Paraphrasing the late Carl Sagan in 1997’s Contact, Jodie Foster’s Eleanor Arroway says if we’re all there is in the universe, “it seems like an awful waste of space.” That is part, at least, of our fascination with the possibility of intelligent life beyond our own somewhere in the stars. Extraterrestrial aliens have become so commonplace in our media that you can hardly enter a movie theater without at least one movie featuring an alien — whether they’re comical characters, romantic ones, superheroes, or monsters. Here, from across the decades and from adventure epics to outlandish comedies, are our picks for the best alien movies of all time.
Not into aliens specifically? How about the best space movies of all time? Or maybe the best mars movies?
- 1 Galaxy Quest (1999)
- 2 The World’s End (2013)
- 3 Men in Black (1997)
- 4 Alien (1979)
- 5 Aliens (1986)
- 6 Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
- 7 Avatar (2010)
- 8 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- 9 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
- 10 Contact (1997)
- 11 Arrival (2016)
- 12 The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- 13 Enemy Mine (1985)
- 14 E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
- 15 Alien Nation (1988)
- 16 Independence Day (1996)
- 17 Editors’ Recommendations
Galaxy Quest (1999)
No one paid much attention to the sci-fi comedy adventure Galaxy Quest when it came out, but they should’ve. Premiering decades before Seth McFarlane’s The Orville, Galaxy Quest is a hilarious and brilliantly conceived love letter to Star Trek and its fandom. Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith — an actor living off convention appearances and dealership openings as the lead in a beloved, long-defunct science-fiction show. He and his former costars go from appearance to appearance, bemoaning their lots in life, until Nesmith is “hired” by the Thermians who he believes are just fans. It turns out the Thermians are actual aliens who have seen all of the Nesmith’s shows and believe them to be “historical documents.” Soon, the entire TV show’s cast is on board an actual spaceship, forced to become the heroes so many fantasized they really were. Sigourney Weaver wonderfully plays against type, Alan Rickman is epic as the classically trained Shakespearean, and Sam Rockwell is perfect as the proverbial “redshirt” in one of his earliest appearances.
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Stars: Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell
Director: Dean Parisot
Runtime: 104 minutes
The World’s End (2013)
Director Edgar Wright began his Cornetto Trilogy with a send-up of the zombie genre (Shaun of the Dead), continued it with an action parody (Hot Fuzz), and surprised everyone by finishing it off with The World’s End which, while certainly having a lot of fun with alien-invasion movies, doesn’t have quite as high a parody percentage as the earlier films. For a significant chunk of The World’s End, the film works as nothing more than a funny but poignant dramedy. Stuck in the “glory days” of his youth, Gary (Simon Pegg) recruits his four old friends to return to their hometown of Newton Haven in order to complete the Golden Mile — a visit to each of the town’s 12 pubs with at least one beer downed at each stop, concluding at The World’s End. All of Gary’s friends have moved on with their lives, especially Andy (Nick Frost), who went sober years before. Just as they’re all about to abandon Gary’s fool’s errand, a fight in a men’s room reveals almost all of Newton Haven’s residents have been replaced with aliens, and the movie turns into an entirely different animal. Just as brilliant and funny as Wright’s other films, The World’s End is mandatory viewing.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
Stars: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Rosamund Pike
Director: Edgar Wright
Runtime: 109 minutes
Men in Black (1997)
The line that tells us exactly what’s at the heart of Men in Black is when Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) tells Jay (Will Smith), “Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe, 500 years ago everybody knew the Earth was flat, and 15 minutes ago, you knew people were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Men in Black was one of the most anticipated films of 1997, and with good reason. The movie turns the infamous villains of UFO conspiracy theories into heroes, plucked from the ranks of soldiers and cops who are not only good in combat but who know how to look at the world in unexpected ways. Jones and Smith have perfect chemistry, coupled with gorgeous special effects that still stand up today. Men in Black‘s growing number of follow-ups gave fans not quite as much quality, but the first chapter is pretty much perfect.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Linda Fiorentino, Vincent D’Onofrio
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Runtime: 98 minutes
“In space, no one can hear you scream.” This list just wouldn’t be complete without the original Alien movie. This was the film that launched a franchise, but the alien Xenomorphs have never been more terrifying than in their first appearance. The doomed crew of the starship Nostromo encounters an alien vessel and unknowingly brings a deadly lifeform back with them. After the smoke clears, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley becomes a science fiction — and cinematic — icon.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright
Director: Ridley Scott
Runtime: 117 minutes
While Alien was a prerequisite for this list, there’s simply no excuse to exclude James Cameron’s excellent sequel, Aliens. This film amplified the action of the original flick by introducing numerous Xenomorphs, including the very intimidating Xenomorph Queen. Decades after the original film, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is awakened from stasis and recruited for a new mission in space. On the colony LV-426, Ripley and her new team find only a single human survivor: a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). Ripley’s desire to save Newt and avenge herself made Weaver into an action icon.
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Stars: Sigourney Weaver, Michael Biehn, Paul Reiser, Lance Henriksen
Director: James Cameron
Runtime: 137 minutes
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
The 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one of the most unnerving alien invasion stories ever told. Instead of taking humanity out by force, the aliens strike while people are sleeping and replace them with seemingly perfect duplicates whose only defect is that they can not fake human emotions. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) is among the few who realize the truth far too late to stop the aliens. Regardless, Matthew and his friends do their best to survive. The film’s ending is legendary for its final twist, and horrifying for its implications.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Leonard Nimoy, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Philip Kaufman
Runtime: 115 minutes
James Cameron’s Avatar flips the switch on alien movies by making humans the invaders of a world that is not their own. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a former Marine recruited to pilot an artificial body (or avatar) to better interact with the natives of the planet Pandora, the Na’vi, in order to gain their trust. But after Jake falls for Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and comes to appreciate both her people and their world, he ultimately turns against his commanding officer, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), and fights alongside his new tribe.
Rotten Tomatoes: 81%
Stars: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Director: James Cameron
Runtime: 162 minutes
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
For its time, Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a groundbreaking approach to aliens. Steven Spielberg infused the story with realistic touches, while maintaining the otherworldly aspects of the visitors from another world. Richard Dreyfuss portrays Roy Neary, a man whose life is profoundly changed when he witnesses a UFO in the sky. Roy becomes so obsessed with learning more about them that he drives his family away. Regardless, Roy and others like him soon gather to meet the aliens, and get the chance for the experience of a lifetime.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Teri Garr, Melinda Dillon
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 135 minutes
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey largely keeps its aliens off-screen. However, their influence is felt throughout the film, as the alien monoliths shape the course of human evolution in the past and the present. Dr. Dave Bowman’s (Keir Dullea) mind-bending experience upon reaching Jupiter and the story’s deliberately ambiguous ending still have fans sharing theories decades after 2001’s release.
Rotten Tomatoes: 92%
Stars: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Runtime: 142 minutes
Carl Sagan’s classic sci-fi novel, Contact, was adapted for the screen by director Robert Zemeckis. In the film, Jodie Foster plays Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Ann Arroway, a woman whose lifelong quest to discover alien life apparently pays off when she detects a signal coming from outer space. After decoding complex instructions on how to build a personal transport to create a first contact experience, Ellie’s hopes are dashed by petty emotions and deadly zealotry. Thankfully, Ellie gets one last chance to achieve her dreams, but not in the way that she expects.
Rotten Tomatoes: 66%
Stars: Jodie Foster, Matthew McConaughey, James Woods
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Runtime: 150 minutes
Few movies depict interplanetary visitors as something truly alien. Arrival pulls this off with creatures whose language is so complex that linguist Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are called upon to help translate the message. The aliens’ presence sparks a worldwide emergency, as other nations aren’t quick to accept their stated intentions to help humanity. However, Banks is the first to realize that the aliens’ language is both a curse and a blessing, as well as the key to their shared future.
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Runtime: 116 minutes
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The alien movies of the 1950s tended to be schlocky and repetitive invasion stories. However, The Day the Earth Stood Still offered a different take on the genre. The arrival of an alien, Klaatu (Michael Rennie), and his robot, Gort (Lock Martin), sends the world into a panic. So much so that no one seems to be willing to listen to Klaatu’s message of peace. While evading the authorities, Klaatu befriends a widow named Helen Benson (Patricia Neal), and her son, Bobby (Billy Gray). With Helen’s help, Klaatu ultimately shares his warning and his welcome for humanity.
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Stars: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe
Director: Robert Wise
Runtime: 92 minutes
Enemy Mine (1985)
During an interstellar war between humanity and the alien Dracs, two pilots from each side come together in Enemy Mine. Willis E. Davidge (Dennis Quaid) and his Drac counterpart, Jeriba Shigan (Louis Gossett Jr.), are initially at each other’s throats while stranded on a desolate planet. But over time, a true bond of friendship is formed between them. So much so that Willis takes it upon himself to raise Jeriba’s son, Zammis (Bumper Robinson), even in the face of overwhelming adversity.
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Louis Gossett, Jr., Brion James
Director: Wolfgang Petersen
Runtime: 108 minutes
E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (1982)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most beloved films of all time and another winner from director Steven Spielberg. When an alien is accidentally left behind on Earth by his own people, he befriends a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his sister, Gertie (Drew Barrymore). The children teach the alien enough language that he dubs himself E.T. and asks for their help so he can return home. However, E.T.’s empathic bond with Elliott complicates things when his body begins to shut down, and leaves both the child and the alien on the brink of death as government agents close in.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Stars: Dee Wallace, Peter Coyote, Henry Thomas
Director: Steven Spielberg
Runtime: 111 minutes
Alien Nation (1988)
Alien Nation had a bold take on otherworldly visitors by casting them as immigrant refugees instead of invaders. Three hundred thousand alien Newcomers were given sanctuary on Earth and integrated into human society. In the film, James Caan plays a human cop named Matthew Sykes, while Mandy Patinkin portrays Sykes’ Newcomer partner, Sam Francisco. Together, they unravel the mystery surrounding Newcomer crime lord William Harcourt (Terence Stamp) and find a way to overcome their differences as well.
Rotten Tomatoes: 52%
Stars: James Caan, Mandy Patinkin, Terence Stamp
Director: Graham Baker
Runtime: 91 minutes
Independence Day (1996)
Alien invasion movies are pretty common, but few are as rousing as Independence Day. It’s simultaneously a disaster film and a sci-fi flick, as a ruthless wave of alien ships decimates the globe on July 3. But on July 4th, the remnants of humanity stage a desperate strike to take back their world and free themselves from the aliens. The speech given before the final battle by President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) still gives us chills. This was also the movie that helped make Will Smith a movie star.
Rotten Tomatoes: 68%
Stars: Will Smith, Bill Pullman, Jeff Goldblum
Director: Roland Emmerich
Runtime: 146 minutes