When the sky blackens, and the distant trembling of thunder overwhelms the white noise of cars, buses, and scuttling pedestrians, instinct tells us to seek refuge, to go home. But what if there’s no escape? Nowhere truly safe? And that our means of protection have failed us—proven quaint and flimsy? Alien invasion movies have always toyed with these fears, plunging us into a dizzying no-man’s land not unlike the country’s greatest upheavals and disasters. Filled with the demons of our post-9/11 climate, “Signs” and “War of the Worlds” use the immediate threat of an alien apocalypse to echo with a gasping frenzy the feelings of vulnerability that swept everyday life—feelings that have returned with a vengeance during the Covid-19 pandemic as we scramble for signs that things will eventually go back to normal, that things will be OK.
Science-fiction movies have always been about twisting our contemporary social and political realities into fantasies—or nightmares—that put humanity, science, and technology to the test. Alien invasion movies are no exception, but for the most part their us-against-them set-ups mesh nicely with the American exceptionalism that underpins Hollywood blockbusters.
Consider Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day,” the movie that marked the splashy return of the sub-genre at the tail end of the ’90s. It’s hard to imagine that film’s wild success in the box office without considering the multiple doomsday conspiracies floating around at the time. As the clocks ticked forward into the 21st century, the symbolism of global catastrophe seemed too apt to ignore. Meanwhile, our Soviet adversaries had long been vanquished. “Independence Day” gave us a disaster befitting the turn of the century, and truly formidable enemies. Our alien rivals—unsentimental and exacting, and equipped with technologies that surpassed our own—are ultimately foiled by humanity’s gutsy ingenuity and bristling spirit. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum valiantly board the mothership and upload a computer virus that wipes the aliens’ defenses, while Randy Quaid’s washed-up ex-fighter pilot achieves redemption by downing the ship kamikaze-style. Emmerich blows up the White House—a harsh battle wound to say the least—but America still comes out on top, its willpower fortified, its families reunited. In the end, exploding alien space-crafts in the distance light up like the world’s most magnificent fireworks.
Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!,” also from 1996, takes a different approach: the aliens are comically sadistic and our leaders are blundering idiots. In typical Burton fashion, outcasts and losers remain our only hope—a donut-shop employee and his grandma, a recovering alcoholic, a washed-up former boxer turned casino employee, etcetera. These people aren’t brazen patriots, just resilient underdogs, and their victory comes with the discovery of an unusual achilles heel, Slim Whitman’s country music anthem “Indian Love Call,” which literally makes the martians’ brains explode. When the “resistance,” so to speak, catches on, the song is proliferated across the airwaves to cause brain-splatting en masse. These visions of alien arrival aren’t situated in some future dystopia, they take place in the present day, and imagine how our government agencies, our military, our everyday citizens resist the threat of destruction—and how they ultimately triumph. Our actions, they tell us, will save us. Our actions have meaning.
Ironically, as the industry searched for newer, bigger enemies to put in our movies, the country eventually got one with the attacks of 9/11. The event was deemed the “new Pearl Harbor” by politicians and pundits alike, which acknowledged the rarity of attacks on U.S. soil while reminding us of our retaliation and righteous victory in World War II. “Strength” and “courage” became popular keywords meant to instill trust in the government and to manage the public’s grief and anxiety. Yet those terms felt—and feel today—manipulative and hollow. Ultimately, the events of 9/11 gutted the idea that we are the masters of our own fate. Images of two towering infernos, seemingly ripped out of the movies, haunted every news channel, every home. We learned it was the “terrorists,” a term that implied we had no idea what we were talking about. Who were the terrorists? From where did they come? The U.S. government’s ensuing overseas campaign of brutality seemed to confirm its cluelessness. And at home, the uncertainty of it all was crippling.
Then in the following years came two very different types of invasion movies. In M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” and Steven Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” there’s no question of a proper war between humans and extraterrestrials. Our scientific advancements, our sophisticated weaponry, our leaders and heroes—none stand a chance. Both films follow ordinary people on the margins as they fight to simply stay alive, protagonists motivated by a raw desire to protect their children from grisly fates. The politicians and military men are as flustered and impotent as the average Joe, so the cameras never bother turning their way, choices that reflect a sense of abandonment and betrayal. It’s a feeling that these past months have rekindled to a staggering, devastating degree. Despite our leaders’ efforts, 9/11 made things like flying, visiting major cities, even driving seem risky—a condition of floundering insecurity, and deep, existential unease that also plagues our every outing, our every interaction in these pandemic times. But it’s not just the fear of contracting and spreading the Covid-19 virus that has thrown our existence into disarray. Nor merely confronting the Kafkaesque nightmare that is our failed institutions and systems of care. It’s the total loss of control, the uncertainty of how much longer and how many more deaths until it’s over, that fills us with dread.
A scream cuts through the twinkle of wind chimes, the faint rustle of cornstalks. The kids have stumbled upon something strange, something they have difficulty explaining. The crops have been flattened with an eerie precision, and from above they seem to form enormous geometric patterns. Meanwhile the dogs won’t stop barking; they grow restless and savage. It’s easy to remember “Signs,” Shyamalan’s third straight hit following “The Sixth Sense” (1999) and “Unbreakable” (2000), as merely a pop culture artifact—the tin foil hats, the birthday party scene, those crucial, countless glasses of water—yet the atmosphere of menace and panic it creates remains lodged in my gut. Father of two young children and an ex-priest, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) calls the sheriff, hoping she’s got a lead on this crop circle prank: “It’d sure take the strangeness away if I knew it was just Lionel and the Wolfington brothers messing around.” Of course, it’s not, but the real culprits—hostile alien invaders—are hardly what makes Shyamalan’s invasion movie so effective. It’s Graham’s quivering desire for normalcy, for reasonable explanations, for all the “strangeness” to be taken away, that feels familiar and true.
His family has recently suffered a great tragedy—his wife’s sudden death at the hands of a weary commuter, Ray Reddy, who dozed off behind the wheel at exactly the wrong time. Graham cannot cope with the injustice, the cruelty and meaninglessness of it all; he bitterly renounces God, and we meet him as he struggles to cast off his image as the community holy man. Then the “strangeness” swoops in—the agitated dogs, midnight shenanigans on the rooftop, the feeling that something sinister is watching and waiting. Graham’s youngest, Bo (Abigail Breslin), announces that all the channels are playing the same thing. The crop circles are everywhere, impossible to ignore despite Graham’s efforts to keep his family focused on “ordinary things.” Shyamalan uses wide angle lenses and shoots from shifting, low angles to disturb our sense of proportion; the camera is in near-constant motion, panning and tilting to inject the otherwise static, sleepy farmhouse location with a breathless urgency. Things look the same, but they don’t feel it.
In times of crisis, we’re starved for information that might settle our spirits and grace us with that cherished illusion of control. When Graham sees something disturbing in the cornfields, he knows he can no longer live in denial. Everyone in the family gathers around the television set where the “history of the world’s future” plays on the screen: unidentified lights hovering above all the major capitals. The experts and reporters merely speculate, and offer theories as useful as the ones in the extraterrestrial book written by a “Dr. Bimbo” that Graham’s son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), carries around like a bible. Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), Graham’s younger brother, a newer resident in the house, holes up in a storage closet glued to the T.V., horrified by every new scrap of intelligence, but unable to pull away.
“What’s happening out there?” Graham asks as his family huddles in the basement in the final act. “I can’t even imagine,” mutters Merrill, “I hope they’re doing better than we are.” A student of Hitchcock, Shyamalan understands that less is more when it comes to building suspense, so the world beyond the farmhouse only trickles in through grainy home videos and nervous journalists, reporting from what seems more like a bunker than a proper news station. Like the aliens themselves, which only rarely make appearances, the unimaginable horrors of what’s happening “out there,” and what might soon happen to them, fills the Hess family with doubt.
When the aliens finally strike, the news broadcast goes blank and their final connection to the rest of humanity snapped off. Off-screen barks turn to whimpers, then silence; the porch creaks under footsteps, and shadows flicker in the cracks of boarded-up windows. Walls shake, doorknobs rattle furiously as James Howard Newton’s score swells in panic-stricken fury. Then Graham clutches Morgan, and tells him about the day he was born.
Watching “Signs” today, some elements feel wooden and hackneyed; knowing what we now know about Mel Gibson’s profanity-laced outbursts as a private citizen, and in other films, Graham’s reluctance to curse seems laughable; Bo’s mousy eccentricities just a little too precious; Merrill’s dumb jock tendencies forced and unfunny. The movie continuously circles back to Graham’s crisis of faith by replaying in bits and pieces his final conversation with his dying wife, the scene of his life’s greatest tragedy and betrayal. It takes surviving an alien invasion to renew his faith in God, a predictable outcome that reads like a mildly icky Christian genre movie. Because of this, I’m tempted to roll my eyes when Graham tells Morgan about his birth, which feels contrived. Yet the way the camera sets a fixed gaze on gushing father and attentive son even as mayhem builds around them resembles the experience of a panic attack, a flood of terror that one fights back with focus and controlled breathing. Hiding in the cellar, Morgan suffers an asthma attack that makes palpable this internal struggle. Father comforts and guides son through the darkness, even as he himself trembles in despair.
Released in the summer of 2002, “Signs” was never intended as a direct response to 9/11, though the cast and crew were waist-deep in the process of filming when the attacks took place. Nevertheless, its mysterious alien invaders seemed to represent this new, unknowable enemy; and its methods eerily resembled the mood of alarm and uncertainty that seemed to hang in the air. Long gone were the days of conquerable foes, and with them a certain picture of America itself.
Also hinging on the spiritual crisis at the center of American politics and culture, was “War of the Worlds,” which follows Tom Cruise as an estranged father charged with protecting his children as they evade murderous extraterrestrials on a perilous journey to Boston. Like the Hess family, the Ferriers are just random people hoping to make it out alive, not heroes ultimately responsible for humanity’s salvation. Whereas “Signs” is a minimalistic psychological thriller, “War of the Worlds” is a more straight-forward horror-adventure movie, with big, impressive set-pieces and visions of sprawling catastrophe. In my book, Spielberg’s adaptation doesn’t get at the marrow-deep feeling of dread that “Signs” so effectively conjures—instead it belongs to a lineage of big-budget disaster movies whose relationship to 9/11 is more plainly obvious. Spielberg has acknowledged the connection: “We live under a veil of fear that we didn’t live under before 9/11. There has been a conscious emotional shift in the country.” In a visual callback to the infamous World Trade Center plume, heavy dust clouds the air in the opening attack scene in Brooklyn—a tripod emerges from the ground and begins zapping humans into powdered smithereens, leaving behind only scraps of clothing drifting in the sky. Cruise’s Ray Ferrier, like Graham, returns home after this chilling encounter, nearly paralyzed by what he’s seen, but determined to get his loved ones out of a soon-to-be burning Brooklyn pronto.
There’s a strong survivalist streak to “War of the Worlds,” namely because we’re so tethered to Cruise and his exceptionally capable and fortunate avatar. Ray has one of the only functioning cars around, and zips past envious stragglers with kids in tow until a mob overwhelms the vehicle and takes over. A plane crashes into the family’s hideaway in the suburbs, but the trio manage to take cover in the basement utility room at exactly the right moment. A run-in with an unstable stranger, played by Tim Robbins, ends in justified violence, and Ray’s teenage son, Robbie (Justin Chatwin) is emboldened to take a stand and joins the resistance. Much later, when Rachel (Dakota Fanning) is swooped up by one of the tentacled spacecrafts, Ray deliberately gets himself caught to join his daughter in the attached holding cell. And when a tentacle chooses Ray as the next unlucky victim from its reserve of juicy bodies, he gets sucked into the tripod with a grenade in hand, and releases it before getting pulled out by his fortuitously energized fellow prisoners. Ray may be especially resilient—a quality as miraculous as the hand of God that supposedly saves Morgan in the final showdown of “Signs”—yet we’re told as he looks out, battered and wide-eyed, into a field doused in human blood, that it’s only a matter of time before luck runs out.
In the H.G Wells book, a wizened artilleryman explains, “there never was a war, anymore than there’s war between men and ants.” In both “Signs” and Spielberg’s “War of the Worlds,” this fact remains true to the end. Our protagonists come out alive, but not by their own, or any sort of human intervention. The aliens are defeated in final act twists by biological forces beyond their control. Our planet is made up of mostly water, and the invaders in “Signs” turn out to be deathly allergic—they retreat, leaving behind their injured to get killed by baseball bats and smashed glasses of water. In “War of the Worlds,” the aliens are ravaged by Earth-borne infectious microbes to which we are immune—these once intimidating, hulking creatures tumble out of their spaceships like pale corpses.
In the face of utter hopelessness, these outcomes suggest that the cosmos is on the side of humanity, that something ingrained and incontestable in the fabric of the natural world has got our backs. We need only tough it out, brave the horrifying darkness, before these forces kick into gear. It’s only natural given the spiritual devastation of 9/11 that the movies would turn to a higher power for salvation, and that that higher power would be at least nominally rooted in science. If our leaders and weapons can’t save us, what could be more comforting than knowing that the planet itself will accommodate our existence? Upon closer look, such a message comes off as deeply frightening, an obvious fiction. It’s striking that today, in the throes of an actual global crisis, and in a country led by con men and bigots, we find ourselves feeling similarly abandoned. Otherwise forsaken, our hope lies in the doctors and scientists—the cult of Dr. Anthony Fauci, while not undeserved, speaks to our desperation, our mad scramble for truth and certainty in times that deny us these comforts.
While writing this piece, my mind continuously circled back to the opening invasion sequence in “War of the Worlds,” when Ray runs out into the street and finds himself among friends and neighbors looking up at this unnaturally prodigious storm. Spielberg cuts to the many bewildered faces of the community, people clutching their lovers and children, staring in awe, exchanging wordless, worried glances. It’s strange to walk around outside these days and look at every person that passes by me knowing, with a level of certainty, that their lives in some way have also changed because of the pandemic. The spiritual malaise may be inescapable, but the question of where we’ll come out on the other side remains at large.