Celebrities will invade Los Angeles this weekend for the 84th Academy Awards ceremony. Searchlights will blaze and flashbulbs will pop as Hollywood stars will descend from the heavens -- or maybe just the Malibu hills -- to touch the ground that regular Angelenos walk on each day.
They'll smile and snarl our traffic. They'll toss their hair and forget to thank their husbands. They'll praise each other for their bravery, while collecting $75,000 gift bags.
L.A. is accustomed to such strange invasions, of course. If you're a movie fan, you already know that L.A. has been invaded over the years by everything from giant atomic ants (Them), to buff cyborgs (The Terminator), to rampaging 3D zombies (Resident Evil: Afterlife). So Angelenos take invasions from movie stars in stride.
But this weekend marks an anniversary of an invasion you might not know about: L.A.'s first alien invasion.
This February 24th-25th is the 70th anniversary of The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as The Great Los Angeles Air Raid, one of the most mysterious incidents of World War II -- and also one of the key, oddball events in U.F.O. lore that's still inspiring movies and TV shows to this day.
Between the late evening of February 24th, 1942 and the early morning hours of February 25th, the City of Angels flew into a panic as what were initially believed to be Japanese enemy aircraft were spotted over the city. This suspected Japanese raid -- coming soon after the Pearl Harbor bombing, and just one day after a confirmed Japanese submarine attack off the Santa Barbara coast -- touched off a massive barrage of anti-aircraft fire, with some 1400 shells shot into the skies over Los Angeles during the frantic evening.
Oddly, however, the anti-aircraft shells hit nothing. Despite the intense barrage, no aircraft wreckage was ever recovered.
Indeed, once the smoke had cleared and Angelenos calmed down (the public hysteria over the raid was mercilessly satirized by Steven Spielberg in 1941), no one really knew what had been seen in the sky or on radar. Were they weather balloons? German Zeppelins? Trick kites designed by Orson Welles?
Many people believed the aircraft they'd seen were extraterrestrial - one eyewitness even described an object he'd seen as looking like an enormous flying 'lozenge' - and some accused the government of a cover-up. Conflicting accounts of the incident from the Navy and War Departments didn't help clarify matters.
As if to confirm public fears of extraterrestrial attack, one famous photograph emerged (see above) from the incident showing an ominous, saucer-like object hovering over the city. This much-debated photograph, which even appeared in some trailers for Battle: Los Angeles last year, inspired America's first major U.F.O. controversy -- a full five years before Roswell.
To this day, no one knows for sure what flew over Los Angeles that night and evaded the city's air defenses. (The raid itself is recreated each year at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro.) But since it's more fun to assume that it was aliens than weather balloons, we've decided to honor The Battle of Los Angeles by ranking the Top 10 movies in which aliens attack L.A. (See below.)
To make this list, a film must feature aliens on the warpath -- no cuddly E.T.'s here -- and their attacks must take place in L.A. proper, rather than out in the suburbs or desert (eliminating films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
As the list demonstrates, no city -- other than perhaps Tokyo -- has suffered more on-screen calamity at the hands of extraterrestrials than Los Angeles. At the same time, there's no apparently no other city that's easier for aliens to hide in.
1) The War of the Worlds (1953)
Producer George Pal's adaptation of the H.G. Wells' novel is the granddaddy of 'em all, and still the best L.A.-based film about alien attack. Gene Barry plays Dr. Clayton Forrester, a natty scientist at 'Pacific Tech,' who along with his girlfriend Sylvia van Buren (a perky USC coed, played by Ann Robinson) struggles to prevent Martian invaders from destroying human civilization. Highlights of the film include a boffo attack on downtown L.A. (which Pal initially wanted to film in 3D) by the graceful, swan-like Martian ships, and an Air Force flying wing dropping a nuclear bomb on the Martians. Filmed in vivid Technicolor, The War of the Worlds was a huge hit, broke new ground in visual effects technology, and helped kick off the 1950s sci-fi craze.
Best exchange of the film: "What do we say to them [the aliens]?" "Welcome to California."
2) Independence Day (1996)
Director Roland Emmerich's funny, exhilarating and patriotic summer hit from 1996 borrows key elements from The War of the Worlds, but adds a few of its own: 15-mile-wide flying saucers, a president who flies fighter jets ... and Will Smith. In the role that made him a megastar, Smith plays a trash-talking Marine fighter pilot paired with an MIT-trained computer wiz (played by Jeff Goldblum, channeling Gene Barry) who fights an alien saucer armada out to demolish humanity. ID4 is easily the best of Emmerich's apocalyptic films, largely due to its tongue-in-cheek humor. Watch as ditzy Angelenos atop the Library Tower cheerfully greet an alien saucer, only to be zapped into oblivion a moment later. Only in L.A.
Best line of the film: "Welcome to Earth."
3) Transformers (2007)
There's mayhem, and then there's Bayhem. Michael Bay's Transformers redefined sci-fi action cinema in 2007, featuring a spectacular climax in downtown Los Angeles -- a riot of colossal urban warfare and aerial strikes as the U.S. military and Autobot robots unite to fight Decepticon robots out to enslave Earth. A key sequence showcased Autobots and Decepticons 'transforming' at 80 mph on a busy L.A. freeway, swatting aside cars and buses while fighting each other -- living out the fantasy of every aggressive L.A. driver. Unlike the stately saucers of ID4, or the graceful war machines of War of the Worlds, Bay's Decepticon robots are fast-moving, anthropomorphic and nasty. Like certain Hollywood celebrities, they trash talk, strut and propagandize as they smash through buildings and otherwise inflict as much collateral damage as possible. The film that made stars out of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox, Transformers delivers heaping doses of humor, curvy women and robot carnage; it's Bayhem at its best.
Best line: "You didn't think that the United States military might need to know that you're keeping a hostile alien robot frozen in the basement?!"
4) V (1983)
These alien 'Visitors' look just like us, and they come in peace ... except that underneath their false skins they're actually lizards and want to eat us. That's the premise of Kenneth Johnson's apocalyptic NBC miniseries from 1983, a show that leans heavily on references to Nazism, communism and other pernicious forms of group-behavior. V is also the show that first gave us gigantic motherships hovering over major cities, years before ID4. The best part of V, however, is the scene-chewing performance by Jane Badler as the alien leader Diana; somebody should put that woman in charge of GM. Otherwise, in V the human resistance movement against the aliens centers around Los Angeles -- possibly because it's hard to cop a tan while saucers are blocking the sun.
Best line [about the alien leader Diana]: "That damn dragon lady can bend people's minds around. What the hell does she need a blowtorch for?!"
5) Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
The title of the film is a sly reference to The Battle of Los Angeles, a photograph of which appeared in one of the movie's trailers. A stirring, patriotic ode to America's fighting men and women, Battle: Los Angeles depicts a team of Marines - led by Aaron Eckhart as a rugged Marine staff sergeant -- tasked with defending Angelenos from a massive alien assault. Against a backdrop of intense urban warfare, often resembling street fighting in Iraq, Battle captures the steadiness and quiet resolve of America's soldiers as they defend civilians in an apocalyptic battle for human survival. Like an old-school World War II film, Battle revels in the honor of military service, the basic code of fidelity to the mission and one's fellow soldier -- especially in the face of overwhelming odds. Ironically, it was too expensive to film Battle in L.A., so it was instead shot in the other LA -- Louisiana. (For the full Libertas Film Magazine review of Battle: Los Angeles, see here.)
Best line: "I'd rather be in Afghanistan."
6) Kronos (1957)
This underrated classic from director Kurt Neumann features actor Jeff Morrow as a dapper scientist who, with the help of his shapely blonde research assistant (played by Barbara Lawrence), must devise a way to stop a monstrous, energy-absorbing alien robot from destroying Los Angeles. Suspenseful and inventive, Kronos squeezes a lot out of its modest budget -- from moody photography and stylish production design, to the film's creepy, vaguely humanoid robot. The best part of the film, though, may be its cheeky good humor. Scientist Morrow is so obsessed with stopping the robot as it rampages across the countryside from Mexico that he's completely oblivious to how his assistant is coming on to him.
Best line: "Do you think you'll be able to respect a husband that probably pulled the scientific boner of all time?"
7) Predator 2 (1990)
Can an aliens-invade-L.A. flick with Danny Glover, Gary Busey and María Conchita Alonso possibly go wrong? No, it can't. Though not on the level of its classic predecessor, Predator 2 delivers the goods in a big, 1980s/Joel Silver-style way with action, humor, and some of the wickedest urban combat ever. Drawn to the heat of battle between rival Columbian and Jamaican drug gangs and the L.A. police, the alien 'Predator' arrives in town with a few days to kill -- until a police lieutenant (Glover) decides to hunt the creature down personally. Predator 2 depicts Los Angeles as the ultimate urban jungle -- a lurid swamp of violent drug kingpins, inept bureaucrats, and an out-of-control news media (look for an appearance by Morton Downey, Jr. as a sleazy journalist). Obviously they had L.A. confused here with New York.
Best line: "He's on safari: lions, tigers, the bears ... oh, my."
8) They Live (1988)
Although initially ignored, John Carpenter's thriller-satire about aliens in L.A. -- whose true appearance and subliminal propaganda are visible only through special glasses -- has since become recognized as a cult classic. Intended as a critique of consumerism, They Live also works as an effective satire on L.A.-style narcissism and the nihilism that sometimes lurks underneath it. Featuring wrestler 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper in the lead, and with a stand-out performance by Keith David, They Live takes a decidedly low-tech, retro approach to alien invasion -- and also tackles big issues of social conformity and media manipulation in a goofy, appealing way. It's the perfect antidote to Oscar weekend.
Best line: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass ... and I'm all out of bubblegum."
9) Not of This Earth (1988)
Producer Roger Corman remakes his own 1957 classic, this time featuring cult siren Traci Lords as the plucky nurse out to save humanity from an intergalactic vampire eager to replenish his dying planet's reserves of blood. Campy in the extreme, Not of This Earth is the kind of good-natured romp that Corman has specialized in for decades -- a film that lives off the over-the-top personalities of its characters, rather than advanced (or even credible) visual effects. Though sci-fi purists may prefer Corman's more straight-laced original, the '88 version (directed by Jim Wynorsky) brings out the innate silliness of the situation, and benefits from Lords' sassy, sexy turn as the L.A.-based nurse. Best enjoyed with an adult beverage, Not of This Earth is good, trashy fun.
Best exchange: "So what do you do, hon'?" "I'm the house blood-pumper."
10) Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
No list of aliens-invade-L.A. movies should neglect this signature effort from director Ed Wood, a film that almost defies description. Considered by some the worst film of all time, by others a postmodern masterpiece, the nano-budget Plan 9 is by universal acclaim one of the defining cult films of all time -- perhaps the defining cult film. A bizarre confection of alien invasion and zombie picture, and featuring overripe narration from '50s psychic The Amazing Criswell (and a truncated performance from Bela Lugosi, who died during production), Plan 9 is a barely comprehensible mish-mash depicting an alien plot to raise an army of the dead. Best enjoyed in its newly colorized form (the Blu-ray will be released March 6th), Plan 9 presents the alien invasion that Los Angeles perhaps most deserves: an invasion of shambling, re-animated B-movie actors.
Best line: "Visits? That would indicate visitors."
Enjoy these films this weekend, especially if you live in L.A. And keep watching the skies ...
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