Beware! Spoilers ahead!
Houston, it seems we might have an alien problem.
Yes, the United States government has released reports and video footage detailing strange encounters with airborne vehicles that seem to defy the laws of physics. And while they have no conclusive proof that these UFOs are extraterrestrial, they also don’t have proof that they’re not. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems… much scarier.
Naturally, when faced with a potentially terrifying question that has no known answer, my immediate move is to think about it every hour of every day. During one of these extremely healthy daydreams (okay, waking nightmares), I got to thinking: Which movie alien would be our worst-case scenario if they were the ones driving this spaceship?
There are lots to pick from, so let’s start easy. Obviously, E.T. is the favorable option and should be welcomed with open arms. I would also gladly sit for language lessons with the peaceful cephalopods of Arrival. In fact, any sea creature-type alien seems to be a safe bet—certainly the shrimp-like visitors in District 9 are the good guys in that story. Will Smith exists, so we can rule out any danger from creatures out of the Independence Day or Men in Black films (not that I’m particularly scared of the cockroach guy… I do live in New York City, after all). Even the more violent options, like the glowing wolves from Attack the Block or Alien herself, just feel like they could be outnumbered if it really came down to it.
Finally, I reached my ultimate conclusion: The absolute worst prospect for an imminent alien arrival are the pod people of the 1956 horror classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
First, a quick summary to get us all on the same page. Alternatively, you can bookmark this page, watch the movie right here on Plex, and come back to me when you’re done!
For those of you choosing the first option, the film opens with Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), who is having a complete breakdown in a hospital room. At the urging of the attending psychiatrist, he tells his story: Upon returning to his hometown of Santa Mira after a trip, he is inundated with calls from neighbors claiming that their loved ones, despite looking and acting the same as always, aren’t actually themselves. While at first skeptical, Miles quickly begins to believe when he is called to his friend Jack’s (King Donovan) house to witness a still-forming replica of the man’s body—one that eventually becomes fully formed and disappears.
Eventually Miles discovers the source of both the strange body and the town’s insistence that their friends and family are imposters: giant alien pods that take the shape of any living organism, including people. Once fully grown, they make the titular body snatch while their victim is asleep. A world where napping is dangerous? Take me out immediately. While the mechanics of the swap are admittedly a bit hazy, the end result is effective: Soon the whole town is full of emotionless replicas of their former inhabitants, and they want nothing more than for Miles and his girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) to join them.
A chase ensues, and the couple must take to the hills—literally. As they scramble across the nearby rocks and into old mining tunnels, they begin to tire out. Unfortunately, Becky ultimately can’t stay awake (relatable!), and Miles must say goodbye to his now extraterrestrial husk of a lover. With the whole town behind him, he frantically runs to the highway trying to flag down a passing car for help and yelling about the dangerous invasion taking place. “They’re already here!” he shouts. Suddenly, he turns to the camera, eyes wide with fear, and says: “You’re next!”
Now, granted, Invasion of the Body Snatchers isn’t completely a movie about aliens. Its core issue is an anxiety around mass conformity that has been interpreted and analyzed in all directions, representing everything from the fear of communism to the downfall of white patriarchy (if you’re a nerd like me, you can read that academic paper here). Yet while many of these readings are decidedly rooted in the film’s release during the Cold War, the central questions of identity and individuality have remained with us across decades—and through many remakes. Am I saying the pod people walked so “Stick To The Status Quo” from High School Musical could run? Possibly.
Even—or perhaps especially—so, imagining these aliens arriving on our planet in the year 2021 is kind of fascinating. Which brings me to why I think the pod people would successfully take over if they were to land here today—and, as with all the deepest cultural analysis, it has to do with reality television. Yes, as I watched one of the classic allegorical horror films of our time, the very first place my mind went was to the Target-chic hotel rooms of Netflix’s The Circle.
For those tragically unaware, The Circle is a contest in which players are locked into separate hotel rooms and can only communicate through a private social media network. (And no, this is part of neither the Saw nor Black Mirror cinematic universes.) Day by day, the contestants get to know one another through their profiles and text chats, ranking each other at the end of each week until one is crowned the most popular and goes home with a cool $100,000.
The biggest catch of The Circle is that contestants are allowed to catfish. As a result, the players all develop an intense obsession with authenticity, constantly trying to suss out the imposters and giving high rankings to those they consider to be “real.” When contestants are revealed to be catfishing, it truly sends emotional shockwaves through the remaining group—despite it being literally an established element of the game.
Now, obviously The Circle is a reality show, not reality. That said, I think the players’ reactions to potential catfishing are pretty representative of the relationship a lot of people have today with authenticity—and their possible reaction to a pod invasion. In a time when so much of each of us is fractured between real life and online, it’s not exactly surprising that many cling so fiercely to wanting ourselves and others to be genuine. So imagine our reactions if gradually the whole world stopped being quite themselves.
Watching the Body Snatchers, I was struck by just how difficult it was to discern the pod people from the real people. Even as characters I’d gotten to know began getting taken over by the extraterrestrial invaders, I saw no noticeable differences in their demeanor. And I wasn’t alone—throughout the movie, only those who were the absolute closest to the people being swapped out could see that anything was wrong. They were different on such a deep level that it was only visible to those who knew them best: a son was scared of his mother, a niece couldn’t put into words why her seemingly normal uncle was changed. It was enough to drive them all mad (until they too fell asleep and were taken over by the alien visitors).
While eventually the film turns into a bit of a zombie movie, with the protagonists taking up a strategy of acting emotionless to blend in, it’s those early scenes that are actually the most frightening to me.
First, the aliens are so subtle that the townspeople are made to feel like they’re the ones acting strange—“You’ll see that the trouble is inside you,” the doctor tells them. Once a person becomes aware of the truth, they are forced to give their body over to the extraterrestrial cause: No humans allowed. Finally, the whole town is dominated by the invaders.
Yep, that’s right: The pod people originated “gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss.” Truly the perfect villains for our time—so perfect, they just might win.
So if you’re now regarding all your friends and family with suspicion, I offer my sincere apologies for having brought you down this path. Let’s go back to some of our friendlier cinematic aliens. Maybe try to imagine a takeover of the Minions instead!
No wait. That’s worse.
More on Plex:
The Last Man on Earth