Aliens and extra terrestrials have been a staple of almost every kind of creative media for a long as space has fascinated the creative minds of our own world. That fascination has given birth to some of the greatest films of all time as aliens tend to be a great tool to inspire fear and love and even tackle more thought provoking themes. With the highly anticipated “Alien: Covenant” being released this weekend, I took a look at some of the best alien encounter films out there.
For this list I focused on films where a specific alien or group of aliens encountered humans, possibly for the first time. This means any film taking place in outer space, but not focusing on alien encounters will not be on this list so films like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” are films for another time. Films where aliens are already knowingly on Earth living among us are also excluded, so “Men In Black” and “District 9” for example do not qualify, and films like “Superman” and “Transformers” are also not included. Those are better suited for a different list. Also only one film per franchise and there will probably be SPOILERS here as well.
I want to give HONORABLE MENTIONS status to a few of films that I think deserve recognition but just missed this list. Those would be “10 Cloverfield Lane”, “Predator” and “Mars Attacks!” which are great alien encounter films in their own rights.
With that in mind lets get to it and be sure to check out “Alien: Covenant” and look for my review this weekend.
We start off with the 2011 comedy film that featured Simon Pegg and Nick Frost coming across an alien being named Paul, played by Seth Rogen, and help him escape to his home planet. Filled with crude humor and countless sci-fi fandom references, “Paul” was a sleeper hit that presented the alien encounter concept in a rather unique way, staying away from conventional genre storytelling to present a sci-fi adventure that doesn’t take itself too seriously and shows a much lighter side of what a visiting alien could be like if it were to fully embrace the screwed up reality that is humanity and the American way. Sigourney Weaver, who makes somewhat of a cameo appearance in the film, even called it a “love letter to sci-fi fans”.
9. “The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)”
Forget the less-than-impressive 2008 remake, the original “Day The Earth Stood Still” is a cinematic classic. A cautionary tale wrapped up in one of the industry’s most respected sci-fi stories, the film sees an alien named Klaatu arrive on earth with his giant robot Gort, immediately receiving an unwelcome response from the people of Earth despite his claims that he carries an important message. As it turns out, Klaatu has arrived to warn humanity that their path to war will be their downfall and asks them to either join together with the rest of the cosmos in peace, or perish if they decide to spread their violence beyond their own planet. The entire movie is a massive political message about the need for peace in a world where war, even today, threatens to destroy everyone. It’s a harsh look at the violent reality of humanity, with an extraterrestrial proving to be well beyond human maturity in terms of understanding and compassion. Maybe that’s why this film was preserved in the United States National Film Registry in 1995.
8. “Independence Day”
Action, action, and more action is the name of the game in this Roland Emmerich classic as spaceships arrive on Earth, destroying many iconic buildings and locations in a relentless attack on the planet and its people. Humanity launches a final effort to defeat the enemy on July 4th of all days, thus the movie’s name, with explosive results. Filled with some of the most iconic sci-fi moments of the 1990s, this film was considered a significant turning point for the film industry solidifying the sci-fi genre as a true force to be reckoned with in a time where the genre was finally starting to be taken seriously. The film continued what “Jurassic Park” helped begin a few years before with special effects presenting a new sense of realism seldom seen to that point. Not to mention the countless one-liners and the truly threatening aliens that invade our planet and sparked fear in many about what whether or not such an attack could or would every really happen. Too bad Emmerich had to ruin its legacy in the horrendous 2016 sequel.
7. “War of the Worlds”
Based on the famed H.G. Wells story, “War of the Worlds” may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is a truly inspired and entertaining alien encounter film that drives home the sense of desperation and peril humanity would feel if such an attack were ever to really happen. The film sees a father, played by Tom Cruise, trying to keep his kids safe after an alien race comes to Earth, boarding destructive tri-pod ships they had been buried deep beneath the planets surface countless years before. With lasers that turn people to dust, and a disturbing realization that humans were being used to terraform Earth to fit the requirement of life for the aliens, “War of the Worlds” offered a compelling take on the alien encounter trope and balanced drama and action perfectly to create one of the greatest alien-themed films of the early 2000s and added to director Steven Spielberg’s legacy as a sci-fi great.
It’s almost hard to believe now, but in the late 90s and early 2000s M. Night Shyamalan was a true directing force to be reckoned with. Considered one of his best, “Signs” explored the myth of crop circles, proposing that they actually do occur from aliens landing on the planet unseen by human eyes. The movie explores the concepts of family and faith and doesn’t lean too much of its alien antagonists to carry a rather deep and compelling story. The aliens act as catalysts and more supporting characters that help bring the films family closer together and leads to very human realizations about existence. The aliens are appropriately relegated to mysterious aggressors but still manage to leave a lasting impression, even if their weakness is a little lame. It’s rare that a film incorporating extraterrestrial life can accomplish so much with so little screen time for the antagonistic species, but “Signs” manages to strike fear into the hears of viewers by showing them as little as possible and letting them experience the uncertainty about these alien lifeforms that the characters feel on screen.
5. “The Thing (1982)”
John Carpenter’s sci-fi classic could never be left off a list of alien encounter films. It helped redefine what a sci-fi film could be and while it only opened at 840 theaters and suffered due to competition from another alien film, “E.T”, it left a lasting impression and still has a legacy as one of cinema’s most iconic body horror and alien encounter stories. The film sees a crew at an Antarctic research station fall victim to an otherworldly being that can take the form of any living being it assimilates, including the members of the crew. As the horror unfolds both the viewer and those left alive are left wondering every second who the monster has transformed into and who will be next. Even by today’s standards it’s a claustrophobic and fantastically brutal film that holds nothing back in its intense graphic imagery. It’s a must see for any fan of the alien encounter sub-genre for sure.
The film that started a legend. The original “Alien” film introduced moviegoers to the Xenomorph and while the second film is a cinematic sci-fi masterpiece, you can’t deny the film that started a legacy its place on this list. The film follows a crew aboard the commercial craft Nostromo as they are taken out one-by-one by an alien creature that reproduces by laying its eggs inside its prey. This film introduced one of cinemas most iconic aliens to the big screen and helped set the standard for every sci-fi film to come, including its own successors in the franchise. Without it many of the films on this list might not have been made and its tagline, “In space noone can hear you scream”, has gone down in history as one of the industry’s most memorable. In terms of sheer iconic status, “Alien” is probably one of the most recognizable and appreciated alien encounter films of all time.
By far one of 2016’s greatest films, “Arrival” is the newest sci-fi adventure on this list and tells the story of a linguist who joins a crew charged with helping communicate with an alien race who has landed on Earth with no threat or explanation. As she begins to unravel their communication methods and motive for visiting humanity, tensions reach a fever pitch as some humans believe the aliens mean to do humanity harm. The result is a race against the clock, utilizing a special power gifted by the aliens, to show that the aliens not only mean no harm, but are actually on Earth seeking a partnership with humanity. The film is more than just an alien encounter drama. It’s a symbolic representation of xenophobia and the effects of language barriers in our own world as well and the fact that the aliens in this film are non-violent and that the humans turn out to be the primary aggressors takes the normal sci-fi conventions and spins them in a complete 180. It’s certainly a very compelling film and while it’s not the most action packed or entertaining of the movies on this list, it’s one of the best and sets a new standard for what alien encounter films can be in the right hands.
2. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”
When you think of iconic alien films, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is probably one of the first that comes to mind. Another Steven Spielberg film, this 1977 classic defined modern conventions for what an alien encounter, real or fictional, can be. The story follows a blue-color man whose life changes after he encounters a UFO. As the story unfolds we see some of the most well known sci-fi tropes and traditions take form as “Close Encounters” helped set the standard, along with “Alien” a few years later, for what sci-fi would become in the 80s and 90s. This was the movie that created the fascination with space and aliens for many and its iconic status can’t be denied, especially seeing as, for better or worse, its story and imagery have been considered rather authentic when looking at descriptions of supposed alien sightings before or after the films release. This was a passion project for Spielberg, and to date it’s one of his most iconic. But there is till one more film that is even more iconic than this one when it comes to the alien encounter storyline.
1. “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial”
The third Steven Spielberg masterpiece on this list, “E.T.” is possibly the most widely known and iconic alien encounter film ever made. The highest grossing film of the 1980s, considered one of the greatest films in its genre and of all time, and preserved in the National Film Registry in 1994, this story about a young boy who meets a lost alien and tries to help him get home is iconic in every sense of the word and was a rare treat for its time, showing aliens as a more friendly race rather than masters of disaster and death they had come to be known to be. “E.T” is a heartwarming, inspiring, and in some ways culturally relevant tale that spawned so many iconic one-liners, images, and tropes that Spielberg’s Amblin company even uses the flying bike in its logo. From its alien design to it’s use of special effects and use of chronological filming to create the project “E.T.” was as groundbreaking off the screen as it was on the screen and is by far the greatest alien encounter film ever made for those reasons and many more.