Human vs. Alien Films: The Must-Sees

Humankind’s collision with otherworldly life forms can make for unforgettable cinema.

This article will highlight the best of live-action human vs. alien films.  The creatures may be from other planets or may be non-demonic entities from other dimensions.

Excluded from consideration were giant monster films as the diakaiju genre would make a great subject for separate articles.

Readers looking for “friendly alien” films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and the comically overrated Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) are advised to keep watching the skies because they won’t find them here.

Film writing being the game of knowledge filtered through personal taste that it is, some readers’ subgenre favorites might not have made the list such as War of the Worlds (1953) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).

Now let’s take a chronological look at the cinema’s best battles between Us and Them.

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The Thing from Another World
Written by Charles Lederer
Directed by Christian Nyby
USA, 1951

Producer Howard Hawks allowed his frequent film editor Christian Nyby to take the directing credit on a film largely believed to have been directed by Hawks himself based on the John W. Campbell short story “Who Goes There?”.

In this adaptation, the bloodthirsty extraterrestrial creature menacing a crew of Air Force personnel and scientists at a remote Arctic station is played by the physically intimidating pre-Gunsmoke James Arness.

One the great sequences in the film occurs when the Air Force crew sets the creature on fire in a dark room and it escapes after a brief but very intense struggle.

John Carpenter’s 1982 remake is a masterpiece but the original is an absolute classic of 1950s science fiction.

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The Quatermass Xperiment
Written by Richard Landau & Val Guest
Directed by Val Guest
UK, 1955

This film, also known as The Creeping Unknown, is based on the television play by Nigel Kneale.

A spacecraft manned by three astronauts returns to Earth with only one survivor.  The injured astronaut slowly transforms into a murderous creature that must be stopped by a team led by the brilliant Professor Bernard Quatermass.

A box-office hit for Hammer Films, The Quatermass Xperiment was followed by two theatrical sequels, a 1979 Quatermass television mini-series and a 2005 television film remake.

The Quatermass Xperiment-so named by Hammer to capitalize on the notoriety of the “X” film rating of the day-is an obvious influence on such films as William Sachs’ The Incredible Melting Man (1977) and Rand Ravich’s The Astronaut’s Wife (1999).

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Forbidden Planet
Written by Cyril Hume
Directed by Fred M. Wilcox
USA, 1956

Based on a short story by Irving Block & Allen Adler, this 1950s classic introduced the iconic science fiction image of Robby the Robot into popular culture.

Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest”, Forbidden Planet is the story of a group of astronauts investigating the fate of an expedition to the planet Altair IV.

They find a brilliant scientist and his daughter to be the only survivors and all seems well until the astronauts are attacked by an invisible creature that turns out to be the result of a highly advanced alien technology.

Forbidden Planet is deserving of its status as a science fiction classic.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Written by Daniel Mainwaring
Directed by Don Siegel
USA, 1956

Jack Finney’s novel gets its first of many big screen adaptations in this story of a small town doctor played by Kevin McCarthy who realizes the inhabitants of his town are being replaced by alien duplicates while they sleep.

The film is anchored by a great performance by the underrated McCarthy who appears in a brief cameo in Philip Kaufman’s superb 1978 remake.  Director Don Siegel is best known for his work in the 1970s including the great Dirty Harry (1970).

When watching this 1950s science fiction classic, it’s best to ignore the studio-imposed final moments.

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The Crawling Eye
Written by Jimmy Sangster & Peter Key
Directed by Quentin Lawrence
UK, 1958

This film was one of American character actor Forrest Tucker’s three forays into British science fiction cinema, the other two films being Val Guest’s excellent The Abominable Snowman (1957) and Gilbert Gunn’s The Cosmic Monsters (1958).

Also known as The Trollenberg Terror and adapted from a television mini-series, The Crawling Eye takes place in the Swiss mountains where a number of mysterious killings are connected to a radioactive cloud.

Tucker plays a United Nations troubleshooter who gets involved in the investigation and ends up confronting the titular menace.

The Crawling Eye remains a highly underrated entry in the pantheon of great 1950s science fiction films.

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Five Million Years to Earth
Written by Nigel Kneale
Directed by Roy Ward Baker
UK, 1967

Also known as Quatermass and the Pit, this is the third film in Hammer’s Quatermass trilogy that follows Val Guest’s previous entries The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and the comparatively lackluster Quatermass II: Enemy from Space (1957).

In this entry, the role of Quatermass is played by Andrew Kier, replacing Brian Donlevy in the series and unfortunately taking some of the edge off the role.

Five Million Years to Earth and its story of a spacecraft found buried under the streets of London is by far the most intellectually interesting of the trilogy as it suggests-in Lovecraftian fashion-that the human race is a by-product of alien experimentation.

This film, based on television plays like all three theatrical Quatermass films, was the inspiration for Stephen King’s novel “The Tommyknockers” and the resulting 1993 television series.

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The Andromeda Strain
Written by Nelson Gidding
Directed by Robert Wise
USA, 1971

A lethal micro-organism from space wipes out a small town and threatens to spread in this fabulous adaptation of the Michael Crichton novel.

A team of elite scientists try to find a way to contain and combat the virus inside a high-tech underground bunker culminating in a highly suspenseful “ticking clock” sequence wherein one of the scientists must make his way through the bunker’s laser defense system in an attempt to deactivate the complex’s self-destruct program.

The Andromeda Strain, unnecessarily remade as a television mini-series in 2008, is a too-often overlooked classic of 1970s cinema featuring superb ensemble acting.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Invasion of the Body Snatchers
Written by W.D. Richter
Directed by Philip Kaufman
USA, 1978

This is an outstanding remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic based on Jack Finney’s novel that surpasses the original screen version.

This version transplants the action to San Francisco and stars Donald Sutherland as a health inspector who starts to see evidence of the alien replacement conspiracy.

Aiding him in his investigation are a group of friends played by the excellent ensemble cast of Jeff Goldblum, Brooke Adams, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy.

The film builds brilliantly to its justifiably famous final moments which are a huge improvement over the final notes of Don Siegel’s version.

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Alien
Written by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Directed by Ridley Scott
USA, 1979

1950s-style science fiction in the vein of Edward L. Cahn’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) is updated for a contemporary adult audience in Alien.

To call Ridley Scott’s classic film about a spaceship crew attacked by an ever-growing otherworldly life form influential would be a massive understatement.

The superb ensemble acting is anchored by Sigourney Weaver in a role originally intended for a male actor and the film’s H.R. Giger-based visual design is stunning.

The director’s cut is definitely the best version of the film as it wisely reinstates the unforgettable scene that shows the fate of Tom Skerritt’s Dallas character.

Spawning a large number of imitators as all box-office hits do, Alien also ignited a wave of what Alamo Drafthouse and Fantastic Fest programmer Zack Carlson calls “space rape” movies including Bruce D. Clark’s Galaxy of Terror (1981) and Norman J. Warren’s Inseminoid (1981).

Sigourney Weaver reprised her role as Ripley in James Cameron’s equally famous action-packed sequel Aliens (1986).

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The Thing
Written by Bill Lancaster
Directed by John Carpenter
USA, 1982

Ridley Scott’s Alien had just been a big box-office hit so Universal launched its remake of the 1951 Christian Nyby/Howard Hawks film.

With a great paranoid screenplay, a superb lead performance by Kurt Russell and legendary Rob Bottin creature effects, director Carpenter’s version is rightfully heralded as a horror film masterpiece.

At the time, however, The Thing was a box-office failure that was so severely derided by critics for its gore that it heavily damaged Carpenter’s career.

We live in an era wherein graphic violence is commonplace on television and  Eli Roth’s Green Inferno-his take on Ruggero Deodato’s notoriously gruesome 1980 Cannibal Holocaust-is soon to be released in theatres.

Could today’s horror audience even imagine something as absurd and outrageous as a director partially derailing their Hollywood directing career by making a gory film happening now?

Moving on, the less said about the misguided 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s The Thing the better.

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Aliens
Written by James Cameron, David Giler & Walter Hill
Directed by James Cameron
USA, 1986

Producers Walter Hill and David Giler did uncredited rewrites on Ridley Scott’s original Alien and this time around take credited screenwriting roles.

This sequel takes a more action-packed approach as the film strands a team of marines on a desolate planet with the titular beasts.

Viewers might notice a signature Walter Hill narrative maneuver in Aliens as the leader of the marines is killed early in the film, a story device cribbed from John Ford’s 1934 version of The Lost Patrol-an acknowledged influence on Hill’s work-that can be seen in Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and Southern Comfort (1981).

Sigourney Weaver was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as Ripley-a rare accolade in the world of horror and science fiction cinema-and she receives great acting support from Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen and Jennette Goldstein.

Later sequels fail to satisfy but Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens remain essential viewing.

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From Beyond
Written by Brian Yuzna, Dennis Paoli & Stuart Gordon
Directed by Stuart Gordon
USA, 1986

In this H.P. Lovecraft short story adaptation, scientists create a machine that opens a portal to another dimension, allowing the monstrous residents of another realm to enter ours.

This was screenwriter/director Stuart Gordon’s follow-up to his Empire Pictures Lovecraft-based hit Re-animator (1985) and despite From Beyond’s cult classic status, few remember that the film didn’t perform nearly as well as expected at the box-office during its initial release.

That said, the film is still a 1980s horror classic despite the severe fumbling of its erotic elements.

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Night of the Creeps
Written and Directed by Fred Dekker
USA, 1986

A guilt-ridden police detective played by Tom Atkins discovers that alien parasites-resembling the slugs from David Cronenberg’s 1974 Shivers-are turning the residents of a college campus into murderous zombies.

A box-office failure in its day, Night of the Creeps has gained a strong following over the years and is a must-see for one reason:  the amazing, multi-faceted performance of underrated actor Tom Atkins.

Screenwriter/director Dekker has expressed regret at not giving Night of the Creeps a more serious tone which definitely would’ve made for a better overall film.

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Predator
Written by Jim Thomas & John Thomas
Directed by John McTiernan
USA, 1987

Screenwriting duo the Thomas brothers take the basic premise of Greydon Clark’s lesser-known 1980 film Without Warning-about an alien hunter that lands on Earth and starts targeting humans-and improve on it drastically with this story of an elite military unit on a mission in an isolated patch of Central American wilderness that must face attacks from an extraterrestrial creature.

Predator’s original creature design was wisely scrapped in favor of Stan Winston’s much more striking and memorable concept so out went the weaker alien suit and original creature performer Jean-Claude Van Damme and in came Winston’s now iconic alien suit and new creature performer Kevin Peter Hall who had previously portrayed the alien hunter in Without Warning.

This film employs the science fiction/military action combination that had made James Cameron’s Aliens so successful the year before but contains the very weak link of star Arnold Schwarzenegger and his painful one-liners that undercuts the great directing by John McTiernan, Donald McAlpine’s superb cinematography and the excellent acting by the rest of the film’s ensemble cast.

Despite this significant shortcoming and the titular creature’s eventual cinematic overexposure ala the iconic creature in Alien, Predator is still a must-see

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Pitch Black
Written by David Twohy, Jim Wheat & Ken Wheat
Directed by David Twohy
USA, 2000

Screenwriter/director Twohy unexpected box-office hit was based on a portion of a longer screenplay by Jim and Ken Wheat that was expanded by Twohy.

A convicted murderer played by Vin Diesel-in the performance that made him a film star-aids the surviving members of a crashed space vessel as they face the deadly inhabitants of the distant planet they find themselves stranded on.

This highly entertaining film was followed by an absurd sequel in 2004 and 2013’s Riddick unsuccessfully attempts to recapture the fun and vitality of the original.

Skip the misguided sequels and stick with the original.

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The Mist
Written & Directed by Frank Darabont
USA, 2007

Screenwriter/director Darabont continues his Stephen King obsession with this refreshingly downbeat adaptation of the apocalyptic King novella about a group of people trapped in a supermarket under attack by lethal creatures from another dimension.

Thomas Jane leads a solid cast in this contemporary take on 1950s science fiction cinema that continues to hold up over repeat viewings.

Working from King’s open-ended novella, Darabont created a spectacularly grim and memorable ending for the film that does not appear in the original story.

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Gantz
Written by Yusuke Watanabe
Directed by Shinsuke Sato
Japan, 2010

Based on the manga series by Hiroya Oku that was the basis for an animated series, Gantz has unfairly flown almost completely under the radar outside of Asia.

A group of recently deceased people find themselves in an alternate dimension wherein they receive orders from a black sphere to hunt down and kill alien life forms on Earth.

The combat sequences in Gantz are simply amazing, highlighted by a brutal confrontation with a robot in a parking structure and a climactic battle with a multi-armed sword-wielding being that would have Ray Harryhausen picking his jaw up off the floor.

Unfortunately, the 2011 sequel Gantz: Perfect Answer is a real disappointment but Gantz is a must-see that deserves a much larger following.

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Other Notable Alien Invasion Films:

These are films in the subgenre that failed to make the main portion of the list for various reasons but are well worth seeking out or revisiting.

It Conquered the World (Roger Corman, 1956) Horrible creature effects are the downside of this entertaining slice of 1950s low-budget science fiction starring Peter Graves and Lee Van Cleef.

The Brain from Planet Arous (Nathan Juran, 1957) An truly bizarre low-budget 1950s science fiction film featuring floating brain creatures and a character with destructive telekinetic powers.  Begs to be remade.

Invisible Invaders (Edward L. Cahn, 1959) A big influence on George Romero’s landmark 1968 Night of the Living Dead, this is another fascinating piece of 1950s science fiction that needs a proper remake.

Lifeforce (Tobe Hooper, 1985) A very uneven film written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby based on Colin Wilson’s novel “The Space Vampires” that fails to live up to the promise of its demented and compelling first half.  Make sure you see the uncut version.

The Blob (Chuck Russell, 1988) With a screenplay by Russell and Frank Darabont, this remake is far superior the original 1958 film.

Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993) An accomplished take on the Jack Finney novel that can be seen as a solid but less gripping companion piece to Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version.

Another Heaven (Joji Iida, 2000) An underrated X-Files-ish film that has two police detectives investigating a series of murders linked to a being that only appears to be human.

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