While much of Hollywood keeps trying to stay abreast of current events and put in the new anti-American hotness, a certain segment of it tries to play it safe by going back to the good old days, when an unquestionably evil empire was trying to exterminate an entire race of people and take over the world. From the perspective of filmmakers, the world was a refreshingly black and white place ...
Source: Wikipedia Commons
Unlike the demographics of the Nazi party.
Everyone knows Nazis were evil, and Nazis were a huge military threat to the whole world. You don't even need any exposition -- you can jump right in to the hero running away from them or fighting them and get on with your story.
The downside is that so many people were jumping on the World War II bandwagon, both movie studios and game designers, that there's been a bit of a backlash of audiences complaining that they're sick of it.
Even the Indiana Jones series, which milked that Nazi cow expertly for so long, finally had to branch out and do Russians or something. Sure, it was partly because Harrison Ford clearly wasn't young enough to still be 1940s Indiana Jones, but also partly due to come on, enough Nazis already.
The other problem is that World War II was a real thing, and if you have to tell real stories, sooner or later you run out of story lines, unless you pretend something completely different happened, like Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.
Remember when Jewish-American assassins shot Hitler 337 times?
With all sorts of human races out of the picture, one of the biggest contenders this past decade have been zombies. Dawn of the Dead sequels (plus remakes and parodies), 28 Days Later, I Am Legend, the Resident Evil games and movies, Left4Dead. Zombies can be even more guilt-free than terrorists, since they're literally not people, or if you actually want some moral ambiguity, you can really push the "they were once your loved ones" angle.
There are no political minefields to tiptoe through, and you can make as many or as few zombies as your budget will let you.
You could film Night of the Living Dead today with a cell phone, $50 and a Facebook invite.
The only problem is that zombies are completely mindless, or at best, at a primitive level of civilization (I Am Legend). You can't have them found a monolithic military empire or create a global conspiracy that the hero has to outsmart. Outsmarting zombies is probably the least impressive achievement a movie hero can accomplish.
Outside of "winning" Matthew McConaughey.
Your hero is never going to be led into a zombie mastermind's high-tech control room where the zombie leader turns around in his chair, explains that he has been expecting him and then elaborates on his evil plan. It would look stupid, like Gremlins 2.
We're with the guy on the left.
Even if you're a die-hard zombie fan, you have to at least admit there are entire genres of games and movies where the level of difficulty an individual zombie presents just isn't going to cut it.
Which brings us to a perennial favorite: aliens. Aliens avoid all of the problems above, or so you'd think. Like with zombies, you can avoid political minefields. But unlike zombies, you can make them as smart and organized as you want. Even the best enemy Earth can offer is pretty much on an equal footing with America. Aliens can be advanced and powerful enough to kill us all 10 times over. Strangely enough, aliens are the only realistic option for modern day America to play David in a David-and-Goliath story.
No one is going to the theater to watch the big guy smash the kid's face in.
But you actually don't avoid political minefields. In order for the aliens to hit an emotional chord with the audience, there's got to be some frame of reference to something they know or feel already. Invasion of the Body Snatchers scared people because in 1956 they were already on edge about communists hiding among us, looking like ordinary people. District 9 did a great job tapping into people's experiences with apartheid -- or for non-South Africans: immigration or racism.
Either people are going to see some kind of parallel between the aliens and real-life situations, or people are going to feel too distant to really care what happens.
The other problem is that if aliens are able to come over here, they're going to massively overpower us, because they can get a whole invasion force over here while it's still kind of an achievement every time we get a space shuttle up and back in one piece. As we pointed out recently, we depend on the aliens making a series of laughable strategic errors just so the good guys can win.
That means there are a pretty small number of possible endings. Either humans 1) win with a clever plan, 2) win because of something stupid like germs or 3) don't win. Clever plans always end up being filled with plot holes (see Independence Day) because it's just not realistic that we could outsmart aliens that have already been established as so overwhelmingly smart themselves. At a certain point, it's just a deal between the director and the audience where he basically pauses the movie and says, "Look, if you want to see some more cool action scenes, just initial here that it's OK that the alien computers run on MacOS for some reason." And you go, "OK," and he goes back to blowing things up for you.
As for the alternatives, if we win because of germs (War of the Worlds) or water (Signs) that's violating a pretty basic rule of good storytelling (having a random event save the good guys for absolutely no reason) mainly because in addition to being pretty lame, it doesn't give the protagonists a lot to do. As for just having the aliens win, that is not the kind of thing people go to blockbusters to see.
Still ... I don't think we should give up on aliens yet. We just can't. Who else is left if we can't use aliens? Are we going to keep going back to poor little North Korea every time? No.
It seems like there could be a better way to tell the story, one that could play off a more realistic extrapolation of human nature. What if we just played the role of the planetary Afghanistan, or Vietnam? You know, making the war too long and horrible for the invaders, until they finally decide the war is intolerable and just head back home. I think we need to think this through, in case some day aliens really invade. When they come, we'd need to do something so horrific the aliens can't even process it and consider the planet an untouchable hell pit they want nothing to do with. Something modern action audiences will enjoy watching on screen.
Obviously we can't get political and have the humans do a bunch of suicide bombings. That's not the statement we want to be making, and nobody wants to watch Will Smith suicide bomb himself. So what if the human resistance just kidnapped a nursery full of alien babies and just pooped on them, over and over? And we filmed it, and sent the aliens the video? "THIS IS THE PRICE OF WAR," we would say.
"They can't get in from the ass, right?"
Or what if we didn't even try to fight them off, but just rolled over and let them assimilate our culture until, over many generations, they became soft and complacent? The alien warriors' grandchildren are too fat to do anything except play video games, and the brawny human mine slaves rise up and take back the planet.
Oh, wait. That meshes perfectly with the infant-shitting scenario. Because with their terrible processed food diet, the aliens won't have the fiber to poop on our babies in retaliation. Boom, humanity wins. One hundred million dollar opening weekend.
You're welcome, Hollywood.
Check out Christina's look at 7 Things From America That Are Strangely Popular Overseas or our look at 9 Movie Villains Who Were Right All Along.