8. Contact (Robert Zemeckis, 1997)
Based on the novel of the same name by Carl Sagan, this story of alien contact stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Ellie Arroway, a scientist at SETI, a government program that monitors satellite dishes for evidence of communications from deep space. For years there was no evidence but suddenly a mysterious transmission from the star Vega is received.
Although it appears to be a lot of unintelligible nonsense at first, the scientists figure out that it is the plans for a complex machine for deep space travel sent by alien beings to help humans. Arroway is initially overlooked to be the pilot of the machine, but after the first choice was killed by a religious fanatic, she is chosen to undergo the journey.
Unlike many other films on this list, the aliens are minor characters in the film, only appearing once and they take the form of humans for the comfort of the traveler. Instead the focus is on humanity’s strategy and dilemmas in undertaking this massive project. Some religious groups find the project blasphemous and other scientists become greedy of fame and fortune.
It is as much a commentary on endeavors in space as it is about the relationship between future technology and human civilization. Also starring Matthew McConaughey and John Hurt, this thought provoking film may not be as exciting as most alien films, but it makes up for it in its thematic depth.
7. The Man Who Fell to Earth (Nicolas Roeg, 1976)
British auteur Nicolas Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel is a beautiful and poetic, yet bizarre and non traditional alien picture. David Bowie, in his film debut, plays an alien named Thomas Jerome Newton who comes to Earth in order to take water back to his home planet where there is drought.
In order to raise funds for his plans, Newton releases several inventions from his own civilization, making him millions. He also begins to see an attractive young girl, who introduces him to many Earthly activities such as drinking, television and sex, all of which Newton becomes addicted to. A rival inventor, played by Rip Torn, is suspicious of Newton and captures an X-Ray picture of him, proving that he is an alien, resulting in his capture and imprisonment by the government.
Filled with striking photography and beautiful imagery of Earth’s landscape juxtaposed with the monochromatic tones of industrial society, The Man Who Fell to Earth is mainly about the vices of modern life and how they can affect people. Newton’s introduction to alcohol and television prove to be his downfall as he loses motivation to help his family and race back on his home planet. It also shows humanity’s rash actions to those that are different from them and the overpowering influence of greed on people’s ethics.
6. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
This classic alien thriller is based on the 1950s film The Thing From Another World as well as “Who Goes There?”, a novella by John W. Campbell Jr. Kurt Russell stars as Macready a helicopter pilot for an Antarctic research station.
When a mysterious dog appears, which is being hunted by Norwegian researchers from a base nearby, the Americans takes it in, caging it with the other animals. The dog soon transforms into a horrific mutant creature and starts attacking the other dogs and after MacReady kills it, they discover that it is an ancient alien that has the power to take the form of any creature it kills.
The terror in this film comes from a combination of the horror trends on this list so far, such as not being able to tell enemies from friends, as well as disturbing creatures. Because the alien could be anyone or anything, MacReady must be extremely and cautious to try and kill the beast.
Carpenter’s film is also notable for the incredible and frightening special effects of the mangled creations of the people inhabited by the alien, leading to some scary encounters. A terrifying horror story as well as an exciting sci-fi action film, The Thing takes an already chilling tale and turning it into an unforgettable classic of many genres.
5. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
One of Spielberg’s most enduring hits, this science fiction family classic was, when it came out, the highest grossing film of all time. The story begins with a group of aliens investigating plants in California. When the authorities come to apprehend them, they leave one of their own behind as they fly back into space.
This alien hides itself in the shed of a suburban family nearby and is discovered by their 10-year old son Elliott. Elliott and the alien, who he names E.T., grow a special bond together, soon forming a telepathic link between their minds. Their happy adventures soon fade, however, when E.T.’s health diminishes and the government grows more suspicious.
Filled with classic images and famously quotable scenes, the film’s legacy continues to live strong. The relationship that blossoms between the young boy and the alien is one of the most touching friendships in film history, showing that even though life may come from different places, it does not have to be so different. A heartwarming tale, providing as many cheers as it does tears, E.T. is a science fiction classic that will never be forgotten.
4. District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009)
An intriguing addition to the science fiction genre, Neill Blomkamp’s debut film addresses a scenario of the aftermath of alien contact. The film in set in the city of Johannesburg, South Africa where an alien spaceship mysteriously arrived, bringing a race of prawn-like creatures. The citizens of Johannesburg forced the aliens to live in a rundown section of the city, segregated from humanity. Sharlto Copley stars in his first film role as Wikus van der Merwe, a government a accidentally sprays himself with an alien chemical and slowly, grotesquely transforms into a prawn.
Half body horror film and half social commentary, District 9 is much deeper than most science fiction films that come out nowadays. Paralleling the historic events surrounding the apartheid era of South Africa where massive segregation took place. Wikus’s transformation allows him to experience what it is like to live as the oppressed. The film also sports impressive special effects for the aliens, despite operating on a rather small budget. Transcending the typical limitation of the science fiction genre, District 9 is a genius mix of thrills and deep importance.
3. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Ridley Scott’s science fiction horror masterpiece is one of the most critically acclaimed alien films of all time. Sigourney Weaver stars in her most iconic role as Ellen Ripley, an officer aboard the spaceship “Nostromo.” When the ship receives a distress call from a nearby spacecraft several members go aboard and one is attacked by a facehugging creature that will not detach. Back on the ship, the creature dies, but after an explosive incident, a larger, more dangerous alien’s presence is made aware, making Ripley and her crew fight for their lives.
Featuring brilliant art design by H.R. Giger and a terrific ensemble cast including John Hurt, Tom Skerritt and Harry Dean Stanton, Alien is a brilliantly executed, taught thriller. The film is one of the only ones on this list that takes place in a future setting, but despite the increased familiarity with space, the mystery surrounding the alien race is still present. Spawning many sequels, spin-off films and video games, Alien is one of the most influential and iconic space films in history.
2. The Day the Earth Stood Still (Robert Wise, 1951)
This landmark film in the science fiction genre by Hollywood legend Robert Wise was one of the most revolutionary and influential alien stories ever, even spawning a remake in 2008 starring Keanu Reeves. The plot, based on a short story by Harry Bates, begins with a flying saucer landing in Washington D.C. capturing the attention of the military.
A humanoid alien descends from the spacecraft but is shot by the forces, causing a massive alien robot to attack the troops, but the alien tells his to stop. The alien, whose name is Klaatu, has an important message for Earth’s leaders but the government is keeping him hostage in a secret facility. Klaatu breaks out and develops a relationship with a young woman and her son while trying to evade the secret forces.
The film rose to popularity due to its remarkable effects for the time, especially the spaceship and the massive robot, Gort. It has stayed popular, however, for its poignant relationships and its commentary on humanity in modern times. The government’s aggressive and violent reaction to Klaatu’s arrival conveys the film’s deeper message about humanity’s tendency towards war will also be its undoing. This message is also shown in Klaatu’s speech to the leaders of the world regarding other galactic empires and their peaceful diplomacy. The film also features a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)
An early masterpiece of Steven Spielberg and his first foray into science fiction, Close Encounters of the Third Kind has grown to be the definitive alien contact film. Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a working class family man whose life is changed when one day he encounters a UFO and he becomes increasingly obsessed with finding the aliens again.
As his obsession grows, his relationship with his family deteriorates and he cannot stop thinking about a mysterious mountain. After his family leaves him, Roy is drawn to find his mountain, Devil’s Tower, but finds that the government has quarantined it so, along with a women who also is obsessed with the aliens, they break into the area and discover what the government has been hiding.
This film captures the magical atmosphere of the unknown greater than any other film on this list. By shrouding the aliens and their ships in darkness and fog, they exist more as a symbol of the possibilities of interstellar existence. Human readiness for space travel is one of the bigger themes in this dense exploration of human relations and advancements.
Packed with award winning special effects and a rousing score by John Williams, it’s similarities to Star Wars, which also came out in 1977, should have doomed the project, yet it still was a major success both critically and commercially. A thrilling tale shrouded in mystery, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a phenomenal science fiction film with an absolutely breathtaking finale.
Author Bio: Matthew Benbenek is an undergraduate Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He has a passion for film, music and literature and, when not watching movies, is an amateur director and violin player.