Do you believe in life on other planets? What about the possibility of extraterrestrials visiting us on ours? Whether you personally ponder these questions or not, we live in a culture that’s fascinated with aliens. If we’re not obsessing over odd lights flashing across the night sky, we’re coming up with Area 51 conspiracy theories and wondering how far we should read into fresh reports of UFO sightings.
For better or worse, there’s been no shortage of on-screen aliens to keep our speculative gears turning. Many of the films they’ve been in have represented intergalactic beings as vicious killers hell-bent on world domination. Every now and then, though, we meet a friendly one who teaches us a thing or two about our own humanity.
Here are the best alien movies of all time, the ones that have captivated us and made us wonder…could there be someone else out there?
When you’re on board a ship in the middle of deep space, the last thing you want to learn is that an alien has made its way inside and is wreaking havoc everywhere it goes. Such is the fate of the Nostromo’s crew, including Sigourney Weaver in a role that would launch her career. This first film in the Alien franchise is easily the most terrifying, portraying its killer Xenomorphs as beings that we would prefer to stay inside their eggs. Part of the fun, of course, is the suspense of watching Weaver’s Ripley try to survive against the Alien, who is grosser than Ivan Ooze and nowhere near as cuddly as Stitch. Who knew that a critter with corrosive acid for blood would go on to star in so many sequels and spin-offs?
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Before he introduced the world to E.T., Steven Spielberg was busy dabbling on another alien-themed passion project. This one found Richard Dreyfuss playing Roy Neary, an electrician who spots an enormous UFO one night while out investigating a power outage. He then becomes obsessed with spacecrafts and discovers that the UFOs emit five-note musical sounds and transmit images of a mountain-like shape into humans’ minds. Are the owners of these flying objects good or evil? The eerie film makes us want to find out, and its climax is one of the most memorable in alien movie history. You know it’s a good story when Ray Bradbury, the king of the science fiction novel, refers to Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the greatest sci-fi film ever made.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
An alien and a robot land their flying saucer in Washington, D.C., claiming to come in peace. Do you believe them or distrust their possible dastardly intentions? The citizens in this 1951 black-and-white film didn’t know what to do, hence making The Day the Earth Stood Still an entirely accurate title. Despite the alien Klaatu arriving with a gift for the president in hand, the audience can feel the terror of the ultimatum he eventually presents: coexist with otherworldly beings peacefully, or face global obliteration. Even for a film that might feel slightly outdated, this notion packs a punch, leaving you to wonder how life might instantly change if you were faced with a similar scenario.
War of the Worlds
A healthy interest in aliens is one thing, but the prospect of an all-out alien invasion? Not so exciting. It makes for great fun on screen, though, which is probably why Tom Cruise wanted to get in on the action. In this 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ sci-fi novel, he plays Ray Ferrier, a divorced father who is supposed to be enjoying his weekend with his kids when an intergalactic fleet of robotic killers arrives to wipe out the planet. Ray does what any parent would do and tries to protect his children from the invading monsters. Steven Spielberg went all-out with this suspense thriller, crafting a foe so intelligent that the odds of a group of humans — let alone one model-faced dad — outsmarting them are nearly impossible. Then again, these aliens have never met Tom Cruise. A family film nestled inside an alien flick, War of the Worlds is terrifying until you remind yourself that something like that could never actually happen. Right?
Crop circles have long been associated with alien visitation on our planet, so when they start appearing all over the world in Signs, Mel Gibson’s Graham Hess is understandably startled. Even creepier is the fact that a crop circle has appeared on the Hess farm only months after Graham’s wife was killed in a tragic accident. Are the events related? Will Graham be able to protect his asthmatic son and very thirsty daughter from the potential invaders? M. Night Shyamalan wrote and directed this captivating thriller, gifting us jump scenes and alien sightings galore, one of which you will never be able to unsee. The climax is thrilling, proving that Signs is a gripping tale from start to finish and that its writer-director has endless tricks up his sleeve.
Men in Black
Thankfully, not all alien films are terrifying cautionary tales. Some, like Men in Black, are entertaining comedies that showcase aliens through a campier lens. This first film in the Men in Black series finds straight-faced Tommy Lee Jones recruiting goofy newcomer Will Smith to help him monitor extraterrestrial activity on Earth. Armed with weapons they don’t always know how to use, Agent J and Agent K ultimately have to stop an intergalactic terrorist from stealing a powerful weapon. Hilarity, wacky aliens, and talking pugs ensue, amounting to a wholly original adventure that pokes fun at our obsession with aliens while also imagining how many different kinds there are out there (and, despite popular belief, how incompetent some of them might be).
When America declared its independence from Great Britain in 1776, it’s likely that our Founding Fathers didn’t think they’d have to do so again a few hundred years later, and definitely not with life forms from other galaxies. Yet this is what our nation is up against when a giant alien spacecraft appears in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day just two days shy of America’s birthday. With every major city under attack, it’s up to a fighter pilot, an engineer, the President, and the United States military to stop the aliens before they wipe out our entire planet. This movie set the bar for all summer blockbusters and is packed with familiar faces including Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, and Mary McDonnell. Even if it painted aliens as the worst possible enemy humans could ever have, it also showed what can happen when we unite in the face of unfathomable disaster.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers
If the idea of aliens taking over the world (or your body) makes you paranoid, then you might want to steer clear of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Just like we can’t tell on sight who has Covid-19, the characters in this thriller can’t be certain who around them is still vulnerable and whose body has already been invaded by aliens. As they race through the streets of San Francisco, it’s anyone’s guess who will be turned into an automaton next. This premise of aliens taking over human bodies is of particular interest to filmmakers, who continue to resurrect it in cinematic remakes and television shows. Even this 1978 version is a remake of the 1956 film starring Kevin McCarthy. This one finds Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams running for their lives in an attempt to keep their bodies for themselves, thank you very much.
Few films, let alone alien-themed ones, achieve the same depth of character, place, and story as James Cameron’s Avatar. The 2009 sci-fi adventure flick, which currently has four sequels in the works, tells the tale of paraplegic marine Jake Sully who travels to the distant world of Pandora to explore its terrain and learn more about its inhabitants, the humanoid Na’vi. When Sully learns that a faction of the Avatar Program wants to take a valuable mineral that grows on Pandora, he has to choose between his duty to the program and his growing allegiance to his new blue compatriots. To say that the film is epic is an understatement. Its unique setup essentially allows humans to have the experience of being an alien without actually being an alien. Pocahontas comparisons aside, Avatar’s concept makes it a completely unique exploration of an alien race and the special humans who possess the power to save it.
Guardians of the Galaxy
Considered by many to be the best overall Marvel film, Guardians of the Galaxy features an eclectic array of aliens from all over the universe. Five of them in particular have to come together if they want to stop a ruthless warrior from using the power of a cosmic orb against the rest of the galaxy. Part of the fun is how different the Guardians are from each other: Peter Quill is half-alien, half-human and Gamora is a green assassin; Rocket Raccoon is genetically-altered bounty hunter and Groot is a talking tree! Some of them, like Groot, use only a single phrase to communicate everything they want to say, while others, like Drax, value complete honesty over manners. The best part about these aliens is that we never tire of watching them, especially now that they’ve become major players in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A Quiet Place
Who would’ve thought that one of the best alien movies of all time would also be one with hardly any dialogue? Written, directed by, and starring John Krasinski, A Quiet Place tells the story of a family trying to survive against a race of alien monsters who use their heightened senses of hearing to hunt humans. If the stakes weren’t high enough already, Krasinski made them higher by adding a very pregnant mother (Emily Blunt), a deaf daughter, and a terrified son to the mix. Beneath the surface-level events is the story of a family just trying to move forward during a difficult time, but the aliens are vicious predators and make that task nearly impossible. The ending of the movie is so thrilling that A Quiet Place: Part II was inevitable, and both films have proven that hungry alien monsters don’t want to mess with real-life husband and wife team Krasinski and Blunt if they know what’s good for them.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Perhaps the most famous extraterrestrial of all, E.T. is proof that not all aliens come to Earth in search of world domination. Some of them just want to phone home or make a new friend. Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Melissa Mathison gave us so many iconic moments in this film, most notably E.T. and Elliott flying across the moon on Elliot’s bike. The scariest part of the movie has nothing to do with the lovable alien, but rather the government agents who take over Elliot’s house and set up creepy white tubes everywhere. Not all humans are enemies, though. As much as he wants E.T. to stay, Elliot admirably steps up to the plate and helps the little guy escape before the evil agents have a chance to kill him. He puts E.T.’s safety before his own self-interests, and that’s one of many reasons why E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a one-of-a-kind story about friendship and the common ground we can find despite our differences.