I've always been fascinated by the possibility that we're not alone and indeed, when has that possibility ever failed to provoke fascination? Since the earliest days of cinema, extraterrestrial life has been center stage, though not always with the best results. I have excellent reasons to dislike E.T., but frankly Spielberg didn't sell me on Close Encounters of the Third Kind either, as it bored me out of my mind, then got interesting about a minute before the credits started rolling. And though I admit I find Star Wars entertaining, it isn't so much because I like the movies - it's just that I find Mark Hamill's acutely sincere performance screamingly funny. I was similarly entertained by the recent feature-length incarnations of the Star Trek franchise. But, there are many brilliant films about aliens out there. Here, in chronological order, are the top ten:
A Trip to the Moon (1902)
Widely credited as the first science fiction film ever produced, A Trip to the Moon is one of the most influential and significant films of the early period of cinema. Running between nine and eighteen minutes (depending on frame speed), the film is about a group of astronomers who travel to the moon and discover a bizarre race of lunar creatures. Georges Melies cast a mixture of camera crew, including himself, and French cabaret performers, including chanteuses, ballet dancers, and acrobats, in his groundbreaking masterwork - a mixture of dance fantasy, special effects bonanza, and science fiction satire.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The 50s saw a resurgence of the science fiction genre and its crowning achievement was this politically charged drama in which an alien visitor (Michael Rennie), accompanied by a powerful robot, delivers an exhortation to humanity to cease its violent ways or suffer the consequences from the larger peace-loving galactic community. This film has been frequently parodied, particularly the iconic words "Gort! Klaatu barada nikto" and the landing of the flying saucer, but it retains a startling power and continues to have relevance. Also of particular interest is Bernard Herrmann's score for the film, in which he made extensive use of electronic instruments and tape-reversal techniques, setting the standard for science fiction film scoring.
Andrei Tarkovsky's masterpiece is about a psychologist (Donatas Banionis) sent to a space station in orbit around the imaginary planet of Solaris after the three scientists on board succumb to mental illness due to a bizarre phenomenon that could either be a hallucination or a strange form of alien reality that emerges as a result of the troubled memories in each crew member's psyche. Solaris is a visually stunning, deeply philosophical reflection on the inevitable isolation of the human condition. Tarkovsky's intention was to make a science fiction film with intellectual and emotional depth; his success is quite spectacular.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
This animated film, a French and Czech co-production, is about the Draags, alien beings who treat the intellectually and physically inferior Oms (from "hommes" or men in French) like pets. The Draags believe without question that their pets lack the capacity to feel psychic pain or love, until a feral tribe of Oms, who have become literate, retaliate murderously to a routine de-Oming, or gassing. Though the psychedelic style of the animation is very much of its time, the film is still a movingly idealistic metaphoric imagining of the clash between the powerful and the humane.
Both a legitimately terrifying horror film and one of the best science fiction films ever made, Ridley Scott's Alien stars Sigourney Weaver and Tom Skerritt as the senior officers of the tiny crew of the Nostromo, a commercial spacecraft that intercepts a distress signal and encounters one of the nastiest alien monsters ever put on screen. A tour de force of production and concept design, this film (which has to date spawned three sequels) is the single most iconic movie about alien life ever made, one that continues to influence popular ideas of what might lie in wait for us in space.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Frank Oz's adaptation of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman's musical show is bonded more firmly to its musical theatre roots than its cinematic medium, with its self-consciously affected production design and hyperbolic performances from Ellen Greene (who was in the original off-Broadway production) and the brilliantly funny Rick Moranis, playing Audrey and Seymour, who work at a struggling florist's. Their fortunes change when Seymour begins displaying an exotic plant, Audrey II, and discovers to his great discomfiture that it has a voracious appetite for human blood.
One of Mel Brooks's funniest spoofs, this movie is, as far as I'm concerned, the primary reason to watch Star Wars - just so you can catch all the jokes. Satirizing every iconic picture in the genre, from Star Wars and Star Trek to Planet of the Apes and Alien, Spaceballs stars Bill Pullman as Lone Star, John Candy as Barf, Daphne Zuniga as Vespa, Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet, George Wyner as Colonel Sandurz, and of course Mel Brooks in the dual roles of Yogurt and President Skroob. Endlessly quotable, the movie works both as a wacky meta-spoof and a well-constructed, if silly, sci-fi adventure. Similarly entertaining is Galaxy Quest (1999).
Contact is my favorite science fiction film of all time. Based on the great scientific thinker Carl Sagan's novel, the film imagines what might occur if we did in fact make contact with an intelligent alien species. Jodie Foster stars as Ellie, a SETI scientist intent on making contact and absolutely closed to any kind of spiritual belief unconfirmed by scientific proof. Her single-minded pursuit of proof puts her in conflict with a prominent spiritual leader, Palmer Joss (Matthew McConaughey). This film poses extraordinary questions and explores many tantalizing possibilities.It also has some of the most impressive CGI work of its time.
This freakishly low-budget film by Gareth Edwards (director of the latest Godzilla reboot and slated to direct an upcoming Star Wars film) shows what astonishing things one can produce with basic off-the-shelf software. Set in a future in which alien life-forms have made a huge swath of North America uninhabitable for human beings, the film follows two young Americans (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) who decide to risk crossing the Infected Zone, rather than remaining stuck in Mexico due to impending travel restrictions. With almost entirely improvised dialogue and stunningly natural-looking special effects, Monsters feels creepily real, in the best sense.
Europa Report (2013)
One of the likeliest places in which we may find life within our own solar system is on Europa, one of Jupiter's moons, most likely an ice-crusted oceanic planetary body. This film imagines what a manned mission to Europa might be like and what sorts of fantastic things one might discover there. One of the best movies of the decade so far, it's a rare film about the wonder of scientific discovery, heart-stoppingly intense and ultimately very moving, a science fiction film that explores scientific as much as fantastic fictive possibilities. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a cameo.