10 great films about aliens visiting Earth

They come in peace… or else to bring about the annihilation of the human race. With David Bowie’s turn as The Man Who Fell to Earth lighting up our Sci-Fi weekend, we count down 10 of the best movies about extraterrestrials coming to our planet.

Paul O’Callaghan
Updated:

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Next weekend, audiences will have their first close encounter with our upcoming extravaganza, Sci-Fi: Days of Fear and Wonder, with three nights of outdoor screenings at the British Museum.

Nicolas Roeg’s hypnotic cult favourite The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) takes centre stage on 29 August. Starring a gaunt, pale David Bowie as an alien stranded in 1970s America, the film uses the Thin White Duke’s otherworldly charisma to full effect. It’s also an enigmatic, remarkably prescient exploration of the director’s adopted homeland, which touches on issues of immigration, alcoholism, corporate corruption and media saturation.

Since the sci-fi heyday of the 1950s – a decade which saw both the dawn of the real-world space age, and a continually escalating threat of global nuclear war – mainstream cinema has been somewhat obsessed with the subject of alien invasion, offering as it does the opportunity for audiences to reflect on real-world crises while revelling in escapist spectacle. Less mainstream filmmakers have also repeatedly exploited the notion of the extraterrestrial visitor for its allegorical and metaphorical potential.

A few criteria were imposed in order to compile this list of 10 great films about aliens on Earth. A concerted effort has been made to represent a variety of genres and approaches, so we have a musical and an animated film occupying slots that might otherwise have been filled by more conventional sci-fi fare such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), District 9 (2009) or Cloverfield (2007). The chosen titles depict a mixture of malevolent and friendly alien visitors. And multiple films by the same director were disallowed, resulting in the possibly contentious omission of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), as well as John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) and They Live (1988).

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Director Byron Haskin

Producer George Pal and director Byron Haskin’s Technicolor reimagining of H.G. Wells’s novel remains one of the defining Hollywood sci-fi films. Relocating the action of the book from Victorian England to 1950s southern California, and recycling stock Second World War footage to depict scenes of mass global destruction, The War of the Worlds stands as a fascinating document of the concerns and fears of America in the postwar era.

Gene Barry stars as Dr Clayton Forrester, an improbably hunky scientist who is enjoying a fishing trip outside the fictional town of Linda Rosa when a meteorite falls from the sky. When his investigation of the impact site proves inconclusive, he decides to stick around, only to find himself in the midst of a catastrophic Martian attack, with plucky young graduate Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson) in tow. While the requisite romantic sub-plot falls flat, the Oscar-winning special effects and deeply atmospheric sound design hold up surprisingly well. Filmmakers have continued to imitate and parody the film through the intervening decades – Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996), Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! (1996, and, of course, Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds all owe a particular debt.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Director Don Siegel

Don Siegel’s taut adaptation of Jack Finney’s 1954 pulp novel The Body Snatchers has aged beautifully. Kevin McCarthy stars as rakish doctor Miles Bennell, who returns to his peaceful home town to be confronted by what seems to be an outbreak of mass hysteria, with a number of his patients convinced that their loved ones have been replaced by emotionless imposters. Miles gradually uncovers an extraordinary truth: the town has been infected by alien spores, which are responsible for replacing the town’s residents with soulless, submissive clones.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is very much a product of its era, infused with the societal unease and creeping paranoia that bubbled under the surface of American life throughout the 1950s. Indeed, many regard the film as a direct allegory for McCarthyism. However, the central conceit of the infected ‘pod people’ has proven adaptable as a metaphor for subsequent real-world crises – Philip Kaufman’s very fine 1978 remake serves as a commentary on the distrust of authority that swept through America in the aftermath of the Vietnam war; while Abel Ferrara’s 1993 Body Snatchers might be interpreted as a response to the AIDS epidemic.

The Thing (1982)

Director John Carpenter

From its unsettlingly enigmatic opening scene through to its audaciously understated conclusion, John Carpenter’s horror sci-fi classic is the work of a genre master at the peak of his powers. Sticking more faithfully to John W. Campbell’s novella Who Goes There? than Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks’ earlier adaptation The Thing from Another World (1951), the film charts the nightmarish experience of a group of American scientists, stationed in a remote Antarctic research centre, who discover that a shape-shifting alien predator is in their midst.

Carpenter re-appropriates many of the elements that made Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) such a triumph – an extraterrestrial menace that remains unseen for much of the running time; a remote and claustrophobic setting that offers no real possibility of escape; and a pervasive atmosphere of slow-burning dread, punctuated with brief moments of spectacularly gory horror. Stan Winston and Rob Bottin’s glorious creature effects have aged remarkably well, but these never serve as distraction from an utterly compelling human drama, which really kicks in once it becomes apparent that the horrific ‘thing’ may have already infected and taken the form of one or more of the crew members.

E.T. the Extra-terrestrial (1982)

Director Steven Spielberg

Though The Thing is now firmly established as an all-time sci-fi great, it was on initial release something of a box office failure. This is often attributed to the fact that it was released within weeks of Steven Spielberg’s altogether more family-friendly riff on the alien visitor scenario, which was an instant global cultural phenomenon, and eventually overtook Star Wars (1977) as the highest grossing film of all time.

There’s no great mystery as to why E.T. struck a chord on such a grand scale. This elegant and simple tale of a young boy’s friendship with a homesick alien remains one of the most magical, heartbreaking and life-affirming films to emerge from the Hollywood system. Henry Thomas’s astonishing turn as Elliot renders the improbable scenario wholly believable, and stands as one of the all-time great child performances. Over 30 years later, with a mainstream cinematic landscape dominated by hyper-kinetic CGI action blockbusters, its deliberate pacing and unapologetic sentimentality seem wholly refreshing.

The Brother from Another Planet (1984)

Director John Sayles

John Sayles enjoys a lofty reputation as one of the most fiercely independent, politically engaged figures in American filmmaking. But much of his critically revered directorial work has been funded by proceeds from his parallel career as a genre scriptwriter-for-hire. His screenplays for Piranha (1978) and The Howling (1981) playfully riff on B-movie tropes, while his Spielberg-commissioned script Night Skies, though never filmed, served in part as inspiration for E.T.

The Brother from Another Planet is arguably the first point at which Sayles’s seemingly disparate vocations intersected. Its opening sequence, in which an alien astronaut’s spacecraft malfunctions and crash lands on Earth, deliberately wrong-foots by setting us up for a helping of Z-grade, Ed Wood-style sci-fi. However, as our extraterrestrial visitor, who closely resembles a black human male, finds himself alone on the streets of Harlem, the film begins to reveal itself as a witty rumination on race relations, drug abuse and urban social inequality. Joe Morton turns in a fine wordless performance as the titular brother. As he gradually comes to understand that the colour of his skin has a marked effect on the way he is treated, his gentle bemusement serves as a beautifully understated affirmation of the absurdity of racial prejudice.

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Director Frank Oz

Frank Oz’s adaptation of the 1982 stage musical, itself based on a 1960 Roger Corman film, is an oddball delight. Rick Moranis, in full-on loveable loser mode, stars as Seymour Krelborn, a downtrodden florist’s assistant who becomes a minor celebrity after discovering a strange and unusual plant, which was beamed to Earth from another dimension during a solar eclipse. But Seymour conceals a dark secret: in order to ensure the wellbeing of said plant, he must keep it sated with a steady supply of human blood.

The songs – a gloriously infectious mish-mash of 50s doo-wop, 80s pop-rock and Broadway balladry – keep things moving along at a breathless pace. Perhaps the film’s most compelling element, however, is its undercurrent of dark, transgressive sexuality. Steve Martin’s sadistic, nitrous oxide-abusing dentist Orin Scrivello is a close cinematic cousin of Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth. One extraordinary scene, in which he drives a weirdo patient (Bill Murray) seemingly to the precipice of sexual ecstasy by performing root canal surgery, is far more unsettling than you might expect from a PG-rated musical about an anthropomorphic plant. There’s also something fascinatingly disconcerting about Ellen Greene’s performance as Scrivello’s long-suffering girlfriend Audrey, whose childlike demeanour and willingness to tolerate her partner’s abuse point towards a deeply troubled private life.

The Iron Giant (1999)

Director Brad Bird

Veteran animator Brad Bird’s first directorial feature, a loose adaptation of Ted Hughes’s enduring children’s novella The Iron Man, famously tanked at the box office when released in 1999, but has over subsequent years acquired a reputation as a bona fide classic. Bird seamlessly blends hand-drawn animation and CGI to bring to life the deeply moving tale of nine-year-old Hogarth Hughes in 1950s small-town Maine, who finds himself in the unlikely position of protecting a benign giant alien robot from the destructive impulses of a paranoid US government agent.

As an exercise in 50s nostalgia with a retro-futurist sci-fi twist, The Iron Giant is every bit as enchanting and meticulously detailed as Back to the Future (1985). There are also very obvious parallels to be drawn with E.T. Young Hogarth goes to great lengths to hide the Giant, at first from his mother, then from the sinister agent Kent Mansley. The comic set pieces that ensue immediately call to mind Elliot’s attempts to keep his alien friend a secret. The way in which the Giant gradually becomes attuned to the ways of the world, and the tense, final-act showdown with military forces, are also greatly indebted to Spielberg’s film.

Attack the Block (2011)

Director Joe Cornish

The debut film by UK comedian/broadcaster Joe Cornish is a precociously assured and accomplished tribute to 80s creature features and the sci-fi thrillers of John Carpenter. When a deprived south London council estate is besieged by menacing, gorilla-like aliens, a ragtag bunch of unruly young gang members and hapless stoners form an unlikely alliance with a diligent nurse in an attempt to defend themselves.

Attack the Block treads a delicate balance between genre pastiche and sincere homage, which led to comparisons on its initial release with Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004). But Cornish is less concerned with pop culture-inflected humour than he is with delivering a coherent, breathlessly paced action adventure. He also coaxes remarkable performances from a group of inexperienced and non-professional young actors – a breakthrough turn by John Boyega (next to be seen in Star Wars: Episode VII) as reluctant hero Moses is worth the price of admission alone. The script’s use of London street-slang, meanwhile, calls to mind the fictional vernacular Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange (1971), and lends the film a compelling dystopian atmosphere.

Pacific Rim (2013)

Director Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro’s exuberant tale of alien sea monsters versus giant man-powered robots is a terrifically enjoyable slice of B-movie nonsense delivered on a blockbuster budget. Pacific Rim boasts all the state-of-the-art spectacle of Michael Bay’s inordinately lucrative Transformers films, but adds two elements sorely lacking from those soulless behemoths: a playful sense of humour, and genuine human stakes.

Del Toro borrows liberally from Japanese monster movies and mecha anime to depict an alternative world in which the Pacific Rim nations have responded to the appearance of a destructive race of Lovecraftian extraterrestrials, known as Kaijus, by building an army of massive mechanised killing machines called Jaegers. Each Jaeger is controlled by two human pilots, whose brains are linked by a neural bridge for the duration of each mission. This ludicrous but surprisingly effective conceit offers the viewer unrestricted access to the fears and desires of our heroes. Crucially, when it comes to the inevitable final-act special effects showcase, the lives of characters we genuinely care about are palpably at risk.

Under the Skin (2013)

Director Jonathan Glazer

Nine years in the making, Jonathan Glazer’s extraordinarily ambitious film takes Michael Faber’s dark satirical sci-fi novel as its starting point, but chisels away at the narrative until there’s virtually nothing left in terms of plot or characterisation. What we’re offered instead is a nightmarishly abstract meditation on humanity from an alien perspective. A simply magnificent Scarlett Johansson stars as an extraterrestrial who adopts the form of an alluring woman, before taking to the streets of Glasgow in search of human prey. Her seduce-and-destroy approach proves crudely effective, but serious complications arise as she begins to empathise with her victims.

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a key point of reference here, but the influence of David Lynch can also be felt keenly throughout. The harrowing and unexpectedly moving woodland-set climax, in particular, recalls the gut-wrenching final scenes of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). The film’s otherworldly atmosphere is heightened and enriched by Mica Levi’s thrilling score, which riffs imaginatively on the compositions of Vangelis and Angelo Badalamenti.

Your suggestions

  1. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
  2. Starman (John Carpenter, 1984)
  3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)
  4. The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951)
  5. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
  6. K-PAX (Iain Softley, 2001)
  7. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975)
  8. Invaders from Mars (William Cameron Menzies, 1953)
  9. Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)
  10. The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog, 2005)

“Klaatu barada nikto!” Robert Wise’s classic The Day the Earth Stood Still was light years ahead of the competition when we asked you to vote for what we’d missed from this list. Among the earliest of the 1950s wave of sci-fi movies, it’s the story of an alien emissary coming to Earth on a flying saucer to deliver an important message to the human race. It was remade in 2008, but that version didn’t get any votes at all. Proof that remakes are a waste of time? Not really. After all, Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers proved another popular choice (coming in third after Starman), with some of you suggesting it could have been included at the expense of the 1956 original.

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    A major celebration of film and TV’s original blockbuster genre – in venues around the UK and on the BFI Player from October 2014.

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