Arrival is being sold not so much as an alien invasion movie but as the story of trying to head off an invasion by simply establishing the lines of communication. That’s usually a minor point in other similar movies, usually handled by some sort of nifty device that’s whipped up by a secondary character, but here forms the crux of the story.
In honor of the movie’s release, let’s look back at the trailers for nine notable science fiction movies, all of which have taken very different approaches to the idea of Earth being visited by little green men. Some are comedies, some are dramas, some are horror. But all share the common element that they start, or at least notably include, the idea that we are not alone in the universe and that visitors from other worlds don’t always have our best interests in mind.
The granddaddy of the modern alien invasion movie, Independence Day not only redefined the genre in 1994 but also kicked off in many ways the era of the modern blockbuster. For all that, it’s really just a glorified b-movie, bringing together a mid-level cast to play the roles of President, cocky fighter pilot, science geek know-it-all and hillbilly hero. They all come together to fight an alien menace that’s largely inconsequential – they want to colonize our planet and strip us bare of natural resources – but which nonetheless is massive in scale. Most all of that is laid out in the trailer, which focuses on first the discovery of the alien ships hovering over us and then on the havoc that’s wreaked. So we see some of the then-groundbreaking effects, both computer-generated and practica, and are told this is going to be a massive, corny roller coaster ride of a movie.
The Day The Earth Stood Still
One of the gold standards of 1951s “Red Scare” cinema, we all know the basic story here: Klaatu (Michael Reinne) is a visitor from another planet to comes to Earth to warn us that our atomic experiments are taking us down a dangerous path. His goal is to warn us to be good cosmic neighbors before other planets have to stop us from harming ourselves and them. He tries to blend in and go about Washington, D.C. to enlist the help of scientists and others in his quest. The trailer doesn’t go too deep into that story, instead focusing on the shocking story and the basic premise of an alien walking around the United States. It focuses quite a bit on Gort, the robot, and the ship that it guards. That makes a lot of sense since if you put this in the context of 1950s science-fiction cinema, it was all about the spaceships and other effects, with the story more or less a side dish, at least in terms of the marketing.
Two years after Independence Day, Tim Burton came out with this spoof of the alien invasion genre that was also based on a series of popular trading cards. The story is pretty basic, with a group of Martians invading Earth in order to kill everyone. Simple as that. It all starts out with good intentions and political overtures, but it soon becomes clear that invasion and horror is the real agenda of the invaders. An all-star cast including Jack Nicholson (in two roles), Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan and others all play outlandish stereotypes, the better to amp up the comedy. The trading card origins aren’t mentioned in any of the trailers, which instead focus on the outrageous comedy that’s in the movie. That includes making sure the audience sees all the members of the cast, including Joe Don Baker.
War of the Worlds
The story in 1953’s big-screen adaptation of H.G. Wells’ story is much-changed from the original, transposing the action from pre-WWI Great Britain to post-WWII America. Still, the outlines are more or less the same: A series of invaders have landed on Earth and are wiping out the human populations that they encounter. The massive walkers trod over the landscape, shooting heat beams out of their mechanical eyes and destroying everything around them. For all that spectacle, though, the trailer is very much focused on the human efforts to destroy them. There aren’t more than half a dozen shots that show the aliens in any way, with most of the focus being on the military and others who are fighting back against the creatures raining destruction down around the world.
Men in Black
The alien invasion genre got another dose of comedic relief with 1997’s Barry Sonnenfeld-directed Men in Black, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith. The two play a pair of secret agents dedicated to policing the aliens who visit Earth, either peacefully or otherwise, Jones’ K the wizened veteran and Smith’s J the hot-shot rookie. After taking care of a few minor annoyances they work to stop an all-out assault on the planet that’s sparked by the theft of a very important piece of jewelry. But almost none of that story is in the trailer, which instead focuses selling the interpersonal dynamic between the two leads along with the overall premise of there being lots of aliens in New York City. Left out are the actual stakes of the story, likely because it was more important to sell the two stars, who were pretty hot at the time.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
We’re back into “red scare” territory here, with this story of aliens who take over people’s bodies and turning them into mindless drones serving as an allegory for the Communist threat that was being pounded into everyone’s minds at the time. Kevin McCarthy plays Dr. Miles Bennell, who is the only sane man to figure out what’s going on and try to warn others of the impending threat, but he’s dismissed as a paranoid delusional at first, a marginalization that only gets worse and more dangerous for him as more people are subsumed. The trailer shows most all of that, focusing heavily on Bennell’s warning rants which sometimes seem directed more at the audience than they are at the other characters in the movie.
Is anything I could write here going to tell you something you don’t already know about the movie? What’s surprising is how little the trailer shows the secret aliens that are walking amongst us, saving that for the big reveal at the end, even though it’s hinted at elsewhere.
Steve McQueen stars as a teenager (hmph) in this 1958 horror movie about a massive jelly-like creature that falls from space and begins eating and killing anyone who comes across its path. The trailer sells the movie as the ultimate drive-in kind of movie, featuring lots of teenagers necking in cars and going to the movies like they did. The cornerstone of the trailer is all the shots of those teens running away from the pulsating blob (colored red just to make sure the anti-Communist symbolism wasn’t missed) along with the various technical notes about the presentation. It’s all high-camp that’s on display here, which is more or less in keeping with the movie itself.
Attack the Block
There’s so much greatness in the trailer for the movie, about an alien invasion that starts in a block of South London flats and, thanks to the heroics of the slacker kids who live there, never really gets beyond that location. The entire story is more or less laid out as we see the inciting incident and the reactions of those who see it and realize what’s going on. It’s funny, it’s terrifying, it’s violent and it’s heartwarming, selling an alien invasion movie that’s more about status and having pride in where you live than big interplanetary warfare.