Although there have been plenty of memorable alien-invasion films, it's interesting that there aren't a huge amount of classics, particularly in recent years. Your agreement with this point depends on how wide you're willing to extend the genre. For example, I don't consider The Abyss and Superman II as part of this category. They do feature aliens from another planet, but it isn't enough to place them in this genre. I know that it's completely subjective, but any list requires some parameters. Narrowing this down to five (actually seven) choices was no easy task. I know there are big choices that didn't make the cut, including strong picks that I watched during the Here Come the Aliens! marathon. I'd love to hear your favorites in the comments section below this Top 5 list. It's time for the picks!
Honorable Mention, Independence Day (1996), Predator (1997)
Roland Emmerich’s 1996 epic Independence Day is likely at the top of some lists, but I can’t get past the awful dialogue and silly resolution. It’s impossible to deny the scale of the production, with massive ships decimating famous landmarks like The White House. The first hour builds the suspense well, and the payoff is well-done. It’s the final hour where the story really gets into problems, including a lot of hokey speeches. On a different end of the scale is Predator, which brings a small group of mercenaries into contact with a badass alien hunter. The future appearances of this beast never match the first one, and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cat-and-mouse battle with the creature is something to see. This John McTiernan film stretches the boundaries of this category, but it works for me because the enemy is so unknown to guys who aren’t fazed by anything human.
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This 1951 Robert Wise parable about the dangers of war is one of the great classic sci-fi films. It includes plenty of iconic elements, including the robot Gort, the famous phrase “Klaatu barada nikto”, and seeing the Earth when it goes quiet. It doesn’t include much action but remains thrilling because of the sci-fi mystery and clever style. It also doesn’t overstay its welcome and barely crosses 90 minutes, which is wise for the small-scale production. I haven’t seen the 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves, but I’m guessing it creates a much larger spectacle. I doubt it can compare to the excellent original, which remains highly engaging more than 60 years after its original release.
4. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
The sci-fi genre really hit its stride in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, and one of the best examples is Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Released in 1977, it remains well-known for the big finale, where Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives at the Devils Tower in Wyoming and discovers the alien spacecraft. His obsessive quest to find it has caused major problems at home, and this provides a unique personal side to the large-scale film. Catching up with it a few years ago on DVD, I was surprised by how much time we spend with Neary’s family before he joins similar people with the same focus. The finale remains stunning today, but it’s the human part of the story that makes it so memorable.
3. They Live (1988)
In terms of pure fun, John Carpenter’s silly look at a world taken over by unseen aliens should be in the top slot. Any story where the hero finds a box of sunglasses that reveal an invasion has to be awesome. When you add the Carpenter factor, a surprisingly effective lead performance by Roddy Piper, and a ridiculous wrestling brawl, it fits together perfectly. Although the aliens are hokey, the idea that we’re being subconsciously manipulated to become passive consumers is intriguing. Carpenter was fed up with the excesses of the ‘80s and found a way to place his ideas within a fun B movie. It’s worth checking out for the fight between Piper and Keith David, which lasts more than five minutes and feels even longer. Logic goes out the window, but you won’t care because it’s too damn entertaining.
2. The Thing (1982)
We continue the Carpenter love fest with his stunning 1982 remake of The Thing. The creature effects are brutal and remain frightening when viewed 30 years later. I haven’t seen the 2011 prequel, but I’ve heard the CGI doesn’t work so well. That fact reminds us of the great success of Carpenter’s chilling look at scientists facing down a shape-shifting alien in Antarctica. Kurt Russell is believable in the lead role, and it’s the humans that make this such a memorable classic. In a movie with such a nasty alien, it’s the showdown between the guys that ranks as the best sequence. That’s a testament to both Carpenter and the character actors involved, including Wilford Brimley and Keith David. If the performances don’t sell this material, it turns into an average film with cool effects. The actors sell the paranoia, which helps to explain why viewers are still discovering this movie today.
1. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
Few movies capture the paranoid atmosphere of the 1950s better than Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Although its point about the evils of mindless conformity is clear, the interesting part is that you can draw much different conclusions depending on your perspective. The pod people can relate to the scare tactics against Communism or even as depictions of the “red menace” instead. Apart from the thematic elements, this is also a fun sci-fi classic. It remains creepy with a limited budget and creates suspense without cheap scares. Clocking in a mere 80 minutes, the story doesn’t waste time. The final shots (if you ignore the silly epilogue) of Kevin McCarthy running through the highway screaming “You’re Next!” are chilling and end the film on just the right note.
I'd love to hear your thoughts about this list in the comments section. You should also check out the archive of past Top 5 Lists if you've missed them.