Few genres are as beloved by moviegoers as science fiction. And the best sci-fi movies often feature our favorite antagonist— Aliens. But what makes a classic "Alien movie?" For some, it might be the suspenseful atmosphere created by well-crafted, realistic special effects. For others, just the site of a eerie and mysterious Aliens makes for a frightening experience. For others still, the sight of Aliens making friendly contact with humans fulfills their wish for universal collaboration amongst the stars.
What makes a classic alien movie great to one person may not be what makes it great to another, but there are certain classic films that have elements of awesomeness that nearly all fans of sci-fi can agree on. Here are 9 of our favorite Classic Alien Movies.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a kinda-creepy-at-times-but-mostly-feel-good sci-fi movie released in 1977 that told the story of a group of people who had, um, close encounters with aliens. Steven Spielberg directed the movie, and it became a cult classic.
The timing of this film was perfect, as interest in reported Alien abductions was high during this time. The movie was a breakthrough for the UFO-as-entertainment, and it became the most profitable film of all time. This film's introduction of modern-day aliens combined are it a memorable soundtrack and visuals makes it one of the pioneering modern-day alien movies. And don't sleep on the incredible "Aliens rocking on on the bass-heavy keyboard" as one of the best scenes you'll see in a sci-fi movie not featuring light sabers.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982):
Since the release of Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial in 1982, alien movies have been a staple in American cinema. The film, which tells the story of a young boy who befriends an alien boranist stranded on Earth, was a massive success and inspired a generation of fifth-graders to bring brews to in class. Not really, but it did inspire some neighborhood bmx bike chases for sure.
While some films, like "War of the Worlds" and "Alien", depict aliens as hostile beings intent on conquering or destroying humanity, others, like "E.T." portray them as friendly, curious travelers who just want to take some cool plants back home with them.
Also: this is one of the best alien movies for the whole family, as it features kids as the protagonists.
Ridley Scott's 1979 masterpiece introduced us to the concept of the "alien horror movie." One of my favorite films of any genre, Alien has become one of the most influential, iconic films of all time, and is certainly acknowledged as one of the best, if not the best alien movies of all time. Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley is one of the most badass female protagonists in cinema and the film's suspenseful scenes are still nightmare fuel for many fans.
Speaking of nightmares, for fans who like to get all meta-philosophical like Karl Jung, Alien features archetypal themes that go wicked deep, so keep your eyes open for the visual symbology related to birth and rebirth on the most primal levels.
Alien also featured one of the downright scariest VHS covers I've ever seen, and if you ever get a chance to dive into the supporting artwork of H.R. Geiger, dive right down that rabbit hole.
Aliens, directed by James Cameron, is the sequel to Alien. Imagine trying to live up to one of the top 5 sci-fi movies every made. Somehow, it was done, in an achievement that has given James Cameron carte blanche to do whatever the hell he wants for the rest of time.
In Aliens, Ripley (the somehow-still-underrated-to-this-day Sigourney Weaver) visits planet LV-426 to find out what happened to a group of terraforming colonists who have lost communication with Earth. After being sent to investigate by a questionable corporate entity (represented onscreen with a smarmy yet poignant performance by Paul Reiser), Ripley and a team of marines find themselves fighting against not one, but a full enclave of killer aliens, including the big baddie herself, the Queen of the hive.
But this Ripley being Ripley, and her squad is locked and loaded with some of the most advanced weaponry going, resulting in a shoot-em-up-in-space that still blows minds to this day. This combined with the chest-ripping suspense that the franchise became known for, makes this film a true classic.
Cameron left nothing on the table here in terms of pacing and raw action, and Aliens manages the difficult task of living up to the standard set by the first movie without stepping on its toes. With Ripley's rescue of a young girl and the Queen's quest to protect her own hive, this movie dances into the thematic realm of motherhood and the primal instinct to protect one's brood, if you care to revisit Jungian archetypes mentioned earlier. But psychology aside, the nonstop action puts this in my pantheon for the best alien movies, with no argument to be had.
In 1987, director John McTiernan brought us Predator, a movie about an extraterrestrial who canvasses the stars as the ultimate galactic hunter doing a pit stop on earth. The Predator is a fearsome creature, armed with advanced weapons and technology to go with his love of hunting creatures around the galaxy. Armed with advanced gadgetry, he is able to cloak himself from view, a la the invisible man, and can survive and thrive in almost any environment.
Here on earth to ply his trade, The Predator lands in the jungle and sets his sights on some folks who will give him at least a sporting challenge— a capable group of special forces soldiers. These guys are in the middle of completing a black-ops mission, but they are forced to shift their focus from human adversaries to the alien threat of The Predator. These grunts are no joke, and they use the entirety of their tracking and battle skills to survive the onslaught of the Predator, who ends up a little over his head in the end when Dutch thwarts his tech with some old-school down and dirty techniques. The cast of Predator is excellent, led by Arnold Schwarzenegger as the muscle-bound hero Major Dutch Schaefer. Other notable actors include Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, and Bill Duke.
The fun here hinges on the fact that we don't understand the true nature of the threat that the soldiers are dealing with until well into the film— we learn about the Predator as they do, building suspense. The exposition is limited, but the action is intense and brutal, culminating in a spectacular showdown between the Predator and Dutch.
Predator is one of the most iconic action movies of all time, and despite getting on in age, it's still thoroughly enjoyed by sci-fi and action fans today. The slow-building tension and relentless presence of the Predator make this movie an edge-of-your-seat ride that has been an inspiration for all manner of the best alien movies to come.
The Abyss (1989)
Not one of the most traditional alien movies here, but one of the best alien movies nonetheless. In 1989, our go-to alien movie director James Cameron (remember, he would go on to direct Avatar) released the science fiction film The Abyss, about a team of oil drillers who are hired to investigate a mysterious leak at the bottom of the ocean.
After a series of mishaps, they soon discover that they are not alone in the abyss, and must fight for survival as they recognize the presence of a maybe-friendly-maybe-not Alien (ok maybe it's a sea creature but it does appear to have Alien origins), before realizing that the real threat comes from within their ranks.
"The Abyss" is a gripping thriller with stunning visuals and remains one of Cameron's most successful films in terms of audience reception, perhaps due to the fact that you can watch it with the entire family.
Independence Day (1996):
Independence Day is an American science fiction disaster film directed by Roland Emmerich. The film stars fan favorites Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum, and Mary McDonnell. It tells the story of a group of people who survive an alien invasion and then bring the fight back against the aliens. The film hasn't aged all that well, but it had many of the elements we've come to expect from our biggest hits. Also, it has Jeff Goldblum doing his thing.
Setting the template for blockbusters to come, the film was a major success, grossing over $817 million worldwide. It received mixed reviews from critics but was generally praised for its special effects and action sequences.
Signs is a 2002 thriller and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The film stars Mel Gibson as a former priest-turned farmer trying to learn the meaning of mysterious crop circles and other strange phenomena appearing in his town. As the signs turn to a full-on alien invasion, Gibson protects his family and survives with a little luck and gumption, restoring his faith in a higher power.
The crop circle angle of this film was timely: during this time crop circles had achieved a sort of underground popularity among the aliens-are-real-folks.
Signs received generally positive reviews from critics, with many praising its atmosphere and suspense; however, some criticized it for its predictability. The film was a box office success, grossing $228 million against a budget of $72 million.