They Came From Outer Space: My Favourite Movie Aliens - Part Two
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 comes my second batch of favourites…
12. The Dying Arquillian in Men in Black (1997)
Men in Black was very much the Ghostbusters of its era, matching state-of-the-art special effects (for its time) with a rollicking comedy-adventure. Released at peak Will Smith, the former Fresh Prince made an appealingly breezy audience surrogate. Much of the film’s humour came from his wide-eyed amazement at the alien community he is suddenly immersed in, contrasted with Tommy Lee Jones’ seasoned pro who treats it all just like another day at the office.
Picking one alien from the movie was a toss-up between the evil cockroach creature that serves as the main villain and his tiny victim. While Vincent D’Onfrio’s hilariously gross performance as the malevolent bug wearing an ill-fitting farmer’s skin is brilliant and the CGI roach is still pretty scary, this little fella wins it for me.
Not only is the model work wonderfully lifelike, his conveyance is almost surrealistic. Our heroes find him dying at the controls behind the faceplate of an ageing gent who, a few scenes earlier, we took as a regular walking, talking human being.
11. E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
So here is something that blew my mind researching this piece. E.T’s species, the Asogians, made a brief cameo appearance in The Phantom Menace during the Galactic Senate scene. That means, in a roundabout way, that E.T’s visit to Earth in the saccharine ‘80s blockbuster is part of the Star Wars universe.
To make things even weirder, there is a scene in Spielberg’s film where Elliot shows the friendly alien his Star Wars action figures. Surely if arch-tinkerer George Lucas ever got his hands on the scene he’d retrofit it so E.T says something like: “Yeah, I know these guys, they’re from my neck of the cosmos!”
Anyway, I digress. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is a little mawkish for my taste, but it would be churlish not to include the film on this list. The intergalactic visitor with the big eyes, glowing finger, and desire to phone home is still one of the greatest friendly aliens in movie history.
10. The Gorilla-Wolf Motherf***ers in Attack the Block (2011)
Hoodies vs alien invaders is a genius concept, concocted in part by writer-director Joe Cornish to counteract the 2000’s British trend of making deprived teens the bogeymen in their own horror subgenre (see: Them, Eden Lake, etc.)
He spent time with youth gangs in south London to nail the lingo and see things from their perspective in preparation for Attack the Block, and the attention to detail really paid off in how he portrays the kids, led by the charismatic John Boyega in his film debut. They are an authentically rough-and-ready but very appealing bunch, and Cornish finds time to hint at the socio-economic circumstances behind their behaviour during all the alien mayhem.
It’s a refreshing approach to the time-worn setup and the creatures themselves are such a cool concept, brilliantly realised by Cornish and his effects team. These ferocious gorilla-like beasts are a completely featureless black apart from their luminous fangs, inspired by the cabinet art of the old Space Invaders arcade game. On a minimal budget, the aliens are a blend of puppets, stuntmen in suits, and lo-fi CGI, just going to show how you can still create something unique with a little imagination.
9. The Pod People in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 & 1978)
The Pod People have become some of sci-fi’s most insidious monsters, spreading their feelers across the decades in four very different adaptations of Jack Finney’s chilling novel - Body Snatchers and The Invasion also followed in 1993 and 2007 respectively.
They are strange alien spores that arrive on Earth and grow into large seed pods that have the ability to replicate human victims perfectly, apart from their emotions and/or soul. Such a pernicious paranoid threat is open to a variety of interpretations, which may explain the Pod People’s longevity, adaptable to the fears of any era.
The original 1956 is still one of the most rewatchable films of the decade and is variously read as a metaphor for Communism or McCarthyism. I prefer Philip Kaufman’s masterful 1978 remake which really expands on the concept, moving the threat from small town USA to trendy San Francisco.
Following four very relatable protagonists (Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, and Veronica Cartwright), much of the horror comes from little snippets of dialogue and disturbing clues in the background; a teacher is overheard persuading a group of schoolkids to pick the strange new flowers they find in the park, while garbage trucks are constantly busying themselves removing mysterious dusty grey material.
The details are surreptitious and build a cumulative sense of unease, but Kaufman keeps a few truly horrific money moments up his sleeve. Duplicates of our protagonists covered in sinister creeping fibres, the ghastly true nature of the grey stuff, and a horrid human-dog hybrid are all the stuff of nightmares. That’s all before you get to the brilliant shock ending.
8. The Colour in Color Out of Space (2019)
How do you successfully depict a colour that lies beyond our visual spectrum and has never been seen on Earth before? It was a creative challenge that maverick director Richard Stanley and his design team negotiated to spectacular effect in this instant cult classic, based on the popular short story by H.P. Lovecraft.
Using colours “at the outer limit of the human visual spectrum” the result is “what happens when you mix infrared with ultraviolet.” In short, it’s purple.
Yet Stanley’s offbeat rhythms, Colin Stetson’s otherworldly score, and the eerie sound design all combine to create an atmosphere so beguilingly sinister that it really feels like a colour that we’ve never encountered before. We never see the cosmic entity that causes it, but the malign shade gradually overtakes the film’s visual palette on the way to the eye-poppingly intense finale.
7. The Prawn in District 9 (2009)
One thing I noticed when putting together this list is how many movie aliens are humanoid. That’s not necessarily a failure of imagination; it’s just that our minds tend to reach for the form that is most familiar, which is also why people see faces in clouds and Jesus in their toast.
The Prawns in District 9 are a great example of how to do humanoid aliens and still manage to make them seem incredibly out of this world. Neil Blomkamp’s stunning debut blended science fiction with social commentary as a half-derelict spacecraft above Johannesburg, filled with desperate alien refugees with no place else to go. Naturally, they get dumped in a squalid camp and treated with all the contempt and abuse that regular human refugees tend to experience, dubbed “Prawns” by the locals.
The greatness of the Prawns is that they are designed to appear initially bizarre and even repugnant to us, playing on the common revulsion of bugs. They have their own specific behaviour and customs, but gradually we start to see the common “humanity” behind the outlandish appearance. This film is also one of the rare examples where I forget that I’m watching CGI creations. Will there ever be a District 10? I’m still hoping.
6. The Blob in The Blob (1988)
The original 1958 film may well have given Steve McQueen his big break and inspired the Phoenixville Blobfest, where festival-goers recreate the famous cinema scene by running screaming from the theatre, but it’s a little creaky these days.
Chuck Russell’s no-holds-barred remake is the real deal, showcasing some of the best practical effects the ‘80s had to offer in a decade packed with superior updates of ‘50s stalwarts. The film updates the “something just fell from the sky - let’s poke it” premise of the original, flipping the roles and making the leather-jacketed outsider the hero, and gives the Blob far more tricks than the original ever dreamed. It also managed to make a mass of bubble-gum-pink jelly scary.
While obviously nodding to John Carpenter’s The Thing, there is plenty of ghoulish imagination on display here. The malignant goo can now sprout appendages, most alarmingly in the terrifying update of the cinema scene, as well as suck people down drains, melt parts of them away, and smother them in its all-encompassing ooze. A nice grotesque touch is how it still carries bits of its last meal around inside it like flies caught in tree sap. The Blob is an absolute blast and an under-appreciated gem of ‘80s sci-fi horror.
5. The Heptapods in Arrival (2016)
The mysterious design of the Squid-like aliens in Arrival is intriguing enough, but the most interesting thing about the film is its focus on language and communication, making a serious attempt to explore how we might try to interact with extra-terrestrials if they ever touch down on Earth.
Since it’s a Denis Villeneuve movie it’s all done in the most muted way possible, with even the potential for riots, panic, and disastrous conflict kept largely in the background. The focus remains with Amy Adams as a grieving translator who works with the creatures to unpick their palindromic language, which has game-changing implications not just for mankind, but for the powerful emotional arc of the story.
Much of the wonder and apprehension of her close encounter is played out on Adams’ face, and it was an absolute crime that she didn’t receive an Oscar nomination for her performance while the film itself was nominated for eight, including Best Picture. One person who definitely deserved their nod from the Academy was Production Designer Patrice Vermette, whose enigmatic alien language was perhaps even more memorable than the Heptapods themselves.
4. The Predator in Predator (1987)
Between John McTiernan’s original film and Prey, the Predator franchise has been poor, even compared to the patchy Alien series. Watching the latest entry, I realised why this is the case: The stakes in a Predator movie are pretty low. These guys aren’t here to conquer the planet, they’re just here to do a little hunting. Therefore, each film lives or dies on how much you care whether the protagonist survives or not, and each entry constantly needs to contrive new ways of putting humans in the laser-sights of the creature.
The first film lucked out by coming along when it did. Released at that ‘80s crescendo of muscle-bound action heroes, Predator succeeded because it gave us a well-drawn team of beefy bad-asses, showed us how invincible they were mowing down scores of human enemies, before making them almost helpless when faced with an unseen alien hunter.
Like Spielberg and Jaws, McTiernan wisely kept the alien hidden for around an hour of the film. Then, when we finally saw it, it certainly didn’t disappoint. The Predator’s helmet, dreads, and weaponry were all cool enough, but when the facemask was removed Stan Winston’s awesome creature design took over the show with the pincers around the mouth, the malevolent little eyes, and the terrifying roar.
Here, at least until the T-1000 came along, was Arnie’s first opponent that actually looked like it could pose a serious physical threat to the Austrian Oak, and creating a movie monster that made Schwarzenegger believably the underdog at that stage of his career was an unlikely masterstroke. Thankfully the original idea of casting the diminutive Jean-Claude Van Damme as the monster never came to pass.
3. Jabba and the Gang in Return of the Jedi (1983)
Return of the Jedi might well be the weakest film of the original trilogy, largely due to clunky pacing, but it really went to town when it came to giving us a wild array of creatures. No, I’m not referring to the Ewoks, I’m talking about the rogue’s gallery of alien scum in the fantastic opening sequence.
Luke and friends descend on the desert palace of Jabba the Hutt to rescue Han Solo and encounter a crazy menagerie that even outdoes the Mos Eisley cantina scene in A New Hope. You’ve got the boar-like guards; Bib Fortuna, Jabba’s sinister consigliere with what looks like guts hanging around his neck; Salacious B. Crumb, the evil muppet court jester; and even a weirdo lounge act that rivals the Mos Eisley resident band. Overseeing it all is the vile Jabba himself, an immense slug-like creature reclining on his throne while snacking on live frogs and waving his slimy tongue around.
If that wasn’t enough, there is the hulking Rancor lurking around in the dungeon below, and an exhilarating action set piece above the voracious maw of the Sarlaac pit monster, with its rings of teeth and hungry tentacles. Brilliant stuff.
2. The Xenomorphs in the Alien Franchise (1979 onwards)
Is there a more perfect alien design in all of cinema? Originating from the disturbing yet strangely beautiful biomechanical artwork of H.R. Giger, the Xenomorph in its basic form still has the power to evoke a primal sense of fear from an audience. Emerging from the steam or shadows with that sleek eyeless head and its extra set of extendable jaws drooling in anticipation of the kill, it arouses a powerful impulse to flee. Well, it does in me, at least.
The Alien franchise has expanded on the creature’s life cycle and tinkered with the design, for better or worse. The horrible leathery eggs, spidery face huggers, and awesome Alien Queen are all brilliantly and believably of a piece, but the ill-conceived Newborn in Alien Resurrection and Ridley Scott’s muddled prequels have sullied the brand. Even so, those unfortunate choices have done little to expel the sheer scariness of the original creations.
If they’re so perfect, I hear you ask, why don’t they take the top spot? Well, there is one small but simple flaw. In certain scenes during the first two classic movies, the creatures are obviously played by a guy in a monster suit.
1. The Thing in The Thing (1982)
The Thing made a triumphant anniversary return to the big screen this year, 40 years after it bombed at the box office. In retrospect, it’s perhaps easy to see why. In the summer of E.T, who really wanted to sit around in a dark room watching a bunch of blokes in Antarctica getting ripped to shreds in a breathtakingly gross exercise in body horror?
The claustrophobic interiors and intense paranoia of John Carpenter’s masterpiece was better suited to the small screen, anyway. I remember watching it for the first time, anxiously scanning the grainy VHS image for signs of peril in the background while I munched on my knuckles.
Watching it again in full HD, the rubbery nature of the creature becomes far more apparent, but Rob Bottin’s spectacular shape-shifting alien is still a high point of physical effects, shocking us with one jaw-dropping perversion of human or animal form after another. Each iteration of the Thing is wildly different to the last, with the showstopper arriving in the infamous Defibrillator scene.
Carpenter’s mastery of suspense sets the table for one of the weirdest and borderline surreal set pieces ever. After posing as the team member we least suspect, the Thing feigns a heart attack and lures in the doctor, chomping his arms off. While the rest of the guys are in a state of panic dealing with the horrid creature springing from the stricken man’s chest cavity, his head takes leave of his body and sprouts eyes on stalks and spider legs before scuttling away. It is spotted just in the nick of time, resulting in the film’s most famous and totally relatable line: “You gotta be f***ing kidding.” That echoed my thoughts exactly, and the sequence still takes my breath away every time I see it.
So there you have it, the final dozen of my favourite movie aliens. I’ve left plenty of great creatures out, so which are your picks? Let us know!