The Top 20 Alien/Invasion Movies: Panic and Chaos

First Published: April 10, 2013 Last updated: June 3rd, 2019 Written by: Ian Stephens Estimated Reading Time: 16 minutes Posted in: Aliens

I clearly remember watching the original “The War of the Worlds” on TV as a kid. My face turned white and my stomach sank to my shoes as the first alien craft emerged from the pod. I was convinced there were probably aliens OUTSIDE OUR HOUSE RIGHT NOW.

It was that outstanding type of fear that made movies so special when you were younger – you get that great fear of every possible fictional idea being played out in front of you, giving you a taster of what it would really be like. As a child, it was easy to get into that kind of gripping suspense with a movie and really make it come alive and play a key part in your thoughts for the rest of the night, and week!

It was fantastic.

A lot of time has passed since then. Lots of alien and alien invasion movies have come and gone.

Most of the good ideas have been used up, and Hollywood appear intent on jussut going for a mass re-make of every good film ever made until now. With all of the brilliant ideas that have been expanded upon in video games and the like, too, it’s become a little bit more difficult for a movie to catch that same level of suspense today.

Despite the addition of new CGI techniques – they just don’t carry that same fear factor. For that reason, you need to go further back to find the real alien movies that had genuine life, character and substance about them!

To get a better idea of the best ones, I compiled this list of Top 20 Alien/Invasion Movies of all time. There is a variety of themes and approaches in these works. Every director has their own unique vision of alien life and how to deal with aggressors:

1: Alien (1979)

The top alien film of all time is appropriately titled “Alien.” Director Ridley Scott spins a taught, wiry tale of horror aboard the spaceship Nostromo, a commercial tow craft that is returning to Earth after hauling a refinery.

Shot from the movie, "Alien".

The tone is set early on when there is no dialog for the first 6 minutes of the movie. The crew is awakened from hypersleep to investigate an unknown transmission from a planetoid. In their investigation, their ship is boarded by an alien who grows and proceeds to kill and maim as the crew struggles to fight back.

The original design of the xenomorphic alien had eyes. They were removed to make it look scarier. I don’t think they needed it- it’s hard to top “Alien” for pure terror.

As far as the classic alien movie goes, nothing can really come close to the tone that Alien set when it first arrived. Nothing of that quality or calibre had ever been attempted before or since. While the Xenomorph in more recent films might look more “authentic” then the comparatively poor capabilities of Alien, it doesn’t carry the same unique fear that the first ever iteration on the big screen did.

Alien is a work of art though – it gives you the perfect blend of horror, and gives everyone that kind of “What if?” fear about Aliens. Are they really going to be as outstandingly scary as the Xenomorph?

2: E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982)

Elliot is an awkward kid who makes friends with an extraterrestrial who is stuck on Earth. With the help of his siblings, they try to help “E.T” get home while preventing their mother and government officials from finding out.

Bicycle flying in front of moon - from the movie ET

Made for only $10.5 million, “E.T.” was the highest grossing film in history until Jurassic Park was released in 1993. When Steven Spielberg was a kid, he created an imaginary alien friend to help him with the pain of his parent’s divorce. He drew heavily on that experience when writing the script. He said E.T. was like a plant and neither male or female. The working title was “A Boy’s Life” in order to keep the real plot hidden from competitors.

In terms of bringing aliens into our lives in a friendly and charming way, few films have ever been able to match E.T. It’s genuine approach and the idea that man and alien could work together peacefully – albeit with some growing pains along the way – shines through in one of the most beautiful scripts ever penned by Spielberg.

There’s something fantastic about E.T. in that, much like Alien, it heralded the beginning of regular “friend” films. The same ideas that made E.T. so successful have been used in countless films since, giving it that real pedestal of being an innovator within the movie world.

3: Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956)

In a classic small town in California, aliens have substituted people with humanoids that show no emotion. A doctor soon figures out what is going on and tries to devise ways to end their nefarious plans.

The film itself laid down a marker for just what could be covered with the right cast and plot, deviating away from the more realistic storylines that were such a key part of cinema at the time. This film brought a huge amount of interest to the cinemas, giving people the chance to see something a little deeper within the plot.

The story has been explained as being a commentary for the loss of people’s automation and ability to act for themselves under Communism to a shot at the conformity of America after the World War. It’s this type of crazy side-stepping that makes the plot so enjoyable – just what was the message supposed to be?

Shot from Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Many theories have been proposed for the meaning of the film. However, Kevin McCarthy, who played the lead role, said he spoke with the author who told him no political theme was intended.

When it was released in 1956, the movie garnered $1 million in the first month. By the end of the year, it had pulled in over $2.5 million in the United States. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved by the U.S. National Film Registry in 1994.

4: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956)

Inspired by the best-seller “Flying Saucers From Outer Space,” “Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers” is a 1956 production depicting aliens attacking Earth. At first impervious to modern weapons, scientist Russell Marvin develops a weapon that is effective in disabling and destroying the saucers.

Flying saucers from the film Earth vs. The Flying Saucers

Carrying a lovably simplistic plot that paved the way for all manner of movies following the same ideal of working together to beat the greater – alien – good, there’s a massive amount to love about this film.

With plenty of stock footage from the war used to show the firing against the aliens in as much detail was feasibly possible back then, it’s got that “old school” feel to it that shines through in the plot itself. It’s great how we always magically come up with a way to win, all within an hour and a half!

The film used stop-action animation to create some of the iconic scenes of saucers flying over cities like Washington, D.C. The design of the saucers was based on descriptions provided by famous UFO “contactee” George Adamski, as well as the best-selling book by Major Donald Keyhoe on UFO sightings. (The term “UFO” was developed by the U.S. Air Force in 1953 to better categorize all the different references to flying “saucers” and “discs.”)

5: Superman II (1980)

A sequel to 1978’s wildly popular “Superman,” “Superman II” was directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester and released in 1980. It featured Christopher Reeve as Superman, who battles General Zod and his cronies as they attempt to force the countries of Earth to surrender. Superman had given up his powers in order to follow his love for Lois Lane. Once Zod tries to take over the world, Superman tries to reverse the transformation of his loss of powers and take on the evil Zod to save the world.

Superman running from the film Superman II (1980)

With an 88 percent “fresh rating” from and a 6.7 rating from IMDB, the film is lauded by film critics and moviegoers alike. Acclaimed critic Roger Ebert said it, “begins in midstream and never looks back…”

Even though I’m not a massive fan of Superman myself – it seems a little bit simplistic to me – this was one of the biggest hits of its day for a reason. It combined visual effects that still look impressive if you aren’t too cynical and a truly comic book style plotline to sell the story to both fans of the first movie and genuine Superman’s fans the world over.

It’s success comes from the fact that we actually got Superman to defeat the Aliens for us, and while we’re used to Marvel & DC films every ten minutes today back in the 1980s it was a rarity.

6: The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

Based on the Harry Bates short story, “Farewell to the Master,” “The Day The Earth Stood Still” is a 1951 sci-fi movie starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. The story involves an alien that lands in Washington, D.C. with an accompanying robot to deliver an important message: Humans must turn away from their destructive, warring ways.

Humans and Alien from the film "The Day the Earth Stood Still"

Many critics consider “The Day The Earth Stood Still” to be one of the best sci-fi films, even better than many modern films. The producer intended to show the fear and suspicion of the 1950s Cold War era. He read hundreds of sci-fi short stories and novels to discover a suitable story.

Klaatu, the name of the visitor, and his huge robot companion Gort deliver a pretty telling message that sadly, today, we still haven’t come to grips with. The nature of the film, compared to many of the films it would have come up against at the time, was very unique. Therefore, it was impressive to make it stand out at the time as one of the most enterprising movies of the era – trying new things was rare in show business then as well!

7: The War Of The Worlds (1953)

“The War of the Worlds” stars Gene Barry and Ann Robison in an adaption of the H.G. Wells novel of the same name published in 1898. Released in 1953, it is one of the best alien invasion sci-fi films produced in the 1950s. It was chosen to be included in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress.

Alien in the film, "The War of the Worlds" 1953 version

The story follows the Dr. Clayton Forrester (Gene Barry), a scientist in California who witnesses a meteorite landing near his town. They decide to let it cool overnight, when the top of the object opens and a goose-neck extension emerges.  It fires heat-rays at humans and they are instantly vaporized. Other alien pods land around the world for a full scale invasion of Earth.

While most people are more familiar with the Tom Cruise relation of more recent times, this set the tone for just what a sci-fi Alien movie could achieve. At the time it was truly petrifying, and was one of the first films to have that real “there’s no way out” mentality to it, giving you a genuine striking fear about how humanity would actually be able to get out of this scrape. The majority of earlier films had us overcome the aliens with mostly relative ease, so it was nice to finally see a movie that had us in dire straits!

“The War of the Worlds” was a hit with both the ticket-buying public as well as movie critics. It earned $2 million and won an Oscar for special effects.

8: Independence Day (1996)

“Independence Day” was the biggest alien film of the 1990s. Released in 1996, it is a military-themed sci-fi disaster movie that stars Will Smith as Captain Steven Hiller as he joins in a counter-attack against 36 alien ships that are positioned over major cities around the world. Hiller devises a high-risk plan to penetrate the mothership and spread a computer virus that will render the ship’s defense shields useless.

Space Ship from the film, "Independence Day"

With an all-star cast that includes Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Randy Quaid, Judd Hirsch, and Vivica Fox, “Independence Day” hauled in over $104 million in its first week, totaling over $816 million globally. Currently it is the 34th largest grossing film in history.

There’s no doubt that for sheer Hollywood drama very few come close to the brilliance that is Independence Day. from the funny quotes and moments that make the film more bearable through all of the inevitable tension and fear, the movie was one of the first to really put CGI to the test and get crazy things going on – the White House scene is by far and away one of the most iconic in sci-fi history.

9: Predator (1987)

Originally titled “Hunter,” “Predator” is a science fiction action hybrid movie starring Arnold Schwarznegger. A special forces squad led by Schwarznegger goes to Central America to rescue a cabinet minister who has been taken hostage.

A creature from the film, "Predator".

Little do they know the Predator, an almost invisible alien with a predilection for hanging bodies of its victims with the skin removed, has landed in the area. AH-nold and Carl Weathers fight back with major firepower and plenty of mud.

“Predator” spawned many clones. Its violence and mayhem is framed by a classic man vs. alien finale.

The film also represented one where we posed just no match for the alien, with it taking Dutch just about every possible strategy and stop to finally beat the Predator. It also showed a new side to aliens, as the Predator’s sense of hunting us as if we were animals rang quote close to home for many people – myself included.

The Predator essentially hunted us as if we were prey, except the preferred the hunt of an intelligent creature that would pose them a genuine challenge. Few films have ever captured the honour side of other species so well as Predator did.

10: The Thing (1982)

“The Thing” is based on the classic short story “Who Goes There?” Directed by John Carpenter, it tells the tale of a shape-shifting alien who invades an Antarctic research station. The 12-man crew grows more paranoid as the alien repeatedly takes on the form of different crew members.

Performing an autopsy on an Alien in the 1982 film, "The Thing".

Considered by many as one of John Carpenter’s best films, it is a remake of the 1951 movie “The Thing From Another World.” It is highly regarded for its ground-breaking special effects of the time. To this day, it stands up well to current movies that have more advanced digital effects capabilities.

It also spawned various extras like a computer game, and has been the genesis for countless sci-fi films over the years. What made it so good, though, is that it relied on more than the special effects and the fear to make it a good film – it had genuine quality about it all the way through.

11: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

“2001: A Space Odyssey” is the result of over four years of collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and noted science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke. After producing Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick desired to create a classic sci-fi film that explored the topics of aliens and their relation to man, human development, and artificial intelligence–without the usual campy themes of horror and sci-fi films of the era.

Operating a spaceship in the film, "2001: A Space Odyssey".

Released in 1968, the bulk of the movie takes place on a journey aboard the Discovery One as it heads to Jupiter. The crew interacts and later battles with the ship’s computer, known as HAL 9000.

Kubrick decided not to depict aliens in the movie, deciding instead to “suggest” their existence and influence. 2001 is characterized by a lack of conventional movie dialogue and movie cues.

It premiered on April 2, 1968 in Washington, D.C. to both positive and negative reviews. It earned $15 million in the initial release, and $190 million worldwide.

12: Aliens (1986)

A sequel to the first film in 1979, “Aliens” catches up with lead character Ellen Ripley, again played by Sigourney Weaver, as she returns to the place where she and her crew battled the Alien. With a group of combat Marines, their goal is to investigate why a colony has lost communication with the parent Weyland-Yutani company.

Ripley holding a gun in the 1986 film, "Aliens".

Director James Cameron was coming off a huge with “The Terminator.” He was able to make “Aliens” for around $18 million, and it pulled in $131 million worldwide. He said he found much inspiration for the film from the Vietnam War, a scenario where a superior force with advanced technology was stuck in a battle in a foreign area. In fact, the AH-1 Cobra helicopter used in Vietnam was used as inspiration for the creation of the drop ship in the movie.

Again, it was a film that really turned the tables on humans – no longer were we able to stand up and fight back as we would with another human, we would genuinely in serious trouble.

The Xenomorph is the apex of all Aliens with perhaps only the Predator offering a challenge, so it was great to see the Alien show its incredible capabilities in a whole new movie. It took the action side of things to a new level, too, and the excellent camera work throughout adds to the chilling suspense of the whole movie.

13: Fire in the Sky (1993)

Starring Robert Patrick as Mike Rogers, best friend to D.B. Sweeney’s Travis Walton character. In 1975, Travis Walton and some of his logger co-workers encounter a UFO as they return from work at night. Walton gets out of the truck to investigate. Soon he is hit with an intense beam of light from the UFO.  The others panic and run. Rogers decides to go back for Walton, but he is nowhere to be found. The local police suspect foul play.

Shot from the 1993 film, "Fire in the Sky".

The film is based on the book “The Walton Experience” by Travis Walton. It is one of the iconic UFO encounters among UFOlogists. The film got mixed reviews, and was able to post ticket sales of almost $20 million over a 4-week run.

While the film itself may not have been as well received as it could have been, the subject it touches on is very interesting indeed. If you are a fan of alien movies that look into the abduction side and move away from the whole “Species v Species” story arc, this is well worth watching.

Additionally, the book it’s based on is very much reading into – it’s one of the most mainstream alien abduction stories of all-time.

14: Stargate (1994)

Unlike many alien films, “Stargate” presents alien worlds where the inhabitants are not as advanced technologically. A “Stargate” creates a wormhole allowing travelers to emerge in another location light years away. The Stargate on Earth is kept hidden form the people.

Erecting the Stargate

The story posits that aliens visited Earth years ago, interfering with the natural order of history, by using the Stargate to ship slaves to other planets. After a rebellion, the Stargate was hidden and forgotten, until the U.S. uncovered it in present day times.

“Stargate” was a hit and grossed over $200 million globally. It spawned a number of offspring in other media including a TV show, comics, and video games.

The TV Show was one of the most popular at the time, and I personally watched it quite religiously. It made incredible changes to the way that sci-fi shows operated, and was probably the first incredibly successful sci-fi TV show that had such a deep premise. Usually, success was gained through simplicity in early sci-fi attempts but things like Star Wars set the wheels in motion for the quality to become so much better. Stargate took it on another level in the TV industry, and really made a massive difference to how sci-fi was perceived as a TV show.

15: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This 1977 sci-fi drama from Steven Spielberg is the story of a lineman who feels compelled to meet up with a UFO after he has an encounter with one on the job. He discovers he is one of many people that feel the same calling. The title comes from the classification of UFO encounters set up by UFO specialist J. Allen Hynek.

Alien craft from the film, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind".

Richard Dreyfuss plays the lead role. Other actors that turned down the part include Steve McQueen, Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson. Made for only $20 million, it eventually grossed over $337 million around the world.

Another Spielberg classic, this earlier venture into the sci-fi world set him up for what would eventually be some of his finest works. It was a hugely significant time within the industry, as films had started to change in their overall composition and format over the 1970s and by the time Spielberg released this, there was a much higher overall standard of movie out there.

This, however, hit significant peaks – in fact, it’s been selected for preservation within the National Film Registry, giving you an idea of just how good it was.

16: Dark City (1998)

“Dark City” is a sci-fi noir film released in 1998. Lead actor Rufus Sewell plays the role of John Murdoch, who suffers from amnesia who is accused of murder. While trying to clear his name, Murdoch must deal with both law enforcement and a group known as “The Strangers,” endangered aliens who steal identity to see what the human soul is like. They use a person’s dead body as a host. Their goal is to discover some insight or knowledge that would help them survive.

Aliens from the 1998 film, "Dark City".

The movie opened to poor ticket sales but has since become a cult classic. It has influenced many films like “The Matrix” and “Inception.”

17: Signs (2002)

Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, “Signs” is a sci-fi thriller released in 2002. It stars Mel Gibson as a former priest turned farmer named Graham Hess who finds several crop circles in his cornfield. TV reports show similar crop circles are found all over the world.

Mel Gibson in the film, "Signs".

Believing the circles were created by an alien invasion, Hess and his family soon hole up in the farmhouse, boarding up the windows and doors. Soon several aliens have penetrated their defenses. Hess discovers the aliens are allergic to water, and uses that knowledge to his advantage.

“Signs” does not show images of the invasion itself. The tension is built layer on layer. When Shyamalan is good, he’s really good, and some critics consider this to be his last quality movie.

The suspense that Signs brought to the table has been used as a genesis for many other films over the years, too, in my opinion. Even films like Cloverfield have similarities, despite being completely different in tone, theme and direction stlye. It concentrates on the sole events – mainly – of one normal set of individuals, rather than the usual attempt to try and get the whole world involved within one movie.

This change in style gave you a far more in-depth idea of just how terrifying this would be, were it ever to occur in real life.

18: District 9 (2009)

A sci-fi action film set in South Africa, “District 9” was released in 2009. It is the story of an alien craft that has parked itself over the city of Johannesburg. A landing team from Earth discovers a crew of malnourished aliens fighting sickness and ill health. They are sent to District 9, a special containment area outside the city.

Spacecraft attacking in the 2009 film, "District 9"

The movie touches on various themes including social segregation and racism. It garnered Academy Awards nominations for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Visual Effects, and Best Editing in 2010. Made for $30 million, it earned $37 million in the opening weekend, and went on to pull in over $210 million by November of 2009. Six different endings were filmed and the unique alien sound was created by rubbing a pumpkin.

The film itself played on many typical stereotypes that we see within the world around us every single day. Problems with tension among different races, genders, backgrounds and social classes dent the way the world works every single day and in District 9, it’s no different. It’s always said that the day disclosure finally occurs, people will start to move on from petty squabbles with one another to concentrate on the bigger picture. Well, based on the happenings of this film – as brilliant as it is – disclosure might not be the path forward we all want after all!

19: They Live (1988)

Another John Carpenter sci-fi film, “They Live” centers on a drifter who figures out that the elite rulers in society are aliens that control society through signals in TV broadcasts.

Creature from, "They Live"

Wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays the drifter named Nada. He finds a special pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the reality behind the outside world. People are controlled and contained by messages in media and advertising. “They Live” can be cheesy, as you might expect with Roddy Piper in the lead. Still, it is a good mix of sociological and political commentary.

20: Mars Attacks! (1996)

Released on the market in 1996. “Mars Attacks!” is a parody of campy sci-fi B movies. Directed by Tim Burton, it stars Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Glenn Close, Pierce Brosnan, and Annette Bening. Many other A-list stars appear in supporting roles including Natalie Portman and Christina Applegate.

CGI Aliens from the 1996 film, "Mars Attacks".

Inhabitants of Mars attack Earth in a massive group of flying saucers. Politicians attempt to negotiate with the invaders but mayhem and chaos ensue. A teenager in Kansas finds out the Martians heads blow up when they hear classical music.

Warner Bros. produced the film for $80 million with another $20 million spent on marketing. All told, it captured slightly more than $100 million worldwide. It did not do well in the U.S., but enjoyed good success in Europe.

It’s more of a cult hit these days than anything else, and if you watched it today hoping for the same impact it had when it first came out you’ll be incredibly disappointed. The film itself, though, has that kind of madness that we love to see in a parody film, and it paved the way for parodies to start moving into all kinds of realms and realities rather than stuck to just the human perspective.

It was a big changing point for a lot of people, too, as it gave them a much more comical look at what an alien invasion could be like – comedy usually doesn’t come into play when we all might die!

As you can see, the film industry is one that’s had many different themes and styles attempted within the world of aliens. For some, it’s a difficult state of affairs as anything new and original either won’t get the budget as it’s too “out there” or it’ll be too similar to half the films we’ve just listed. Thankfully, though, you still have all the old classics to fall back upon, and many other greats.

There you have my top 20 alien/ invasion movies of all time. It is a mix of classic and modern themes, and well as violent and lighter fare. How about you? What would you choose? Tell me about in the comments below.

About Ian Stephens

Ian Stephens is an editor and writer for UFO Insight. He has a keen interest in the fields of strange phenomena, UFOs and aliens. He is also interested in space, physics and science in general. Writing for over 10 years in these fields, Ian has a lot of experience and knowledge to share.

You can contact Ian via email.

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  • mack says:

    no “Contact?”

  • Lou says:

    Its clear after reading this article that you’re old!

  • Mike jones says:

    Agree. Apart from the order, all great films, but I still say Independence Day is the best ever.

  • Rus says:

    Good list, I disagree about the modern movies lacking though… Battle : Los Angeles, Battleship, Pacific Rim and even the remake of War of the Worlds are in my mix. Looking forward to the sequel to Independence Day as well!

  • MARGIE Mac Master Beckman says:

    this was very interesting. It’s been along time since I’ve seen a lot of these movies. There are a lot I haven’t seen yet!! It’s time to start renting, and getting out my old movies to watch. Thank You Deb, you did a Great job…

  • MARGIE Mac Master Beckman says:

    I just loved going through all the movies, I had forgotten a lot of them. I am ready to rent some I haven’t seen!!! There are so many I have seen, but want to see again. GREAT JOB DEB !!!!!

  • Cheryl Mitchell says:

    Great article!

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