Extra-terrestials, aliens, otherworldy beings – however you describe them, they sure do make for great movie subjects. Here are 25 of the best worthy of your earthling eyes.
It wouldn’t be an alien film list without Ridley Scott’s horrific vision of that place where no-one can hear you scream. The titular creature – a Freudian nightmare designed by HR Giger – was never so terrifying in the sequels as when it stalks the unfortunate crew of the Nostromo. Fun fact: the role of Ripley was originally written as a man. That scene in which Sigourney Weaver wanders around in her pants at the end wouldn’t have had quite the same effect on audiences as a hairy bloke in Y-fronts.
Ridley Scott will be trying to top Alien with his prequel, Prometheus – coming out in June.
The one thing that could possibly scare an alien hunter is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Predator might have had an invisibility cloak and shoulder blaster, but we had Arnie’s guns – plus Jesse “The Body” Ventura’s actual mini gun. This dreadlocked alien gave us one of the best uses of a heat-vision camera-view ever.
Earth Vs The Flying Saucers (1956)
Made at the height of the 1950s UFO craze, this B-movie features a by-the-numbers alien invasion plot opposed by an array of cardboard cutout stock characters. But it’s the effects – by a young Ray Harryhausen – that have stood the test of time. The titular saucers eerily gliding over Washington DC’s monuments remain iconic – and have been homaged in the likes of Mars Attacks! and Independence Day.
Super 8 (2011)
A gang of junior film-makers shooting a zombie movie are caught up in a real life monster adventure when a giant alien creature goes on the rampage in their home town. JJ Abrams’ homage to the 1980s Amblin movies is equal parts Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Jaws and The Goonies, and every bit as good as its predecessors.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Nigel Kneale’s chilling TV classic made the transition to the big screen courtesy of horror studio Hammer – and true to form, there are plenty of supernatural elements to this sci-fi tale. When Martian relics are uncovered during an archaeological dig, it soon becomes apparent that the aliens are responsible for the human race’s latent psychic memories of the devil – and the human impulse towards aggression. Although the film’s special effects haven’t held up over time, it’s an interesting piece of ideas-based science fiction.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The plot’s spelled out in the title, but Philip Kaufman’s remake of the 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers brought colour photography and proper aliens (not just ones pretending to be people) to the big screen. The cast was better, too, with Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard “Spock” Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum sitting atop the credit roll, plus a dog with the face of a tramp.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
Yes, we know – The Empire Strikes Back is the better film. But this is a list of alien films, and Return of the Jedi unquestionably has more (and better) aliens than any of the other original Star Wars movies. The Ewoks, the Rancor, Yoda and – of course – Jabba the Hutt all make for a veritable menagerie of alien critters. And all of them were created using awesome puppetry, unlike the glassy-eyed CGI abominations that people The Phantom Menace.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
In the mid-70s, David Bowie was the strangest man in Britain. He was also taking prodigious quantities of cocaine. Little wonder then that Nicolas Roeg should approach him for The Man Who Fell to Earth, about an alien who becomes addicted to booze. Bowie’s performance and the pondering filmwork are stunning.
The Thing From Another World (1951)
Never has an electric blanket been as important as it is in The Thing From Another World. Without it, The Thing (a plant-based alien that crashes into the north pole), would never have thawed out and gone on a killing spree. The film is a cult classic, even earning a place in the US National Film Registry for its cultural significance. It’s notable for some great early special effects and the immortal line “keep watching the skies”.
Do you have an elderly relative who’s resisting plans to go and live in a nursing home? It’s worth seeing if you can track down a VHS of Ron Howard’s Cocoon for their antiquated Grundig, telling them it’s a documentary and watching how fast they run off to sign up for the nearest old folks’ home. Pick one near a swimming pool full of aliens for best effect.
Jodie Foster pulls a series of quizzical faces as she listens to radio transmissions from space while looking for alien contact. Luckily, before the two and a half hour film is up, a schematic arrives from the ether with instructions to build a machine. The contraption assembled, it is Foster who gets to take it for its first spin… only to find her dad at the other end. Of course, when she gets back from her intergalactic odyssey, no one believes her. Typical.
The Abyss (1989)
The Abyss dared to feature friendly aliens who – apropos of nothing – save lives and stop divers getting the bends. NTIs – as they’re called – actually turn out to be a soppy bunch of ETs much more interested in repairing underwater oil platform manager Ed Harris’s failed marriage than blowing up Earth. The big softies.
A Trip to the Moon (Voyage dans la Lune) (1902)
Widely regarded as the first ever science fiction film, Georges Méliès’ infamous short was also the first film to feature aliens – the capering Selenites. All of which would count for nothing if it was rubbish. Fortunately, it’s not – Méliès’ pioneering special effects make it look like… well, like nothing on Earth.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton’s surreal B movie parody features classic big-brained aliens on a mission to take over the world. Their weird laugh (made by reversing a duck’s quack) and mad stare make for a hilarious enemy: terrorising cities while holding a translator spouting “we come in peace”. The film features a massive ensemble cast, including Jack Nicholson (twice) and an early appearance by Natalie Portman – though it’s Tom Jones who steals the show with his campy escape from Las Vegas.
The Thing (1982)
Remaking 50s B-movie The Thing From Another World, but replacing the plant-creature with animatronic beasties seemingly drawn from the imagination of a serial killer, The Thing is one creepy movie. But it’s the psychological tension that tells, as much as its gruesome visuals – the alien’s skill for mimicry means that any one of the luckless Antarctic research station crew could be the monster.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Helping to bring alien love to the masses, along with the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters.. was a big deal for sci-fi fan Steven Spielberg and a good piece of PR for beings from outer space. For once they’re not trying to take over our planet and pulverise our landmarks although they do turn people a bit wacky – making mashed potato mountains just isn’t cool.
Flying the flag for 3D, James Cameron gave us a pretty incredible looking fictional planet in the form of the moon Pandora, home to the lithe, blue, nature-loving Na’vi. Some of the human researchers on Pandora – including Sam Worthington’s disabled ex-marine Jake Sully – become a bit too comfortable in their hybrid Avatar bodies and there’s plenty of tree-based hocus pocus to scoff at as the film gears up for the final clash with the mining-obsessed Americans.
Men in Black (1997)
Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones (that’s Agents J and K to you) roam New York blasting aliens and never stepping out in anything but a black suit and shades. And they make it look good. Cool guys – but their playful bickering set-up quickly gets disrupted by the Bug who’s hell bent on assassinating a couple of intergalactic ambassadors. Men in Black is wonderfully silly, made us try to build a memory-wiping ‘neuralyzer’ and most importantly, it’s long overdue a third installment. Happily, a new instalment is coming out this year.
War of the Worlds (1953)
HG Wells’ Martians land in Cold War California aboard mushroom-shaped spaceships in this – at times superbly creepy – remake of the novel. Producer George Pal makes sure the special effects don’t look too much of a joke 60 years later with clever camera work. Remember aliens, washing your tentacles isn’t just for geeks – that bacteria will get you in the end.
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
The story of this adorable extra-terrestrial is guaranteed to tug even the meanest, grouchiest of heart strings – ET’s stranded on Earth and all he wants to do is get home. Spielberg gives us one of the most iconic scenes in movie history – ET in the basket of a bike, flying over a full moon and the John Williams score is flawless.
Starship Troopers (1997)
It’s 2319 and the Bugs are invading Earth. Enter Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) guided by Neil Patrick Harris in military psychic mode. Rico has entered military service to get Earth citizenship, but ends up on a hunt for the Brain Bugs in order to save the world. Starship Troopers is gung-ho, violent – and an utterly brilliant parody of gung-ho, violent movies. Let’s hope it isn’t ruined by a planned re-make.
District 9 (2009)
This South African faux-documentary charts the arrival of an alien spacecraft over Johannesburg. We watch Wikus van de Merwe (Sharlto Copley) become infected and slowly morph into one of the creatures. Cue attempts to control the alien’s weaponry and all-out civil unrest. The aliens, abusively dubbed “Prawns”, are just fantastic. You feel genuine empathy for them as they are mocked, mistreated and forced into an internment camp.
Independence Day (1996)
Will Smith stars in one of the most epic alien films of all time. An alien mothership appears around earth and sends huge flying saucers to hover ominously over Earth’s major cities. An attack begins and Smith leads a squadron to save the day. The aliens are pant-wettingly creepy and the scale of their spaceships is terrifying. Independence Day’s White House obliteration scene is so classic that Austin Powers’ Dr Evil used it to threaten the world’s leaders.
Critters is a cult classic on the level of The Evil Dead – but was a much bigger commercial hit, combining fear and laughs in equal measures. The Critters of the title are malevolent balls of alien fluff, with teeth – come to Earth to kill. Eyes peeled for a young Billy Zane being mauled by the loveable space invaders.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Neon-haired Milla Jovovich stole many a young nerd’s heart in Luc Besson’s vision of the future. But it’s the alien menagerie that peoples The Fifth Element – from the armoured Mondoshawans to the blue opera diva Plavalaguna – that wins it a place on this list. Bruce Willis donned his vest once again to kick alien ass, while Chris Tucker and Lee Evans provided high-pitched humour. We use the word “humour” advisedly.