If there’s life on other planets, what would it look like? If those lifeforms could somehow get to Earth, would they befriend us, or try to destroy us? Ever since cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès stunned audiences with insect-like lunar inhabitants in A Trip To The Moon in 1901, filmmakers and screenwriters have tried to answer those questions.
Today, aliens are a familiar staple of sci-fi cinema, whether they’re conquerors intent on destroying our most famous landmarks, or ambassadors offering messages of peace.
Below, then, is our list of ten great movies that also feature memorable alien lifeforms. In some instances, the creatures from other worlds take centre stage. In others, they’re barely glimpsed, but cast a huge shadow over the rest of the movie. Several are benign; a lot of them are violent, toothsome, and incredibly scary. All of them have left a mark on genre cinema. So with all that in mind, suit up, grab a weapon, and we’ll begin our journey. Don’t worry if you’re scared, in space, no one can hear you scream.
What are the best alien movies of all time?
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind
- District 9
- Invasion of the Body Snatchers
- Quatermass and the Pit
- The Thing
It was far from the first ‘killer alien aboard a ship’ movie, but Alien refined the formula with fearsome efficiency. Chief among the Alien film’s achievements is the plausibility of its title creature: it has a life-cycle that takes it from leathery egg, to arachnid parasite, to a monstrous thing that emerges from its hosts’ ribcages and grows into an eight-foot killing machine.
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Artist H.R. Giger’s oddly beautiful creature is matched by Ridley Scott’s direction – the Nostromo, the cavernous ship that becomes the Alien’s hunting ground, is an awe-inspiring piece of design in itself. Alien’s an undisputed sci-fi classic, that created a signature role for Sigourney Weaver in Lieutenant Ellen Ripley. She’d return, of course, in Aliens, a sequel that expanded the Xenomorph’s life-cycle to spectacular effect.
Based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation uses a tale of alien visitation to reflect on our own species’ self-destructive tendencies. If that sounds pretentious and a bit navel-gazing, fear not: Annihilation doesn’t skimp on the horror, either, as a team of researchers heads into a chunk of American countryside affected by a mysterious, unearthly force.
Plants and animals have been changed in disturbing, unpredictable ways – and by the time this slow-burning sci-fi thriller reaches its climax and the presence behind it all makes an appearance, things get very trippy indeed.
Amy Adams’ sad, smart performance is the lynchpin for one of the most intelligent mainstream sci-fi movies of the past decade. An alien race comes visiting one day in an armada of huge, pebble-like ships. Are they friends or invaders? Adams’ linguist is sent to find out, and her discoveries gradually change how she – and we – perceive the flow of time.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
While George Lucas set off for a galaxy far, far away, his friend Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters took a more grounded approach to sci-fi. The alien visitors in Spielberg’s film are unforgettable, but they’re mostly kept at the story’s edges.
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Instead, we follow blue-collar worker Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a space-age pilgrim whose brief glimpse of an alien spacecraft leads him on an obsessive quest for more answers. Spielberg’s human drama subtly builds to a spectacular climax, where the visitors – and Douglas Trumbull’s special effects – finally come to the fore.
District 9 (2009)
A rare example of a sci-fi movie getting a Best Picture nod at the Oscars (it lost to The Hurt Locker), District 9 provides a depressingly plausible look at what might happen if a ship full of alien refugees showed up on Earth’s doorstep. Treated like outcasts, these ‘Prawns’, as they’re cruelly dubbed, are packed into slums and generally shunned by society.
Eventually, though, snivelling bureaucrat Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley) is forced to see life from the aliens’ perspective when an unnamed chemical starts to turn him into a mutant. The racial allegory in District 9 isn’t subtle, but then it doesn’t have to be: this is a bold, splashily violent slab of sci-fi action, with a welcome dash of social commentary.
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Spielberg continues his fascination with benign alien visitors with this charming suburban fairytale, which could almost be watched as a follow-up to Close Encounters. The mental anguish and 1970s paranoia are long gone here.
What we have instead is a story of childhood innocence, as ordinary school kid Elliott (Henry Thomas, who’s terrific) befriends a wide-eyed, lost little alien who takes refuge in his garden. Not that E.T. is pure sentimentality: the moment where the deathly ill alien is discovered lying unconscious on a river bank seared itself into the minds of an entire generation of young viewers.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The aliens in this Cold War-era sci-fi thriller are all the more effective because they look just like us. Grown from plant-like spores that drift down from space, the invaders slowly replace the occupants of a small town with soulless, unblinking, clones. The 1978 remake is superb; for this writer, the 1956 version just about beats it for pure, shadowy paranoia.
Arnold Schwarzenegger leads the cast in the sweatiest of post-Alien sci-fi horror mash-ups. In the wake of a top-secret mission in a Central American jungle, a group of mercenaries become the target of a gigantic, invisible big game hunter from space.
What should be a pure B-movie premise is given a huge boost by John McTiernan’s (Die Hard) suspenseful direction, memorable characters and one-liners, and a fantastic creature design courtesy of Stan Winston. Sure, the Predator’s ugly, as Schwarzenegger’s character impolitely notes, but he’s also one of the coolest – and toughest – aliens in the sci-fi movie pantheon.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
In this Hammer great, adapted from the Nigel Kneale TV series, the aliens – uncovered during the excavation of a London Underground station – are long dead. Yet their smooth, pristine ship has a profound impact on the team investigating it (led by Andrew Keir’s gruff Professor Quatermass) and their understanding of humanity’s origins.
Meanwhile, the husks of those insectoid aliens haunt the movie like a ghost, building to a climax that’s still unsettling today. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Prometheus, and the ‘ancient aliens’ works of author Erich Von Däniken, all owe something of a debt to the revelations that emerge from the Pit.
The Thing (1982)
Director John Carpenter’s ice-cold horror had the misfortune of arriving within weeks of Steven Spielberg’s E.T., and film critics promptly burned The Thing at the stake. But the years have been kind to this second adaptation of author John W Campbell’s Who Goes There, not least thanks to its incredible title creature – a vicious, shape-shifting alien that emerges from hibernation to terrorise a remote scientific research outpost.
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Rob Bottin’s bloody VFX were unusually graphic for a studio movie of the time, and they still hold up: the beast’s tendency to erupt into an array of tentacles and oozing teeth when cornered makes it one of the most fearsome aliens in cinema history.