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The 13 best alien movies of all time

Here's our list of the best alien movies ever made, from Alien to The Thing with Kurt Russell, and Predator starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The Alien TV series won't feature the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ripley

What are the best alien movies? If there’s life on Mars, 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 the 1901 science fiction movie A Trip to the Moon, filmmakers and screenwriters have tried to answer those questions.

Today, aliens are a familiar staple of the best science-fiction movies, whether they’re conquerors intent on destroying our most famous landmarks or ambassadors offering messages of peace. They present fascinating analogies for us to examine ourselves, or just something monstrous for action stars to blast at in new movies.

Below is our list of the best movies that feature memorable alien lifeforms. In some instances, the creatures from other worlds take center stage. In others, they’re barely glimpsed but cast a huge shadow over the movie. Several are benign; many are violent 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. These are the best alien movies.

Best alien movies: Alien

1. Alien (1979)

It was far from the first ‘killer alien aboard a ship’ movie, but Alien refined the formula with fearsome efficiency. Kicking off the Alien timeline, chief among the film’s achievements is the plausibility of the title creature: it has a life cycle from leathery egg to arachnid parasite, to a monstrous thing that emerges from its host’s 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.

Best alien movies: Quatermass and the Pit

2. 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.

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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.

Best alien movies: Amy Adams as Dr Louise Banks in Arrival

3. Arrival (2016)

Amy Adams’ sad, smart performance is the lynchpin for one of the most intelligent mainstream sci-fi films of the past decade. An alien race comes visiting one day in an armada of huge, pebble-like ships.

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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. Arrival poses questions about how we build meaning and connection, and why love is inextricably tied to pain.

Best alien movies: District 9

4. District 9 (2009)

A rare example of a sci-fi movie getting a Best Picture nod at the Academy Awards (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, sniveling 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.

Best alien movies: Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind

5. 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.

Best alien movies: Henry Thomas as Elliott in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

6. 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.

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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 riverbank seared itself into the minds of an entire generation of young viewers.

Best alien movies: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Dutch in Predator

7. Predator (1987)

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 becomes the target of a gigantic, invisible big game hunter from space.

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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.

Best alien movies: Natalie Portman as Lena Double in Annihilation

8. Annihilation (2018)

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.

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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.

Best alien movies: Donald Sutherland as Matthew Bennell in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

The aliens in this Cold War-era sci-fi thriller movie 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 us, the 1956 version just about beats it for pure, shadowy paranoia.

Best alien movies: Kurt Russell as R.J Macready in The Thing

10. The Thing (1982)

Director John Carpenter’s ice-cold horror had the misfortune of arriving within weeks of 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 terrorize 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.

Best alien movies: Fantastic Planet

11. Fantastic Planet (1973)

French animator René Laloux’s first feature-length work puts an otherworldly twist on alien invasion by having humans serve as pets on another planet. Per this reality’s colorful future, a race of giant blue creatures comes along and start transporting us to Ygram, where we live out our days doing their bidding.

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The metaphor for our relationship with animals and the wilderness is obvious and potent, leaving one feeling more considerate of beings we deem lesser by the end. A visit to another world that leaves a lasting impression.

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12. Aliens (1986)

That’s right, we’ve got a Xenomorph double feature. James Cameron‘s action epic is “Alien, but more”, according to our Aliens review. It trades in chilling horror for frantic warring and is hands down one of the best action movies ever made.

From Ripley’s descent into hell to the Xenomorph Queen, it’s a battle to the nasty end and cemented Ellen Ripley as one of the best female characters of all time.

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13. Interstellar (2014)

Christopher Nolan‘s most sentimental film follows an astronaut who is convinced to travel farther than humanity has ever ventured before to try to save the human race from climate catastrophes.

Mesmerizing with its vast cinematography, heart-pounding thanks to Hans Zimmer’s score, and grand in its vision of love as transcendence, Interstellar caught some flack for apparently being saccharin, but its blend of hard sci-fi and human drama is exactly what made it such a voyage.

If you can’t get enough out-of-this-world action, check out our list of the best sci-fi series and best monster movies. We also have a list of all new movies 2024 has to offer and guides to the Alien movies in order, Alien timeline, and Terminator movies in order, if complex timelines are your bag.