Critic's Picks: The 10 Best Alien-Invasion Films

10:26 AM 6/24/2016

by John DeFore

With 'Independence Day: Resurgence' out in theaters, a THR film critic ranks the best movies about aliens attacking Earth.

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Love it, hate it, or shrug on their way to the parking garage, few viewers of this week's Independence Day: Resurgence are likely to leave marveling that they've never seen anything like it before. That's no crime. In many decades of movies about little green men hoping to conquer Planet Earth, surprisingly few have made the apocalypse memorable.

Which are the exceptions? See below for the best, but know in advance that we're talking about aliens-attack-Earth movies. That is to say, although they would handily top a humans vs. aliens list, Alien and Aliens do not qualify. Since war is only threatened in the one-of-a-kind Men in Black, that's out. Close Encounters represents a frightening but peaceful encounter; The Day the Earth Stood Still let Earthlings off with a warning; and humans still don't recognize the secret agents stalking them in Under the Skin. Finally, to preempt the complainers: Yeah, we saw Predator. It sucked.

  1. 11
    11

    Honorable Mentions

    Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers (1956), Invaders from Mars (1953), The War of the Worlds (1953)

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    It's a cheat to lump them together like this, but these Fifties pioneers share a similar plight: Though not totally satisfying by today's standards, they set the mold for what came after. While today's noirs and rom-coms may struggle to match their vintage predecessors' entertainment power, modern FX have helped sci-fi evolve more satisfactorily. But today's sci-fi films would be totally different — and their storytelling vocabulary greatly diminished — if these three hadn't been made.

  2. 10
    11

    They Live

    1988

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    This surprisingly enduring satire from John Carpenter was ahead of the curve in its distrust of American consumerism: Here, our alien overlords rule us in disguise, feeding us all subliminal messages that force us to prop up the status quo: "Buy," they insist. "Do Not Question Authority." "Consume." Artist Shepard Fairey latched onto the film's "Obey" billboard and rode the resulting meme for all it was worth. Scrappy and wickedly funny, it suggests our best hope for survival is the right pair of sunglasses.

  3. 9
    11

    Starship Troopers

    1997

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    To the casual observer, this was big dumb schlock that doubled down on the blow-'em-all-up-good bombast of the previous year's mega-hit Independence Day. To those who've made Paul Verhoeven's flick an enduring cult object, it was the opposite: a vicious skewering of jingoism in which an insectoid species from another planet ("bugs" is the preferred epithet) stands in for every human race that has been demonized by one army or another over the centuries.

  4. 8
    11

    Mars Attacks!

    1996

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    The first Tim Burton feature not to live up to its exciting premise (sadly, many would come), this nutty riff on Fifties tropes fell awkwardly between comic send-up and fully-engaged action. Peppered with enough high points to make this list and some memorably weird imagery, the movie's biggest contribution is the delicious design and (intentionally wonky) animation of its giant-skulled Martian baddies.

  5. 7
    11

    Independence Day

    1996

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    Satisfying in its blockbustery way but not, you know, good, this benchmark-setting hit poses one big question 20 years later: How can it be that no filmmaker has made a version of this we can respect ourselves for liking? White House disintegrations aside, much credit is due to the charisma of at-their-peak stars — including Bill Pullman, who delivered that middlebrow rally-the-troops address near the end as if it were Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech.

  6. 6
    11

    Attack the Block

    2011

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    Excellent as a thrill ride, quietly pointed in its political subtext, Joe Cornish's underpraised gem pits a quintet of London hoods against monsters that, for once, pass up the White House and the Eiffel Tower to attack a government housing project where armies are slow to come to the rescue. If its contributions to the alien-invasion subgenre weren't enough, it also featured a self-possessed newcomer who'd go on to sci-fi greatness in a galaxy far, far away: John Boyega.

  7. 5
    11

    District 9

    2009

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    Wittier than any picture here, Neill Blomkamp's out-of-nowhere debut was no weaker for wearing its real-world social concerns on its sleeve. Set in an alternate-reality South Africa where impoverished extra-terrestrials are confined to camps by the government, it mucked about greatly with the alien-menace format, offering heroes (of a sort) on both sides.

  8. 4
    11

    War of the Worlds

    2005

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    Genuinely scary where many of its peers content themselves with mere action, Steven Spielberg's version of H.G. Wells's yarn (already successfully adapted for radio by Orson Welles and by George Pal on screen) prioritizes one family's survival over the desperate strategies of world leaders. Handicapped (like several of the master's films) by an ending that should have been trashed, its worst sin is that this "let's modernize a seminal sci-fi classic" hit paved the way for Scott Derrickson's abominable The Day the Earth Stood Still.

  9. 3
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    Edge of Tomorrow

    2014

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    So much of this Tom Cruise/Emily Blunt actioner's appeal owes to its Groundhog Day premise — in which cowardly Cruise slowly figures out how to fight off aliens by living the same day over and over again — that it might not immediately spring to mind as an alien-invasion movie. But Doug Liman and a crackerjack screenwriting team deliver the goods with one of the very rare films in which the observation "it's just like a video game" is kind of a compliment.

  10. 2
    11

    The Thing

    1951, 1982

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    This novella-derived horror story, in which a mysterious life form torments a remote snow-bound outpost, plays up claustrophobia and mystery in Alien-like fashion. The details of Howard Hawks' and John Carpenter's versions vary — forced to choose, let's go with the latter — but each is its own kind of elemental nail-biter.

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    Invasion of the Body Snatchers

    1956, 1978

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    Jack Finney's 1954 novel, which spawned at least four actual adaptations and innumerable imitators, has proved remarkably versatile, serving as Cold War commentary in the '50s and as AIDS allegory for Abel Ferrara in 1994. The two indispensable incarnations are Don Siegel's original and Philip Kaufman's Donald Sutherland-starring remake — both slow-burn paranoid thrillers playing on the impossibility of knowing another person. Here, a menace as easily spotted as Roland Emmerich's cloud-sized flying saucers would be a relief.

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