Now the monsters from space are everywhere. "Men in Black II," which opened last week, and the 1997 hit "Men in Black," posit that so many aliens have come to Earth that a top-secret agency must police them. Tommy Lee Jones' Kay and Will Smith's Jay lead the undercover force. Their confederates include aliens within the agency run by Rip Torn's Zed all more frightening than The Thing, which was after all, James Arness in a not terribly shocking costume.
Aliens have spawned a genre of their own since the dawn of paranoiac movie science fiction in the '50s. Steven Spielberg, executive producer of "MIB," brought gentle and superior interlopers to Earth in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial."
His friend George Lucas filled his galaxy with all manner of bizarre beings in the "Star Wars" cycle. Stanley Kubrick, in collaboration with the great sci-fi fabulist Arthur C. Clarke, filled the history of man with mystery through the powerful, unknowable slab in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ridley Scott loosed a Thing for our time upon us in "Alien." "Independence Day" (which established Will Smith as a star) sent huge murderous ships that rained destruction on U.S. cities.
Visitors from other planets have figured in science fiction since the turn of the century. H.G. Wells' "The War of the Worlds" described an invasion of England by Martians in 1898, but no one was unduly disturbed by the idea until 40 years later, when Orson Welles put it on the radio, transplanting the attack to New Jersey. Panic ensued.
Wells, Jules Verne and more shadowy figures, such as H.P. Lovecraft, pioneered works that looked into the future. In 1927, Lovecraft, the Providence recluse, published "The Colour Out of Space," in which a strange force is carried to Rhode Island by a meteor.
But it was the '50s that turned science fiction into a big business in a Hollywood threatened by TV, forced to sell off its theaters and tyrannized by McCarthy and other right-wing witch hunters. It was a time of fear in an America that had exploded two atom bombs over Japan, then watched as our former ally, the Soviet Union, developed its own nuclear arsenal as well as the world's first satellite, Sputnik.
In the movies of the '50s, including George Pal's 1953 adaptation of "The War of the Worlds," the invaders were coded versions of Russians. One of the most memorable was Don Siegel's 1956 "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," in which "pod people" replace the humans in a small town. Here, as in Howard Hawks' "The Thing," the menace rises from a vegetable.
A fear of mutants
The Eisenhower era, seemingly so secure but inwardly so troubled, feared the effects of radiation, which produced mutants like the giant ants of the 1954 "Them!" and the Gill-Man of the 1954 "Creature From the Black Lagoon." These are the cousins of today's aliens, from the huge insects of Paul Verhoeven's satirical 1997 "Starship Troopers" to misshapen humanoids in the "Star Trek" sagas.
Not always funny
It was inevitable that the genre would turn to comedy, not always funny. (Witness Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks!"). Even cartoons, such as "Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius," have exploited the fascination with aliens.
In the '50s, the invaders mirrored fears of a godless superpower bent on taking over the world. Today their meaning is much less clear. A phantasmagoria like Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" thrilled audiences with images of massive wreckage inflicted from the skies, but the idea does not seem like much fun now.
Many science-fiction films from the '70s to the present draw their impetus from new F/X technologies, but also from the mysteries of the universe, from discoveries of new stars, new planets, and the suggestion that, yes, there may yet be life on Mars. Written in 1950, Ray Bradbury's "The Martian Chronicles" marches on.