The new movie Arrival has a premise that at first might seem more suited for a summer blockbuster than an awards season release: Mysterious alien ships arrive on Earth, and humanity’s elite must rush to prevent catastrophe.
Based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang, Arrival explores complex, nebulous themes like grief, language, and consciousness. I would say that Arrival elevated what I expect from movies about aliens on Earth—but there are lots of similarly thoughtful movies out there that depict extraterrestrial and human relations in an original way.
Whether you’re planning to see Arrival this weekend, or you’ve already seen it and are hungry for similar fare, here are six of the best alien movies out there that take a fresh, intelligent look at what might happen when aliens finally visit our corner of the galaxy.
Under the Skin
This 2013 film showed audiences an entirely different side of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson plays an unnamed alien who disguises herself as a human woman and drives around Scotland in a van, offering men a ride and ultimately leading them to a surreal, horrifying death. Under the Skin is full of haunting, unique visuals that stay with you for years, but the movie’s true impact lies in the empathy with which it treats both the human characters and Johansson’s extraterrestrial succubus.
Based on a 2000 novel of the same name by Michel Faber, Under the Skin uses Alien Scar-Jo’s experiences on Earth as a lens to show how humanity brutalizes women and other vulnerable members of society. It’s a breathtaking and truly unforgettable version of the classic alien invasion tale.
Like Under the Skin, Contact also has an implicit message about gender and the way women are marginalized. Based on the Carl Sagan book, Contact stars Jodie Foster as Dr. Eleanor “Ellie” Arroway—a SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) researcher who devotes her career to proving that the search for life beyond Earth is scientifically viable.
When Ellie and her team uncover a distinctive message transmitted from the star system Vega, she must face men who want to take credit for her research and usurp her rightful place as inter-planet ambassador. Ultimately, regardless of how glaring the evidence is in her favor, Ellie constantly faces skeptics who aren’t ready to give her the credit she deserves, or to accept the unconventional messages the aliens deliver.
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Fair warning: Depending on your tolerance for body horror, this debut feature from South African director Neill Blomkamp might be hard for you to get through. Despite the gripping plot, it took me several tries before I was able to stomach some of the scenes in this 2009 film.
District 9 begins in an alternate 1982. Alien ships appear over Johannesburg, filled with starving and injured extraterrestrials that humans come to call ‘prawns.’ The prawn refugees are segregated from humans and interned in District 9 until 2010, when a private military company is hired by the government to relocate them.
During the relocation efforts, bumbling bureaucrat Wikus van de Merwe accidentally comes into contact with an alien substance and begins a horrific transformation into a prawn (remember I warned you about the body horror?). As grotesque as Wikus’ metamorphosis is, the treatment he receives at the hands of humans is ultimately more appalling.
District 9 is loosely inspired by real-life events in apartheid-era South Africa, particularly the forcible relocation of 60,000 residents of color from District 6 in the 1970s after the government declared it a whites-only area. The movie has been praised for its depiction of xenophobia and exploration of social issues.
Attack the Block
Attack the Block is a truly unique alien invasion story.
Set in a London housing project, the movie tackles racism, classism, and police prejudice, while also managing to be hilarious and genuinely scary. On Guy Fawkes night, Moses (played by Star Wars’ John Boyega) and his gang are in the process of mugging a young nurse when a meteorite falls from the sky, bringing with it an alien. The crew kill the alien and take it back to their weed room for safekeeping; but when more of the alien pack arrives, Moses and his gang face incredulity and interference from police as they fight to protect each other and their block from invaders.
Attack the Block’s aliens are both vicious and very rad-looking—like if Gmork from The Neverending Story had a baby with a blacklight. The movie also stands out for its ability to switch seamlessly from comedy to horror—no one is truly safe from the brutality of the block’s alien invaders.
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The Man Who Fell to Earth
This beloved 1976 movie stars the dearly departed David Bowie as Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien who visits Earth while searching for water to bring back to his home planet.
Using the advanced technology of his species, Newton quickly becomes a millionaire on Earth, and develops a romantic relationship with a human woman—despite having a wife and children back on his drought-ridden planet. As he becomes introduced to human customs, Newton eventually becomes addicted to alcohol, television, and other earthly luxuries best enjoyed in moderation. The Man Who Fell to Earth looks upon humanity and modern life bleakly, but is sentimental and stunning at the same time.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
This 1951 film is a classic, and with good reason (just ignore the 2008 Keanu Reeves-starring remake). In The Day the Earth Stood Still, a human-like alien named Klaatu arrives in Washington D.C., accompanied by a giant robot.
Klaatu comes in peace, but he quickly realizes that ‘peace’ is a nebulous concept for us humans. Struck by the toll that war has taken on our species, and the dangerous technology Earthlings have begun to develop, Klaatu issues an ultimatum in a bid to preserve harmony throughout the galaxy.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (again, the 1951 black and white masterpiece; NOT THE KEANU REEVES VERSION) was recognized in 1995 by the United States National Film Registry for its immense cultural significance. It’s a movie that asks a question we’ll obviously have to tackle when and if aliens ever make contact: Who should we, humans, be more scared of? Alien visitors, or each other?
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Featured photo of "Arrival" via Paramount Pictures.