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Filmmakers Love Pitting People Against Meanies From Outer Space


Get ready sci-fi fanatics: The “Aliens” have landed and mounted another assault on mankind with the fourth installment of one of sci-fi’s most visually vivacious (not to mention successful) film franchises - “Alien Resurrection.”

Ripley is back, this time as a mad scientist’s doppelganger, who may be in allegiance with her own nemesis.

Audiences felt the shockwave of outer-space excitement earlier this month with Paul Verhoeven’s “Starship Troopers,” an ultra-violent juggernaut of entertainment. Worldwide audiences have fueled sci-fi’s jubilant revival. And with megablockbusters in the works (“Men in Black 2”, the long-awaited “Star Wars” prequels and an “X-Files” movie), the sci-fi genre is on a rampage. So what’s with our love affair with aliens?

To recap the highs and lows of this genre, here’s a tour through sci-fi’s origins, innovators and imitators. Most of the films mentioned are available on video, although a few will require a search.

The alien invasion

So why are most aliens hostile? Because that’s what sells movie tickets. The bigger, the better - just keep ‘em comin’.

Moviegoers didn’t line up around the block to see the interstellar annoyances in “Independence Day” (1996) come down for a friendly picnic and a discussion of quantum physics with us.

We moviegoers want them to level our cities in the name of hate so we, as a planet, can put aside our differences and thwart the evil alien invasion, proving we are survivors. Nevermind the rampant implausibilities or plot holes you could fly a star cruiser through, “Independence Day” delivered universal carnage and instilled global unity.

A more satirical version of the same plot, which spoofed H.G. Wells’ remarkable “War of the Worlds” (1953), was Tim Burton’s hilarious “Mars Attacks” (1996). The film pitted miniature maniacal pranksters (who turn out to have a weakness for the soothing sounds of Slim Whitman) against earth’s feeble defenses. And, of course, the classic “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”(1956) and the intense remake (1978) about human clones spawned from alien pods both provide ample thrills.

The loner

Some alien visitors decided to shuck the whole invasion schtick and go the lone alien route. Two films that exemplify this are “Predator” (1987) and “The Hidden”(1987). Both are highly stylistic and actionpacked.

The Predator is a futuristic trophy hunter who lands in the South American jungle and makes short work of AH-Nald’s testosterone-fueled cronies. The grisly antagonist of “The Hidden” wreaks havoc on L.A. while eluding interstellar police capture by entering unsuspecting human hosts, causing them to go on murderous rampages.

Although the concept of aliens landing on earth is far from an original, the idea was first portrayed in such fine films as “It Came From Outer Space” (1953), based on a Ray Bradbury novel, and “The Thing … From Another World” (1951, remade by John Carpenter in 1982) in which an alien organism takes over the crew of an Antarctic outpost. Both pioneered a new genre of cinema.

The friendly

Ironically, one of the most successful films of all time was about a galactic guest who didn’t want to rip our limbs off. The story of a flat-faced muppet who just wanted to hang out and make friends, “E.T.” (1982) was a global box office hit that turned man and science into the real villains.

A film of this caliber was hard to match or even rip off because of its “Spielberg” quality - although someone tried with the retarded “Mac and Me” (1988). Other aliens who played nice were encountered in “Starman” (1984) “Cocoon” (1985) and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), also filmed by Spielberg. Discovery of an intellectually superior race of extraterrestrial life that could bestow its wisdom upon us, help solve our problems and hyper-extend our technology was the plot of “Contact” (1997) - a sincere adaptation of Carl Sagan’s book.

Deep-space encounters

If you want to find trouble, just go probing around in space for aliens and they’ll find you. This was the premise in the original “Alien” (1979), and its brilliant sequel “Aliens” (1986). The sequal was a riveting heartstopper that moved at a lightning pace and raised the stakes of its original by having not one, but hundreds of aliens for Ripley and her space marines to contend with. James Cameron’s masterful direction layered cliffhanger upon cliffhanger and created a film that is, hands-down, one of the genres’ best (look for a director’s cut with an additional 30 minutes).

But as always, with the mavericks come the plethora of shoddy wannabes. Movies like “Horror Planet” (1980) “Star Crystal” (1985) “Creature” (1985) and “Xtro”(1983) tried to follow suit, but lacked any spark of real tension or suspense.

What they lacked in talent and budget they made up for in terminally lethargic acting. Unimpressive creatures (a guy in a rubber suit), dreadfully dull dialogue and an abandonment of coherence make these low-budget gobblers barely interesting even on scan mode. Low-budget films are forgivable if they have energy and creativity, boring ones are not.

Sci-fi films abound and this guide is just the tip of the antenna. True sci-fi fans won’t limit themselves to these selections, rather, they’ll be constantly hunting for their own outer-space gems.

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: NEW TO VIEW Now available: Men in Black (Columbia TriStar), Pippi Longstocking (Warner), Operation Condor (Buena Vista), Chasing Amy (Buena Vista) Opening Tuesday: Speed 2: Cruise Control (20th Century Fox), George of the Jungle (Buena Vista)

This sidebar appeared with the story: NEW TO VIEW Now available: Men in Black (Columbia TriStar), Pippi Longstocking (Warner), Operation Condor (Buena Vista), Chasing Amy (Buena Vista) Opening Tuesday: Speed 2: Cruise Control (20th Century Fox), George of the Jungle (Buena Vista)