The 14 Greatest Alien-Invasion Movies

Photo: MGM, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures

Independence Day: Resurgence opened to just over $40 million this weekend, which is roughly how much you'd have to pay me to watch it again. In the interest of pretending it doesn't exist, let's direct our attention to something more fun: an admittedly idiosyncratic list of the best alien-invasion movies. The criteria are that they have to center on an attack or perceived attack and that the aliens can’t be repelled by Godzilla (as in Destroy All Monsters!) or Marvel superheroes. I’m not inclined to include E.T. because even with its ship and its extraterrestrials it’s too exquisite to bruise with a genre label.

(Though any list of this sort should by rights include TV shows, they’re outside my purview. Nonetheless, the alien-invasion genre has been enriched by Star Trek’s Borg collective, even if they've never reached Earth; the post-invasion civil liberties dramas of the second coming of Battlestar Galactica; and the various alien mythologies hinted at in The X-Files, though they owe an unacknowledged debt to Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series, particularly the 1967 Quatermass and the Pit. And who can forget all the encounters between aliens and multiple incarnations of Dr. Who?)

I’d intended these films to be in chronological order, but it made more sense to consider remakes side by side with originals and to make connections between themes. They are all must-sees! (Surprise: The first Independence Day didn’t make the list.)

The War of the Worlds (1953/2005)
Orson Welles’s 1938 Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast cemented H.G. Wells’s classic novel in the popular imagination — although subsequent investigations suggest that the broadcast did not create the kind of mass hysteria that became central to its legend. Clunky though it is, the 1953 George Pal film remains a stunning achievement. No one can forget the implacable cruelty of its alien rays, which instantly reduce soldiers and bystanders (and even a praying priest) to outlines of ash on the ground. Somewhat lost is H.G. Wells’s connection between these aliens and us — i.e., murderous colonialists destined to be defeated by elements of the native population they can’t foresee. (In this case, of course, it’s a tiny germ.)

As good — though very flawed, with a botched ending — is Steven Spielberg’s terrifying, post-9/11 reimagining from 2005, the attack seen from the vantage of a father (one of Tom Cruise’s best performances) determined to protect his children from both aliens and the social chaos in the wake of the invasion. It's a reversal of Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which the aliens are welcoming, beatific, and harmoniously musical — like ideal parents. Now it's the dad who has to be a dad, in one devastating scene forced to kill a man (Tim Robbins) who has lost his own family and is bent on mindless retaliation.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Broadly speaking, ‘50s sci-fi filmmakers could be split into two political camps. There were liberals with a longing for a utopian world who saw the principal threat as mankind’s warmongering and its new atomic technology. (Were they Commie dupes? So said some!) And there were militaristic xenophobes who saw aliens as representing the Commie menace. The Day the Earth Stood Still is the most poetic exemplar of liberal sci-fi. Klaatu (Michael Rennie) is an advanced being who wants to save the Earth from itself. Alas, we’re not ready for him or his amazing giant robot, Gort. Will the aliens be driven to destroy mankind?

It Came From Outer Space (1953)
It's closely connected to The Day the Earth Stood Still, although on a smaller scale. Richard Carlson is the scientist to whom the aliens — who are “body snatchers” and at first appear malevolent — reach out as they try to repair a ship that crash-landed in the desert. Will the sheriff and his gun-toting posse screw things up? The bottom line is Carlson’s bitter conclusion: “What we don’t understand we try to destroy.” His final line — “They’ll be back!” — is said with hope.

The one-bulging-eyed blobs are too goofy to take seriously, but director Jack Arnold (The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Creature From the Black Lagoon) wrings every drop of visual poetry from images of men against the desert vistas. Drop everything if you can see this in its original 3-D! Another thing that makes this essential: a theremin!

The Thing From Another World (1951)
Produced by Howard Hawks, this is still a mean, taut sci-fi thriller with an alien vegetable (played by James Arness but barely glimpsed, which helps keep it scary) wreaking havoc in a remote Arctic outpost. There’s not much stuff aboard the alien saucer, but “Keep watching the skies!” became the watchword of a frightened nation.

A remake, John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing, is much more closely based on the body-snatching short story “Who Goes There?” As well as an effective paranoid chamber drama, it’s a showcase for Rob Bottin’s insanely beautiful yucky effects, like the whipping tendrils that explode from a melting human frame.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956/1978)
Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the ultimate paranoid anti-Commie sci-fi thriller—and it’s still bluntly horrifying. Kevin McCarthy is the doctor who recognizes that something is happening to the people around him, who’ve lost their individual personalities and become part of a rapacious collective.

Just as effective is Philip Kaufman’s 1978 update/sequel, in which lyricism and dread are side by side. Kaufman is a funny combination of traits — a San Francisco aesthete with a love of machismo. He’s just the kind of artist to explore the tensions between the fading counterculture (the stars are the counterculture favorite Donald Sutherland plus a scruffy Jeff Goldblum) and the New Age mindlessness that was rapidly replacing it.

Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Millions of words have been written about the howlers of Ed Wood’s anti-masterpiece, but apart from being endlessly enjoyable, it’s a handy repository of ‘50s alien-invasion sci-fi motifs. And it’s hopelessly mixed-up: pacifist and militaristic. A few pathetic scraps of Wood’s friend Bela Lugosi — as the “old man” in mourning for his much younger wife with a pencil waistline (Vampira) — kick off the story of aliens in front of threadbare curtains in paper-plate saucers who want to take over Earth because they fear that man will destroy the universe with its “Solanite” bomb. As alien middle-manager Eros puts it:

“With your ancient, juvenile minds you have developed explosives too fast for your minds to conceive what you are doing. You are on the verge of destroying the entire universe. We are a part of that universe.” All-American pilot Jeff Trent takes issue: “So what if we do develop this Solanite bomb? We'd be even a stronger nation than now!" Eros [with disgust]: "Stronger. You see? You see? Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!" Jeff: "That’s all I'm taking from you!”

Though he’s a prissy little creep, Eros has a point. Plan 9 — the plan, by the way, is “the resurrection of the dead” — is also notable for the worst-imaginable misreading of one of the worst lines ever written, as Mrs. Trent tries to assure her worried husband she’ll be okay: “Now, don't you worry. The saucers are up there. The graveyard is out there. But I'll be locked up safely in there.”

Invaders From Mars (1953)
It’s not a very good movie, but the inspired, suggestive designs (the director is William Cameron Menzies) reinforce the idea that a boy’s encounter with a Martian ship he sees land from his bedroom window is the psychosexual nightmare of a kid on the precipice of puberty. Don’t laugh until you’ve a) read Jung and b) seen it high. And for God's sake, avoid the Tobe Hooper remake.

The Mysterians (1957)
This list needs one movie from Japan — which after all was once invaded by aliens led by Admiral Perry, became a militaristic (and very sadistic) alien invader itself, and then was attacked by a hideous weapon that its pop culture would later transform into a fire-breathing dragon that first incinerates marches on Tokyo but eventually becomes Japan’s friend. This is by most standards a pretty bad movie, but its Mysterians from the dead planet Mysteriod wear likably silly-looking costumes, carry warnings about nuclear power (war destroyed their planet), and make off with comely Japanese girls for mating. They also sic a giant monster on Japan. And do we owe the Japanese thanks for the name "? and the Mysterians"?

Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
This exciting, sometimes bewildering continuation of the Nigel Kneale Quatermass series (see above) is not a saucer movie but creates its own demonic mythology. It’s rooted in the idea that Martians crash-landed on the planet millions of years ago, and that their bodies and spirits have somehow been preserved underground. When they’re telepathically liberated by a London dig, all hell breaks loose — almost literally, in the final sequence. This is an important precursor to The X-Files, the terrible Tobe Hooper picture Lifeforce, and many more physically invasive invasion movies.

2001 (1968)
Yes, for all its obscurantism this Stanley Kubric–Arthur C. Clarke collaboration is an alien-invasion movie and one with a distinctly progressive thrust. The premise is that mankind is ready for the next stage in evolution and that the aliens are going to usher it in. (They ushered in the first one in the movie’s ape prologue.)

Mankind needs help, too: The joke is that the spaceships (and one memorable computer) have more personality than the human actors. All would have been much more coherent (and probably much less effective) if Kubrick had — as he considered — shown the extraterrestrials at the end of the movie studying the aged (puttied-up) astronaut Keir Dullea as he eats his peas. 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978)
Among the most transcendent pop culture statements of the last 50 years, Steven Spielberg’s crazily hopeful classic offers UFOs that bear not invaders but benevolent beings who recognize in certain individuals what other humans (and family members) cannot: that only the people who have preserved a sense of childish wonder can embrace the wonder of the universe. (These are not members of the military.) If humans have such thing as a soul, the movie’s long and justly celebrated climax — in which earthlings and aliens make beautiful music together — stirs it and will keep it stirred.

Mars Attacks! (1996)
Tim Burton’s nasty, cartoonish, garishly brutal, and often hilarious invasion picture is rejoinder to Close Encounters and its ilk, imagining Martians as giggly, bulbous-brained, lime-green psychopaths laying waste to everything sacred in our culture — along with both liberal pieties and militaristic hubris. The movie is too campy for its own good — the all-star cast could have been taken down a few pegs — and it goes on too long. But the Martians’ gory comeuppance gives a hot foot to all the solemn scientific, political, and/or religious messages of ‘50s alien-invasion sci-fi, along with inspirational, feel-good swill like Independence Day and Independence Day: Resurgence.