Genre mixing and the alien creature film fest 2011

The alien creature invasion is a fairly standard and popular sci-fi sub-genre, but this year seems to have brought us more than the usual number of these types of films. With the recent popularity of films like Signs (2002), The Host (2006), Cloverfield (2008) and District 9 (2009) we are now seeing a major surge in the amount of films being made in this sub-genre. These somewhat low budget films with compelling human stories have been very successfully appealing to a growing audience of not only Sci-fi fans, but also action, horror, thriller and fans of other genres. That is because more than ever, film makers are blending different genres using high concept story ideas and low tech filming styles to add realism and suspense.

Signs was a low budget but very moving and compelling story that mixed a family drama in rural America with the high concept of aliens invading earth. It was Independence Day (1996) set in a small farming community where the invasion is seen only through glimpses of blurry television screens and then later only quick glimpses of the aliens are seen as the family barricade themselves from an alien attack.

The Host was an awesome Korean film which took the Godzilla concept and retooled it with a family drama, to very moving and exciting effect, also giving this movie a unique visual style. A single father family of five children takes matters into their own hands when a genetically mutated creature kidnaps their youngest daughter and the government is of no help. With dark humor and realistic performances by the mostly unknown actors, the budget was well spent on making the creature look quirky and realistically menacing.

Cloverfield was a mix of low tech and high concept; taking the Godzilla creature concept and mixing it with a low tech Blair Witch Project (1999) home video documentary filming style. It was an innovative idea that was well executed and the results were extremely suspenseful. A group of college kids, who are videotaping a farewell party for a graduating student, become unsuspecting witnesses and impromptu video documentarians to the aftermath of a rampaging creature that levels New York City.

District 9 also used the same idea of mixing a high concept of aliens landing on earth with a do-it-yourself documentary filming style in an apartheid era township ghetto environment in Johannesburg, South Africa. This also worked and was very effective in telling a compelling story that had the added benefit of having a very unique look. This low budget film benefited from a cast of unknown actors and minimal visual effects that were seamlessly integrated into the action.

Clearly, Hollywood and film industries from around the world have taken notice and we are now seeing a lot more of this genre-mixing trend. This year’s films are a reflection of this. We’re only half way through the year and already this summer we’ve seen a rash of films dealing with alien creatures landing on earth and mixing it with other genres like the War film (Battle: LA), the Comedy (Paul), the Western (Cowboys & Aliens), and the urban gang film (Attack the Block), and there are more to come. 

Apollo 18 uses the high concept moon landing film and mixes it with a super 8 video documentary visual style, to add suspense to the unseen alien attack  as in The Blair Witch Project meets  Alien (1979). 

The Norwegian film Troll Hunter, which was recently released on Blu-ray & DVD, takes the illusive mythical creature of legend and fairy tales concept, like Bigfoot and Lock Ness monster, or in this case giant trolls, and marries it with the found documentary video camera footage of Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield to achieve a high concept, low tech hybrid. 

These films are achieving great results with a much lower budget because the suspense is built up with minimal special effects. Most of these films feel more realistic because they use an unknown cast of actors, and the low budget can be used to make the fewer special effects shots needed, more special and realistic, because you’re only seeing glimpses of the alien creatures and the human story remains the center of the film.
Many of these genre mixing films this year have been very innovative and contained excellent human stories.

Battle: Los Angeles, see my previous blog, mixes the modern warfare film genre with the sci-fi alien attack on earth concept. Results are an excellent and a very unique looking, suspenseful sci-fi war film.

Paul takes the alien landing concept and turns it into a buddy road comedy. 

Super 8, see my previous blog, takes the coming of age teen boy’s family drama in a small town setting, and mixes it with an alien escaping a toxic train derailment and government conspiring to keep it secret backdrop. It’s a mix of E.T. (1982) and The Iron Giant (1999).

Attack the Block, see my previous blog, takes the aliens landing on earth genre and mixes it with some horror and the urban street gang genre of young hoodlums defending themselves and their housing estate tower block in South London, England. This is a great low budget film with unknown young actors and non-actors that increases the suspense with very low tech alien creatures that are scary because, apart from their eerie, green glowing fangs, it’s difficult to see them in the dark.

Cowboys & Aliens, as the title would suggest, is pretty self-explanatory as a Western mixed with aliens on earth. However this film is not low budget and has big name actors; high concept and high tech does not always mean success. The story is a unique concept based on a comic book that has people from a small gold mining town being abducted by Aliens and then going out on a rescue mission to save them from the 'demons'.

Troll Hunter is a mix of illusive, mythical, giant troll creatures and the found documentary video footage of a group of student adventurers who are on a quest to prove that this legendary fairy tale creature from Norwegian mythology actually exists. Using a group of mostly unknown actors and a moc-documentary style with dark humor, Troll Hunter creates a sense of realism that adds to the suspense and excitement of the film.



Sandra McLeod Humphrey said...

This really isn't my genre or subgenre, but I enjoyed your thoughts and your comments. Thanks and I'll be back!

Anonymous said...

Nice work, John. You clearly know your stuff! I enjoyed how you synthesized the commonalities of the various films. I have so much to learn about film. I'll be back!

The TV Czar said...

I like how you attacked this piece. I know it's tough to get people attracted to this genre, but the use of credible actors like Kyle Chandler combined with an effective story is a good place to go. I know Super 8 got a lot of buzz and turned out pretty well for those guys.

I haven't heard many good things about Cowboys and Aliens and Battle: Los Angeles and I think the box office numbers reflect the disappointment with those films. That's the thing with the sci-fi genre, if they want to be more mainstream (not sure that they do), then they can't afford high budget flops like Cowboys and Aliens. That movie needed to succeed and it didn't.

In any event, good post here.