Bring on the Alien Attack

The appeal of a good (or not-so-good) disaster movie

“Dystopian drama is my favorite genre,” my friend Michael said recently. “Well, that and natural disasters.” We were talking movies, and he admitted that nothing gets him more juiced up than a good dose of societal dysfunction or major civilization breakdown in a plotline.

This is something he and I have in common—though I would also add the apocalypse, impending apocalypse and post-apocalypse genres to my list of favorites, generally speaking.

I recently started watching the TV series Falling Skies (about aliens taking over the planet and the remaining citizens banding together to form a resistance). This comes after a summer of obsession over the Hunger Games books (about a post-apocalyptic North America faces a cruel totalitarian regime, leading citizens to band together to form a resistance), which I like because it reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (a totalitarian regime overthrows the U.S. government, leading citizens to band together to form a resistance). I will also drop whatever I’m doing if TNT should happen to show I Am Legend (a disease turns humans into monsters; Will Smith forms a resistance), 28 Days Later (a disease turns humans into zombies; non-zombies form a resistance), and even, I’m sorry to say, The Day After Tomorrow (weather happens, people band together and resist) and Armageddon (an asteroid threatens the earth, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck band together for the resistance. In space.).

Only recently did it occur to me why Michael and I all have this predilection for a good dystopia/disaster story. Aside from the special effects (and the worse the movie, the more enthralling those effects. See: The Day After Tomorrow), there is something satisfying about the idea of an entire citizenry uniting for the greater good. This theme of people who are pushed to their limits finally rising up and finding a way to beat the oppressor (or the brain-eater or whatever) is ultimately the story of good over evil, the triumph of a united human spirit. These stories make a promise that when the time comes—even in our increasingly insular, disjointed, divided world—we will be able to put down our differences and fight together to preserve the life we want to live.

Now whether that promise is true, well… that I don’t know. Certainly, it’s happened before in real life, and I know this because the only thing I like more than a futuristic fictional dystopia and resistance is a true story about real resistance movements that worked in the past. (I.e. Against the Nazis, against slavery, against King George III.)

But I suppose the appeal of the Man versus Alien/Man versus Zombies/Man versus Evil Regime/Man versus Killer Snow Tornados plotline is how easy it is for everyone to see that yes, we should absolutely unite here to fight the aliens/undead/oppression/snow. I think it all soothes my latent anxiety about the people today maybe not knowing how or when to unite anymore. Just look at Congress! For all the ridiculous talk about “crossing the aisle”, didn’t they just hold the country hostage and single-handedly sink us into what’s probably second recession while they played at politics like angry children? Aren’t they doing that still? (Other things that fuel my worry: DROP, the existence of the Tea Party, the real life evil regimes out there, people starving to death in Somalia.)

Point being that unity behind any real-life cause, no matter what, seems as unreal to me sometimes as Jake Gyllenhaal saving humanity from another Ice Age.

There’s always a line in these movies/books/TV shoes—always—that resembles what Noah Wylie said in a recent episode of Falling Skies: “Don’t forget who the enemy is.” Yes! I always think, in solidarity with the alien killer/zombie fighter/underground resistance organizer/weatherman. You tell ’em! People may struggle over class differences/resistance strategies/who gets the snowshoes, but in the end, the unifying power of fighting something terrible always pull them all through, in fiction.

And therein lies the root of the addiction: Optimism. I bet aliens stealing our children to turn them into droid-slaves would be something that would connect us all again, I think. We’d definitely get it together to fight something like that.”

Well, we probably would, anyway. And if not, well, it’s just fun to pretend for a while.