Under the Skin
An alien falls to earth, body-snatches a sex worker, and prowls the streets of Glasgow on the hunt for men she can devour in an inky dimension of nothingess. Under the curious-minded surrealism of director Jonathan Glazer, B-movie thrills ‘n’ chills morph into an exercise in defamiliarization, carried out through rigorous and startlingly beautiful experiments with form. An abstract mass takes the shape of an eyeball; a chocolate cake is stared at until it becomes a void; our nameless lead gazes inquisitively at her host body’s pudenda. Through the awed, perplexed eyes of a visitor, elements of the everyday can take on a foreign aura of mystery, hostility, or allure.
The film has been widely read as a transgender text in part for the empathy with which Glazer captures experience as a novel thing, allowing a viewer to vicariously share in the unsteady process of re-learning to live. It’s a fragile miracle – which makes the realization that an inhospitable world won’t accept it all the more brutal. Charles Bramesco
Alien spawned sequels, prequels, spinoffs and imitators, but none so elegant and visceral. Ridley Scott’s horror movie with sci-fi scaffolding reveals itself slowly and methodically. Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Lieutenant Ripley takes her time to emerge from the background as the hero. The phallic-shaped killing machine doesn’t reveal itself to the mining crew on a spaceship until an hour in. And we’re still unpacking some of the movie’s fertile ideas today, maybe more intently after the US supreme court overturned Roe v Wade.
Alien is rife with imagery of forced birth and sexual violence. Corridors look like wombs. Air shafts open like cervixes. A pro-alien-life cyborg named Ash (Ian Holm) protects the deadly organism at all costs because of corporate interests, which are dictated to a spaceship computer called “mother”. This is a movie about the fear of what’s out there that hits too close to home. And it doesn’t get much more intimate than a monster forcefully bursting its way out of your body. Radheyan Simonpillai
The Iron Giant
Given the backstory of The Iron Giant, it’s a marvel that Brad Bird’s wonderful feature directorial debut exists as it does. Ted Hughes wrote the 1968 novel The Iron Man to console his and poet Sylvia Plath’s children after her suicide and consider the cycle of life and death. Two decades later, The Who’s Pete Townshend found inspiration in it, creating the 1989 rock opera album The Iron Man: The Musical and a 1993 stage version. Warner Bros saw big-screen potential, and in 1999, Bird’s film premiered sans Townshend’s songs but with an outer-space origin story (and Vin Diesel’s voice). Centered on the titular giant’s friendship with a lonely kid named Hogarth and their battle against the government in a paranoid cold war America, the film contemplated the very American dilemma of gun violence. (Bird also fended off studio attempts to introduce a rap soundtrack and a canine costar to the movie.)
With its winding journey to the screen, The Iron Giant probably shouldn’t have worked – but it does, to heartbreaking effect. Beneath its stunning hand-drawn animation is a tale that’s equal parts menacing, tender, hilarious and bittersweet, about humankind’s fatal flaws and the ability of a boy and an alien’s love for each other to help us transcend those flaws – if only we’d let them. Lisa Wong Macabasco
Later seen as one of the most egregious commercial and critical catastrophes of the 1980s (a Razzie nom for Ennio Morricone’s haunting score is reason enough to abolish the Razzies altogether), it’s perhaps not a surprise that the visceral gnarliness and abject hopelessness of The Thing was not what audiences were craving in the same month that they fell in love with ET. The small, sociable, Debra-Winger-sounding visitor was what recession-era crowds craved, a cute and cuddly alien gently tearing open a bag of M&Ms rather than one violently tearing open your stomach.
Nihilism had no place that summer, although John Carpenter’s brisk and brutal sci-fi horror has rightly found its footing ever since and for me, remains the most effective and terrifying film about extra terrestrials. Like Alien, so much of it works because of a terse workplace dynamic, a group of stranded mostly blue-collar workers forced into an outlandish situation who deal with it in a believably grounded way, paranoia and distrust amplified rather than invented. It makes the body horror, still utterly horrifying thanks to Rob Bottin’s groundbreaking FX work, land with that much more of an impact. There’s something genuinely scary about the creature’s unformed unpredictability; sprouting, expanding, slicing and burrowing its way into wildly different shapes, still the stuff of nightmares 40 years later. It’s also that much scarier because of the cold lack of snarling malice – it’s just life finding a way, even if that way happens to be through your intestines. Benjamin Lee
If any of our younger readers are a bit mystified about who or what Josh Hartnett is supposed to be, then this teen movie take on the alien-horror movie is Exhibit A. Hartnett is really terrific and charismatic in this oh-so-90s mashup of The Breakfast Club and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, leading a gang of high schoolers as, one by one, they are picked off by a mind-invading parasite that has already infected the school’s teaching stuff.
Director Robert Rodriguez and writer Kevin Williamson both get the tone absolutely right; simultaneously trashy and emotionally intelligent, and not a million miles from its TV contemporary Buffy the Vampire Slayer. One that should definitely be high on the list of any 90s cultural archaeologist. Andrew Pulver
The Man Who Fell to Earth
Nicolas Roeg’s strange, beguiling space oddity is many things – an elliptical piece of science fiction, a western that visits the barren plains of the south-west and a faraway drought-riddled planet, a corporate satire – but its greatest achievement is making its alien seem more human than anyone on Earth.
In a role perhaps only he could have played, David Bowie stars as a humanoid being who lands in New Mexico seeking water to bring back home, but first he builds an empire from patents on his otherworldly technological inventions. Bowie puts the alien in “alienation”: through the combination of Bowie’s intense vulnerability and innocence, and a flurry of allusive images, The Man Who Fell to Earth pulls off the extraordinary trick of making the world seem as inexplicable to the viewer as it does to this visitor. Scott Tobias
2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey revolves around an alien intelligence that guides human evolution and space exploration – the movie’s genius is that it never reveals why these beings draw us toward our destiny. The aliens themselves are also left powerfully enigmatic, only ever represented through mute, black-as-midnight monoliths that silently influence humans with an air of brooding mystery. By leaving these mysteries unaddressed, Kubrick gives 2001 its lasting power as a film of entrancing mystery and pure allegorical potential. It also makes it a very true-to-life alien film – should we ever meet them, non-human intelligences would probably be incomprehensible to us, and 2001 shows us what this uncrossable barrier might feel like.
Memorably, 2001 also gives us two alien intelligences for the price of one: not only are there the monolith beings, there’s also the AI computer HAL 9000, one of the first and best cinematic renditions of human-made AI ever. The juxtaposition of HAL struggling to develop a semblance of free will, even as his human creators struggle to assert their own will against the aliens that silently rule, shows what a thoughtful, layered, and fundamentally mysterious encounter with outside intelligences this movie is. Veronica Esposito
Full stop: you’re not going to find a better film based on a set of trading cards. And, yes, that includes your cherished films too, Pokémon franchise fans. For one thing, the Burtonesque aesthetic was in full flower here, from the creepy CGI to swingin’ 60s-inspired costume design. For another, my God, this cast. Sylvia Sidney, who was nominated for a whole Academy Award, is like 50th on the call sheet for this picture. Much higher up are a still-in-prime Jack Nicholson in two parts (not least the lead role of President Dale), Martin Short as his press secretary, Pam Grier as Jim Brown’s ex-wife and Tom Jones as himself.
Mars Attacks! isn’t just a delightful send-up that only gets sharper as alien movies have invaded the big screen over the decades. It also came out six months after Independence Day so it might well be the most rogue film Hollywood’s ever made – the anti-blockbuster. Andrew Lawrence
Lilo & Stitch
Most aliens-on-Earth stories take one of two forms: the fearsome (as seen in War of the Worlds, Independence Day, etc) and the friendly (most famously embodied by Steven Spielberg’s ET). The simple brilliance of Disney’s 2002 animated feature Lilo & Stitch is how it combines those two archetypes into one unruly package, asking the question: what if ET started out as a real bastard?
Little blue alien Stitch is an unholy genetic experiment; in his first scene, he offers such (untranslated) vile invective that one of his captors spontaneously throws up. He’s forced to put his destructive plans on hold while hiding out on Earth, posing as the mangy pet of a lonely little girl named Lilo. Their mutual healing, as outcasts finding solace in each other, is funny – Stitch’s chattering, creepy-crawling physicality is an animator’s dream – and surprisingly moving. Disney has had plenty of animated successes in the 20 years since the release of Lilo & Stitch, but it remains an unexpected high-water mark, equally loopy and lovely in its treatment of wounded alienation. Jesse Hassenger
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Cinema’s scariest alien invasion is the one without flying saucers or little green men – the one that turns the primal “us v them” conflict of the genre inside out by making “us” and “them” frighteningly indistinguishable. The second (and best) of the movies adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 page-turner unleashes the pod people on San Francisco, with Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as besotted friends struggling to stay awake and avoid being absorbed into an extraterrestrial hive mind.
It was director Philip Kaufman who gave the soulless vegetable doppelgängers a vocal siren: that ear-splitting, blood-curdling shriek they emit when spotting the unassimilated. His true triumph, though, was taking the paranoia of the era’s Hollywood conspiracy thrillers to a nightmarish endpoint, envisioning the transition from the America of the 60s into the America of the 70s as a hostile ideological takeover. By the hauntingly hopeless ending, it’s the viewer doing the shrieking. AA Dowd
Arrival, the Denis Villeneuve film starring Amy Adams as a linguist tasked with unlocking an alien language, arrived in theaters in November 2016 seemingly tailor-made for a moment when communication between two halves of America seemed irretrievably, irredeemably broken. Yet it’s the type of film – grounded in the granularities of human emotion but not the particularities of place – that doesn’t feel dated or of a specific era.
Written by Eric Heisserer, Arrival is based on Ted Chiang’s novella Story of Your Life, published in 1998; it still hits in 2022, evidence that some themes – namely, the vast gulf between our perceptions and the possibility of language to shape and bridge them – stand the passage of years. As Adams’s Dr Louise Banks deciphers the circular messages from two unforgettably imposing “heptapods,” she feels the building blocks of reality warp around her – words, consciousness, time. Does it reach a bit too far in the rushed ending? Maybe, but Arrival is the rare movie to achieve both grandiosity (a giant pebble-shaped spaceship, a time-bending story) and the mundane pleasure of watching a whole chorus of emotions play on one person’s face. It delivers on the sci-fi spectacle of an alien encounter, with implications for humanity’s tribalism that feel, at the film’s best, timeless. Adrian Horton