It’s no mystery why audiences flock to films about flying saucers and little green men. Among the sci-fi topics – AI takeover, time travel, zombies, etc. – extraterrestrial contact has always seemed particularly likely to become a reality. These movies traditionally emphasize that family is the one thing we can still believe in when all the other cornerstones of civilization are challenged.
With We, Jordan Pele revealed an artistic kinship with Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. Peele is the rare filmmaker who enthralls casual viewers and devoted moviegoers alike. Nope – a story about the bond between a brother and a sister, which he describes as a play on the “great American UFO story” – further cements him as one of today’s leading engineers in blockbuster cinema.
A linguist (Amy Adams) time perception is altered after the U.S. military enlists her to interview extraterrestrial visitors. As government officials around the world race to determine if these beings threaten humanity, she suspects we’re asking the wrong questions.
Whereas Nope pays homage to the greatest hits of the genre, Arrivaldeparts from previous material. Unlike tech-heavy starships or flying saucers adorned with flashing lights, the basic elemental structures of Arrival don’t betray any sign of what we might call engineering. The film – an academic meditation on the intersection between language and linear experience rather than an invasion thriller – plays more like Christopher Nolan than Spielberg. Although visually and structurally bold, Arrival conveys a conventional message.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
The “great American UFO story” is not one film in particular, but an aggregate of stylistic and narrative rhythms; ninety percent of this composite has the DNA of that 1977 masterpiece. Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a jack-of-all-trades guy who uses his ingenuity to investigate a series of UFO sightings. At the same time, scientists are tracking strange events around the world, and a mother (Melinda Dillon) tries to save her kidnapped child.
close encounters of the third kindis a celebration of ingenuity and perseverance, qualities Nopethe Haywood siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) use to design a state-of-the-art surveillance system and outwit advanced alien spacecraft. As Contact(an extraterrestrial movie that doesn’t fall into the UFO subgenre) and Arrivalthe film explores universally recognizable systems of communication.
‘Cowboys and Aliens’ (2011)
In 1873, an outlaw (Daniel Craig) woke up in the desert with a mysterious object strapped to his wrist and no memory of how he got there. When high-tech ships tear up the skies over the Wild Wild West, he teams up with a rancher (Harrison Ford) to defend the border. As Nope, it’s a UFO feature backed by the distinct flavor of a western.
Neither critical nor commercial success, Jon Favreauit is Cowboys and aliens deserves credit for fashioning a period piece from a first contact story. On the whole, films about alien invasions aim to scare audiences by turning the world they recognize upside down; few return and rewrite the course of human civilization.The only mainstream project since 2011 to attempt a similar feat of historical fiction – Dan Trachtenbergit is Predator-prequel Prey— hasn’t even come out yet!
‘District 9’ (2009)
Arrival elements depict either hostile aliens overpowering an inferior human race, or humans responding militantly to harmless intergalactic travelers; District 9 falls into this last category. The film’s crustacean-like aliens aren’t here to liquefy our brains into fertilizer, but to find refuge until their malfunctioning mothership can be repaired. The prawns, as we call them, are segregated in slums run by a neo-apartheid state in South Africa.
Neil BlomkampThe feature debut of is inventive genre cinema and overwhelming allegory. It’s a safe bet that Peele, who himself has been celebrated as a storyteller who elevates the genre, also uses the alien arrival plot to unpack socially relevant topics.
No UFO movie curation is complete without Steven Spielberg’s story about the friendship between a boy whose parents are going through a divorce and an alien stranded on a botanical expedition. Some images from this film (and John Williams‘ score) are indelibly etched in our pop-cultural memory.
The film’s green and government-wary message reflects an ’80s shift in mainstream values. Keep an eye out for Nope for visual reminders of this American classic. HEYis so popular that Universal is re-releasing it for a 40th anniversary theatrical run this summer.
‘Jimmy Neutron: Genie Boy’ (2001)
If you’re a mid-’90s babe, chances are your introduction to alien movie tropes and propulsion theory was given by a cartoon fifth-grader with a curious bouffant. Jimmy and his pals are ready for all sorts of trouble over summer vacation, but they get more than they can handle when aliens kidnap their parents.
The film, which kicked off a series that ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon, successfully translates genre conventions into a kid-friendly format and includes some nifty references to the alien invasion classics for adult viewers. Although some of the animations look dated, this is still a fun and visually stunning space adventure that will scratch your nostalgia for junior high science fairs.
A story of contact with extraterrestrials set in the present day is practically bound to address the implications of such an event for organized religion, but crises of faith are particularly integral to M.Night Shyamalanit is Panels. Following the death of his wife, Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) lays down the sheet and, with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), raises two children (Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin) and operates the family farm. Large crop circles appear on the property and later around the world.
The tension is expertly built on the unseen, culminating with our first glimpse of the alien during a news broadcast – a scene made all the more memorable by a reaction shot of Phoenix recoiling in horror. Hess’ bond and Graham’s inner struggles lend this sci-fi thriller emotional weight. The main character’s spiritual journey renews his faith not only in God but also in the strength of his family.
‘Super 8’ (2011)
In 1979, high school kids making a zombie movie got more “production value” than they had hoped for when their camera accidentally captured evidence of a government secret. JJ Abrams’ HEY The film uses a sensational plot to develop the very personal one at its heart about fractured families.
Deriving its title from the camera and film format, Super 8is a retro monster movie as much as a love letter to cinema. Nope – its first trailer explicitly references Eadweard Muybridgeit is The horse in motionand later documents reveal that the Haywoods used an IMAX camera for their “Oprah photo”–also doubles as a genre thriller and a visual artist’s tribute to the tools that allow him to ply his craft.
“War of the Worlds” (2005)
Loosely adapted from seminal HG Wells Steven Spielberg’s novel War of the Worlds combines vintage and cutting-edge cinematic techniques. Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a dockworker whose ex-wife (Miranda Otto) abandons their children (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) on his doorstep before heading to Boston. The awkward visit turns for the worse when alien tripods precipitate an international crisis. The Ferriers’ domestic drama continues on the road as Ray races against the collapse of civilization to reunite his family.
Spielberg has always been a master of character-based thrillers, and War of the Worlds deftly alternates between moments of epic-scale destruction and startling intimacy. Shot down by the legendary Janusz KaminskySpielberg’s return to UFO cinema simultaneously takes stylistic cues from alien classics – some of which were directed by Spielberg himself – and provides viewers with jaw-dropping visuals that have since War of the Worlds‘ released in 2005, have themselves become landmarks.
“War of the Worlds” (1953)
The original 1897 book adaptation is largely a product of the post-World War II era, but some of its ideas continue to appear in similar fiction. The extraterrestrials’ red, blue and green periscopic lenses serve two purposes: they are a meta-reference to what in 1953 was still the new color phenomenon in major motion pictures, and they predict that primary colors – like music (Close Encounters) and prime numbers (Contact) – will be a lingua franca between humanity and extraterrestrials.
The 1953 and 2005 adaptations modernized Wells’ novel to presumably make it easier for viewers to place themselves in the action. One of these days, some major Hollywood studios are expected to fund an expensive, true-to-the-source adaptation set in the 19th century.
KEEP READING: The Best R-Rated Sci-Fi Movies, Ranked