Top 10 list of Alien movies anyone should see
Although science fiction in books and films has been around for more than a hundred years, aliens, or beings from outer space, only began to hit the big screen in the 1950s. The grandfather of all alien stories has to be HG Wells’s War of the Worlds, which was first published in 1897. However, it took about 50 years before it was first turned into a movie.
Before the fifties, science fiction was dominated by mad scientists, best typified by Dr Frankenstein and his monster which got the Hollywood treatment as early as 1931. It took another twenty years, and the beginning of the Cold War before beings from another world began to hit the silver screen.
Probably the first successful movie to have an alien as the central character was The Day the Earth Stood Still, where the benevolent alien Klaatu played by actor Michael Rennie, comes to Earth as a warning against militarism, and the aggressive nature of humans. What marks this film out as that the alien looks just like the humans, so no need for any special effects, and has a robot sidekick that does all the dirty work for him. It was the same year the HG Wells classic War of the Worlds made its big screen debut, with a completely different kind of alien, hell-bent on the destruction of Earth and the human race. The benevolent and malevolent approach to aliens was inextricably linked to the mood of the time, with the horrors of the atom bomb and the Cold War.
The concerns over an insidious and silent takeover from within became the underlying basis for what is no doubt one of the greatest alien movies of all time. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is nightmarish without being graphic, as it has humans losing their identity in a nightmare where paranoia sets in.
Throughout the sixties and early seventies, as the Apollo missions headed to the moon, space exploration was more the vogue among science fiction filmmakers. It’s probably not until 1977 and Close Encounters of the Third Kind that aliens return to the silver screen in a big way. Close Encounters is very much in the vein of The Day the Earth Stood Still, a wakeup call for what could happen if things don’t change on Earth.
However, it didn’t take long before the idea of the benevolent alien to be shattered with the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien. The 1979 movie brought us an Alien from another world that had only on aim; to reproduce and to kill. A few years later came the complete antithesis in the form of Stephen Spielberg’s huggable E.T.
Since then alien movies have spawned a succession of good and bad guys from outer space. Here are what can be considered a top ten of alien movies of the last 50 years.
1. Alien (1977) – Director: Ridley Scott
Although the first movie is now more than forty years old, the Alien franchise still has relevance in pop culture. It says something about the way the movie was originally envisioned, and how its design ethos epitomized by the creature known as the Xenomorph looks as fresh today as it did when the movie was released. The alien burst onto the scene, quite literally, from the stomach of one of the movie’s central characters. Then it begins its quest to devastate the crew of the ship Nostromo.
As an interesting sidebar the name of the ship is taken from a novel by the author Joseph Conrad. Other spaceships in the Alien series are based on place and characters in the book. Alien is a movie that you will watch through your fingers time and time again as it is so scary, and the alien so monstrous. The look of the movie and the alien were conceived by artist H.R. Giger, and his fantasy has created one of the most iconic alien movies of all time.
2. Predator (1987) – Director: John McTiernan
There is always something special about a story where the tables are turned, and the hunter becomes the hunted. John McTiernan’s action classic as a group of tough commandoes in the Guatemalan jungle on the trail of a predator that turns out to be something they’ve never come across before as he’s an alien. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as the leader Dutch, in one of his iconic roles. He has to go head to head with the alien stalker after the rest of the team is picked off one-by-one.
The Predator has everything audiences like in an alien bad guy; the helmet that uses heat-seeking to track its prey, and the automatic targeting laser gun to blow them away, and not forgetting the incongruous dread locks. But when the alien takes off the helmet, and we get to see the horrific snarling face for the first time, it leaves you with shock and awe. Shock at the hideous facial structure, and awe at the creation by special effects expert Stan Winston. The ugly look has become one of the most recognizable aliens in cinema history.
3. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) – Director: Steven Spielberg
Although to most people an alien from outer space will strike terror into their minds, not all are expected to come as harbingers of death and destruction. The premise of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic family movie is a peaceful alien gets stranded on Earth and with the help of some children find its way home. Discovered by suburban kid Elliot, the diminutive E.T. is hidden by his new friend until he can contact his kind and organize a return to his home planet. What makes this movie alien do differently from many others is his pacifity. In general, he’s not the instigator of things.
Incidents happen around him, and he has to use his extra terrestrial abilities to extricate himself and his new found friend Elliot from a potential mess. This is probably one of the reasons E.T. has become a firm family favorite with kids of all ages and adults alike. The iconic shot of the bicycle flying in the air with the moon as a backdrop has become one of the enduring images of eighties cinema and of Steven Spielberg’s career.
4. District 9 (2009) – Director: Neil Blomkamp
The intriguing premise behind District 9 sees alien refugees forced to live in what appear to be squatter camps after arriving on Earth. The film is set in South Africa, so there are definite political overtones to the whole movie. These extra terrestrials are nicknamed ‘Prawns’, because they have the look of giant shrimp. It’s interesting how Neil Blomkamp takes extra terrestrials with overtones of the Xenomorph in the Alien movies, and the Predator, and turns them into sympathetic characters.
The ‘Prawns’ are refugees, and they have been left to fend for themselves in a camp. They are malnourished and are living a pathetic life in a rundown camp before the government finally decides to take action. It is only then that the world begins to understand their plight that efforts are made to make the lives of the forgotten creatures better. The parallels to South African history and the story of modern-day migrant refugees resonate throughout the picture.
5. Star Wars – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) – Director: Irvin Kershner
The Star Wars series is blessed with its fair share of aliens, and the second movie in the franchise brought us another of the iconic creatures from another galaxy. The Jedi Master, Yoda, makes his first appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. In a meeting with Luke Skywalker, the tiny and wizened old man turns out to be one of the most potent wielders of the force. His wisdom and skill at using the force guide Skywalker in his quest, and when Luke crashes his X-wing fighter it’s Yoda that saves the day.
The movie also sees the return of another iconic alien from the Star Wars series, Chewbacca. The hairy extra terrestrial has become one of the charismatic characters of the series, even though his language consists of grunts and growls. The lively banter between Han Solo and his sidekick have endeared the Wookie to audiences young and old.
6. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977) – Director: Steven Spielberg
No list of alien movies can be complete without Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Even though this is a movie about aliens, and their arrival on Earth, you don’t get to see them until the very end of the movie, and then only as some shadowy creatures against a bright white light. The buildup is great with the central characters drawn to the meeting with the extra terrestrial life forms.
Who can forget Richard Dreyfus’s character Roy Neary creating a model of the Devil’s Tower rock formation in Wyoming out of mashed potato, to the horror of his wife? The other central character is played by Francois Truffaut, the accomplished French film director. Close Encounters is the only film he has appeared in which he did not direct, and it is the only English language film he has acted in.
7. The Thing (1982) – Director: John Carpenter
Among all the alien movies in this list, the extra terrestrial from The Thing is unique in that during the movie you never see what the life form truly looks like. This alien has the ability to change its shape to other living organisms in its efforts to survive. Dug up from under the ice in the wastes of Antarctica, the life form rampages through a remote research station. It kills and takes over the bodies of the animals and people who work there.
As the scientist try to battle the entity, it morphs into a head attached to spidery legs, and a mouth with razor-sharp teeth. John Carpenter is a master of the horror genre, and he brings that talent to science fiction with an alien that is frightening enough to haunt the memories of anyone who has seen the movie.
8. Avatar (2009) – Director: James Cameron
The triumph of Avatar is that director James Cameron did not only create an alien that has become part of the pop culture of our time, but he constructed a whole world for them to inhabit using the most advanced graphics techniques. The movie was a global sensation when it was released in 2009. Audiences flocked to see the state-of-the-art CGI special effects and how Cameron had woven them into telling the story of his aliens the Na’vi.
The expression and emotion of the alien creatures are impressive thanks to the used of motion capture; a technique never used on such a huge scale before. The story centers around a paraplegic Marine Jake Sully sent to the moon Pandora on behalf of a mining company. The plan is to take over the moon and displace the Na’vi people, but Sully becomes enthralled by the aliens and decides to change sides.
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Director: Don Siegel
When the aliens look just like you, what can you do to prove they’re there? That’s the problem facing the character of Dr Miles Bennell played by Kevin McCarthy. Away at a conference, Dr Bennell is called back to his small California town after patients complain their friends are imposters. Thinking it is a paranoid delusion Dr Bennell begins to investigate only to discover that the patients are telling the truth, and an alien life form is turning them into emotionless doppelgangers.
As more and more of the locals get taken over by the aliens, it becomes increasingly hard for Dr Bennell to convince the authorities there is an invasion underway, especially as some of the local leaders have themselves become alien life forms. Created at the height of the Communist scare in the United States, the film parallels the fears of an insidious takeover from within.
10. The War of the Worlds (2005) – Director: Steven Spielberg
We end our list with the most recent adaptation of the first science fiction story to involve aliens HG Wells’ classic War of the Worlds. Although loosely based on the novel, Spielberg pays homage to the author in the opening narration which closely matches the beginning of the book. The premise holds the same with an alien life form coming to Earth to take over and destroy the human race.
The original text is set in the United Kingdom, but Spielberg sets his movie in the United States and has a Tom Cruise star as the main protagonist, longshoreman Ray Ferrier. With great special effects, Ray must battle the aliens and their monster spider fighting vehicles to rescue his daughter and estranged wife. Despite all the hi-tech military hardware available it is something minuscule that does for the aliens in the end.