20th Century Fox/Warner Bros.
Look—let’s not beat around the bush. We love aliens. Everyone loves aliens. If you’re watching a mediocre movie and it turns out to be an Alien movie? It’s automatically a million times better. We always want to know what’s going on in a world beyond our own, even if usually it’s not even somewhat based in reality. Whether it’s a world where they’re running rampant—like, say Guardians of the Galaxy—or a world where they’re basically hunting us down one-by-one—like, say, the entire Alien franchise—an Alien always makes for a great movie hook.
But what is it about this trope that we find ourselves so drawn to? Why do we love Alien movies so much, and why does Hollywood love the idea so much that it keeps churning out movies of widely-varying quality? It’s probably something of a cross between the idea of otherworldly beings in and of itself, a human being’s nature of being drawn to fear, and the curiosity of the unknown.
But we also have to be real—it’s obviously not always that deep. Sometimes the aliens are just…out to kill us. Other times, they’re voiced by Seth Rogen, and hanging out with nerds played by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. We’re OK with movies like that, too.
So whenever you’re feeling like you want a peek into a world that’s either slightly different or very different from our own, the movies on this list should always be a good bet.
One of the best sci-fi movies in recent years, Arrival isn’t as action or horror-oriented as some other movies on this list, but it’s so extremely engaging that you won’t want to miss a single line, scene, or moment. Arrival is based on a short story written by Ted Chiang from his collection Stories Of Your Life and Others, and is one of the more unique depictions of alien life you’ll see. The movie stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner, and is yet another high mark on the resume of director Denis Villeneuve (who will next be taking on Dune).
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
For some reason Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a Steven Spielberg movie that doesn’t get as much love as some of his others. But this is one of the all-time classics of the Alien genre, and for good reason (and not only because the aliens here are actually not evil). Ray Bradbury, a sci-fi legend and author of books like The Marian Chronicles once said Close Encounters was the greatest movie ever made.
Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the unquestioned masterpieces of the genre, as it cemented itself and Scott among the greats. Definitely leaning towards the horror end, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley could probably be considered a scream queen if someone really wanted to make the argument (but she also just straight up kicks ass). This is one of the most tension-filled, unsettling thrillers of all time, and with Scott behind the camera, it’s artistic too for good measure.
Aliens is considered by many to be a rare sequel that might even be better than its legendary preceding film. James Cameron directs this one (just before he did Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and Weaver returns to once again play Ripley. This is one of the all-time genre films for good reason—you will not be bored for a moment.
While there was also the David Fincher-directed Alien 3, and the not-so-great Alien: Resurrection, the Alien franchise didn’t come all the way back until Scott got back into the saddle to direct the quasi-sequel Prometheus. Prometheus got a mixed reaction at the time of it’s release, which…makes just about no sense. This movie slaps, and Michael Fassbender as a very human cyborg is one of the best characters you’ll see in any of these movies.
Alien Vs. Predator (2004)
It’s not good, but this crossover between two of the bigger horror/thriller franchises is definitely fun (and for whatever reason, this cross-over spinoff has it’s own, sequel, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem). This concludes the Alien portion of this list.
This movie isn’t exactly a classic, but then again, what is? Evolution is from Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, and the movie follows a lot of the same beats. A small, scientifically-relevant sighting of life from outer space quickly becomes a full-on invasion. And like Ghostbusters, this one has got some reasonable scares and thrills, and a whole lot of laughs, too. David Duchovny, Orlando Jones, Julianne Moore, and Seann William Scott lead the cast of this fun one.
If you’ve never seen the trailer for Cloverfield, do yourself a favor and check it out. Without even revealing a title, that short trailer teed up one of the the most original, interesting monster from outer space/alien movies in recent memory. And at not even 90 minutes, this movie is a succinct piece of genius. Cloverfield is J.J. Abrams at his mysterious best (he produced, while future The Batman director Matt Reeves was behind the camera).
The alien movie that Spielberg does get talked about for quite a bit is E.T., which is yet another of the genre classics on the list here. You know the lines from this one, and you’ve probably seen it somewhere between three and 23 times. What’s one more watch?
Lilo & Stitch (2001)
This Disney movie about a young girl finding an outer space creature (who they initially believe to be a dog) is adorable, and not just for kids. A legitimately good movie and alien story.
Starship Troopers (1997)
There have since been many, many, straight-to-video sequels and spin-offs to the original 1997 Starship Troopers. But we aren’t going to talk about those. Instead, we’re going to talk about the original, which first in perfectly in tone next to the other movies from director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall). This ’90s classic pitting an army of humans against bloodthirsty alien bugs is super campy and doesn’t take itself seriously at all—and that’s why its perfect for this list.
Independence Day (1996)
Independence Day is a big, dumb classic. One of Will Smith’s first blockbusters, this movie also had a legendary Bill Pullman turn as President of the United States, and some visual effects that will make your head explode, mainly a giant flying saucer BLOWING UP THE WHITE HOUSE. Man vs Alien invasion at its best.
Pitch Black (2000)
Pitch Black, has become such a cult classic that it’s spawned two sequels—Chronicles of Riddick and Riddick—with many still calling for a fourth. But the original here is an outer space sci-fi epic about vicious creatures who live underground and can’t survive sunlight. But every so often, the entire planet gets stuck in an eclipse. Vin Diesel’s character isn’t even the main character here, but he’s such a breakout that the next two movies in the series entirely revolved around him.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
It’s a little harder to call this one an alien movie because, well, basically everyone here is an alien. But with Peter Quill/Star-Lord’s roots on Earth well established, we’re going to use him as the basis (and why we can’t justify including any Star Wars or Star Trek). But this movie filled with aliens is simply one of the most fun movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and gets bonus points for standing on its own. Even someone with zero MCU backstory can get a kick out of every bit of GOTG.
Another superhero movie, Venom might be better called an anti-superhero movie. This classic Spider-Man foe got his own movie treatment in 2018 after a not-great introduction in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Tom Hardy plays human Eddie Brock, and also voices the alien symbiote who merges with his being, forming Venom. You need to view this very, very campy action flick as a comedy, and then it becomes an actual work of genius. Tom Hardy. In a lobster tank. You’ll appreciate it when you see it.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
This star-studded alien spoof comedy from Tim Burton was fun in 1996 and its still fun now. Come for the very funny looking martians, stay for Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, and Danny DeVito.
Contact is long, but tells a cerebral science-fiction tale of first contact with aliens. Director Robert Zemeckis is one of the best at telling these sorts of stories, and the cast led by Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey is a solid one.
District 9 (2009)
District 9 was a sleeper hit back in 2009, telling the story of peaceful aliens called prawns who are treated like second-class citizens in Johannesburg, who eventually start fighting back (with the help of a human essentially forced to be on their side). Director Neil Blomkamp and a breakout performance from Sharlto Copely make this movie a special one.
They Live (1988)
John Carpenter’s They Live is one of the more entertaining alien/horror movies on this list, serving as something of a satire of Reagan-era yuppies. In this movie, the aliens don’t look like aliens—at first. Until one guy gets a pair of glasses that expose people for who they really are. It’s funny, has some wild action, and is just a good time.
Ryan Reynolds, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Mission Impossible star Rebecca Ferguson in space, shooting the shit at first. Then….aliens get involved. That should be enough, right?
Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim is one of the coolest movies ever made. In this alternate reality, Godzilla-like creatures called Kaiju appear from outer space and wreak havoc on major cities—until the humans start to fight back, manning giant robotic monsters of their called Jaegers. It’s kind of like the end of every Power Rangers episode, only in extremely cool movie version, directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Charlie Day lead the way in this one.
Space Jam (1996)
Obviously, had to include this one. A legendary tale of a basketball player making a detour to Looney Toon land before returning to the NBA for a second threepeat. Plus, as we learned during The Last Dance, MJ got a really great workout going on the set of the movie. Pretty cool. Now we’re just waiting for LeBron James’ Space Jam 2 next year.
Attack the Block (2011)
J.J. Abrams saw John Boyega in Attack The. Block, and then John Boyega became Finn in Star Wars. It’s that simple. This movie about aliens attacking a housing project in South London is so very fun, and while the star recently said he’s “moved on” from Star Wars, he also said that he would love to revisit Attack The Block. Sequel time?
Men In Black (1997)
Another obvious one. Men In Black lives off the chemistry of its lead pairing, as the charismatic Will Smith and the stoic Tommy Lee Jones are absolutely perfect together. This fake government agency investigating the extraterrestrial is otherworldly, but also basically canon in the culture. If you mentioned “Men In Black,” everyone alive would know what you’re talking about. The sequels and last year’s spin-off are fine, but the first one is just a classic.
Alex Garland has established himself as something of a modern sci-fi master, and his latest film was 2018’s Annihilation, based on the book of the same name. Even if you’ve read that book, don’t go into this movie thinking you have any idea of what you’re in store for, because you don’t. The movie is totally out there, and also probably genius. With a cast led by Natalie Portman that also includes Tessa Thompson and Oscar Isaac, this is a really good one that will have you thinking at the end—in a good way.
Paul is the goofiest movie on this list, and considering this list also includes Space Jam and Mars Attacks! that’s saying something. But this movie features two dudes (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost) running into an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who’s just escaped from Area 51. They are chased down by a federal agent played by Jason Bateman. What more do you need?
Super 8 (2011)
A few years after Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams made another top-secret alien movie, only he directed this one himself, and the movie was Super 8. In a lot of ways, Super 8 was kind of a Stranger Things before Stranger Things—a bunch of kids who love shooting their own movies and shooting the shit with one another eventually come into contact with a train crash, and, subsequently, an alien from outer space.
Muppets From Space (1999)
Muppets From Space is a great movie, and the first time that the series really put its most eccentric character, Gonzo the Great, at the center. The movie explores Gonzo’s past, and is a really nice story that expands the feeling of someone finding families, both literal and figurative
Galaxy Quest (1999)
In this satire of Star Trek and Star Trek Fandom, Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman play actors on a Star Trek-esque show who wind up getting scooped up by aliens not totally dissimilar to the ones they encounter in their show. The aliens need their help, and these three stars reluctantly try to oblige.
Evan is an associate editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE.
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