The 50 Best Movies about Aliens

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The 50 Best Movies about Aliens

Aliens have long fascinated us. Humanity has wondered about life on the moon and among the stars at least as early as the second century, when Lucian wrote about his travels to the moon and stars and his encounters with the people there. And those imaginings made it onto film as early as 1918 with Holder-Madsen’s A Trip to Mars.

The Fermi Paradox might have scientists scrambling for answers on why we haven’t been able to make contact with alien races, but filmmakers have rescued us from the Great Silence with countless fictional encounters with aliens throughout cinema history. Whether visitations from malicious invaders or those coming to save us from ourselves, stories of humanity encountering alien races on their own turf or movies taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, these 50 films present us with a wide-range of life on other planets.

We’ve included many entries from The Best Sci-Fi Movies of All Time, The Best Superhero Movies of All Time and even The Best Anime Movies of All Time.

Here are the 50 best movies about aliens:

50. Superman (1978)
Director: Richard Donner

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Superman, the original superhero, had been depicted onscreen prior—with a live-action television show, as well as both animated and live-action big screen serials, it’s true. But the most iconic version of the legendary figure unquestionably belongs to Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s 1978 film. “You will believe a man can fly,” promised the tagline, and, although the impressiveness of the SFX of the time have diminished considerably, one has to be the hardest of hard-bitten cynics to not succumb to its euphoric tone and myriad charms. Following the Man of Steel from his exodus off his doomed planet of Krypton as a baby, to growing up the adopted child of loving Smallville parents, the Kents, Superman is a hell of a rousing tale of the ultimate immigrant, mixing happily with the action, romance and goofball comedy set pieces. Apart from Reeve’s inspired handling of his dual role as both a gentle demigod and nerdy reporter, Clark Kent, there’s practically an overabundance of talent in front of the camera. As Lois Lane, feisty journalist and fulcrum of Superman/Clark’s love triangle, Margot Kidder nails both the physical comedy and starry-eyed wonder. Gene Hackman as the Blue Boy Scout’s arch-nemesis, Lex Luthor, instills the mad scientist with a note of vulnerability to pair with his massive ego. And—oh yeah—Marlon Frickin’ Brando is Superman’s daddy, appearing both as Krypton’s sole voice of reason in the film’s opening moments and later as a disembodied computer AI who reveals Kal-El’s true heritage to him. Of course, there’s John Williams’ unforgettable score—an iconic piece of work all on its own. Oh, Man of Steel tried to become the de facto origin of Supes in 2013, but Snyder and company should have known they were wasting their time. Superman 1978 is not just your father’s Superman, it’s the Superman. —Scott Wold.


49. Starman (1984)
Director: John Carpenter 

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John Carpenter’s Starman melds fish-out-of-water hijinks with more complex moral hierarchies. Jeff Bridges is the titular Starman, an outer space shape-shifter who takes the form of a widow’s (Karen Allen in one of her best unsung performances) recently departed husband, and enlists her to drive him to the Grand Canyon for … something that’s better left undisclosed. Bridges earned an Oscar nomination for his role as a gradually emerging human, though his performance is a bit distracting in its initial reliance on body language tics like hunched head turns and a scrunched Ken-doll expression. In the early going, it looks as though at any point he could unhinge his jaw inside out like one of the grotesqueries from The Thing. After the initial theatrics, an undeniably complex internal conversation ponders the need to lionize or villainize those who are different, as best synthesized in Charles Martin Smith’s line, “The cannibal said to the missionary, ‘Who is the missionary and who’s the cannibal?’” Another film about friendly aliens that uncovers the nature of our relationships, Starman isn’t necessarily interested in the outside forces in general, even as they’re always in the rearview mirror. Buoyed by Jack Nitzsche’s soaring, bruisingly raw synth score and the bristling warmth in Allen and Bridge’s romance, it’s a reminder that the purity of aliens reacting to humanity can reflect both our most base and most affirming qualities as a species. —Michael Snydel


48. Stargate (1994)
Director: Roland Emmerich

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A pre-disaster-porn Roland Emmerich directed this (intentionally?) campy, conspiracy-minded sci-fi yarn—a film probably better remembered via the television franchise it spawned—and it’s an odd duck for sure. James Spader plays an Egyptologist savant who cracks the code to open the titular gate, while Kurt Russell growls at space aliens in the guise of ancient Egyptian deities. That right: Suck it, Ancient Egyptian engineers! You weren’t so clever after all; alien slavers built the pyramids before humans revolted and sent them packing to another planet! The rest of the movie is as bonkers as its setup, while Spader, the woman gifted to him (problematic!) and Russell leap to incredulous assumptions trying to make their way back home. But first, won’t some white savior please free the space Egyptians?! —Scott Wold


47. Spaceballs (1987)
Director: Mel Brooks

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Originally perceived as one of writer/director Mel Brooks’ lesser works, this loving send-up of the sci-fi/fantasy genre (specifically, Star Wars) has, over the years, wormed its way into the hearts of a new generation of fans who caught it on video. “May the Schwartz be with you,” “Ludicrous Speed,” “Mawg”—if these are all terms that mean nothing to you then it’s high-time you checked this movie out and see what all the fuss is about. —Mark Rozeman


46. 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Director: Dan Trachtenberg

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At its core, 10 Cloverfield Lane effectively works as an extended, modern-day riff on a Twilight Zone episode, a program producer J.J. Abrams holds near and dear to his heart. But despite its enclosed setting and limited speaking parts, the film is very much a cinematic experience, with director Dan Trachtenberg milking each interaction and set piece for maximum impact. By the time the film reaches its dramatic final stretch, the narrative has successfully escalated to a point wherein the crazier elements fit right in with the more grounded ones. The story opens with Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), deciding to exit a relationship gone south and head for the hills. This entire opening sequence plays out like a beautiful, near wordless, mini-symphony with Bear McCreary’s fantastic score soundtracking Michelle’s internal anxiety and indecision—up until the point where her car is run off the road. She later awakens in an underground bunker, her broken leg chained to a pipe. It’s here we meet John Goodman’s Howard, who—throughout the course of the film—alternates between captor and caretaker. Howard informs Michelle that the planet is currently under attack by some unknown force and that the atmosphere outside the bunker has been contaminated. Imposing and gruff, John Goodman’s inherently magnetic, charismatic persona is a thin veneer to the character’s rumbling sea of Walter Sobchak-ian fury and rage. You never quite know when and where he’s going to explode. This is a role Goodman was born to play. As our surrogate, Winstead once again proves why she’s one of the industry’s best young talents. Fans of Spielberg-like ingenuity and Hitchcockian suspense will marvel at the sense of craft and skill on display. Certainly, had he still been alive to see this, the Master of Suspense would be nodding his head in approval. —Mark Rozeman


45. Mars Attacks (1996)
Director:   Tim Burton  

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With Jack Nicholson as president, Sarah Jessica Parker’s head appearing atop a chihuahua body and an alien race that speaks in a bird-like squawk, Mars Attacks is filled with enough campy goodness to make even the most serious sci-fi fan crack a smile. Although it was initially received poorly among critics and fans alike, repeat viewings of Mars Attacks made this one shine for a cult audience. —Sean Doyle


44. Galaxy Quest (1999)
Director: Dean Parisot

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Galaxy Quest is a film about equilibrium between love and parody; a movie made with less of the former and too much of the latter becomes a mean-spirited dunk on sci-fi fandom, and a movie made in the reverse becomes too much about fan service than honest-to-goodness storytelling. Dean Parisot, aided and abetted by writers David Howard and Robert Gordon, finds the perfect balance of both, and Galaxy Quest gets to be a straight-up sci-fi adventure flick that embraces its genre as enthusiastically as it pokes fun at its tropes. You don’t make that kind of affectionate self-satire without caring. It’s not like sci-fi fandom couldn’t stand a little dunking, after all, but only a real sci-fi fan knows where to draw the line. So Parisot, Howard and Gordon must be real sci-fi fans. Much as Galaxy Quest picks away at the conventions of its category, and at the people who worship sci-fi with as much reverence as the average Baptist praises Jesus, it’s built on an abiding fondness for Star Trek: For phasers, for warp drives, for teleportation, for holograms, for alien races exotic and bizarre, for every other damn cliché in the sci-fi playbook that makes us groan but which we know we couldn’t quite live without. (What’s a good sci-fi movie without a brash, macho commander who makes questionable strategic calls that somehow work anyway?) This one’s for the sci-fi fans. And if you’re not a sci-fi fan, then it might be the movie to make you into one. —Andy Crump


43. Captain Marvel (2019)
Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

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One thing Captain Marvel has going for it that Ant Man and the Wasp didn’t is that it gives us a lead character we can care about and (even more important) an actor (Brie Larson) who rises to the occasion. In many of these Marvel origin stories—and by my count, this is the eighth one since the original Iron Man—the movie goes through great pains to explain to us why we should care about this new character, why, with everything else we have to keep track of, we should readily agree to adding one more to the mix. Captain Marvel, like many MCU movies, sometimes labors under the weight of having to tell its own story while still connecting to the larger, ongoing saga, but it has no issues with justifying its main character: We see in her eyes, from the first second, what’s different about her. The movie has us on her side before she ever says a word. The film is otherwise entertaining and exhausting in the equal measures we have come to expect from modern Marvel movies—if you’ve seen one bad guy bent on galaxy domination, you’ve seen them all. You know the music, so it’s all about how they play the notes. Larson gets valuable support from Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn, still reliably Ben Mendelsohn even under layers of alien makeup, and the ’90s backdrop is at least a welcome changeup from the usual formula. But this movie isn’t about the supporting characters, or the setting, or even how well its big action set pieces play out. It’s all about whether or not they can sell this Captain Marvel as someone who, later, even the mighty Avengers can call to someday help them save the world. In Larson, they have a star who is more than up for the task. You’ve seen this movie before. But you haven’t seen her. —Will Leitch


42. The Hidden (1987)
Director: Jack Sholder

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Though John Carpenter’s The Thing steeped the then-terrifyingly mysterious AIDS crisis in otherworldly horror five years before, The Hidden indulges in similar tropes and identical themes with blunter, no-less-pulpier mayhem. LA detective Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) must reluctantly work with FBI Special Agent Gallagher (Kyle Maclachlan, pretty much playing a proto-Dale Cooper) to get to the bottom of a spate of violently incomprehensible murder sprees seducing otherwise normal, mild-mannered citizens—only to discover, when it’s much too late, that the culprit is an alien slug parasite passed orally from host to host, giving each unlucky husk superhuman vulnerability and a nihilistic mean streak. The sci-fi fare of the late ’80s too often succumbed to the cynicism of an overcommercialized zeitgeist, seeing in corporate America and the Reagan administration’s response to every social crisis the death knell of whatever good vibes speculative fiction once had to offer, but with The Hidden—violent and brutal in its own right—came, in the film’s final moments, a gesture of sacrifice and genuine compassion unusual for a genre flick of its ilk. Or, at least, that’s one way to interpret it. —Dom Sinacola


41. Independence Day (1996)
Director: Roland Emmerich

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They pretty much don’t make action movies like Independence Day anymore, although if you ask someone who caught Independence Day: Resurgence, they’ll tell you that’s probably a good thing. Regardless, there’s a certain sheen to this particular brand of FX-driven pre-2000s disaster blockbuster, an earnestness of conviction in terms of clear-cut characters like Jeff Goldblum’s “David Levinson”—call it a willingness to believe that the audience will be 100 percent on board with a protagonist from the very beginning, rather than questioning his methods. As for the rest of the cast, we get a who’s who of ’90s delights, whether it’s an ascendant, wisecracking Will Smith—one year before Men in Black would cement him as leading man material—or Bill Pullman as the flyboy American president ready to deliver one of cinema’s greatest jingoistic addresses. Independence Day doesn’t shy away from its inspirations as pulp (it might as well be a remake of Earth vs. The Flying Saucers as far as the alien motivations are concerned) but it dresses up its Saturday morning cartoon plot with undeniably ambitious spectacle, even when viewed 20-plus years later. That exploding White House, not to mention the effortless camaraderie of Goldblum and Smith in all their scenes together, cement Independence Day among the most rewatchable sci-fi action films of the past two decades. —Jim Vorel


40. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Director: Gareth Edwards

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Gareth Edwards’ venture into a galaxy far, far away is the Star Wars film we never knew we needed. A triumphantly thrilling, serious-minded war movie, it’s incalculably stronger for the fact that it’s not the first chapter in a new franchise, but complete and self-contained (to the extent that any Star Wars film can be) in a way that no other Star Wars entry, other than A New Hope, is capable of achieving. It doesn’t “set the stage” for an inevitable next installment, and its characters are all the realer for the fact that they’re not perpetually sheathed in blasterproof Franchise Armor. I had no idea until I watched Rogue One how refreshing that concept would be. Our protagonist is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a plucky young woman whose brilliant scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) has been controlled throughout her life by the Empire and coerced into designing superweapons of the moon-sized, planet-killing variety. Forced into adulthood on the fringes of the Rebel Alliance, she’s assembled a Jack Sparrow-esque rap sheet and, as the film begins, finds herself in Imperial prison on various petty charges. Sprung by the rebels (who all carry themselves like serious badasses, by the way), she’s sucked into a mission involving her father, the newly completed Death Star and a cast of resistance fighters and idealists all opposing the Empire in one way or another. It’s often been said that George Lucas’s original work mirrors the likes of Kurosawa and spaghetti westerns, and that’s never been more true than in Rogue One as it slowly assembles its team. This is pretty far from the kid-friendly, fast-talking, joke-cracking bluster of John Boyega’s Finn in The Force Awakens, and any fears that Disney was trying to lighten the mood of the film by “inserting humor” via subsequent reshoots are positively unfounded. The droid character of K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, shoulders almost the entire load of comic relief, and although his funnier lines do occasionally seem out of place, they ultimately buoy the film with much-needed levity. Indeed, without those occasional chuckles, one might describe the film as positively dour—they’re well calculated to be just enough. What Rogue One is, most accurately, is what it was sold as all along: A legitimate war movie/commando story, albeit with some familial entanglements. —Jim Vorel


39. The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Director: Nicholas Roeg

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Imbued with newfound poignancy and melancholia after the passing of its mercurial lead Starman, David Bowie, Nicholas Roeg’s impressionistic, ravenous, experiential masterpiece is one of the rare films about aliens that feels as exotic in its form as its content. Filled with Roeg’s characteristically discursive, paradoxically symmetrical but nonlinear cutting and violently sensual imagery, The Man Who Fell to Earth is as much about subverting the very nature of human experience as it is about offering an outside window into our culture. As the “secretive, but not private” Thomas Jerome Newton—a meteoric billionaire industrialist whose knowledge allows him to skip decades of scientific stranglehold at a mere moment—Bowie’s version of a universal traveler is less about a misunderstanding of the world than a semantic confusion of the pronunciation of words, or an inability to reinforce his own externalized narrative. Even as Newton leaps every known scientific hurdle, his life force is slowly being wrung out by competitors and friends alike who are so consumed with success they’re unable to see the big picture, or recognize the importance of Newton’s own interest in returning to his family. In what both represents and replicates the experience of watching a Roeg film, Newton obsesses over dozens of televisions, attempting to collectively view reality as one congealed experience. As he explains, “Television shows you everything, but it doesn’t tell you everything.” Moving decades in single frames, Newton can’t escape this misery of his own making, basking in the death of his memories over endless gins as he experiences seemingly multiple lifetimes in a single event. Referring to his eternal imprisonment, Rip Torn’s traitorous Nathan Bryce asks, “Are you mad that we did this?” On the verge of passing out, Newton responds, “We’d have probably treated you the same if you came over to our place.” Even aliens aren’t immune to our vices of apathy and despair. —Michael Snydel


38. Contact (1997)
Director: Robert Zemeckis

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Contact seems almost calculated as the sort of cerebral sci-fi to frustrate multiplex audiences with its philosophical, open-ended conclusion about “first contact,” questioning whether any of what Jodie Foster’s character experienced really happened at all. Still, Contact is a beautiful film about the struggle between the tangible and the ephemeral, between faith, intellect and ambition. Ellie (Foster) is innately sympathetic, a woman with a selfless streak who nonetheless on some level seeks a very personal validation in being chosen as humanity’s representative to meet an alien race. The film challenges us to consider the depth of our inconsequential standing in the universe, and how different aspects of humanity, both beautiful and hideous, would present themselves after the revelation of a “higher power.” Add to this an impressive cast that includes Foster, John Hurt, James Woods, William Fichtner, Rob Lowe, Tom Skerritt, David Morse and Matthew McConaughey (years before his McConaissance), and you can overlook the presence of Jake Busey in one of the best examples of “hard sci-fi” in the 1990s. —Jim Vorel


37. The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
Director: John Sayles

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An inevitable thematic companion piece to The Man Who Fell to Earth, John Sayles’ brilliantly subversive, socially incisive The Brother From Another Planet looks at humanity through a distinctly less luxurious lens, if not a more outwardly humanistic context. Beginning with the crash landing of a spaceship in 1980s Harlem, “Three-toe” (a stunning Joe Morton, who may be best known in the contemporary landscape as Olivia Pope’s father on Scandal) is a mute alien who’s on the run from two Men in Black from his planet, where he was enslaved for labor. Mistaken for a foreigner given his inability to speak English, he fortuitously falls into the good graces of a local bar owner and its band of idiosyncratic regulars. At first, they can’t decide whether he’s a wino or crazy, but as one of the regulars, Fly (Darryl Edwards), states after pushing a shot of whiskey in front of him, “He hates the flavor of booze, so he must be crazy.” Still, they stand up for their own, and soon they’ve found him a place to stay and are telling the Men in Black to buzz off, with mixed results. A purely low-budget affair, the glistening steel drum soundtrack, distinctly ’80s New York milieu and glitchy digital special effects have certainly carbon-dated The Brother From Another Planet, but that doesn’t mean its message is any less resonant. A beacon of multiculturalism, “Three-toe” drifts from neighborhood to neighborhood, wandering the streets and peering into the treatment of different communities through conversations with social services representatives, cops and junkies. Without saying a word, he helps people through supernatural and, more engagingly, natural ways. Per usual, Sayles has a peerless sense for dialogue—take a humorously strange, errant detail of lumpiness in a pie-like tumor—but his real skills as a writer are on display when the small talk moves to social consciousness at a moment’s notice without sounding preordained in any way. Like other films that consider racial and class divides (Trading Places), The Brother From Another Planet so casually bridges these conversations, simply given the ability to breathe by a character who’s an outsider. He may be an alien, but that doesn’t mean goodness isn’t an innate part of his being. —Michael Snydel


36. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
Director: Doug Liman

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Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) spends his days in the film’s near-future setting spinning the armed forces’ ongoing efforts against a hostile alien race (dubbed Mimics) without ever setting foot on a battlefield. At least until a gruff general (Brendan Gleeson) sends him on a particularly dicey mission. The result is Cage’s death, but the story doesn’t end there. Instead Cage awakes at the beginning of the day he died with his memory intact, and quickly discovers the resurrections will recur every time he dies. His only hope of escaping the endless cycle lies with super-soldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who knows from experience exactly how Cage might be able to use this new ability to help humanity win the war of the worlds. Based on the manga All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka and adapted for the screen by Christopher McQuarrie (Cruise’s current go-to director completely in sync with his physically-defying action spectacle) and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, Edge of Tomorrow recalls other notable time loop sagas, including Groundhog Dayand Source Code in the witty and engaging way it moves its story forward piece by piece. As Cage relives the same day over and over again, he also learns how to become a true soldier, trains with (and falls for) Rita, discovers how the aliens function and ever so patiently formulates the perfect plan of attack. Like a videogame hero with infinite lives, Cage has the opportunity to refine and correct every mistake he makes along the way. However long Cage is on that journey, Edge of Tomorrow is a blast, and Cruise carries the surprisingly amusing action like a pro—his skill with deadpan comedy proving even more valuable than his infamous enthusiasm for sacrificing his flesh over and over and over. —Geoff Berkshire


35. Return of the Jedi (1983)
Director: Richard Marquand

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Look, I’m not here to defend Ewoks. Really, I’m not. But there’s a certain subset of Star Wars fans who go really profoundly overboard on their Ewok hang-up. Yes, the little fuzzballs probably could have been phased out of Episode VI altogether, but outside of them, the film offers the most incredible action sequences and epic conclusion of the entire series. So please, forget about the Ewoks for one moment and appraise the film on the rest of its merits. It’s all here: Incredibly varied settings, from the grime of Jabba’s palace to the overgrowth of Endor and the cold, steely sparseness of Imperial command ships. A fully matured Luke (Mark Hamill) proves that his powers have grown considerably, that he’s not simply chasing “delusions of grandeur” in the rescue of Han (Harrison Ford). And then there’s the true introduction of Palpatine as the face of ultimate evil—is there any more badass way to introduce a character for the first time than for Darth Vader, who we’ve personally witnessed choke numerous officers to death for trivial offenses, to say, “The Emperor is not as forgiving as I am”? The space battle above Endor is the greatest that the series has ever produced, and probably ever will produce (the only thing that comes close is the conclusion of Rogue One); the sheer scale and dizzying choreography that ILM managed to pull off with practical effects in 1983 is still one of the most amazing VFX feats in cinema history. And the ultimate confrontation between Luke, Vader and the Emperor is the tipping point of the entire trilogy’s arc: Luke’s final test—both of his Jedi resolve and his deep-seated belief in the spark of Anakin Skywalker left burning deep within Vader. The moment when Luke casts his lightsaber down and declares himself to be “a Jedi, like my father before me,” bringing a bitter scowl to the Emperor’s crestfallen face, is an emotional triumph. —Jim Vorel


34. Avatar (2009)
Director:   James Cameron  

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It makes sense that Avatar is still the highest grossing movie ever made: Irony and insincerity have no place in its extended universe. Whether or not James Cameron intended to crib the world of Pandora and its futuristic inhabitants from practically every fantastical ur-text ever conceived, it hardly matters, because Avatar is modern mythmaking at its most foundational. Cameron still seems to believe that “the movies” can give audiences a transformative experience, so every sinew of his film bears the Herculean effort of truly genius worldbuilding, telling the simple story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and his Dances with Wolves-like saving of the Na’vi, natives to the planet of Pandora, from the destructive forces of colonialism. Cameron wants us to care about this world as much as Jake Sully, and by extension James Cameron, does, crafting flora and fauna with borderline sociopathic obsessiveness, at the time pushing 3-D technology to its brink to bring his inhuman imagination alive. It worked; “unobtanium” is actually a real thing. Four sequels feels like a disgusting gambit for a man whose ambition may have long ago outpaced his sense of storytelling, or sense of reason, or sense of what our oversaturated, over-franchised culture can even stomach anymore. But Cameron’s proven us wrong countless times before. —Dom Sinacola


33. Attack the Block (2011)
Director: Joe Cornish

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Written and directed by Joe Cornish, the sci-fi action comedy centers on a gang of teenage thugs—particularly their disgruntled leader, Moses, remarkably underplayed by a young John Boyega—and their housing project in South London. When the defiant juveniles take their crime to a new level and mug an innocent nurse (a delightful Jodie Whittaker), they immediately find themselves plagued by alien invaders. These hideous creatures, with their jet black fur and glowing blue fangs, want nothing more than to destroy the boys and their tower block. In the spirit of Spielberg—even more so than J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg ode of the same year, Super 8—Cornish uses alien beings as the catalyst to bring supernatural redemption to a person and a community. He focuses specifically on London’s socioeconomic bottom half and the turmoil surrounding them, exposing the lies that society’s youth buy into that prolong cultural discontinuity. A comical scene, in which Moses tries to make sense of the aliens while giving excuses for his criminal behavior, highlights this cleverly—he doesn’t just blame the government for violence and drugs in his neighborhood, he blames the government for the whole alien invasion. Cornish, however, doesn’t simply confront this hopeless attitude, he points toward hope—most vividly in the way Moses battles the aliens, his fight rapt with symbolic implications. Though he tries to escape the beasts through running and avoidance, he realizes he must inevitably face them, but not on his own. In Attack the Block, the alien invasion becomes one giant metaphor for the darkness that binds Moses, his friends and his block—a threat that can only be countered with the pivotal power of community. —Maryann Koopman Kelly


32. District 9 (2012)
Director:   Neill Blomkamp  

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Let’s begin with a number: 30 million. That’s how much money Neill Blomkamp spent to make District 9, a movie small in scale but great in ambition, look like it cost four times that amount. Years later, Blomkamp’s career hasn’t realized the full promise shown in District 9, but here, he looks like a guy knows what he’s doing all the same. A genre stew blended from varying measurements of Alien Nation, Watermelon Man, Independence Day, The Fly and RoboCop, District 9 treads familiar territory in an unfamiliar place, through an unfamiliar lens, splicing documentary-style filmmaking together with stomach-churning body horror and, by the end, high-end action spectacle. Nine years ago, the end results of Blomkamp’s mad sci-fi cocktail felt revelatory. Today they feel disappointing, a remark on what he could have been and where his career might have taken him if he’d not lost himself in the morass of Elysium or turned off even his more devoted followers with Chappie. All the same, District 9 remains a major work for a first-timer, or even a third-timer, polished and yet scrappy at the same time; the film tells of an artist with something to say, and saying it with electric urgency. —Andy Crump


31. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Director: Rian Johnson

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The Last Jedi, unlike its predecessor, has the freedom to be daring, and perhaps the most thrilling thing about it—and there are many, many thrilling things—is how abundantly it takes advantage of that freedom. If The Force Awakens was basically just Star Wars told again in a new, but familiar way, The Last Jedi challenges the audience, challenges the Star Wars mythos, even challenges the whole damned series itself. It blows the universe up to rebuild it; it is a continuation and a new beginning. And more than anything else, it goes places no Star Wars film has ever dreamed of going. In a way, the success J.J. Abrams had with The Force Awakens, particularly how decidedly fan-servicey it was, laid the groundwork for what The Last Jedi is able to pull off. That movie reminded you how much power and primal force this series still had. This movie is an even more impressive magic trick: It uses that power and force to connect you to something larger. Not everything in The Last Jedi works perfectly, but even its few missteps are all founded in the desire for something new, to take risks, to push an American myth into uncomfortable new directions. —Will Leitch


30. Interstella 5555 (2003)
Director: Kazuhisa Takenouchi

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Back in 2003, Daft Punk were on top of the world. Coming off the release of their breakout sophomore album Discovery with chart-topping singles like “Aerodynamic” and “One More Time,” the duo has confidently secured their place at the apex of the EDM zeitgeist. However, the pair had yet still more surprise up their sleeves. During the early recording sessions of Discovery, Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo co-wrote a screenplay based on the album with the intent of pitching it to their childhood hero, Leiji Matsumoto. One year before the album’s release, the pair travelled to Tokyo to present their idea to Matsumoto, which he accepted. The rest, they say, was history. Reportedly costing $4 million to produce, Interstella 5555 transformed an album that many thought to be absent of any hint of story and transformed into a grandiose EDM space opera rock odyssey centered on the perilous kidnapping and subsequent rescue of a blue-skinned alien rock band from the nefarious clutches of a label executive bent on galactic domination. More than just a serendipitous alignment of two immensely creative forces, Interstella 5555 surpasses the limitations of having no spoken dialogue to become a fascinating allegory for the appropriation of talent and the predatory machinations of the entertainment industry. It’s a one-of-a-kind collaboration that feels like a film pulled from some impossible, alternate dimension that should be seen by dance music fans and anime aficionados alike. —Toussaint Egan


29. Star Trek (2009)
Director:   J.J. Abrams  

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J.J. Abrams’ slick movie reboot of the Star Trek franchise is essentially a louder, flashier and sexed-up take on the ’60s television show. While it eschews the series’ usual M.O. of sci-fi-as-social-commentary, it’s largely faithful to the source material and features a top-shelf ensemble cast. Star Trek resurrects the idealistic flights of fancy of pre-’70s sci-fi, and offers us a compelling glimpse at what a multicultural (not to mention multicivilizational) utopian future might look like. Perhaps more importantly, this movie takes a franchise that’s seemingly indelibly stamped with the scarlet letter of geekdom and gives it mass appeal. —Michael Saba


28. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

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For every frenetic fight scene in Avengers: Infinity War—and there are plenty of them—there are myriad character interactions and emotional beats the audience has been prepped for by the previous films (okay, maybe not 2008’s The Incredible Hulk). As a result, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have ample room to riff and play as characters meet for the first time or see each other again. Some of the interactions are easy to anticipate (if no less enjoyable)—the immediate ego clash between Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange and Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, for example—but our familiarity with these characters adds resonance to nearly every scene and every line, as the vestiges and ripples of emotional arcs laid down in the last decade’s worth of movies bolster even the smallest moment. (It grounds such moments in ways that viewers unfamiliar with the bulk of the MCU will likely still recognize, as well.) It also generates a surprising amount of humor, especially for a two-hour-and-twenty-nine-minute film about a godlike being trying to exterminate half the population of the known universe. (It will forever bear repeating—when all is said and done, the casting of the MCU may go down as its most astounding achievement of all.) For anyone familiar with the source material—or anyone who has been paying attention to the movies—it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say things don’t go well for our heroes. In fact, in the genre of fantasy-sci fi franchises, probably only The Empire Strikes Back can make a case for ending on as dire a note. That, too, is sort of exhilarating, especially for those of us who remember seeing Empire in the theaters. Sure, you knew deep down that Han would get out of that block of carbonite and the Empire eventually be thwarted in the next film, but somehow that didn’t make you feel any better in the meantime. (See full review.)—Michael Burgin


27. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
Directors: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

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Where does one begin? When it comes to Avengers: Endgame, that question is not so much an expression of wanton enthusiasm as a practical challenge in evaluating the destination toward which Kevin Feige and company have been steering story and viewer alike for the past 11 years and 21 films. Though there have been plenty of three-hour-plus movies and even a few 20+ entry movie franchises, there’s really nothing to compare with what Disney and Marvel Studios have pulled off, either in terms of size, quality and consistency of cast (a moment of silence for Edward Norton and Terrence Howard), or in how narrow the chronological window, all things considered, those movies were produced. Though we’ve praised it often, casting remains the cornerstone of the MCU. Whether by pitch-perfect distillations of decades-old comic book characters (Captain American, Thor, Spider-Man) or charisma-fueled reinventions of same (Iron Man, Ant-Man, Star-Lord), the MCU’s batting average in terms of casting is not only practically obscene, it’s a crucial ingredient in ensuring the thematic and emotional payoff (and box office payday) of Endgame. Moviegoers have been living with these actors, as these characters, for over a decade. For many, this version of these characters is the only one they know. This is why the sudden ashification of so many heroes at the end of Infinity War hit even the most cynical comic book veterans right in the feels and left less hardened viewers confused and distraught. It’s also why, as Avengers: Endgame opens (after another swift kick to the stomach just in case we’ve forgotten the toll of that snap), the audience cares about not just what the surviving heroes are going to do, but how they are doing in general. It gives the film an emotional resonance that’s unusual not only in pulpier genre offerings but in films in general. This connection makes the quiet moments as valuable to the viewer as the spectacle, and for all the fireworks in the third act, Avengers: Endgame is very much a film of quiet moments and small yet potent emotional payoffs. Comic book fans know the thrill of following all your favorite characters through a multi-issue storyline that culminates in a “universe at stake” ending. Now, thanks to 21 movies in 11 years and one massive, satisfying three-hour finale, moviegoers do, too. —Michael Burgin


26. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Director:   J.J. Abrams  

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The Force Awakens provided a remedy for the near-terminal Prequel-itis of fans. J.J. Abrams and company accomplished this act of restorative cinema primarily through a return to the “dirty future” aesthetic that made the Original Trilogy feel so real (no matter how absurd the dialogue being delivered by the characters). That’s not to say CGI is lacking, but whereas budget and technology constraints helped the first three films and an overabundance hurt the next three, the balance between practical and special effects in The Force Awakens feels near perfect. I say “primarily” not to take away from other factors, such as casting. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver are all solid, and Oscar Isaac brings a palpable vigor to his role. Ultimately, The Force Awakens just feels right in ways the Prequels never did. —Michael Burgin


25. Men in Black (1997)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

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Tommy Lee Jones  and Will Smith have tremendous chemistry in what’s essentially a buddy cop movie. But if the cocky, young cop starts out sure of himself, Jones’s Agent K quickly brings him down to an alien-infested Earth. Delightful in tone, director Barry Sonnenfeld plays into all our wildest conspiracy dreams, turning our everyday world into a secret refuge for an imaginative variety of creatures from planets beyond. The plot might be a little slim, but the alien vignettes along the way are clever enough to carry the weight. —Josh Jackson


24. Annihilation (2018)
Director: Alex Garland

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Annihilation is a movie that’s impossible to shake. Like the characters who find themselves both exploring the world of the film and inexplicably trapped by it, you’ll find yourself questioning yourself throughout, wondering whether what you’re watching can possibly be real, whether maybe you’re going a little insane yourself. The film is a near-impossible bank shot by Ex Machina filmmaker Alex Garland, a would-be science fiction actioner that slowly reveals itself to be a mindfuck in just about every possible way, a film that wants you to invest in its universe yet never gives you any terra firma to orient yourself. This is a film that wants to make you feel as confused and terrified as the characters you’re watching. In this, it is unquestionably successful. This is a risky proposition for a director, particularly with a big studio movie with big stars like this one: This is a movie that becomes more confusing and disorienting as it goes along. Garland mesmerizes with his visuals, but he wants you to be off-balance, to experience this world the way Lena (Natalie Portman) and everyone else is experiencing it. Like the alien (I think?) of his movie, Garland is not a malevolent presence; he is simply an observer of this world, one who follows it to every possible permutation, logical or otherwise. It’s difficult to explain Annihilation, which is a large reason for its being. This is a film about loss, and regret, and the sensation that the world is constantly crumbling and rearranging all around you every possible second. The world of Annihilation looks familiar, but only at first. Reality is fluid, and ungraspable. It can feel a little like our current reality in that way. —Will Leitch


23. Arrival (2016)
Director: Denis Villeneuve

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Your appreciation of Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival will hinge on how well you like being led astray. It’s both the full embodiment of Villeneuve’s approach to cinema and a marvelous, absorptive piece of science fiction, a two hour sleight-of-hand stunt that’s best experienced with as little foreknowledge of its plot as possible. Fundamentally, it’s about the day aliens make landfall on Earth, and all the days that come after—which, to sum up the collective human response in a word, are mayhem. You can engage with Arrival for its text, which is powerful, striking, emotive and, most of all, abidingly compassionate. You can also engage with it for its subtext, should you actually look for it. This is a robust but delicate work captured in stunning, calculated detail by cinematographer Bradford Young, and guided by Amy Adams’ stellar work as Louise Banks, a brilliant linguist commissioned by the U.S. Army to figure out how the hell to communicate with our alien visitors. Adams is a chameleonic actress of immense talent, and Arrival lets her wear each of her various camouflages over the course of its duration. She sweats, she cries, she bleeds, she struggles, and so much more that can’t be said here without giving away the film’s most awesome treasures. She also represents humankind with more dignity and grace than any other modern actor possibly could. If aliens do ever land on Earth, maybe we should just send her to greet them. —Andy Crump


22. Starship Troopers (1997)
Director: Paul Verhoeven

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Glistening agitprop after-school special and gross-ass bacchanalia, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers delights in the ultraviolence it doles out in heavy spurts—but then chastises itself for having so much fun with something so wrong. Telling the story of a cadre of extremely attractive upper-middle-class white teens (played by shiny adults Casper Van Dien, Denise Richards, Nina Meyers, Jake Busey and Neil Patrick Harris) who get their cherries popped and then ground into hamburger inside the abattoir of interstellar war, Verhoeven cruises through the many tones of bellicose filmmaking: hawkish propaganda, gritty action setpieces and thrilling adventure sequences, all of it accompanied by plenty of gut-churning CGI, giant space bugs and human heads alike exploding without shame or recourse or respect for basic physics and human empathy. As much a bloodletting of Verhoeven’s childhood trauma, forged in the fascist mill of World War II Europe, as a critique of Hollywood’s cavalier attitude toward violence and uniformly heroic depictions of the military, the sci-fi spectacle can’t help but arrive at the same place no matter which angle one takes: geeked out on some hardcore cinematic mayhem. —Dom Sinacola


21. Super Dimension Fortress Macross: Do You Remember Love? (1984)
Directors: Shoji Kawamori, Noboru Ishiguro

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Shoji Kawamori’s Macross, known in the United States as Robotech, has a convoluted history both in its country of origin and here in the states. The first Macross movie, 1984’s Macross: Do You Remember Love? further complicated the Macross legacy. The film is essentially a reimagining of the (at the time) popular TV series, Macross. Like the show, the film centers around the crew of a giant space fortress, Macross, as they attempt to evade an alien race, the Zentradi, and discover that the key to their victory just might be the effect that Earth-made pop music has on their enemy. Yes, you read that right. The film’s other focus is the love triangle between dashing pilot Hikaru Ichijyo, pop idol Lynn Minmay, and lieutenant Misa Hayase. Although the cast of characters and voice actors are the same as those that appear in the TV series, and the plot covers much of the same ground, within the canon of the Macross universe, Do You Remember Love? is actually a popular, fictionalized retelling of the true events that occurred in the series. Regardless, Macross: Do You Remember Love? nails everything great about the show—gorgeous mecha designs, excellent dramatic (if a little over the top) storytelling, and an alternatively infuriating and captivating love triangle—and does so in a little over two hours. If you’re looking to understand the appeal of Macross, this is the place to start. In many ways it is typical of its time, in terms of character design, themes and the plot device of a band of humans on the run from an alien menace. Yet it is an incredibly well designed, directed and animated film that retains its sense of adventure even in the context of the somber overall plot. A massive hit in Japan, it has never had an uncut, official release in the United States due to legal squabbles between Harmony Gold, the American rights holder for Macross, and various Japanese production entities. The original film was a huge hit in Japan, with lines stretching around the block on the weekend of its premiere, and is now considered a classic. It’s hard to track down for U.S. fans, but well worth the effort for anyone looking for a good space opera … and pop music good enough to defeat an alien race. —Jason DeMarco


20. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Director: James Gunn

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Director (and co-writer) James Gunn has taken the somewhat obscure team (to non-comic-book fans, at least) and kept the source material’s tone, attitude and bombastic settings intact. As the self-named Star-Lord, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) presents viewers with a pretty irresistible amalgam of Han Solo, Mal Reynolds and Captain Kirk. (Pratt owns this role.) The scene-stealing duo of Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) also provides the latest reminder of how convincing mo-cap-aided CGI has become. (Within moments after being introduced to them, I was yearning for a Rocket and Groot buddy picture.) Frankly, it’s hard to compete with Quill, Rocket and Groot, but Drax (Dave Bautista) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) don’t need to shine as brightly—unlike The Avengers, one doesn’t get the sense each team member’s time center stage is being meticulously measured. (One other important thing to note about Groot—he is Groot.) Marvel’s rambunctious entry into the space-opera genre—and the cornerstone of its “Cosmic Marvel” roster of characters and storylines—so perfectly embodies what the preceding months of hype and hope foretold that even its weak points feel almost like unavoidable imperfections—broken eggs for a pretty satisfying omelet. —Michael Burgin


19. Predator (1987)
Director: John McTiernan

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For all of the jokes and terrible impersonations made over the decades at the expense of Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger, during his peak throughout the ’80s, the actor possessed a certain joie de vivre unmatched by any action performer in Hollywood (with the possible exception of Bruce Willis). Schwarzenegger’s impish charm contrasts beautifully with his larger-than-life, muscle-bound physique, a dynamic he’s always happy to entertain. But Predator is one of the films of his heyday that dared to conjure a threat that even the specter of Schwarzenegger might not be able to conquer, a space-traveling alien trophy hunter who assembles a grisly collection of skulls and spinal columns throughout. It’s a basic premise that was utterly run into the ground by copycat B movies in the years to follow, but none of them come close to replicating the hyper-macho camaraderie that makes Predator an enduringly entertaining relic of its time. The sophomoric banter between the likes of Jesse Ventura, Carl Weathers and Shane Black is what sets the film apart, infusing it with a somehow endearing gentleman’s club mentality, fully aware of its inherent stupidity. We want to see this merry band of special forces operatives conquer the faceless chameleon set against them. There’s wry satire here about America’s attitude toward meddling in the affairs of less-developed nation states, but more than anything, Predator is simply one of the ’80s ’ best games of cat and mouse. —Jim Vorel


18. The Fifth Element (1997)
Director:   Luc Besson  

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The Fifth Element is the ultimate display of what would happen if someone with the sci-fi enthusiasm of a teenage boy wrote a big-budget Hollywood script: Set in 23rd century New York City, taxi driver Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis) gets wrapped up in saving the world with his passenger Leeloo (Milla Jovovich), the fifth and final “element” that is needed to protect Earth. Along with The Chronicles of Riddick and the Star Wars films, Besson’s big dose of imagination is one of the purer cinematic representations of the space opera. Entertaining, thrilling and visually fantastical, The Fifth Element seemed to be the first sign of Besson coming into his overblown own. —Caitlin Colford


17. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Director: Philip Kaufman

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There’s no real need for the film’s credit-limned intro—a nature-documentary-like sequence in which the alien spores soon to take over all of Earth float through the cosmos and down to our stupid third berg from the Sun—because from the moment we meet health inspector Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) and the colleague with whom he’s hopelessly smitten, Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams), the world through which they wander seems suspiciously off. Although Philip Kaufman’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers begins as a romantic comedy of sorts, pinging dry-witted lines between flirty San Franciscan urbanites as Danny Zeitlin’s score strangely lilts louder and louder overhead, Kaufman laces each frame with malice. Oddly acting extras populate the backgrounds of tracking shots and garbage trucks filled with weird dust fluff (which we eventually learn spreads the spores) exist at the fringes of the screen. The audience, of course, puts the pieces together long before the characters do—characters who include Jeff Goldblum at his beanpole-iest and Leonard Nimoy at his least Spock-iest—but that’s the point: As our protagonists slowly discover that the world they know is no longer anything they understand, so does such simmering anxiety fill and then usurp the film. Kaufman piles on more and more revolting, unnerving imagery until he offers up a final shot so bleak that he might as well be punctuating his film, and his vision of modern life, with a final, inevitable plunge into the mouth of Hell. —Dom Sinacola


16. Forbidden Planet (1956)
Director: Fred M. Wilcox

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Forbidden Planet is a rarity in a decade of low-budget B-movie sci-fi. Made by MGM Studios—and working as a narrative retread of Shakespeare’s The Tempest—this is high-quality, intelligent science fiction, featuring state-of-the-art special effects. A ship of American astronauts lands on an alien planet where the inhabitants are trying to safeguard the ruins of a previous civilization. Famous for its iconic “Robby the Robot”—more complex and intelligent than most of its automated screen predecessors—Forbidden Planet stands head and shoulders above most science fiction of the ’50s. —Andy Crump


15. Fantastic Planet (1973)
Director: René Laloux

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It doesn’t matter if you’re watching René Laloux’s excellent, eccentric Fantastic Planet for the first time or the fortieth, under the influence or stone sober: The film is such a one-of-a-kind oddity in cinema that each viewing feels like its own wholly unique experience. Put simply, there’s nothing quite like it. If you’ve yet to see this masterwork of 1970s psychedelia-meets-social-commentary, you’re missing out. If you have seen it, chances are you haven’t seen anything quite like it since, because there isn’t much in animated cinema to match it. The closest you’ll get is Terry Gilliam’s paper strip animation stylings in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or maybe the still painting approach of Eiji Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness. Neither of these equate with Fantastic Planet’s visual scheme, though, which just underscores its individuality. Where does a movie like Fantastic Planet come from? How does it even get made? Laloux has offered few answers over the years, though the documentary Laloux Sauvage holds some insight into how his mind works. Maybe the answers aren’t worth pursuing in the first place, and maybe the best way to understand Fantastic Planet is just to watch it, and then watch it again. —Andy Crump


14. The Thing (1982)
Director:   John Carpenter  

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No disrespect to the classic Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks version of The Thing from Another World from 1951, but John Carpenter’s 1982 reimagining of that story into The Thing is one of cinema’s greatest acts of modernization. In a manner that was mimicked six years later by Chuck Russel’s remake of The Blob, Carpenter took a thinly veiled Cold War allegory and cloaked it in his taut, atmospheric style, ratcheting up both suspense and the lurid payoff delivered by groundbreaking FX work, while expanding the mythology and capabilities of the titular monster. Every frame is a visual puzzle: Carpenter’s camera drifts over empty hallways, open door frames and cloaked figures in the arctic air. Who is The Thing, and more contentiously, when and how did they become The Thing? To this day, the theories spiral endlessly into dark corners of the internet, as Carpenter’s visual clues and Bill Lancaster’s script seem to provide the audience with most—but never quite all—of the information they need to be certain. Rob Bottin delivers what may be the literal zenith of practical effects in the history of horror cinema during The Thing’s several transformation scenes, and particularly in the mind-blowing sequence featuring the severed head of Norris (Charles Hallahan) sprouting legs to become a crab-like creature, which then attempts to scuttle away. The film is an artifact of big-budget ’80s horror purity: a thing of next-level special effects, mind-expanding mystery, masterful direction and the awesomeness that is Kurt Russell as the cherry on top. —Jim Vorel


13. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Director: Nicholas Meyer

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Come for the “KhaaAAHHHHHN!” and stay for the surprisingly emotional treatise on aging without wisdom—as well as one hell of a potent, humbling gut punch of an ending. Anyone arguing for any other film in the Trek franchise will find themselves speaking into a black hole chewed in the matte canvas by exquisitely potent villain, played by Ricardo Montalban. That director/co-writer also Nicholas Meyer somehow coaxes a performance from William Shatner that’s only barely un-Kosher makes this movie a space opera with broad, lasting appeal. —Scott Wold


12. They Live (1988)
Director:   John Carpenter  

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Like most of John Carpenter’s movies, They Live can be read however one pleases—they are, after all, mostly about pleasing you. A sharp commentary on consumerism carved gleefully with a dull knife, or maybe something closer to a concerned embrace of the bourgeois joys inherent in dumb violence, or maybe just a weird-ass sci-fi action movie with a weird-ass leading man: They Live is, almost inherently, a joy to watch. It’s as if Carpenter’s tapped into some sort of primordially aligned pleasure axis along your spine, giving you the tingles as he balances insight and idiocy throughout his tale about a drifter (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) who, with the help of magic sunglasses, discovers that the rich and powerful are just as grotesque as he’d always assumed. Every one of Carpenter’s odd plot choices click into place as if preordained, so that when Piper’s in a completely pointless, six-minute fight scene with Keith David, one can’t help but love that Carpenter’s in on the punchline with all of us, which just happens to be that there is no punchline. The fight scene exists for its own sake—as maybe much of They Live does. Carpenter’s a goddamn genius. —Dom Sinacola


11. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Director: Taika Waititi

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Like the GotG films, the closest non-Thor cousins in tone and spirit to Thor: Ragnarok, director Taika Waititi’s film opens with a lively prologue/set piece involving its protagonist Thor-ing like a boss accompanied by a rockin’ tune. In a nod to all the comic book fans jonesin’ to see Mjolnir put through its paces, Thor just all-out wrecks all who oppose him. From there, Waititi keeps the pace swift, resolving a few plot cliffhangers, throwing down an extended cameo from the Master of the Mystic Arts, introducing this film’s big bad in Hela (a dependably enjoyable Cate Blanchett), propelling Thor (and Loki) to their next stop on the “it’s a big universe” express, meeting new faces (Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster and Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie foremost among them), and reuniting with everyone’s favorite green-thewed god-pummeler before bringing it all back for the big finale in Asgard. The result? One of those two-hour-plus films that you’ll swear was just an hour-forty. Granted, there are times when Waititi’s signature deadpan conversational levity doesn’t quite work—when the achieved effect is “distracting awkward” instead of “funny awkward”—but that’s an unavoidable by-product of prolonged comic riffs and, more importantly, the audience is not given much time to ponder before the next joke (or gorgeous action shot) is upon them. By now, it’s not saying anything new to appreciate how well Chris Hemsworth occupies the role of the God of Thunder. Or even, after his turn in the Ghostbusters reboot, to marvel at his comic chops. Nonetheless, Waititi seems to delight in exploring the interplay between Hemsworth’s physical and comic presence. It yields a version of Thor that might annoy some comic book purists (but certainly didn’t this one), but it’s an undeniable asset for the franchise. Some years and a few Avengers films remain before we’ll know what’s next for Thor (and whether it will involve Hemsworth), but after seeing Thor: Ragnarok, I’m suddenly eager to find out. (See full review.) —Michael Burgin


10. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Director:   Steven Spielberg  

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Steven Spielberg’s classic is many things: an ode to friendship that resonates with child and adult alike, one of the top-grossing films of all time, and the moment his career, on a scale of 1-10, reached 11. Though the Academy would not award Spielberg the Best Director trophy until there were more Nazis involved, E.T. remains perhaps the most deft expression of his directorial hand, interweaving all the usual “alien visitation” tropes with that most shared of human experiences—childhood—until the sci-fi of it all seems less important than the humanity portrayed. —Michael Burgin


9. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Director:   Steven Spielberg  

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Close Encounters was the personal project Spielberg wanted to pull off when he was able to establish himself as a Hollywood power player. The massive success of Jaws gave him the opportunity to realize his character-based, big budget, special-effects-driven science-fiction tale about humanity’s place in the galaxy, a rare optimistic and benign chronicle of first contact. The story of a father (Spielberg alter-ego Richard Dreyfuss) abandoning his family through obsession allowed Spielberg to deal with the inner demons related to his career, his own family and his upbringing by looking outward, boundlessly exploring the cosmos with outsized awe. —Oktay Ege Kozak


8. Solyaris (1972)
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky

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In 2002, Steven Soderbergh adapted Stanislaw Lem’s classic science fiction novel into a perfectly fine and handsome movie. It’s the one time that the story of a Tarkovsky film has been duplicated, sharing source material, and it illustrates an important truth: Andrei Tarkovsky’s vision is singular, inimitable; it towers over all others. Where an accomplished director like Soderbergh made a serviceable sci-fi flick, Tarkovsky made visual poetry of the highest order. Tarkovsky’s artistic instincts rarely failed him, and even though it was a big budget genre picture, Solyaris takes risks with the same confidence of expression and the same depth of resonance as any other Tarkovsky film. The science fiction concept of the titular planet-entity allows Tarkovsky a new angle at the same themes pondered in many of his works: the pivotal roles of history and memory in our present and future; the fraught responsibility of the individual in responding to the calls of the sublime; the struggle to know truth. Tarkovsky’s long-take, free-associative aesthetic was predicated on his philosophy of filmmaking as “sculpting in time,” and in Solyaris there is a fascinating confluence between the way time and perception is manipulated by Tarkovsky, and the way those things are manipulated by Solyaris itself. Solyaris gives back the protagonist, astronaut psychologist Kris Kelvin (Donatas Banionis), his dead wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), for what purpose is unclear. But Tarkovsky’s films work in a similar fashion; difficult to say exactly why they do what they do, yet they pull at the deepest roots of our selves. They elicit emotional, meditative realities unlike any other. Like Kelvin’s resurrected Hari, the stimuli are simulacrums, symbols mined from a collective dream, but this does not diminish the worth of experiencing them. Sometimes they lead you to a place like Solyaris leads Kelvin: an island of lost memory—or perhaps of an impossible future, awash in the waters of some Spirit. That makes the unreal real; that gives the dream life. —Chad Betz


7. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Director: Robert Wise

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Though it’s certainly not the first film about aliens—friendly or otherwise—Robert Wise’s 1951 classic is nonetheless one of the most influential. And while Michael Rennie’s collected but subtly bold lead turn as Klaatu originated some of the most prescient and culturally digestible presentations of extraterrestrials, it’s easy to forget the genuinely transgressive qualities of The Day the Earth Stood Still. At its heart a cautionary tale about Cold War-era nuclear armament, The Day the Earth Stood Still is far from a feature-length sermon, sprawling into pronged discussions on the meaning of “true knowledge,” the value of individual human accomplishment and the oblivious selfishness of Earthlings who believe they’re above the rest of the universe. Backed by the caterwauling theremin- and vibraphone-heavy Bernard Herrmann score, the film magnificently teeters between genre leanings like Klaatu’s massive laser-eyed robot guardian, Gort (whose rubber suit design—characteristic of the special effects of the era—looks as bulbously cushioned as a bouncy house), and sober monologues about the dangers of substituting fear for reason. A messenger from the far reaches of the solar system, Klaatu only wants to impart his boundless wisdom, but true to genre form, Earth has never exactly been a place to put out the welcome mat for foreigners. Upon landing on the planet, a trigger-happy American military destroys Klaatu’s olive branch to Earth—an unspecified cone-shaped device of which Klaatu says ruefully, “With this, you could have studied life on other planets”—and that’s before denying the peaceful alien’s one request to have a conversation with a global council about their dangerous path. In Wise’s cynical vision of politics, even life-changing circumstances aren’t enough to empower a divided world to come together. —Michael Snydel


6. Alien (1979)
Director:   Ridley Scott  

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Conduits, canals and cloaca—Ridley Scott’s ode to claustrophobia leaves little room to breathe, cramming its blue collar archetypes through spaces much too small to sustain any sort of sanity, and much too unforgiving to survive. That Alien can also make Space—capital “S”—in its vastness feel as suffocating as a coffin is a testament to Scott’s control as a director (arguably absent from much of his work to follow, including his insistence on ballooning the mythos of this first near-perfect film), as well as to the purity of both horror and sci-fi as cinematic genres. Alien, after all, is tension as narrative, violation as a matter of fact, using technology and imagination as powerful vessels for both. When the crew of the mining spaceship Nostromo is prematurely awakened from cryogenic sleep to attend to a distress call from a seemingly lifeless planetoid, there is no doubt the small cadre of working class grunts and their posh Science Officer Ash (Ian Holm) will discover nothing but mounting, otherworldly doom. Things obviously, iconically, go wrong from there, and as the crew understands both what they’ve brought onto their ship and what their fellow crew members are made of—in one case, literally—a hero emerges from the catastrophe: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), the Platonic ideal of the Final Girl who must battle a viscous, phallic grotesque (care of the master of the phallically grotesque, H.R. Giger) and a fellow crew member who’s basically a walking ziploc bag for an upsetting amount of seminal fluid. As Ripley crawls through the ship’s steel organs, between dreams—the film begins with the crew wakening, and ends with a return to sleep—Alien evolves into a psychosexual nightmare, an indictment of the inherently masculine act of colonization and a symbolic treatise on the trauma of assault. In space, no one can hear you scream—because no one’s really listening. —Dom Sinacola


5. Under the Skin (2014)
Director: Jonathan Glazer

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It’s a rare feat for a film to successfully convey the voice of the Other. Especially when that voice is an Other to everyone else here on Earth. Loosely based on Michel Faber’s book of the same name, director Jonathan Glazer’s take on Under the Skin finds greater fascination with translating an otherworldly perspective than with the novel’s rather transparent “meat is murder” didactic. It not only makes for a more interesting story, it takes the form of an experience that reminds one of why the medium of film is so special. Taking place in present-day Scotland, both in and outside Glasgow, Under the Skin follows the alien-hijacked visage of a woman (Scarlett Johansson) as she stalks and separates men from the herd, luring them back to her lair to meet an oily doom. That’s merely the premise, though: Glazer’s film slowly emerges as a deeply curious meditation on what it means to be human. It might be a bit hyperbolic to consider it an apt companion piece to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it surely touches upon a similar investigative theme, only in reverse. And, wow, like Kubrick’s touchstone, Glazer’s movie, too, is a visual knockout, thanks to the stunning mixture of stillness and claustrophobic disorientation captured by cinematographer Daniel Landin. And as primal and affecting as the film’s imagery is, its score and sound design is more than a fitting match. Of course, any film whose story relies on a single actor—regardless of any other of its competencies—can still stumble and not recover if that actor’s performance falls flat. But Scarlett Johansson again proves she’s not merely another pretty face, even if that pretty face is an awfully useful tool in portraying a lethal seductress. Along her character’s journey from dispassionate serial killer to vulnerable human sympathizer, Johansson hits her marks with chilly precision. The casting of Johansson, too, proves additionally inspired; just as with David Bowie’s Thomas Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, the very nature of their iconic presence further distances the notion of mere actors-cum-aliens—they’re already elevated above the clouds in their stratospheric fame. —Scott Wold


4. The Avengers (2012)
Directors:   Joss Whedon, Joe Russo, Anthony Russo

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Nestled amongst the gaudy box office numbers ($1.55 billion) of Joss Whedon’s blockbuster is a much simpler achievement. Yes, The Avengers should evoke a deserved appreciation of Whedon’s directorial skills. And yes, the film’s release and reception make for a natural “And that’s when it was official” moment that the MCU took over Hollywood. But for comic book fans especially, The Avengers represents the first instance of the superhero team dynamic truly captured and sustained on film. Even though the X-Men (four times) and the Fantastic Four (twice) had received big screen treatment, those films were all still pretty static. The interaction between both heroes and villains were slow, separate vignettes rather than two-way, three-way or more-way battles. If Raimi’s Spider-Man showed why comic book superheroes are fun, The Avengers showed why superhero teams are. (The X-Men franchise fared much better at this with X-Men: Days of Future Past. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four reboot, not so much.) (See full review.) —Michael Burgin


3. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Director:   George Lucas  

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Before Star Wars, science fiction inhabited a vastly different cinematic landscape. Outside of a few films like John Carpenter’s Darkstar, these imagined realities tended to be pristine, shiny and generally fantastical. The Star Wars universe, on the other hand, dropped audiences into an already ongoing story, in a setting that felt incredibly thought out, organic and lived-in. Things get dirty. The Millennium Falcon is full of dents and dings, as worn as a real-world vehicle would be. It’s may be strange to use the word “realistic,” to describe the visual side of George Lucas’s space opera, but the setting for Star Wars simply felt more authentic than those that came before, and this is an often overlooked element of what made it a cultural phenomenon—along with, of course, its groundbreaking FX work. The people who really had their work cut out for them were filmmakers who wanted to do sci-fi in a post-Star Wars world. The bar of expectations had been raised to exponential heights. —Jim Vorel


2. Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Director: Irvin Kershner

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The Empire Strikes Back is Exhibit A in the category of sequels that surpass the original, taking the wondrous world we were granted in A New Hope and deepening, expanding its purview in every direction. It gives flesh to the idea of the “Rebel Alliance,” showing us how this ragtag band of freedom fighters operates while slowly winning the ideological battle and drawing more support to their cause. Every character undergoes positive growth: Leia (Carrie Fisher) moves from “princess” figurehead to military commander and tireless organizer of a resistance; Han (Harrison Ford) has become a leader of men, completing the transition he began when returning to help destroy the Death Star in A New Hope; and Luke (Mark Hamill) finally starts down the path to becoming a Jedi in earnest. His Dagobah scenes with Yoda are heavy with omens and portent; never in the series do the arcane mysteries of the Force feel as compelling as they do while Luke levitates rocks and digests philosophy. The mysticism and wonder of Star Wars are at their zenith in Empire. Elsewhere, the series’ space-piloting scenes have their most goosebump-raising moment when the Falcon dodges asteroids and T.I.E. Fighters. The petty squabbles of the Imperial Navy and its never-ending parade of dead officers give us a glimpse into the structure of the enemy. A colorful array of bounty hunters is assembled. A classic romance blossoms. All builds to what is perhaps the biggest “oh my god!” reveal in cinema history, completely redefining the audience’s perception of all the events that led up to it. It’s hard to imagine that Empire will ever be toppled as the greatest Star Wars film of all time, but if it somehow is, that will indeed be a momentous disturbance in the Force. —Jim Vorel


1. Aliens (1986)
Director:   James Cameron  

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James Cameron  colonizes ideas: Every beautiful, breathtaking spectacle he assembles works as a pointillist representation of the genres he inhabits—sci-fi, horror, adventure, thriller—its many wonderful pieces and details of worldbuilding swarming, combining to grow exponentially, to inevitably overshadow the lack at its heart, the doubt that maybe all of this great movie-making is hiding a dearth of substance at the core of the stories Cameron tells. An early example of this pilgrim’s privilege is Cameron’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s roughly-feminist horror masterpiece, in which Cameron mostly jettisons Scott’s figurative (and uncomfortably intimate) interrogation of masculine violence to transmute that urge into the bureaucracy and corporatism which only served as a shadow of authoritarianism—and therefore a spectre of the male imperative—in the first film. Cameron blows out Scott’s world, but also neuters it, never quite connecting the lines from the aggression of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to the maleness of the military industrial complex, but never condoning that maleness, or that complex, either. Ripley’s (Sigourney Weaver) story about what happened on the Nostromo in the first film is doubted because she’s a woman, sure, but mostly because the story spells disaster for the corporation’s nefarious plans. Private Vasquez’s (Jennette Goldstein) place in the Colonial Marine unit sent to LV-426 to investigate the wiping out of a human colony is taunted, but never outright doubted, her strength compared to her peers pretty obvious from the start. Instead, in transforming Ripley into a full-on action hero/mother figure—whose final boss battle involves protecting her ersatz daughter from the horror of another mother figure—Cameron isn’t messing with themes of violation or the role of women in an economic hierarchy, he’s placing women by default at the forefront of mankind’s future war either for or against the ineffable forces of capitalism. It’s magnificent blockbuster filmmaking, and one of the first films to redefine what a franchise can be within the confines of a new director’s voice and vision, but below all of the wonderful genre-based imagination and splendor, Cameron doesn’t have much of anything to say. Still, it’s an awesome film despite itself, a tense action bonanza, and a pretty good reminder all these years and proposed Avatar sequels later that Cameron’s clearly decided on which side of the war he’s fighting. —Dom Sinacola

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