They Came From Outer Space: My Favourite Movie Aliens - Part One
One of the most famous images in sci-fi cinema is the Man in the Moon with a rocket stuck in his eye, dating all the way back to 1903 when Georges Méliès took us on A Trip to the Moon. In his wondrous adventure, a group of scientists shoot themselves from a cannon to our closest celestial neighbour and its insectoid alien inhabitants.
Curiously, it would be almost half a century before extra-terrestrials regularly came to visit us on Earth via our cinema screens, but once the Roswell Incident popularised the notion of UFOs and the Atom Era and burgeoning space race brought sci-fi concepts into the mainstream, visitors from outer space became a mainstay of the genre.
As a result, the ‘50s was the first true decade of movie aliens, both malevolent and benign, and they’ve rarely been off our screens ever since. Here are my favourites…
24. The Aliens from Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
Edward D. Wood Jr’s alt-masterpiece is best remembered for its trio of hapless zombies bumbling around a cardboard graveyard, yet their alien overlords deserve a special mention.
Like the rest of Wood’s oeuvre, there is something endearingly thrift store about these trio of suspiciously human-looking visitors dressed in satin tunics, throwing hokey space-salutes, and concocting one of the most inept masterplans in movie history.
Perturbed by mankind’s potential to develop a “Solaranite” bomb that can set light to sunlight, they raise a threesome of very slow moving ghouls to terrorise our governments into seeing sense. Nothing about these guys is convincing, especially how quickly they descend into juvenile playground insults when confronted with cantankerous humans: “Your stupid minds! Stupid! Stupid!”
23. The Blue Aliens from They Live (1988)
Satire rarely comes as blunt and two-fisted as John Carpenter’s They Live, which is one of the film’s enduring strengths. I mean, if you’re going to critique Capitalism and crass American consumerism, why not cast a WWF wrestler in the lead role?
Rowdy Roddy Piper acquits himself pretty well as Nada, a musclebound drifter who acquires a pair of shades that enables him to see through the hollow façade of modern society. The upper echelons of government and media have been infiltrated by blue skull-faced aliens peddling messages of conformity via subliminal messaging in advertising and TV, such as “OBEY” and “CONSUME.”
Like many great satires and dystopian visions, They Live has only grown more relevant with age. In our current era when many people still drink the Kool Aid of reality TV stars and hack columnists turned politicians, it makes you wish someone could reproduce Nada’s magic specs for a mass market.
22. Dr. Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Sometimes when visiting another planet, all you want to do is shag everyone, feed an old lover to your party guests, and build yourself the ultimate walking, grunting, flexing sex toy.
That’s about the limit of Dr. Frank N Furter’s ambitions here on Earth, and if he can help a few squares give themselves over to absolute pleasure along the way, then so be it. Unfortunately for Frank, his disgruntled underlings are determined to spoil the party and return to Transsexual, Transylvania.
Jim Sharman’s creaky adaptation of Richard O’Brien’s naughty musical homage to sci-fi and mad scientist flicks only just staggers over the line as a film, but it is still formidably infectious as a cult movie experience. Central to this is Tim Curry’s deliciously decadent performance as Frank, who isn’t much of an alien but is one hell of a host. Naturally, stockings and suspenders form part of the Transvestite's silvery space-faring gear.
21. The Martians from Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Urban Wyrd is the metropolitan cousin of folk horror, and one of the best early examples is Quatermass and the Pit. Workmen expanding the (fictional) Hobbs End tube station in London uncover a buried object they initially fear might be a UXB, but the truth is far worse. It is a long-buried alien spacecraft which, judging by the Neanderthal skulls in and around the site, has been down there for millions of years.
The locust-like crew of the ship are long dead but still have a malign influence on our undeveloped monkey minds, building to a cataclysmic finale. The aliens themselves look like something you might get out of a Christmas cracker, but remain disturbing because their influence lingers aeons after their own demise.
Roy Ward Baker teases out every eerie detail of a robust Nigel Kneale script which is packed with ideas, aided by a determined cast of stalwart British actors who treat every outlandish concept with utmost sincerity.
20. Isserley from Under the Skin (2013)
Female aliens are somewhat under-served in sci-fi, often reduced to space vixens or deadly seductresses. Jonathan Glazer’s second feature explores that stereotype to beguiling, often upsetting effect in Under the Skin, starring a fearless Scarlett Johansson in her best performance to date.
She plays an alien seductress whose job is to lure unwary men to their fates, taking them back to her lair for pickling and processing for the delectation of the folks back home. Picking up unsuspecting guys in a white van, who blindly follow their hard-ons to their horrible death.
Isserley (unnamed in the film) starts as an impassive blank masquerading as an attractive and sexually available young woman, but gradually becomes infected by the humanity surrounding her, leading to her doom.
The most audacious touch is that many of her victims were real blokes picked up and filmed Candid Camera-style on the streets of Glasgow, lending the first half of Under the Skin a semi-documentary feel. It is a film that proves too alienating for some, but if you buy into its otherworldly rhythms, it’s an experience you’re unlikely to forget in a hurry.
19. The Metaluna Mutants from This Island Earth (1955)
This Island Earth is a hokey sci-fi adventure that might have faded from memory if it didn’t feature some of the most iconic aliens of atomic era cinema.
Although the bottom half is clearly just a guy wearing trousers, the top half is extraordinary, with a carapace-like chest-plate, elongated arms with pincers, and that bulbous exposed brain for a head.
Unfortunately for them, big grey matter doesn’t equate to big intelligence, and the mutants are about as much use as Storm Troopers on a shooting range. Nevertheless, they are the quintessential ‘50s bug-eyed monsters, inspiring the classic Mars Attacks! Trading cards and, in turn, Tim Burton’s wildly messy movie adaptation.
18. The Killer Klowns from Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
The film itself is pretty mediocre, but the Klowns themselves are an absolute riot. With lashings of black humour, the story is classic ‘50s fare of something bad landing in the woods outside a small town, and our plucky teens must warn the disbelieving grown-ups of the danger.
The twist is that the aliens are evil clowns arriving on Earth in their big top UFO, and the film puts a gleefully wicked spin on just about every clown-related gimmick you can imagine. From cocooning their victims in candy floss to piling out of a titchy clown car, you’ve got it. My personal highlight was the balloon guard dogs, which made me painfully regurgitate beer through my nose when I first saw it.
The Klowns themselves are more imaginatively grotesque than scary, but you have to give credit to the Chiodo Brothers for taking such a ridiculous concept and running with it all the way.
17. The Water Tentacle in The Abyss (1989)
Okay, it isn’t strictly speaking an alien - the visitors in James Cameron’s knuckle-chewing underwater adventure are the rather underwhelming angel-like cuties at the end.
The Water Tentacle was the aliens’ liquid periscope and provided the film’s real show stopping moment, a mesmerising example of very early CGI.
It wasn’t the first big screen computer generated entity - that milestone was the stained glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes - but it was the first fully realised creation that felt like something real. It looks its age now, but it still works fantastically well in the context of the scene, playing so beautifully off the wonderstruck reactions of its human co-stars.
16. The Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957)
The Ymir is perhaps one of Ray Harryhausen’s most underrated stop-motion creations, overshadowed by the rampaging dinosaur in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and his menagerie of mythological creatures in the likes of The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts.
The rapidly growing Ymir, brought to Earth as an egg by astronauts returning from Venus, is a classic misunderstood monster in the King Kong vein. Although contact with our atmosphere gives it an alarming growth spurt, going quickly from a mewling alien baby to city-trashing giant, scientists establish early on that it isn’t harmful if left alone. Naturally, those blustering military types don’t listen to the egghead’s advice and pursue it across Rome to a final showdown at the Colosseum.
As with all Harryhausen’s best work, the Ymir seems to have absorbed some of its creator’s humanity during the countless hours manipulating it one tiny bit at a time to capture the footage. It feels so alive with a range of tiny expressions and haunted glances, making it a monster worth rooting for, even when it slays an angry elephant in the film’s creature vs creature smackdown.
15. The Arachnids in Starship Troopers (1997)
Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m not generally a fan of CGI, but I can make an exception for the Arachnids in Starship Troopers. In service of Paul Verhoeven’s delirious satire of gung-ho right wing militarism, the swarming bugs are all too eager to viciously cut mankind’s worst imperialistic impulses down to size, one spurting stump at a time.
One of my main criticisms is that CGI usually feels so weightless. Verhoeven manages to combat that, using a combination of physical effects and computer wizardry to create an incredibly visceral experience, as you would expect from the director who brought us Robocop’s stunningly violent scenes.
There is plenty of variety in the aliens, too, from the Plasma Bugs pumping out devastating butt-blasts towards Earth and the gross Brain Bug, which has a creepy psychic tete-a-tete with Neil Patrick Harris in his first major post-Doogie Howser gig.
14. The Aliens in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The highly advanced aliens in Kubrick’s masterpiece are so captivating precisely because we never see them.
Their motives for tweaking remain enigmatic, tweaking us along one mysterious monolith at a time to the next rung of the evolutionary ladder.
2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those films that leaves us with more questions than we begin with. Our nominal protagonist is reborn as a Star Child orbiting Earth, but to what end? Are our elusive benefactors remaining hidden because their appearance might blow our tiny minds? Or could it be that an alien civilisation many millennia more advanced than ours exists in a form that we can’t even see or comprehend?
13. Klaatu and Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
This early ‘50s parable is a seminal work of sci-fi, giving audiences one of their first and most unforgettable visions of a flying saucer and its inhabitants.
Arriving on Earth with a message of peace but also a stern warning, humanoid Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his towering robot sentinel Gort are one of cinema’s great little guy-big guy acts.
Klaatu tells mankind to desist from its warlike ways, and Gort is on hand to melt our weaponry with his powerful visor-laser to show they’re not mucking about. While Rennie as Klaatu is calm and eloquent, Gort’s strong silent type gives him plenty of menace as one of the ‘50s most enduring sci-fi aliens.
So there you have it, part one of my favourite movie aliens! Which iconic extra-terrestrial will claim top spot? Tune in next week for the second instalment to find out!