Past and Present Invaders
With the last of its five Toronto International Film Festival screenings slated for this Sunday, the big-budget science-fiction mystery Arrival, about space visitors coming to earth and the subsequent race against time to establish a common language of communication before Armageddon results, is the latest in the ongoing cinematic tradition exploring how humans and otherworlders might or might not get along. Bryan Bishop of The Verge called this visually arresting tale starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, written by Eric Heisserer (Lights Out, the reboots of A Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing) and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) “a mature, thoughtful piece of science fiction that uses a first contact premise not just as a set-up for a doomsday scenario, but as a platform for an incredibly powerful and nuanced look at love, relationships and the human condition itself.” Thirty-three years ago today, an earlier “visitation” movie opened that also had more on its mind than inter-species confrontation, and despite its relatively miniscule budget, packed a considerable amount of deadpan humor, sly observations about love, relationships and shadowy conspiracies, plus a knowing wink to its genre forebears. From writer/director Michael Laughlin (Strange Behavior) and co-writer Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters, Chicago, Kinsey, Dreamgirls, Mr. Holmes and the upcoming Beauty and the Beast), Strange Invaders (1983) is a nimble foray into the shock-and-awe world of 1950s alien identity takeover movies as seen from a hip 1980s distance still tinged by the specter of “Communist infiltration.” Like that of Arrival, the premise is weirdly appealing: can the prospect of aliens body-snatching the inhabitants of a small Illinois town in 1958, kept secret for 25 years with the tacit oversight of a black-ops government organization, be a valuable initiative for collaborative research between species – including, in the case of Strange Invaders, the siring of mixed human/alien offspring? With nods to the genre tropes of flying saucers, lizard-like creature prostethics, tabloid media and the quest of everyday humans struggling against the creepily conformist, conspiracy charged environment to expose the sensational truth, it coolly, indeed matter-of-factly melds ingenious special effects with old-fashioned senses of wonderment and sinister dread into a modest but neatly satisfying package that eschews shrieking horror for playful nostalgia. The cast is terrific and fully invested: Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Michael Lerner, Louise Fletcher, Wallace Shawn, Fiona Lewis, with 1950s stalwarts Kenneth Tobey, June Lockhart and Charles Lane, to boot. While awaiting Arrival to set down in theatres nationwide November 11, you might get a kick, laugh or scream from closely encountering the Strange Invaders in our own backyard of Centerville, IL, on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray, with collaborators Laughlin and Condon on an optional Audio Commentary as your amiable guides.