Aliens are out of this world — literally and figuratively. And alien movies can tell stories that propel us into the stars while helping us understand our own blue marble in space a little better.
"The best movies about aliens are ones that, on the one hand, create a species that is very obviously and distinctively other; and on the other hand, do what science fiction does best, which is use that very same other-ness to comment on an aspect of humanity," said Keith DeCandido, the award-winning, best-selling author of dozens of novels based on alien-heavy films like "Alien," "Star Trek," "Serenity" and "Farscape."
As DeCandido notes, aliens don't even have to spend a lot of time on screen to be part of the movie's message. "The aliens simply have to create an impression, even if it’s the fear of wondering what it is in 'Alien' or the trying-to-make-sense-of-it-all in 'Contact,'" he said.
With all that in mind, we've compiled 25 great alien movies, from scary horror movies to family-friendly flicks to military vs. alien movies like "Edge of Tomorrow" that may make you look at the stars with a bit more curiosity. What's out there, waiting to be heard?
Behold, the best alien movies of all time – in order of when they came out — streaming on Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime and beyond.
'The Day The Earth Stood Still' (1951)
This classic unspools like an extended episode of "Twilight Zone." At the movie's heart, the question: What if it turns out we're not the most intelligent or powerful species out there ... what if we were perceived as warring troublemakers? That's what seems to be the case when a spaceship arrives in Washington, D.C. with a message for the people of Earth: Get along, or get wiped out. To see the premise play out in a modern context, check out the (inferior) 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves.
'The Man Who Fell to Earth' (1976)
The "man" who visits Earth in this trippy, languorous film is played by David Bowie, and that's enough for most people who check it out. It's a tragic tale of an alien who just wants to bring water to his drought-stricken planet and instead gets sidetracked by all-too-human vices (and government officials who are threatened by his presence). Showtime is now airing a new version of the story, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor.
'Star Wars' (1977)
Everyone's an alien in the "Star Wars" franchise, which started in 1977 with "Star Wars IV: A New Hope" and continues well into the present in movies and TV series. Since Earth isn't really a factor in this universe, that makes even the humans like Luke Skywalker, a farm boy turned space samurai tasked with saving the universe using a mental "force," as alien as every other character (Chewbacca included). "Star Wars" presents the idea of aliens as not-alien, but rather part of the backdrop of life, and as such it's not to be missed.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' (1978)
If you're concerned about the scare factor in this 1978 remake, you could always go back to the 1956 original, a pitch-perfect riff on the McCarthyism unfolding. But we prefer the grittier, star-studded remake (Donald Sutherland! Jeff Goldblum! Leonard Nimoy!) for the real alien touch. In sum: A gooey race of aliens move to Earth after their planet proves unlivable, and take over human bodies one at a time, turning them into emotionless "pod" people. We are all aliens, in the end, to one other.
'Close Encounters of the Third Kind' (1977)
Within Steven Spielberg's alien movie canon, spacemen might scare us, but they're not truly dangerous. With "Close Encounters," Spielberg saves showing the little glowing guys until the very end, instead focusing on the way a UFO sighting seems to "call" people to a secret facility, where scientists and government officials line up to greet the intergalactic newcomers. It's both eerie and heartwarming to think that humans just might have a chance not to ruin first contact, if such a moment ever comes in real life.
'Superman: The Movie' (1978)
Yeah, you probably forgot that Superman, aka Clark Kent, aka Kal-El is actually an alien! As DeCandido notes, this 1978 film (and "to a lesser extent" its 1980 sequel "Superman II") is about "an alien learning to live among humans." DeCandido said it's a "great metaphor for immigration" as a result. Christopher Reeve plays a Kryptonian native trying to make it in America, and becoming a symbol for the country by the end.
Feel free to get started on your next franchise obsession with the film that notes, "In space, no one can hear you scream." Essentially a haunted-house film that takes place among the stars, "Alien" is by turns dark, futuristic, cynical, horrific and terrifying. In the movie, a mining crew comes across a distress signal and investigates, unwittingly bringing a super predator on board with them. Thank goodness Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley is around to fend off the creature. If you like this first movie, then "Aliens" (1986) is definitely your next stop. The many films released after that are more up in the air among fans in terms of their value and canonical contributions.
'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial' (1982)
In his next foray into alien storytelling, Spielberg presents the tale of an abandoned botanist with long fingers and a transparent chest, big eyes and a quick ability to understand the English language. As with "Close Encounters," the alien in "E.T." means us no harm. The movie's kids naturally know that, but government officials are less sure. Beyond outer space and government conspiracies, "E.T." is also about absent fathers: the kids don't have one in the picture. Speaking at a TCM festival, Spielberg said he sees the movie as a "story about divorce," and that E.T. is a "life form to fill the gap in (Elliot's) heart."
You gotta give the Starman (Jeff Bridges) credit: He really tries to fit in on Earth during his first visit. He assumes the body of a deceased loved one (freaking out the loved one's wife, Karen Allen), goes on a classic road trip (to send a message that he needs a pick up to get home), wins the lottery and has just enough of a relationship with Allen's character to get her a baby. This is a heartfelt tale with excellent performances.
'Enemy Mine' (1985)
DeCandido admits that "Enemy Mine" is "not a great movie, but it’s an excellent portrayal of a human and an alien (Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr.) trying to work together." And he's correct: When the two species are marooned on a planet, they first try to kill each other, then learn both mutual respect and brotherhood while fighting for survival and later, family.
Dontcha hate when this happens? You're out in Central America with your paramilitary unit, trying to save some hostages when a hunter from another planet turns up, able to track you down thanks to your heat signature? Well, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character sure does. Yes, there's a lot of staring at jungle trees in the film — but all those moments serve to raise the tension to near-unbearable levels. The story earns its gory scenes. Bonus: Who knew in 1987 that this film, with Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, was starring two future U.S. governors?
'Mars Attacks!' (1996)
The aliens of movie history all have a different approach to greeting earthlings. The ones in this movie show up, declare they've come in peace — and then blast everyone in sight. The Martians in "Attacks" are duplicitous, giant-brained creatures ... but they're not without vulnerabilities like, say, their own disintegrator weapons. Peppered with dark humor and lots of killings, "Attacks" is Tim Burton (who directed) at peak weird and peak funny.
'Star Trek: First Contact' (1996)
Though there are any number of "Star Trek" films to fill your need for alien contact, "First Contact" is a special breed: It requires us to imagine an Earth conquered by Borg (hive-mind cyborgs who "assimilate," or destroy, all they encounter), and how the crew of the Enterprise go back in time to fix what the Borg have broken. Having traveled to the middle of the 21st Century, the team encounter the man who creates warp travel, the thing that leads the Vulcans to reach out to humanity and get the whole space exploration ball rolling. It's a clever plumbing of the franchise's backstory, and we do love seeing our futuristic heroes cast into a more "primitive" age — our own.
Heads up: The actual alien content in "Contact" is minimal to none. The movie is all about Ellie (Jodie Foster), who comes across evidence of extraterrestrial life thanks to a signal being sent out in space, which provides the schematics for a device that will permit humans to have first contact. Ellie, in the end, is the one the aliens decide to "speak" with. Based on a novel by Carl Sagan, this is a more egalitarian look at the universe, in which people of good faith are earnestly looking for, well, contact with something bigger.
'Men In Black' (1997)
In this hilarious adventure ride, the aliens are already here on Earth, but usually in disguise. It's up to the Men in Black intelligence agency to keep them in line (or send them away, depending on what kind of trouble they get into). Tommy Lee Jones' agent recruits Will Smith into the outfit, which opens a new world of challenge for them both. And the movie's got an ending that might make you even shed a tear.
'Dark City' (1998)
Stylish, moody and incredibly original in its story, "Dark City" is about a man (Rufus Sewell) who wakes up with amnesia and quickly learns a few things. First, he's a murder suspect. Second, there are aliens who alter the city's shape every night to study the humans in it, wiping out their memory of the previous days. And third, he can "tune" — that is, alter reality the way the aliens do. Creepy and twisty, "Dark City" also raises questions of the importance of memory and identity as it spins its noir web.
'Galaxy Quest' (1999)
"Galaxy Quest," a TV show about space explorers, is long-over, with the ensemble cast now consigned to showing up at conventions for their dose of adulation. But the show lives on for a race of space aliens who have taken every episode to heart. In fact, they think the actors are real explorers with lots of space experience, so they kidnap them to help solve their own planet's problems. A film that both loves space TV shows and movies and knows how to poke fun at them, "Galaxy Quest" is a treat for every Trekkie and not-Trekkie in your home.
'Pitch Black' (2000)
A year before he was "fast and furious," Vin Diesel was Riddick, a criminal who has surgically-altered light-sensitive eyes. And coincidence: The transport ship taking him to prison happens to crash on a desert planet that's about to be plunged into darkness due to an eclipse. The question is, will Riddick save just himself or also assist his fellow survivors before the planet's nocturnal creatures pick them all off? Partially ludicrous but totally thrilling, Diesel makes the story work with his low growl and his character's surprising humanity.
‘Lilo & Stitch’ (2002)
Stitch is a little bit of everything: an experiment, a koala-looking being, a mischievous scamp and, you might have forgotten, an alien. After Experiment 626, Stitch's official name, lands on Earth, he fakes being a dog, which gets him adopted into Lilo's family. The mad scientist who designed the big-eyed creature wants him back, but Lilo isn't going to let this newfound member of their family go so easily.
'Attack the Block' (2011)
"Attack the Block" features some pretty scary aliens mounting their invasion on a South London council estate. The locals don't like visitors in the first place — and they are definitely are not into outsiders who start killing and propagating without invitation. Looks likes these aliens just messed with the wrong earthlings. Wild and wildly funny, "Block" introduced many to the talents of future "Star Wars" star John Boyega and "Doctor Who" star Jodie Whittaker.
'Guardians of the Galaxy' (2014)
Take your basic Marvel superhero misfits, add a dash of Indiana Jones, lots of humor and a retro music soundtrack, and what do you get? Some of the most fun ever blasted through space. Peter Quill, a.k.a Star Lord (Chris Pratt), is a human who lost his mother, was kidnapped by alien thieves and smugglers and is all grown up, trying to find his place in the universe. But we're here as much for his adventures as his team of assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), warrior Drax (Dave Bautista), human/tree hybrid Groot (Vin Diesel) and genetically-engineered bounty hunter raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper). It's a true roller coaster ride, but one with heart — and great tunes.
‘Edge of Tomorrow’ (2014)
"Edge of Tomorrow" is a terrific action adventure in which a non-combat soldier (Tom Cruise) is conscripted into an unwinnable battle against super-powerful aliens who can loop time. After an accident, Cruise learns he's also caught in a loop that allows him to live almost like a video game character with infinite lives. And with forever to get it right, plus some help from a real combat hero (Emily Blunt), he might actually be able to turn things around.
Lots of movies about aliens make the extraterrestrials look humanoid. Even more make them look like, well, versions of us: two eyes, ears, nose, hands, feet. But fewer films are as daring in their imagining of aliens as "Arrival," which features tentacled creatures who appear to have sent us not their military or their trade partners — but their linguists. Amy Adams steps up and helps decode their language to determine their intent. But to understand the aliens' language, she also has to decipher their perception of time and space.
'The Suicide Squad' (2021)
From the guy behind "Guardians of the Galaxy" (director James Gunn) comes another darkly funny adventure that involves humans and aliens on both side of the hero/villain divide. Based on DC Comics characters, a ragtag team of questionably-moral individuals with powers is conscripted into destroying a giant alien starfish called Starro the Conquerer. Needless to say, there's a) more to the story of both Starro and how it got to Earth and b) a whole lot of carnage to come. While the movie has some of the same characters as featured in 2016's "Suicide Squad," it's not the same story.
What is an alien? Is it just a living being that comes from another planet? In that case, "Dune," which ostensibly takes place over 20,000 years in the future, means human are the aliens, dividing up planets into fiefdoms and raiding them for their resources. Most of the characters in "Dune" (brought to you by "Arrival" director Denis Villeneuve) are basically human, with the additional powers rendered by consuming a substance from Arrakis called "spice." A prince (Timothée Chalamet) arrives to Arrakis with his family, expecting to inherit the spice trade. Instead he finds himself in the midst of a betrayal and in the starring role of a prophecy. "Dune: Part Two," which will complete the story set up in Frank Herbert's original book, is due out in 2023.