacting to the assault, the giant lizard chases the couple into a cave, where a wounded Richard gets to take off his shirt to make a bandage for his arm. I think that makes it his first “official” date with Nora. He also gets to show off his academic training by comparing the giant lizard to a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (!) And he takes a photograph of it – which Nora promptly rips up while screaming, “no one will believe us!” Girls – sheesh!
This publicity still substitutes a monitor lizard for the iguana used in the movie. Note the poor cast members as they scrabble down a rocky slope. They must have been black and blue by the end of the shoot.
Several lizard-on-alligator and lizard-on-lizard fights ensue, but I won’t dwell on these disturbing examples of animal cruelty. Back on the “mainland” Ralph and Patricia are alerted to the peril, and paddle over to the island on another inflatable raft. Knowing his crewmates are in trouble, Ralph brings along their portable atomic bomb – just in case!
While the “T Rex” is engaged in one of those awful fights, all four explorers scramble back to the lake and their inflatable boat. Before they paddle over to the safe, “dinosaur-free” side, Ralph sets the atomic bomb to explode “at 8 o’clock.” They arrive on land just in time to turn around and see “the island” disappear in a blinding flash and mushroom cloud.
Zowie! And just before the gang returns to their rocket for the return trip home, we get this astounding exchange:
Ralph: “Well, we’ve done it.”
Richard: “Yes, we sure have done it. We’ve brought civilization to planet Nova!”
Umm, yes…Well…Congratulations guys!
An anomaly on this list, M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” is a big-budget Hollywood production packed with A-List talent. And while it has some super creepy scenes of alien menace, it is also a bizarre meditation on Faith, Family, and Redemption.
“Signs” follows the farm family of Graham Hess. A former Episcopal priest, Graham lost his faith but gained an anger management problem when God let his wife die in a traffic accident. Graham also has two young and strangely affectless children: son Morgan, who has asthma, and daughter Bo. Bo likes to leave partially filled glasses of water all over the house. Graham’s younger brother Merrill, a depressed former baseball star, rounds out the ensemble. I hope you are taking notes on everybody’s particular problem.
Life stops seeming dreary and meaningless and becomes openly menacing for this unhappy bunch when a crop circle appears in their cornfield. Nighttime intruder alerts involving a mysterious Tall Man soon follow. Numerous TV news reports eventually make it clear that crop circles are appearing all over, and that some sort of worldwide alien invasion in underway. (My favorite scene in the movie is some amateur footage broadcast on TV showing a birthday party full of kids screaming when they see something alien walk by the window.) Graham then has a strange kind of close encounter when he finds an alien locked in a neighbor’s pantry. It’s creepy, but the alien is locked in a pantry. Do these invaders know what they are doing?
He sees you!
Soon afterwards Graham and his family endure a “Night of the Living Dead” style siege in their own house. But fortunately earth’s superior wood-based technology saves the day as the aliens are again stymied by a farmhouse door. Perhaps it is this dispiriting failure that finally gets them to admit they are not up for the job, for in the morning we hear the radio report a miraculous worldwide retreat of the invaders.
Wonderful news, but it seems that at least one alien has been left behind, and is still lurking about their house. It sprays Graham’s son with an aerosol poison, but the boy is saved by a well-timed asthma attack. An attack brought on by the prayers of his re-Christianized father. The rest of the family is saved when Merrill relives his glory days and “swings away” at the alien with a baseball bat. Said alien is knocked against one of those glasses of water Bo leaves everywhere, and voila, it acts like sulphuric acid on him! So he ends up dying, his form reflected in the darkened TV screen that, ironically, first brought word of the aborted alien invasion. – And everyone lives happily ever after.
Water does an alien body bad
What…the…Hell? The aliens choose to invade a planet that is, for them, 70% sulfuric acid? And once here they treat it like a nudist colony?!? – What was all that about the crop circles? Why couldn’t they handle wooden doors and implements? Why did they leave? None of it makes sense, until you realize that this terrifying worldwide alien invasion was all part of God’s Plan to save Graham and his family from their personal demons. – This premise is so nuts the proper ending would be to show Graham wake up from a dream…And he’s in an insane asylum!
M. Night Shyamalan is a perplexing filmmaker. I remember being wowed by “The Sixth Sense” when I saw it in theaters. But with “Signs” the instability of his orbit, so to speak, became apparent. Soon it would get completely out of hand, and with two astounding stinkers, “Lady in the Water” and “The Happening,” Planet Shyamalan would veer off-course completely and crash into the sun. He seems to want to be taken seriously as a profound thinker. Alas, I see no profound ideas, only a conventional fixation on the nuclear family paired with a heavy-handed religiousity so determined to find “meaning” it becomes a kind of conspiracy theory. Cue sad trombone sound.
#1: Attack of the the Eye Creatures
Unlike Shyamalan, Texas-based Larry Buchanan never seemed to mind that he had no ideas and no talent. By all accounts a genuinely nice guy, he is responsible for some of the most painfully unwatchable crap ever to blight the screen. His specialty was making bargain-basement remakes of low-budget originals. Relying heavily on untrained, local “talent,” and a generous helping of padding, he evidently prided himself on bringing the “product” in on time and on budget. Watching “Attack of the the Eye Creatures” (who needs proof readers?) makes one appreciate “Plan 9 From Outer Spaces” for its crisp professionalism.
We open with a top-secret military briefing showing footage of an extra-terrestrial Bagel-which (with thanks to Crow T. Robot) flying somewhere near the Sierra Madre Mountains. It lands near a community that is 25% horny, 20-something teenagers, 25% uptight squares, and because this movie is technically a comedy, 50% Odious Comic Relief. The OCR comes in several varieties: oily young grifters out on the make, gun-wielding misanthropic old coots, “swinging” middle-aged army colonels who wear leopard print bathrobes, and the piece de la resistance, a pair of skeevy Peeping Tom radar operators, who love to watch the horny, 20-something teenagers as they make out at Lover’s Lane.As it lands, the ship is sighted by a bug-eyed young, man who dashes off to the nearest restaurant-bar to raise the alarm. He is dismissed by his cool-cat friend, the one who has a date – with a woman! – but not by the Army guy who saw the super-secret military film.
Yes, this was just as pathetic in 1965 as it is today.
As the Army guy alerts his “swinging” colonel to the news, said Cool-Cat drives off with his intended fiancee down a dark, yet sun-washed country road. (“Eye Creatures” has some of the worst “Day For Night” photography in the history of cinema.) We get our first look at an invading alien when they run over something in the road, and what a sight to behold it is. Imagine the creamy nougat filling from a giant Three Musketeers candy bar dumped out onto a country road. A big scoop has been removed and painted black. This represents the mouth, which is open in a constant yawn, or scream. Glass marbles scattered about the “head” represent strange unearthly “eyes” and complete the effect. It now becomes clear that the aliens’ real mission must be to join the local population of Odious Comic Relief.
OCR from space
The alien is dead, but its amputated hand lives on (huh?) and it punctures Cool-Cat’s tire, forcing the young lovers to walk back to town. As they do so, the military manages to locate the parked flying saucer where it sits in the woods. It appears to be empty, and they can’t find a door, so they bring out a blowtorch. And what do you know if the darn thing doesn’t catch fire and explode! And through it all, the horny 20-something teenagers in the nearby (I think) Lover’s Lane keep necking, while the skeevy radar operators keep Peeping.
Seemingly unaware of what is happening to their space ship, the mute, lethargic, dim-witted Eye Creatures come upon their fallen command – the one who stumbled out in front of a speeding car. And for once, they actually manage to accomplish something; they kill one of the oily hustlers and place his body under Cool-Cat’s car. That way, Cool-Cat and his girlfriend are arrested by the police for vehicular homicide. For in a stinging indictment of the establishment, the cops won’t believe that “nonsense” about running over a monster from outer-space – especially when it comes from some snot-nosed, 31-year-old kid. (That’s the age of “Beach Blanket Bingo” veteran John Ashley when he played Cool-Cat.)
Not a study in depression, but the comic wiz kids who save the earth!
As Cool-Cat and his girlfriend are carted off to the slammer, one of the Eye Creatures takes advantage of the respite to stumble over a cliff and fall to his death. (This crew makes the accident-prone earthlings who attacked Nova look graceful!) Do the survivors even notice his death? No. And they continue to wander pointlessly around the woods. As they do, we follow the merry shenanigans of Cool-Cat and his girlfriend as they escape from the dim witted police, join forces with the freaky roommate of the dead, oily hustler, and head back into the dark, sun-washed woods to solve the mystery. There they fall under a clumsy, slow-motion attack by the seemingly jet-lagged Eye Creatures and the freaky roommate almost buys it as he gets fondled by their loose, rubbery claws. But he is saved when Cool Cat discovers that Eye Creatures explode when exposed to the light of an incandescent bulb.
Yes, in a development that puts even “Signs” to shame, the Eye Creatures explode into a puff of smoke when hit by the beam of an automobile headlight… Larry, Larry, Larry. Just because you’re making a comedy, you don’t have the right to pull something like this.
Anyway, now that they know how to defeat the alien “peril” (ha ha!) our gang heads over to Lover’s Lane where they manage to pry apart the groping couples long enough to evaporate the entire troupe of pathetic Eye Creatures. Of course the adults will never believe them, but the kids don’t mind. They just go back to necking.Well, there you have it folks, the Gold Standard in hapless “who the hell cares, it’s only a movie” alien invasions. It is in fact the inspiration for this list. It’s got everything.
Why are the Eye Creatures here? – No idea.
What is their goal? – Nothing, apparently. Unless they meant to get lost in a nighttime forest.
What kind of craft do they have? – An explodable flying saucer.
What tools and weapons do they have? – Only their rubbery fingernails.
Clothing? – Nope.
Languages? – None, apparently.
Intelligence? – Barely. (Perhaps a lost band of Special Needs Eye Creatures?)
Special powers? – None. And despite having many eyes, they constantly blunder into fatal situations.
Special weaknesses? – As the list above makes plain, they are a bundle of special weaknesses. However, they do have a special special weakness, which is their tendency to blow up on contact with moderately strong light.
In short, “Attack of the the Eye Creatures” is an anti-masterpiece, and one that itself explodes upon contact with reasoned thought. Check out the Mystery Science 3000 version to enjoy this particular head-trip in all its idiotic splendour.
Sean Ledden (Aug 2016)
The Get Out Of Jail Free Card: Readers might be wondering about the absence of “War of the Worlds”. Fair enough. Aliens who come all the way to earth without bothering to remember it probably has germs seem pretty stupid. But it’s not here, and that because of its historical pedigree. H.G. Wells wrote “War of the Worlds” in 1897 – yes, 1897! – and it was the very first alien invasion science fiction. Germ theory not being that old at the time, I give Wells credit for coming up with a clever way to save mankind from defeat at the hands of a technologically superior foe. There’s also a note of environmental sophistication here, as something that merely seems like a hardship turns out to have a protective and beneficial side to it.
The Dishonorable Mention: As with germs, so with computer viruses. The aliens of “Independence Day” set out to defeat a human race that has the Internet, yet they don’t bother with cyber security. Add to that the fact that each of their city killer ships has a critical weakness, like the Death Star, which they seem unable to guard against. That’s two strikes against them. But since the attack is well staged, and humanity’s victory is just…barely…plausible, so I’ll let “Independence Day” off with a temporarily suspended interstellar license.