Pointing out intellectually redemptive attributes inside of a ham-handed, worn-out science fictions clichés can sort of seem like saying you’re really watching pornography to analyze the super-interesting dialogue. So, with common alien invasion stories – often replete with gratuitous scenes of destruction – it’s particularly difficult to find the deeper stuff. And because so many invasion stories are embedded with a somewhat xenophobic premise, what good can come out of alien invasion stories? Other than critiquing alien invasions inside of alien invasions (like in District 9), can an alien invasion actually be seen as a “good” thing? Can extraterrestrial invaders actually teach us a lesson?
The easiest example of aliens landing, and basically telling us what to do with our dumb Earthling lives, comes from Star Trek. While it’s not established immediately in the original 60’s show, by 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact, we learn that the peaceful, tolerant version of Earth was born out of the Vulcans landing on Earth, and saying hello. The Trek series Enterprise then depicted the ways in which the Vulcans more or less ran the Earth’s government, shared technology, and kind of bossed the military — Starfleet — around.
While all of this makes for some fun philosophical speeches on the show about how pushy and manipulative the Vulcans are, the larger positive and err … prosperous … impacts become obvious. Crime on Earth is gone, everyone is getting along, the economy is getting better, etc. All thanks to the Vulcans puppeteering our government!
In Star Trek, there is also an innumerable selection of other alien species who could have dropped in on us first, all of which would have either been a super bad influence on humanity (the Klingons) or destroyed the Earth entirely (the Borg.) In Trek’s evil alternate dimension – “the mirror universe” – it’s also established that the reason a corrupt and ruthless Empire rises in place of the goody toe-shoes Federation is all down to the moment where humans murder the “invading” Vulcans instead of shaking their hands. True, in all timelines, the Vulcans come in peace, so perhaps they’re not technically invaders. Still, in the “good” version of Star Trek’s future, the reason everything is so peachy is because we essentially let extraterrestrials tell us how to run our society better. Might not be a lasers and saucers invasion, but an ideological one for sure.
Though not technically aliens, this idea of cold, ultra-rational, emotionless beings dictating the peaceful survival of the human race has a precedent in the final section of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. Here, in a section entitled “The Evitable Conflict,” humankind is being subtly controlled (and saved) by robot influence. Obviously, this fact is kept from the majority of the human population, for the same reason the Vulcans only later revealed they’d had spies living among the human race for like a century before they formally decided to “land” with their spaceships. In Star Trek, the far future humans adopt this same form of spying, which at several points, makes the human crews of Starfleet ships the “aliens,” walking among indigenous populations, subtly judging what they do and don’t like about these various cultures.
Arthur C. Clarke’s famous novel Childhood’s End also depicts parental alien invaders in the form of Overlords, who, unlike the Vulcans in Star Trek, aren’t subtle at all about telling us what they’re up to. I mean, the name “Overlords,” is a pretty dead giveaway as to what they’re up to.
At the risk of reducing a wonderful and multilayered novel to a few basic themes; one of the more predominant points here is that while a certain amount of peace and stability occurs on Earth thanks to the Overlords being in charge, there’s also cultural, artistic, and general creative stagnation among humankind. With a title like Childhood’s End you can probably see where this is going: eventually a new generation of human beings evolve with abilities (like telepathy) that kind of challenge what the Overlords want.
Still, Clarke weaves a more complicated idea of alien invaders here: the fear human beings have of alien invaders isn’t a reaction to being conquered, but a kind of precognitive awareness of what intellectual fallout results from being taken care of on a global scale. In this way, the positive aspects of the alien invasion aren’t so much “good” as a fact of life. At some point this kind of thing was always going to happen, and the evolutionary leap human beings make as a result of this invasion is inevitable.
A manipulated, and wholly staged alien invasion forms one of the various premises of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel The Sirens of Titan. Here, we get a full-on invasion from Mars complete with flying saucers! But here’s the rub: though the saucers come from Mars, they are crewed by human beings, all brain-washed and remote-controlled.
Though it is entirely different in tone than Childhood’s End, Vonnegut’s ultimate aim with the Martian invasion in The Sirens of Titan is to demonstrate just how mercilessly human beings would slaughter “creatures from another planet.” This has the roundabout effect on humankind and allows William Niles Rumfoord to establish the Church of the God of the Utterly Indifferent. The ultimate goal here was to show humankind that an alien invasion actually brought out their worst tendencies and the people they killed, were in fact, people they brainwashed. Vonnegut’s fake Martian invasion then succeeds at being both a literal invasion and a critique of the idea of invasions simultaneously.
If more conventional pop-cultural invasions – like Independence Day – are a reflection of reality, then the evil aliens have sort of taken over a long time ago; otherwise these kinds of films wouldn’t keep coming out. But we haven’t learned anything from this variety of aliens, yet. The ultimate and wholly unlikely twist of Independence Day: Resurgence would offer the humans some kind of potential advancement from all this senseless obliteration. But, unless those tentacles can figure out how to form the “live long and prosper” hand sign, or telepathically chide us about our faults, any deeper lessons from the new Independence Day are about as likely as having a relationship epiphany while watching a porno movie.