While we wait for the opening night of Cowboys and Aliens on July 29, two days ago we walked through the top western movies to get psyched for Jon Favreau’s big budget clash of Old West and classic sci-fi story. Today we run down the best alien movies Hollywood has created. We’re not thinking so much about aliens in their native environment, or Star Wars and Star Trek films would top the list, but unexpected human encounters with otherworldly, friendly and not-so-friendly brethren.
1. THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951). It should be no surprise that a movie from the director of West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Sand Pebbles, and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (and the editor of Citizen Kane and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) makes the top spot of this list. Robert Wise’s classic story would fit solidly alongside the best Twilight Zone episodes. And story is the point–no modern glitz and special effects necessary. Michael Rennie appears to be just a man. But he is not. He is Klaatu, a visitor who has come to observe us in his flying saucer with the giant robot Gort. How would we react to an alien visitor? The first look at ourselves revealed paranoia and fear–it is the original self-reflection story that would later inspire V and Alien Nation.
2. PREDATOR (1987). He’s a hunter. A collector. And he’s on vacation. That doesn’t sound like a high calibre story description. Substitute the alien visitor and Predator is a western not unlike High Noon. Our creature is a visitor with a secret past like any of a number of Clint Eastwood gunslingers. And he is just as cool, a hunter that would stand firm alongside Boba Fett, Bossk, Dengar and Zuckus. His make-up is unreal–truly alien to us–and he looks like a Nausicaan–that race that shoved a pool cue though Captain Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Let’s see, who has an unusual skull that would look good on his trophy mantle? How about that melon on Arnold Schwarzenegger? There’s a cool vibe throughout the film and a great cast–and what other genre film features two future state governors? And one of those gauntlets looks like Daniel Craig’s from the Cowboys and Aliens trailers.
3. CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977). But for Star Wars this picture would have gone off the charts the year it was released. Because of multiple Star Wars viewings by me in 1977 and 1978 (I saw it ten times with my brother and sister instead of going to see anything else), I didn’t get to see this movie until years later when it was released on video. But once I saw it, I realized how grand in scope it was. Mix all the episodes of Leonard Nimoy’s old TV series In Search Of… and you’ll end up here. A ship in the middle of the desert, a 1940s squadron appears out of nowhere, and we keep seeing this shape, painting it, making models of it. Near the place where the Sundance Kid grew up is a destination for sci-fi fans now, at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming. And those five musical tones. And an alien kidnapping scene, revealing nothing about the aliens, toys that seem to come alive, shocking and scary. Invaders or friends? Richard Dreyfuss’s second best movie. One of Spielberg’s best.
4. E.T.,THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982). Not only did Close Encounters and The Day the Earth Stood Still teach us that aliens can be our friends, with E.T. a lot of us would never think to put up a fight when the invasion arrives. Ugly but lovable, E.T. was funny, thrilling, and made us all cheer. Ignore the recent edited, updated version–the original was just fine, thank you very much. A classic pop culture film that gave us several catch phrases: “Home,” “I’ll be right here,” “Be good,” “Phone home.” And I am still addicted to Reese’s Pieces. Another great Spielberg picture in his long list of blockbusters.
5. ALIENS (1986). Bill Paxton’s Private Hudson had it right when he said, “Game over, man, game over!” The polar opposite of the aliens-as-friends films, these exoskeletal aliens have nothing in common with humans. As villains, there is nothing for us to sympathize with. They will just exterminate us. This was a wake-up call for everyone who wants to meet our galactic neighbors. Stay home and draw your curtains instead. It was destiny that someone would pit them against Predator years later and it was no contest that we’d cheer the Predator. And I don’t care what anyone says about the first movie with these monsters, Alien–Aliens, the sequel, was tons better with less unnecessary gross-outs. You’ve seen one stomach burst, you’ve seen them all. Skip the sequels but check out Aliens vs Predator for even more fun.
6. THE LAST STARFIGHTER (1984). When Robert Preston, the original salesman from River City in The Music Man, comes to your planet looking to sell you something, like being a Starfighter, you know you have a different kind of film. Here we expand the alien movie archetype from either good or bad–aliens are shades of gray, like people, some are good, some are evil. Directed by Nick Castle, John Carpenter’s colleague, a simple, quiet movie that has a lot of heart and makes everyone wish they’d get Alex Rogan’s calling. And Grig’s make-up was the greatest thing until Enemy Mine. With a great ending for the bad guys, with an all-time classic exchange: “We’re locked into the moon’s gravitational pull! What do we do?” Answer? “We die.” Back in the days of arcades, this movie rivaled Tron as to coolness factor. “Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.” Where can I sign up?
7. THEY LIVE (1988). This is a John Carpenter classic reviewed in an earlier post and puts Carpenter’s storytelling up there with Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Here, the story goes that Earth has already been invaded and They have been living amongst us. We could just ignore them. After all they aren’t hurting anyone. But once we see them they are sooo ugly. And we were here first. Some of us will play along to get the “good life”. But for one guy trying to keep to himself, this is something he can’t ignore. The truth must get out. Roddy Piper is here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and he’s all out of bubblegum. But no happily ever after will be had here. They are here to stay. On the one hand, some movie watchers and critics dismiss They Live as just another action flick. But if you pay attention, like with all Carpenter movies, you can see Carpenter’s masterwork is much more complex and dips into our own world’s politics and those who do, and those who don’t, sell-out.
8. ALIEN NATION (1988). Much more than just a morality play and allegory to our own prejudices, Alien Nation digs into the struggles all lifeforms surely must face in a multi-species environment. What motivates us, how do we get along with others? James Caan (The Godfather, Elf) and Mandy Patinkin (Princess Bride) were perfectly cast as human and Tenctonese cops. The film’s themes prompted an immediate successful TV series starring Gary Graham and Eric Pierpont. Beyond the deeper themes, it’s a great police story and an odd, but fun, buddy movie of the Odd Couple variety.
9. WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). I almost didn’t see this remake in the theater. But Tom Cruise movies are exciting and enjoyable 95% of the time. So I saw it and just re-watched it a few weeks ago. Here we see the futility of combating an invasion of even slightly more technology and might than us. The situation really is hopeless. All one can do is run. As in They Live, with War of the Worlds the aliens have been here for a long time, only here they parked their vehicles here and are just now coming back to rev ’em up. This movie has great special effects, truly creepy unsympathetic villains, and a lot of dread. You really feel the pain of the result of alien visitors who don’t want to be our friends. Yet another Spielberg blockbuster.
10. DISTRICT 9 (2009). A great film of political complexity. A variant on Alien Nation, yet the same basic story. An extraterrestrial race is forced to live in slum-like conditions on Earth. Their vessel runs out of resources and parks itself over South Africa. It’s a blunt morality tale about the brutality of prejudice. This one will strangely make you cheer against the humans. Luckily for the visitors, they find a kindred spirit in a government agent who is accidentally exposed to their biotechnology. You’ll find yourself asking: What are your values? How do you treat others who are different? Where would you draw the line between life worthy of mutual respect and not? Its documentary-style filming and non-American cast is refreshing and new. And half the time you have to cringe at the protagonist’s actions. Are we with him or not?
Honorable Mention: Starship Troopers (giant bugs destroy Rio de Janeiro, Johnny Rico is a classic western hero type), Enemy Mine (like Stagecoach, a human is stuck with an alien and even without a common language they come to realize how alike even different species can be and how valuable relationships can be formed by just trying to get along).