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Most Iconic Alien Encounters in Film

With countless aliens in cinema, the most iconic alien encounters in film manage to present us with visuals and ideas that cut down to the real question: what divides man from space men?

By Anthony GramugliaPublished 6 years ago 15 min read

The most iconic alien encounters on film tend to leave an impact because they capture something human. Science fiction has always worked as an allegory for humanity's problems. H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, one of the first depictions of first contact with alien life from space, used aliens as a metaphor for Europe's imperial conquests into "less developed" nations. England conquers lands left and right, but how ill-prepared would they be if an advanced civilization attacked?

On film, many alien encounters become iconic because they capture some important human experience, be it a question, a fear, a desire, or, in some cases, a chance to laugh at ourselves. There are countless aliens in cinema, but the most iconic alien encounters in film manage to present us with visuals and ideas that cut down to the real question: what divides man from the space men?

This classic 1950s film isn't the first alien movie to hit theaters. There were several movies about space men before it – and even more after. H.G. Wells' iconic novel War of the Worlds depicted aliens decades prior, and film makers had been adding more outlandish creatures to the landscape of pop culture ever since.

What makes The Day the Earth Stood Still among the most iconic alien encounters in film, however, is how they depict the space man. Before, aliens were a threat. Foreigners who had to be stopped. But this movie presented humanity's xenophobia and desire for war as an obstacle humanity had to overcome – or else humanity faced self-inflicted obliteration.

The alien, Klaatu, is actually a Jesus-figure, attacked and almost killed by humanity, only to rise again, and return to the Heavens shortly after. The iconic scene where Klaatu touches down, insisting that he's "come in peace," only to be shot – it's the sort of iconic film scene so iconic that most people forget where it came from.

To say nothing of the killer robot that almost obliterates everyone. Gort's design is the iconic alien robot design of the 1950s. This remains one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

Then there's this Cold War parable. Back in the 1950s, people were afraid of their companions turning into Communists, and everyone else was afraid of their neighbors becoming jingoistic McCarthyists who saw evil Commies behind every street corner. Conformity was the fear of the age.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers capitalized on this paranoia – to its benefit, really. We really don't see anything too alien on camera. No little green men or monsters. Just pods. The pods steal people away when they go to sleep, and replace them with an identical copy. They look like the original, talk like the original – but they have no personality. They are like the hoard of other Pod People, co-aligned with one another for one goal: the assimilation of all mankind.

The reason this is one of the most iconic alien encounters in film is simple. It uses aliens as a metaphor for humanity's paranoia. Whether you think the pod people represent the Communists, McCarthyists, or some other all-consuming ideology – it doesn't matter. It applies to them all. The Pod People are us. They're from space, but they are far less alien than we'd like to believe.

Do we even see an alien in this film? We see their monoliths and trippy, otherworldly essences, but, unlike the Arthur C. Clark novel written alongside the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey is less concerned with explanations, and more interested in the journey.

2001 is hardly the first film to propose that aliens had a hand in human evolution, but it sure depicts it in a haunting way. The monoliths are so foreign in their simplicity and perfection that they leave the viewer haunted and bewildered. Before anything truly strange happens, we are haunted by the aliens. We know they come from a part of space as dark and foreign as the monoliths, but we know next to nothing about what really is happening.

Then the last 20 minutes happen, and we realize how little we really know. The final sequence of the film is so bizarre that we are taken out of our normal realm of comfort. We are, in essence, confronted with something truly alien. Perhaps this is what makes this one of the most iconic alien encounters in film. We don't just meet aliens from another world; we are submerged in an alien world.

David Bowie – alien. Sounds like a joke, but, in this 70s cult classic science fiction movie, David Bowie plays an alien from the depths of space, here to retrieve water for his home planet. Along the way, he learns what it means to be human, and all the horrors that come along with it.

This film is far less well-known than other science fiction films, but it remains among the most iconic alien encounters in film for a reason. A good reason. Though Bowie, for the most part, looks human, he behaves in an alien, detached manner. It captures the essence of what makes aliens so unsettling for normal people.

It has nothing to do with space ships or big heads. Aliens are creepy because they are unlike us. They are out of synch with us. The traditional grey alien appearance looks almost like a person – it has a head, eyes, nose, the same general shape – but it is distorted enough for us to know this is foreign.

Bowie does something similar, but, without changing his appearance, he changes his behavior. He behaves like a human, but is detached just enough to signal to us that there's something off here. His behavior is alien enough to throw the audience out of synch.

Let's get this out of the way now: Steven Spielberg is great with aliens. He gets how to show us aliens in ways that make us rediscover the mystery and horror they present. He shows us glimpses of worlds dwelling in the depths of space, flashing with brilliant lights and colors. He has created many of the most iconic alien encounters in film.

What's peculiar to a viewer who watches Close Encounters of the Third Kind for the first time is how little you see of the aliens. The majority of the film is the build-up, the obsession, leading up to the reveal. We experience the alien presences throughout the movie, but we see nothing until basically the end. We're left, like the characters, to believe they're coming.

And our faith is rewarded in a stunning, beautiful sequence toward the end.

Though the aliens are hardly deviate from pop culture depictions of grays, it almost doesn't matter. This iconic alien encounter is all about experience. The aliens ensnare us with mystery and suggestion long before anything actually happens. And that's a kind of cinematic magic right there.

The xenomorph the most feared aliens in cinema history. In space, no one can hear you scream – but on Earth, everyone knows what about face-huggers, chest-bursters, and xenomorphs.

Perhaps Alien was successful because of H.R. Giger's bio-mechanical, Freudian designs. Perhaps Alien was successful because of Ridley Scott's tense direction. Perhaps Alien is successful because the xenomorph is a very clear allegory for sexual violation. Or perhaps Alien was successful because it's a damn good movie.

Actually, it's all of those. Every reason mentioned above.

Still, of all the first contacts with extraterrestrial life on film, the most iconic alien encounter on film remains the scene where the chest-burster breaks out of the late-John Hurt's body, leaving everyone shaken in terror for decades later.

This moment is so horrifying and so brilliant that even years later, we're still talking about it.

Spielberg, you mad genius!

Say what you will about one of the most financially successful films of all time, it proved revolutionary in the 80s. Alien lands on Earth, and has to "Go home." Along the way, he eats Reese's Pieces, makes his finger glow a lot, and is kidnapped by the government (which, by the way, traumatized about half of the kids who watched it growing up).

Perhaps what makes this one of the most iconic alien encounters on film is how the target audience for this film was so young. For kids in the 80s, this and Star Wars were the first aliens they saw. It had a huge impact on a lot of people growing up. On top of that, it had John William's iconic score. It had a great script. It captured a slice of childhood, and combined that with an alien foreign enough to look like it came from space and cute enough to be nonthreatening.

Oh, and everyone parodied the scene with the bicycle flying. Everyone.

Curious what Tim Burton, the man who decided to replace Johnny Depp's hands with scissors, thinks first contact with alien life will be like? If it's anything like this iconic alien encounter, then I think we ought to be grateful E.T. hasn't come here yet.

Mars Attacks! is Tim Burton's cheesy throwback to 50s science fiction. The Martians in this film are essentially murderous trolls who enjoy watching pandemonium spread in their wake. These aliens have simple tastes, you see. They enjoy a good mass murder or two, like to inhale nuclear bombs like balloon-helium – you know, a good Friday night on the town.

What makes this among the most iconic alien encounters in film is how Burton distills every old school alien encounter trope from 50s cinema, and cranks it up to 11. Individually, the films Burton parodies and satirizes are just forgettable. Here? Even if you think Mars Attacks! is stupid (and it is), you don't forget it. It is so over-the-top, it's kind of beautiful.

Look, aliens like fireworks on the 4th of July, too. Only, unlike us, they like to fire their fireworks into the ground rather than into the sky. Especially on popular monuments.

First contact in Independence Day is funky. While the opening of the film undeniably draws influence from Arthur C. Clark's Childhood's End (both feature disc-shaped UFOs descending through the clouds, hovering over major cities), it feels oddly fresh and original, in part due to how the aliens treat us as people. It isn't a war. It's an extermination.

In many respects, Independence Day captures the sense of cosmic horror that the greatest of sci-fi alien encounters touch upon. And yes, I am saying a dumb action film like this effectively captures Lovecraftian horror. Think about it: to them, we're just an ant. Unimportant. They exterminate mankind. It's a process to them, not a passion. Purely mechanical. Very rarely does sci-fi effectively make humanity look so small in the face of an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Or at least this would be an exercise in Lovecraftian cosmic horror if Jeff Goldblum didn't make a computer virus that kills the aliens in a few seconds.

Regardless, the film features some incredibly iconic visuals. Show anyone the clip of the White House blowing up. They know exactly where that scene came from. Independence Day. Need more proof that this is among the most iconic alien encounters in film? Director Roland Emmerich has been trying to top the awesomeness of Independence Day ever since he released it.

What Contact does that's so clever is that, much like Arrival years later, it approaches alien contact and space communication in a realistic, scientifically plausible manner.

In Contact, humanity receives transmissions from deep space. A device is built to establish contact with the aliens. Naturally, the film doesn't feature a ton of crazy aliens popping up. No starfish beasts latch onto people's faces – this is hard science fiction.

In its most iconic moment, Jodie Foster's character goes across the universe, and experiences what can only be described as a consensual hallucinatory experience, one that has to be seen to be believed. This film is among the most iconic alien encounters in film because it really establishes "Hey, if we were to meet aliens tomorrow, it might go something like this."

Also, Carl Sagan wrote the book it's based on, so you know you're getting real science with this one. As opposed to just normal movie science. You know, the kind that says you can hear explosions in space.

You know we have all these sci-fi shows and movies? What if aliens watched them? And, more crazy than that, what if aliens thought they were real?

Thankfully, rather than watching District 9, they watched a fictional show within the movie, Galaxy Quest. Even if a lot of people haven't seen this movie, many people seem to know the concept. Aliens see a Star Trek-esque show, and they get Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, and Alan Rickman to save them from a galactic conqueror.

Somehow, the image of aliens showing up at Tim Allen's doorstep became immediately iconic among science fiction fans. Maybe the reason it's among the most iconic alien encounters on film is due to how it satisfies so many nerdy fantasies at once. "Aliens are outside my door, asking me for help? Oh, hell yeah! Let's go on an adventure now!"

Let's ignore the tinfoil hat scenes. Let's focus on this: you're alone in a cornfield, and you hear someone is out there. From your limited view on the world, you hear that there are weird sightings all over the place. The threat of something foreign and strange closes in on you. Maybe these things come from space? Maybe they're aliens? You don't really know.

Tension builds long before we reach one of the most iconic alien encounters in film. A news broadcast shows a tape from some kid's birthday party. It's all grainy and cheap looking. Hard to figure out what's happening –

Boom! Alien walks by. No big explosions. No big shock. He just strolls on past in an organic, real feeling. So many other films make a huge ordeal about aliens coming. Music swells. An explosion. Gore. But M. Night Shyamalan, to his credit, just presents an alien strolling on by. And, for many, that's a lot more effective than some melodramatic sequence.

H.G. Wells' science fiction novel is great, but it's had a hard time making the leap to film. Perhaps its the way it's written, with a very passive main character observing the tripods landing on Earth. Despite many attempts, the film has never been adeptly brought to the big screen.

But Spielberg sure gave it the ol' college try.

What makes Spielberg's War of the Worlds so arresting is how he integrates 9/11 imagery in to what, admittedly, is a tried and true formula. A lot of visuals in the film harken back to the sort of things you saw happen in New York City the day the towers fell, from the curtains of debris washing over everything to that sense of panic and jingoism following, fighting some alien force somewhere far away. That elevates what would be just another space invader movie to something worthy of the Spielberg name.

If I could capture the most iconic alien encounter in the movie, it would be when the tripods first rise up from the ground. Just the way it's shot, that sense of enigma and mystery, followed shortly by lasers and death. It's truly horrifying in a primal, simple way, but you get what's happening. Without any explanation, you know everything you need to know.

Oh, and that ending? It's from the novel. It's highly influential in the science fiction genre. Even Independence Day used it, only they changed the real virus to a computer virus and added the president in a jet plane. So yeah.

I think if aliens were to crash on Earth, things would go like this. No grandeur, no splendor. We'd just lock them up in a camp, and try to forget they're there. Of all the most iconic alien encounters on film, District 9 presents what is at once the most grim and least impressive of them all. If aliens touched down on Earth, we'd sort of just leave 'em in their pens.

Neil Blomkamp draws from the real life South African apartheid in order to illustrate a scenario where mankind is the enemy, and the aliens are actually pretty innocent.

Not to mention they somehow manage to make shrimp-looking aliens adorable. I mean, watch that father and son talk to one another. It's at once adorable, endearing, and tragic. This is one of the rare films where the aliens are more human than the people in the film.

Another cool thing is how certain groups of people react to the arrival of aliens. While most of them are just "Eh, dump the Prawns in their place," others react with almost religious vigor, believing that if they eat alien flesh they can gain its powers. It's kind of insane, but also, again, uncomfortably realistic.

That's what makes this one of the most iconic alien encounters in film. It's at once real and oddly foreign.

Also, Sharlto Copley. He is awesome.

The newest movie here, Arrival is brilliant because it proposes a truly remarkable concept: if aliens come, how are we going to talk to them? How will we know what to say?

As this is the newest movie on this list, I'm hesitant to say too much. A lot of people have yet to really see it (unlike, say, District 9, which is almost 10 years old now), but it became immediately iconic as a direct result of its truly unique and tense concept: how do we avert disaster through communication when we don't even share the same language?

If you have any doubt about how the film's quality, just remember: Denis Villeneuve is directing a Blade Runner sequel and a new adaptation of Dune thanks to Arrival. You don't get a chance like that unless you've made one of the most iconic alien encounters in film.

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About the Creator

Anthony Gramuglia

Obsessive writer fueled by espresso and drive. Into speculative fiction, old books, and long walks. Follow me at twitter.com/AGramuglia

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