Return of the alien invaders

Tales of a nation under attack, which recur when public anxiety rises, multiply at theaters and on TV.

Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds" is acutely attuned to the zeitgeist of post-9/11 America. In this adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, Earth is still the most desirable piece of real estate in the Milky Way, the envy of the galactic neighborhood. But this retelling of the alien-invasion story, set in modern-day New Jersey rather than Wells' Edwardian London, tacitly acknowledges American fears of an attack on US cities. A principal aspect of the film is the way a nation unites after an assault from a foreign invader.

The idea of extraterrestrials bent on mankind's destruction has been a popular sci-fi theme for more than a century. At different times, the stories have been interpreted as metaphors for different fears, including attacks by Nazis and Soviets. In the homeland-security era, however, "War of the Worlds" and several coming TV dramas about alien invasion tap into American worries about domestic terrorism.

"Usually you see an uptick in science fiction and horror films when there's a lot of global anxiety," says Brannon Braga, executive producer of "Threshold," a CBS series, due out this fall, about alien infiltration. "It's under- standable that we would rather see these very agonizing and complex issues depicted in a metaphorical, escapist format."

Two other TV shows slated for fall explore external threats to mankind. NBC's "Fathom" centers on undersea creatures whose harmless appearance may be deceptive. "Invasion," on ABC, is about a Florida town battling what seems to be a stealthy alien takeover in the aftermath of a hurricane. Each may lead viewers to draw parallels between extraterrestrials and hidden terrorist cells. Only "Chicken Little," a Disney feature that adds flying saucers to the "sky is falling" plot, offers a lighthearted take on the invasion theme.

Movies about UFO attacks have taken on a new meaning in today's context. Just nine years ago, "Independence Day" depicted destruction of New York skyscrapers in an almost gleeful, "there goes the neighborhood" fashion. By contrast, "War of the Worlds" purposefully avoids shots of Big Apple landmarks being destroyed - images that now hit too close to home.

"What really struck me when I saw the finished film for the first time was how acutely you feel the loss of human life when it happens," says David Koepp, screenwriter of "War of the Worlds." "That's a post-9/11 adjustment that I don't think Steven [Spielberg] made consciously. It's just that he lives here, too, and that's how our thoughts about war and death are much, much different than they were 10 years ago."

Written in 1898, Wells's "War of the Worlds" has lent itself to various interpretations over time. Some critics believe that Wells wrote of worldwide fear of British invasion at the height of the colonial era. Others theorize that the work resonated with British readers because they believed Wells's Martian invaders symbolized the perceived threat of Kaiser Wilhelm.

Forty years later, Orson Welles adapted the work for a radio dramatization that cannily played upon public jitters of a looming second world war. Welles's broadcast made the fictitious events seem so real that hysterical listeners looked to the skies, believing that rocket cylinders had landed from Mars. A red scare of a different sort informed the 1953 "War of the Worlds" movie. In this version stingray-shaped alien ships equipped with ray guns vaporized targets by making them glow like a light bulb during a power surge - an image reminiscent of an atomic bomb.

"The notion of technology run amok and becoming antihuman, regardless of whether you were on the winning side or losing side, was pretty real for people," says Kevin Hagopian, lecturer in media studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Other sci-fi movies of the time - "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "It Came from Outer Space," and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" - have been interpreted as cold-war allegories set to eerie soundtracks of woozy theremins. The genre spoke to audience fears in ways their makers didn't necessarily intend, he surmises.

As the cold war thawed, Hollywood's aliens became more benign. In "2010" and "The Abyss," close encounters of the cosmic kind foster peace among nations. "Those movies couldn't have been made in the '50s and '60s. In effect, the nonthreatening aspects of those films suggest that something's changing in the political climate," says Kevin Gilbert, who teaches "International Relations on Film - the Human Face of Conflict" at the University of Denver.

For Spielberg, his friendly aliens of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" and "E.T." reflected the optimism of the time. "There's an innocence to a film like 'E.T.' that you couldn't get away with today," he told Entertainment Weekly.

Ultimately, the 2005 "War of the Worlds" reflects hope by depicting the sort of sacrifice and unity that came out of 9/11.

ABC's "Invasion" also aims to show that traumatic events can heal divided families and communities. "There's an 'us versus them' mentality that you don't even need to leave our shores to feel," says creator Shaun Cassidy. "If that's allegorical for the state of our world, then good!"

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