First: What is an alien invasion movie? The implied location is Earth, so outerspace gems like Alien don’t make the cut. And the term “invasion” suggests some sinister or at least worrisome intent on the part of the aliens. So then E.T. is likewise excluded. It also assumes some sort of infiltration—visitors from another world living among us, battling us, or parking their ships above us for a while. Which means the absentee-weekend-dad aliens from Close Encounters aren’t here either.
What we’re left with is that first qualifier, “best.” Certainly it’s all subjective, but for entertaining, diverting, and otherwise satisfying examinations of what happens when extraterrestrials come to town, these 16 alien invasion movies should certainly do the trick. Now pass the clown-larvae popcorn.
Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)
The aliens are called Mimics and they are here to wipe us out swiftly and relentlessly. Not only are they strong and fast and multi-tentacled, they also have the ability to reset time if a battle doesn’t go their way. Hardly seems fair. Edge of Tomorrow has a lot of fun with the Groundhog Day time loop, putting Tom Cruise in the role of a soldier who gains the aliens’ reset ability and Emily Blunt as a soldier who had the ability but lost it.
With no big battles or menacing lasers, Arrival may just be the quietest alien invasion movie you’ll watch. Which doesn’t mean it’s not gripping sci-fi. When multiple monolithic spacecraft arrive at various points around earth, they just…hang out. Understandably, we have all the questions, so a linguist (Amy Adams) and a physicist (Jeremy Renner) are called in to learn how to communicate with the arrivals in a film that’s equal parts beautiful and mind-bending.
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
As with Arrival, the otherworldly visitors in The Day the Earth Stood Still aren’t necessarily here to blow us up. In fact, Klaatu and Gort want to see if we can be persuaded to not blow ourselves up. If you only know the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto” or happened to catch the 2008 remake with Keanu Reeves, check out the original. It’s an assured sci-fi classic that avoids camp while making great use of shadows and the special effects of its time.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
For a remake that does make the cut, fire up Invasion of the Body Snatchers and watch Donald Southerland grow increasingly paranoid as those around him start getting weird. The aliens arrive on the “solar winds” in the form of a gelatinous goo that replicates humans in pods to create automatons devoid of emotion (until it’s time to shriek). Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy co-star in a bonafide horror classic.
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Just putting 10 Cloverfield Lane on this list is a little bit of a spoiler. Apologies there. But considering the film is part of the Cloverfield franchise, alien involvement shouldn’t come as too much of a shocker. What is surprising is how intense and twisty things get. With John Goodman as a seemingly helpful bunker-dweller with a temper, it’s a bottle movie that keeps ratcheting the tension.
The Fifth Element (1997)
Much of the action takes place on a floating luxury space hotel. The Earth we do see is a flying-car futurescape. The aliens who come to Earth don’t invade so much as try to help us with a weapon to defend against the “great evil”—another set of aliens who don’t want to land here, just blow us up. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you could argue that The Fifth Element isn’t a textbook alien invasion movie. But it’s got Bruce Willis’s smirk paired with Milla Jovovich’s ingénue badassery, set against Luc Besson’s bombastic technicolor vision. That’s a movie I’ll put on as many lists as our Editor will let me.
Mars Attacks (1996)
If you watched a movie in the ‘90s (like basically any of them) you’ll recognize the actors in Mars Attacks—drama stalwarts like Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close, comedy gems Sarah Jessica Parker and Michael J. Fox. It’s a dazzling who’s who of the era. Directed by the master of quirk Tim Burton, this is what happens when short, exposed-brain aliens arrive and show us what they think of our white dove of peace by laser-blasting it out of the sky.
The Avengers (2012)
You could say that a vast number of the Marvel movies involve alien invasion. The 2012 Avengers is a good representative, delivering skies full of Loki’s borrowed army of cybernetic space warriors. The Marvel Cinematic Universe really proved its power to entertain with this entry, after building a mythology over the course of five films, then bringing the characters together for a remarkably epic battle in NYC.
Independence Day (1996)
That shot of a city-sized spaceship disintegrating the White House demonstrated how deadly serious the invading aliens were. It’s hard to pick the most enjoyable part of Independence Day: Will Smith’s wisecracking ace pilot, Jeff Goldblum’s winking engineer, Bill Pullman’s true-blue US President, or the way humanity converges to save itself through ingenuity and grit. And a lot of explosions.
War of the Worlds (2005)
It doesn’t get more surefire than putting Tom Cruise in a Steven Spielberg movie based on a story by H.G. Wells. Though War of the Worlds has been done (and done well) multiple times, this one is the shiniest. Following the general movement of the original book, it tells the story of a long-planned attack by merciless aliens as witnessed by an everyman who struggles to survive.
Save The Green Planet (2003)
Parasite’s award-gobbling in 2019 cemented South Korean cinema’s rightful place in pop culture. Those of you looking for other zany, multi-act treats the country has to offer will do well to check out this oddball dark comedy. The premise is familiar enough: a man believes aliens are about to attack—and only he can stop them. But the next two hours are not familiar at all, with a deranged blender-full of comedy, horror, pathos, and sci-fi.
A Quiet Place (2018)
Psycho, Halloween, Scream. Horror has long fed on the shrieking wails of its characters to sustain the genre. So pulling such terror from whispers and ASL is a work of cinematic wizardry. A Quiet Place got the recognition it deserved, telling the story of a family living in a post-apocalyptic world where blind aliens with hypersensitive hearing wipe out anything they hear.
District 9 (2009)
When aliens arrived over South Africa in the ‘80s they were starving and out of gas. Thirty years later, the new arrivals are spurned and feared by the humans who surround them in their slum settlement just outside of Johannesburg. We want their alien tech, they want to go home. While parallels to apartheid and refugees are apparent, the absorbing story, frenetic filming, impressive effects, and dark dark humor make this one wholly original alien flick.
The Thing (1982)
What’s fascinating about The Thing is how hated it was when it first came out. John Carpenter lost work, critics went wild with vitriol, lawsuits were filed. Watching it now, it’s a tense, paranoia-fueled horror picture that’s almost decadently bleak. When a group of scientists and crew in an Antarctic outpost encounter an alien with the ability to perfectly (and gruesomely) mimic and kill any organism, nobody knows who to trust. The answer, of course, is no one.
Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)
You have to give full props to a title that serves both as elevator pitch and plot synopsis. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is admittedly campy, but the rubber clown masks and circus-based ways to die are deeply disturbing. It’s one of those movies where you’re horror-gasping and laughing with the same breath. In a good way.
The Vast of Night (2019)
For a brilliantly shot, beautifully acted film, check out The Vast of Night. The film was made on a tiny budget and tells a comparatively small-scale story of a New Mexican town in the ‘50s where extraterrestrials have come to prey—and it isn’t the first time. While it might be slower than your average alien invasion movie, it’s plenty unsettling and always entertaining.