Top Ten Movies About Aliens
It’s no secret that since the beginning of the history of films, we’ve been infatuated with aliens. Whether they’re invading our world, or if we’re encountering them closely on spaceships and planets far away, aliens have abducted our hearts and imaginations for decades.
Aliens have also been used as social commentary. Look any Sci-Fi flick made during the 1950s and 1960s Cold War era, and you’ll see movies playing on our fears, both real and psychological. Aliens have been used in cinema like a looking glass peering into our psyches and reflecting both the beauty and the terror of the human condition.
As with all of my Top Ten lists, there were many movies I had to cut for the final list. It’s never an easy task for me, since I’m pretty passionate about the lists I compile. Here, fearless readers, in my humble opinion, are the Top Ten Movies About Aliens:
The War of the Worlds (1953)
Loosely based on the classic Sci-Fi novel by H.G. Wells, this movie was the first alien invasion movie I remember seeing as a kid. It was a regular syndicated creature-feature on television during the ‘70s and ‘80s, and with each multiple viewing (usually after school in broad daylight), it continued to scare the shit out of me!
This movie is a classic example of the embodiment of our collective Cold War fears. When the Earth is suddenly attacked by invaders from red Mars, it’s up to a scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project, Clayton Forrester (played by Gene Barry), to find and exploit any weaknesses to defeat the scientifically superior race. Produced by George Pal and directed by Byron Haskin, the movie also stars Ann Robinson as Clayton’s love interest, Sylvia Van Buren.
The War of the Worlds won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects and went on to influence just about every other alien invasion movie ever made.
Like many of the movies of that era, there are some glaring weaknesses in the plot. (Spoiler Alert!) The most famous of the flaws with this otherwise impeccable Sci-Fi movie is how the invaders were defeated: In the end, it’s revealed that while the Martians couldn’t be defeated by humanity's weapons, they had no immunity to the earth’s bacteria and began to die all over the world from common illness like a cold or the chicken pox. While some might argue that scientifically accurate, I think that an advanced society would’ve already prepared for that. If, in our limited knowledge, we would prepare for such a thing, so would the more advanced Martians.
Yes, I know this ending shares the same ending as Wells’ novel. But in 1953, I feel the writers, producers and the director could have put a little more logic and effort into the invaders’ defeat. I really think the Martians would’ve prepared for that little barrier to their total victory!
Some might say the Martians dying by lowly bacteria could be seen in the movie as a metaphor: no matter how successful an invasion by the dreaded Soviet Union might be, they would never conquer the American Spirit. It’s ingrained in our DNA like… microbial bacteria that would give them the worst damned cold they ever had!
John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)
Holy shit-balls, this movie still scares me! To this day, The Thing is arguably the best use of practical effects in any Sci-Fi or horror movie ever made. The fear of the other is a longtime part of the human condition, and with The Thing John Carpenter does a stellar job playing on that fear to produce gut-wrenching levels of primal terror.
The film is based on John W. Campbell, Jr.'s novella Who Goes There? In 1951, Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby loosely adapted the source material as The Thing from Another World. Carpenter has said in interviews that The Thing is the first part of his Apocalypse Trilogy, which includes Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness. Although the films are completely unrelated, each features a near-apocalyptic event. In this movie, the heroes are sure that if "The Thing" reaches civilization, it would only be a short time before it destroys humanity.
Starring Carpenter’s go-to-actor, Kurt Russell, and Keith David, Wilford (Diabetes!) Brimley and renowned character actor, Donald Moffat, John Carpenter also made a star out of the shape-shifting antagonist from space. The special effects truly move beyond typical splatter film gore, achieving a visceral level that makes “The Thing” seem truly alive. Carpenter ratchets up the tension and paranoia to breathtaking heights and then smashes the viewer in the face with those amazingly graphic horror effects.
The movie is a late slice of the Cold War fear pie. With the alien being able to assume any shape, when it’s set loose on our heroes it’s hard to know who is friend and who is foe. Kind of like that one weird neighbor living on your block—you could never be sure who was a Soviet sleeper agent in those days!
I know. We’re talking about two different movies, and I’m being a cheeseball by lumping them in together. Hater’s gonna hate, so hate away.
Alien, just like The Thing, is more fun house horror than Sci-Fi, but the movie that spawned the franchise brought us a truly terrifying take on extraterrestrial life. A stellar cast—including Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, John Hurt and Harry Dean Stanton, and iconic director Ridley Scott and writer Dan O’Bannon, all bring us a gritty, terrifying Sci-Fi experience.
Again, the use of incredible practical effects helps hammer home the horror. The crew of the Nostromo really has no chance to survive when they encounter a powerful alien that hunts them down and kills them one by one in less than 24 hours. Along with The Thing, this movie changed the way we looked at extraterrestrial threats. No longer were aliens just advanced civilizations intent on conquering us through superior technology. The “Alien” was simply an apex predator. Where did it come from? What drove it to viciously kill? And not to mention, its procreating past time was not the kind of sex we humans like!
James Cameron helmed the follow up flick, Aliens long before giving us the eco-friendly blue-skinned Na'vi of Avatar. He took the franchise away from the fun house horror to give us a rollercoaster thrill ride. Sigourney Weaver returns with the excellent Michael Biehn, Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen. Although the aliens are mostly the same—mostly—instead of a ship full of under-armed and ill-prepared freighter jockey’s, this time we get some bad-ass Colonial Marines and one of the best ventures into Military Sci-Fi to ever grace the Big Screen.
The aliens are bigger, badder, smarter, faster and droolier in the sequel. An overpowering force. Hmmm. This was filmed in 1986? I’m sensing a thread here: Red Dawn had the same element two years prior.
After Aliens, the franchise mostly—mostly—went downhill from there. Each successive flick would have its shining moments and stars, but if it would’ve ended with Aliens, that would’ve been fine by me.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Steven Spielberg’s alien abduction masterpiece followed up his success with Jaws and permanently put him on the movie map as a Tent Pole Movie Master. It also changed the way we had looked at aliens for a long time.
We see the aliens through the eyes of everyday working man, Roy Neary (played by Richard Dreyfuss), and somewhat through the eyes of the young abductee, Barry Guieler (played by Cary Guffey). Roy has a childlike fascination with the aliens after encountering a U.F.O., and before Barry is taken by the aliens, the boy refers to the bright lights of their ships as “toys.” Although there are some scary ideas at play—people being abducted, for Pete’s sake—Spielberg’s direction and Dreyfuss’s performance lead you to feel wonderment about these aliens. You start to believe, as Roy Neary does, that there is no malevolence involved with these aliens—only mysterious benevolence.
During the middle of the movie, Neary’s fascination turns to obsession, and he ends up leaving his family. A scary prospect for anyone! Yet, the movie still manages to play on viewers’ emotions in such a way that you keep rooting for Neary to connect with the aliens—which (Spoiler Alert!) in the end he does, and leaves Earth with them! Glad he wasn’t my dad. Talk about some serious abandonment issues!
I’d be amiss if I didn’t mention the phenomenal soundtrack by the amazing John Williams. John brought the same magic to Jaws, the Indiana Jones franchise and all of the Star Wars movies made so far, but the stand out piece in Close Encounters is short and sweet. The "five-tone" motif for Close Encounters has since become ingrained in pop culture. The five tones are used by scientists in the movie to communicate with the visiting spaceship as a mathematical language, and they are also used in the film's main theme.
The massive success of friendly aliens would eventually lead to Spielberg’s E.T. and Batteries Not Included (not to mention a host of low-budget rip-offs). But, the fear of aliens would always lurk below the family friendly veneer. Ultimately this fear took people’s fascination with U.F.O.s and aliens and merged it with conspiracy theory paranoia, giving birth to Mulder, Scully and the X-Files in the early ‘90s.
I’m not saying that the Cold War had anything to do with this… or am I, comrade?
District 9 (2009)
The “prawns” of Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 are friendly aliens who look like the stuff of nightmares. But, the true nightmare material in this movie is provided by humanity.
Our fear of the unknown causes the government of South Africa to confine the aliens to a slum called District 9. Blomkamp uses this movie to address social issues such as our humanity, xenophobia and the sickening reality of segregation. I think in a time when refugees from war in the Middle East are a hot topic of discussion, District 9 is a truly current and relevant addition to this list.
District 9 was one of the best Sci-Fi films of the first decade of the new millennia. Made on a small budget of thirty million dollars, it looked as slick as most big budget Hollywood summertime popcorn movies. But, it’s more than just the outstanding mix of CGI and practical effects that makes this movie work on so many levels. Blomkamp’s directing is brilliant, and the story by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell is smart, observant and emotional. Sharlto Copley gives a fantastic performance as the bureaucrat, Wikus van de Merwe (did I mention this is a South African movie?). Copley makes his transformation from human to “prawn” believable, potent and moving.
I’ve always found Sci-Fi to be the perfect vehicle for delivering social commentary without being preachy. District 9 is no exception. You can watch Wikus become more human as he transitions into becoming a “prawn.” And to discover the veiled message behind the story, it’s easy to substitute the word “prawn” for “black,” “Jew” “Mexican,” “Muslim,” “refugee,” “immigrant” or any number of racial, political or cultural labels.
Though, as a child of immigrants, I’ve always found the flesh of prawns to be more tasty. I just thought, since we’re no longer in the Cold War represented by aliens era—and we’re in the fear of terrorist attacks and other unexpected attacks being represented by zombie outbreaks—I’d make sure y’all knew I’d taste terrible.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
I love ‘70s Sci-Fi.
From Planet of the Apes and Logan’s Run—Westworld to Zardoz—the aesthetics of ‘70s films just connect for me in way that slicker looking, big budget Sci-fi flicks don’t. Even the biggest of the Big Studio flicks of that era seemed more personal. Director Philip Kaufman brought that personal approach and a strange brew of gritty realism and hyper-surrealism to his remake of the 1956 cult classic, Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Both versions of the film are based on the Sci-Fi novel, The Body Snatchers, by Jack Finney. Kaufman’s Invasion ramps up the tones of horror, insanity and paranoia far beyond anything done in the first movie. He reaches those levels by employing fantastic camera work, a great script by W.D. Richter and stunning sound effects from Ben Burtt—hot off of his successful sound design for Star Wars. It helped to also have a stellar cast that included Donald Sutherland in the lead role, Brook Adams, Veronica Cartwright, Jeff Goldblum and of course, everybody’s favorite alien, Spock (Leonard Nimoy).
The idea of the loss of self is a frightening one for all of us. Having your thoughts and memories stolen from you and deposited into an emotionless hive-mind sounds pretty horrific by any standards. In some ways, Invasion coming out at the end of the ‘70s makes sense. Many of the actors starring in the movie had been associated with counter-culture flicks of that era. Donald Sutherland playing a government official represents what would happen to many people involved in the counter-culture movement; they went on to work for corporations and The Man in the ‘80s, thus being absorbed by the body politic they had once struggled to resist.
But, I guess being an absorbed Spock, living in a world without individualism, would be better than being an absorbed dog with a man’s face. Then again, think of the things I could do with that tongue.
My friends and I wandered into the theater for a Predator showing a little late. We missed the opening sequence (Spoiler Alert!) of the Predator’s spaceship coming to earth. None of us knew a thing about the movie, except that it starred one of our favorite action movie heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In some ways, I think the movie is better if you don’t know what’s out there hunting Arnie and his band of merry mercenaries! When we found out that Predator was much more than your standard ‘80s action flick, it blew our minds. Director John McTiernan—a man well-known for action movies—was the perfect pick to direct Arnie and the standout cast of Manly Men like Carl Weathers, Richard Chaves, Bill Duke and, of course, Jesse “The Body” Ventura. A tight script from Jim and John Thomas fleshed out what would become a Sci-Fi classic faster than you could say, “Get in the choppa!” Oh, and did I mention Shane Black of Lethal Weapon and Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang fame was also one of Arnie’s mercs? C’mon! You can’t get any more action movie manly than that!
Made on a modest budget of fifteen million dollars, the special effects crew and the creature effects crew—led by the legendary creature maker, Stan Winston,—did an outstanding job of making everything look real. The Predator was a visually arresting and menacing alien, equaled only by Stan’s brilliant updating of the iconic xenomorphs who harassed Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. It’s fitting that those two bad-ass aliens would eventually meet in the Aliens Vs. Predators movies.
In the end, just like in the Alien franchise, Predator reminds us that even when you think you’re at the top of the food chain, there’s always a bigger, meaner biped out there waiting to kick your ass. Unless, of course, your name is Ripley or Dutch. Then it’s game over for those alien bastards!
Under the Skin (2013)
Though not released in the United States until 2014, and I didn’t see it until 2015, Under the Skin is one of those movies that got immediately under my skin.
The tone of the movie is very much in line with the ‘70s Sci-Fi that I love so much, and like many movies from that era, leaves much to be interpreted by the viewer. Director Jonathan Glazer creates some visually stunning and haunting images, and Scarlett Johansson is mesmerizing to watch in the lead role of the alien who wears the skin stolen from an earth woman.
Most of the cast members in this movie are not professional actors, lending Under the Skin a feeling of immediacy that works well with its surreal quality. Many of the scenes where Johansson’s character picks up men on the streets were not scripted and shot with hidden cameras. Glazer shot the movie from the alien’s perspective, which can be thought-provoking and make the movie’s meaning elusive at the same time. Glazer said he wanted to make the film “more about the human experience” as seen through alien eyes rather than through “the gender experience.”
I found what I thought to be some strong feminist themes beneath the surface of the movie. Johansson plays what the men of the movie see as a sex object, but they all are eventually punished for their stereotypical, sexist characterization of her. In the first nude scene she’s ever filmed, Johansson does such a fantastic job of portraying that moment—a cursory exploration of her body seen through alien eyes—that she manages to completely remove any sexual context from the scene.
Under the Skin may not be for every fan of Sci-Fi and is probably one of my most controversial picks for the list because of that fact. But, hey, at least I didn’t mention the Cold War!
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
I’ve talked a lot about aliens who want to eat us, hunt us, absorb us and generally don’t like humanity at all. Time to get back to more of those friendly Spielberg types. Well, in a sense.
The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise, with a script from Edmund H. North (based on the short story Farewell to the Master by Harry Bates), presents a very different kind of alien. The humanoid alien visitor, Klaatu (played by Michael Rennie), comes to earth with an important message for humanity. Of course, while trying to deliver that message, somebody puts a bullet in him. Because, hey, Amurrica.
The Day the Earth Stood Still differs in so many ways from other ‘50s Sci-Fi flicks. Coming off the heels of World War II, the movie makes a comment on humanity’s penchant for constant conflict and war. A movie about peace, in the early days of the Red Scare, is certainly a movie with balls—big, metallic balls hanging off Klaatu’s robot servant, Gort, who is capable of neutralizing many weapons at the same time. The message Klaatu brings to the people of earth is a simple one: Mankind’s constant warring and the development of atomic weapons have gotten us noticed. And not in a good way. Other aliens think we’re a threat to everybody and everything in the universe. It’s time for us to shape up and get along, or the earth will be eliminated. Yep. Not exactly the most peaceful way to promote peaceful actions, but when you’re at the top of the food chain, you can do shit like that.
Preaching about peace and goodwill to your fellow humans was some pretty subversive thinking in 1950s America. We were a long way from the peace-loving hippy culture of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Thinking like this, during the Red Scare, was seen as unpatriotic. I mean, come on, man! Everybody knows that not making war and not dropping nukes on each other is a Communist plot! The only true way to peace is through superior fire power!
The Day the Earth Stood Still brought us a new kind of alien, and hopefully gave people tired of war something to think about: why can’t we all just get along?
Klaatu barada nikto, to y’all.
Starship Troopers (1997)
There were a lot of movies on my long list that could be sitting here in the number ten spot. Serious Sci-Fi, with complicated aliens like those found in the The Abyss and Lifeforce. Funny and adventuress alien-orientated flicks like The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Bad Taste, Galaxy Quest and The Fifth Element.
But, I chose the gonzo gore fest that is one of the most glorious B movies of all time. For the stellar acting? Only when it comes to Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside. For the original bug-like alien threat? Naw. That had already been done a million times before. I picked director Paul Verhoeven’s crowning achievement because of its satire, and because it never takes itself too seriously. This movie knows exactly what it wants to be, and what it wanted to be was a visually stunning, uber-gory and a tongue-in-cheek commentary on fascism. Verhoeven was quoted as saying that his hyperbolic use of satire was “playing with fascism or fascist imagery to point out certain aspects of American society. The movie is all about, ‘Let’s all go to war and let’s all die.’”
Starship Troopers started out as a script called Bug Hunt on Outpost Nine, but when the similarities, like the “bugs” were pointed out between the script and Robert A. Heinlein’s novel, Starship Troopers, the studio bought the rights to the story and name. Verheoven admits to only reading the first two chapters because the book was boring, depressing and poorly written. And I’m glad he did! Instead of the thinly veiled glorification of war, fascism and racism that was Heinlein’s, novel we got a fun romp that skewers the naivety of such thinking.
Remember, the only good bug is a dead bug! Would you like to know more?
Mike Chinakos is the author of the Hollywood Cowboys series, the novella Dead Town and the short story collections Terminal Horizons and Grim Highways. His latest novel The Silence at the End of Time will be out this fall.
To read more of Mike's Top Ten posts and other blogs visit his site mikeloveswriting.com