10 alien movies that are out of this world

Two of this summer’s big films have been all about aliens. And the two films (Men In Black 3, Prometheus) couldn’t be more different. Which got me thinking about how diverse and interesting the genre can be. They can be funny or suspenseful. They can be social commentary or mindless schlockfests. So here are 10 great alien films that are all over the genre spectrum.

 10. Dark City (1998)

First off let me say two things: 1) this list (aside from number one) is entirely random and doesn’t represent an actual increase in quality and 2) you must watch the director’s cut of this film. Not the original.

I know that sounds awfully elitist and film snobby, but it’s true. The theatrical version (which I thankfully haven’t seen) gives away the entire plot in the opening narration. So avoid that. For the same reason I won’t tell you too much about the film either.

All I’ll say is that if you can imagine a film noir-esque sci-fi film that is one part Fight Club precursor and another part Matrix precursor then that would kind of describe it. It involves a man with no memory of his past who lives in a city where the sun never rises. The finale gets a little too weird for its own good, and as we all know the setup is almost always better than the delivery, but for the most part this film is a fascinating and atmospheric gem. Where do the aliens come in? You’ll have to see.

9. District 9 (2009)

I had to make it number 9, that’s just obvious. It’s one of my favorites on this list though. I mentioned in my Brave review that I think movies with a “message” are only good when that message is part of the film and not the whole thing. So I was skeptical of this film because it sounded like a fairly heavy-handed apartheid allegory.

That’s really just the first 15 minutes or so. The plot starts off as being about alien beings in South Africa being forced to live like animals. Instead of engaging us in a fight for supremacy like the aliens in Independence Day or living amusing lives in the suburbs like the aliens on 3rd Rock from the Sun, this movie did something different. It treated aliens like every other group of immigrants in history.

But there’s a twist: the main character starts to become one of them. What follows is a truly suspenseful and intensely personal film. It’s shot like a documentary, which really puts you in the action and makes the aliens seem eerily real. This film proves that a group of relatively unknown filmmakers and actors can come together and make a great film. In this case: one of the best in its genre of the last decade (it was even nominated for Best Picture).

8. Futurama: Bender’s Big Score (2007)

Why yes, this is a direct-to-video movie that is based on a then-canceled TV show. I am aware. But when it comes to making fun of alien movies, sci-fi movies, or anything remotely similar to either of those things: nobody does it better than Futurama. And this is the best of the films based on that series.

When doing satire, it’s important to avoid being just a joke. If you make fun of an established genre, all you’ll end up doing is alienating (no pun intended) the only audience that will understand your jokes. What you need to do is lovingly make fun of it. This film both points out amusing plot holes in time travel movies and satirizes alien invasion stories. While simultaneously telling a story that works as both of those genres.

The film also requires you to pay attention, like all great sci-fi. It’s filled with references to the show, references to pop culture and references to actual science that I had to look up on the Internet. The people writing this stuff aren’t dummies by any stretch. The comedy is brilliant and any fan of the alien genre should both check out the show itself and the subsequent movies.

7. The War of the Worlds (1953)

I always like to delve into the classics for lists like this if I can, and the ’50s was a verifiable breeding ground of alien pictures. Many of them were terrible. But many of them, like this film, remain huge influences in all fiction (not just sci-fi) to this day. I like the newer Spielberg version too, but it’s a little too over-the-top with its visuals and unnecessarily harrowing. This film keeps it largely in your mind, while still being shocking and suspenseful.

This was back in the age when people were still unapologetically making non-ironic movies about religion. Nowadays you need to either be satirical (Dogma), controversial (The Passion of the Christ), or hide your themes with a bunch of explosions (The Matrix). This film manages to both be critical of certain religious opinions and be reverent of religion itself.

Near the beginning there’s a great scene where a priest recites the 100th Psalm as he approaches one of the invading aliens. The alien fries him. This could be seen as an atheistic statement. But by the end of the movie, it’s made clear that there is a God watching out for us. The movie is telling you to have faith, but be cautious too. This both works in a religious context and as a bit of a social statement on the political state of affairs at the time. And you thought it was just about little green men.

6. Alien (1979)

You can’t have a list of alien movies without including a movie that’s actually just called Alien. I know most people point to James Cameron’s Aliens as the definitive film of this series but I always disagreed. Much like all of Cameron’s work, Aliens is largely an overdone film with some seriously bad dialogue. I still like it, but it’s very much a stereotypical ’80s action movie that happens to be in space.

Ridley Scott’s original film isn’t like that. It’s a subversive horror film where the real monster is mankind’s curiosity. Whether it’s Adam and Eve eating the apple or Icarus flying too close to the sun, our religions and mythologies (which could each be one or the other depending on one’s point of view) often involve our reach exceeding our grasp.

While the main “antagonists” in the movie are an alien and a robot. Who created the robot? Who prodded the alien and brought it onboard? The people are the baddies here, make no mistake. Or at least the victims of Greek tragedy. All of this plays out in a tersely atmospheric and terrifying way, as most of the gore is in the viewer’s mind.

5. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

As I said, the ’50s were a breeding ground for these things. While it’d be somewhat of a stretch to say that War was a political narrative, this film is fairly blatantly a Red Scare allegory. People go to bed one night and wake up an entirely different person. They look and sound the same but their opinions have changed.

I’m sure that’s how the spouses of a lot of Communist sympathizers felt. Or I suppose if you were a Communist sympathizer, you could view the “body snatching” aliens as McCarthyism itself. This is what makes great sci-fi: you can view it in different ways.

Essentially, the body snatchers represent the dread anyone feels when they’re stuck in a room full of people with a different opinion. Not just a different opinion, but one that’s so outlandish from your point of view that you think everyone’s brainwashed. The film doesn’t have a classic ’50s resolution though, only the question of whether your opinion will survive or whether you’ll simply “be next” on the snatchers’ list.

4. Men in Black (1997)

I discussed this film to some extent during my review of the third film, but I’ll reiterate and expand here. I’ve seen this film an unreasonable number of times. I was at my friend’s house last night for another Will Smith film and I spontaneously broke into “8-year-old white girl, middle of the ghetto, with some quantum physics books? Those are way too advanced for her! She about to start some shit, Zed!” until my friend said “WE GET IT, YOU KNOW THE SCENE!”

These outbursts aren’t uncommon for me (my girlfriend is a saint) but I think it shows how movies like this really hold up over the years. Taking a genre that’s normally incredibly serious and making it positively mundane was genius. They could’ve made a (still good) version where Will Smith was a world-weary soldier like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner, but instead they went in a more original direction.

Will Smith (Independence Day, Bad Boys) is truly one of my favorite actors because he’s such a real person in his roles. If I found out we weren’t alone in the universe, many jokes would follow. Because how else can you cope? He manages to be the “voice of the audience” character in the film and also its hero, and his chemistry with Tommy Lee Jones is spot-on. Fifteen years later it’s still one of my favorites.

3. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

People who know me were waiting for Star Trek to pop up. I (in?)famously watched all 726 episodes of the various series over the course of just over a year. Mostly because I was bored.  I love it all though, and while I’m also a big fan of the 2009 movie … most people have seen that already. I want people to go watch this too.

This movie works well for a lot of reasons. For one thing, it does what I wish all films based on TV shows would do: it homages the original show without bamboozling new fans. Khan was a character on an episode of the show, and many of the character traits absent from the first film are present once more. It also manages to balance character development with action without sacrificing either.

Not to mention the tearjerker ending, don’t make me talk about it.

One major theme of the series is how we as individuals, or a species, can greatly impact others. Kirk tried to help Khan but he ended up ruining his life. What follows is an extended “naval battle” of sorts between two captains who despise each other. Along the way we deal with the philosophy of pragmatism, age-related inadequacy issues, and the notion that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” Just for geeks? I think not.

2. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Of all of the ’50s alien films, this is probably the best and most influential. It involves aliens of such immense power that they stop literally everything on Earth for a full day. The title of the movie isn’t hyperbole.

But then the central idea arises: is humanity worth saving? The speech near the end of the film resonates today and would’ve resonated before the film even came out. We can be a great species but we can also be a terrible one. People are great but: do we need them? What is the human race as compared to a race of all-powerful Earth-stoppers?

The conclusion the aliens come to is that we have potential. For every killer taking lives there are five doctors saving them. There’s no better way to view humanity than from an outsiders’ point of view. And though the film is obviously written by a human, he does his best to capture what an alien race would think of us. And how terrifying and wonderful that outsiders’ point of view could be. Couple that with an excellent minimalist style and some truly haunting scenes (you’ll be surprised at how easily you remember “Klaatu barada nikto” even if you need to check the spelling) and you have what is still hailed as one of the very best sci-fi films ever.

 1. The Star Wars saga (1977-2005)

I know, I know… I’m cheating. I should just pick a film and write about that. But I can’t. I truly see it as one big story, and even though it’s easy to pick your least favorite parts (need-a I say-a his name?) it’s tough to pick your favorites. So I’m going with the whole shebang. Because what makes it truly the most popular and best alien series of all time is that we always forget it’s about aliens.

I mean, obviously we remember that characters like Chewbacca and Darth Maul are aliens. But what about Han Solo? Does the fact that he’s from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away make his arrogance any less human? Is Luke’s paradoxical search for fatherly acceptance and his own identity any less recognizable because he’s not from Earth? I wouldn’t say so.

In the prequel films we find out that (my favorite villain) Darth Vader turned to the dark side because he loved his mother and lost her and he didn’t want to lose his wife too. He eventually gives into paranoia and power-lust and loses sight of this goal, but that was the spark. The whole point of alien movies is to tell us something about ourselves. And I can think of no better way than to watch a series of movies that makes us completely forget that the characters we’re watching aren’t, in fact, human.

Well that’s my grab bag of many different, but all great, alien films. What are some of your favorites?