The possibility of life beyond our own planet has been a fantasy writers and creatives across time have long pondered. A question rooted in pure curiosity, extra-terrestrial life has remained an endearing focus for centuries, with the discovery of such beings putting a brand new focus on our role as humans in the wider universe.
From blockbuster movies like Men in Black and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to TV series such as The X-Files and Fringe, science-fiction tales that concern themselves with alien life provide a fascinating reflection on the fears of the contemporary zeitgeist. For, despite such stories concerning themselves with often sinister visitors to earth, the very best extra-terrestrial stories tell the audience far more about humanity’s own anxieties than the threat of outside influence.
Taking shape in several different ways, such alien tales can illustrate hostile beings wishing to blindly wipe out all living creatures as well as benevolent creatures looking to learn from humans, or simply travel in peace. So often reflecting the shape of contemporary times, movies about extraterrestrial beings can tell us a surprising amount about life throughout the 20th century.
The six definitive extraterrestrial movies:
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
At the turn of the new century, the true potential of the cinematic medium had been realised, and filmmakers were beginning to utilise its versatility to bring revolutionary visions to life. One such vision was Georges Méliès’, A Trip to the Moon, a film that is often considered to be one of the earliest and most successful examples of commercial filmmaking. Following a group of astronomers who travel to the moon in a cannon-propelled capsule, explore its surface and meet a group of aliens, Georges Méliès’ film showed unprecedented ambition and technological scope way beyond its years.
As one of cinema’s first-ever triumphs, it is significant that the movie concerned itself with a trip into outer space, 67 years before NASA would lead a mission to land on the moon. In the film, the rudimentary main characters become swarmed by Moon-dwelling Selenites, beastly-looking marine creatures, who overrun them for a short time. Speaking of a deeper truth of the threat of scientific ambition as well as the fears of colonialism, the use of aliens in the very first commercial movie shows just how innately curious the concept truly is.
The War of the Worlds (Byron Haskin, 1953)
As the movie industry shifted into gear, so too did the popularity of science fiction and extraterrestrial stories, with Metropolis thriving in 1927 followed by Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars in 1938. In the post-war movie industry, science fiction flourished, becoming the perfect genre of escapism following the torment of the 1940s, as well as a neat narrative framework to criticise and unpack the fear of war itself.
With the impact of Hiroshima’s atomic blast still heavy on the minds of a post-war generation, existential fears of nuclear annihilation began to set in, particularly as the cold war mounted momentum. Such fears were reflected in The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951 as well as Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds, adapted from H. G. Wells’ iconic novel of the same name.
Known as one of the first, and most definitive stories, ever told about alien invasion, Haskin’s adaptation of The War of the Worlds rings with the same existential fears of Wells’ book and the sentiment of a 1950s society that was still reeling from war.
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
Similar stories of vast alien beings crushing human life became commonplace throughout the 1960s, with the monster movies of Japan in Gamera vs. Gyaos and Mothra, speaking to a similar threat of nuclear war. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, things got a little more introspective, with Stanley Kubrick releasing 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968 alongside other movies such as Village of the Damned in 1960 that suggested aliens could already be living among us.
From the 1970s, cinema became an entirely different beast, with the money in the industry inviting stories that explored every corner of the galaxy, from George Lucas’ bombastic Star Wars trilogy to Nicolas Roeg’s smaller stylised art piece The Man Who Fell to Earth starring David Bowie.
By far the most definitive extraterrestrial film of this era was Ridley Scott’s Alien, however, introduced a terrifying new force in sci-fi in the form of the Xenomorph. Horrifying beasts that spoke of a fear of sexual violation, Scott’s film suggested a darker force at play that wished to toy with its victims before using their bodies for its own benefit of reproduction, a terrifying concept that inspired the slasher craze of the 1980s.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)
Aliens had rarely been considered in a friendly context, with Steven Spielberg changing this conception in 1982 with the release of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, a film that celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022. Placing the titular alien within a coming of age story, Spielberg suggests that love and the moral agency of children can break down any cultural or social boundary.
A hopeful movie released in the midst of dark brooding horrors like John Carpenter’s The Thing and John McTiernan’s Predator, Spielberg pulled off what he does best, forever changing the face of the intimidating cinematic alien.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013)
Extraterrestrials became ever wilder throughout the 1980s and 1990s, matching the energy of the cinematic landscape as Mars Attacks! satirised the decades-old sci-fi genre and Starship Troopers used extraterrestrials as fodder for its pointed message about American arrogance in the face of war.
As alien flicks, and sci-fi in general, entered the 21st century, however, the genre began to reflect the ever-more emotional, introspective feelings of the time. A dark brooding mood piece that speaks to the fragility of the human mind, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is the perfect modern alien movie, particularly for a western society that is ever more concerned with the anxieties of the past and the reparations of the future.
Playing out much like Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, except with Scarlett Johansson taking over from David Bowie, this thoughtful movie shows how our attitude towards aliens has switched in modern fiction. No longer are they evil and unholy, rather they are complicated beings, not dissimilar from humans themselves.
Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
From one of the greatest cinematic minds of contemporary cinema, Denis Villeneuve, Arrival perfectly demonstrates how far alien fiction on screen has come since its birth in 1902. Telling the story of a language expert who is hired to decipher the symbols of a squid-like alien race who have just landed on earth, Villeneuve’s film is both a complicated sci-fi tale as well as a charming drama.
Intelligently put together, the movie is ultimately concerned with communication, asking the audience to question how they speak to those around them, as well as how they would communicate with an entirely different lifeform. In a diverse world where cultural borders are being flattened thanks to the emergence of new technologies that have brought the world closer together, Villeneuve’s film is a loving plea and urgent warning for unity.