What is the first thing you think of when you think of an alien movie? Does Sigourney Weaver’s bald head pop into your mind as you picture her battling extraterrestrials in Alien 3? Or do you think of something unconventional, like Cloverfield or District 9? The alien genre is one that has certainly evolved over the years as special effects and computer-generated images have improved far beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But the fact of the matter is that for an alien movie to be good (actually, for any movie to be good), it has to tell a really good story, have character development, and be entertaining. Even the most beautiful film can be terrible if you just don’t care about the people (or aliens) that you’re watching.
Here are my picks for the best alien movies—for various reasons—dating back to 1982. I don’t believe that older necessarily means better, but I also don’t believe that higher budget means better either. See what you think.
10. Galaxy Quest (1999)
This one flies under the radar and is probably more of a cult hit than your standard popular alien film. It can be hard to take seriously at first, given Tim Allen is the protagonist (or rather jerk-turned-protagonist). But this script churns out laugh after laugh, drawing on all the stereotypes of alien movies. Plus, there is truly nothing better than watching Alan Rickman play the disgruntled former Shakespearean actor who is reduced to repeating the same catchphrase over and over again. “By Grabthar’s Hammer, you shall be avenged!”
9. Men in Black (1997)
Movies featuring unlikely duos tend to fare pretty well, and Tommy Lee Jones coupled with Will Smith is no exception. The chemistry between these actors shines throughout the film, and Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical acting is superb as he transforms from a man to a rotting corpse overtaken by a giant roach throughout the movie.
8. Contact (1997)
While this could technically be classified as a science fiction drama rather than an alien movie, I would argue that this movie belongs on this list. Aside from the acting in this film, which is superb on the part of Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, the plot grips you early on and makes it difficult to turn away. Without spoiling anything, the ending is chilling and frustrating and satisfying all at once.
7. Independence Day (1996)
I think this movie surprised a lot of people. I tend to be weary of blockbusters, but this one really delivered. Sure, the script followed a formula, but the acting was really solid by an extremely capable cast—not just Will Smith, but Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, Mary McDonnell, Randy Quaid, Harvey Fierstein…the list just goes on and on. And the way the invasion took place was actually quite unsettling. Substitute “aliens from outer space” with “bad guys from an enemy country” and the film still holds.
6. Arrival (2016)
Perhaps the best aspect of this movie is that it really isn’t about aliens. Not at its heart, anyway. Using the launchpad of linguistics to speak about the commonality of communication was really extraordinary. The film was about finding a common ground with “others”— it just so happens that those “others” in this story weren’t human. It absolutely deserved the Oscar nomination it received.
5. Avatar (2009)
Say what you will about this one, but it was pretty spectacular. If you didn’t fall in love with those tall, blue beings, then you didn’t give this movie a chance. And while special effects shouldn’t be the most important thing, they absolutely deliver here. What James Cameron was able to do with $237 million was stunning. I see you, Avatar.
4. Enemy Mine (1985)
This is probably unfamiliar to a lot of people, but is probably known by you diehard alien movie fans. We have Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. One is a human, the other an alien (with relatively good prosthetics, considering it was 1985), and they must live together and get over their differences and hatred for one another. It’s about humanity and discrimination and finding common ground. It doesn’t have to be about aliens—it just happens to be in this particular story.
3. Starman (1984)
You can’t watch Jeff Bridges and his goofy, innocent, alien face without just loving every moment. We put ourselves in Karen Allen’s position—a widow who must now spend her time with an alien who has cloned himself into her dead husband. The budding relationship between them is a thing of beauty, and we can’t help but laugh throughout as well.
2. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
This list would be utter rubbish if it didn’t include E.T. It turns out that Spielberg actually made this film about the divorce of his parents—and once again we have an alien movie that isn’t really about aliens, but about the trials that we humans face and how we deal with them. This particular one is incredibly endearing, and it has remained a classic for a reason.
1. Aliens (1986)
With Alien, Ridley Scott created an amazing suspense-filled horror movie in space, and with the sequel, James Cameron followed it up with a spectacular action film. Both movies reinvented, for the most part, the sci-fi genre. To boot, the characters are really well-conceived and incredibly relatable. That’s what people need when they go to a movie—they want to be able to connect with the actors on screen.