Last weekend, the UFO Reykawvik Summit 2011 brings authors, investigators, and researchers to Liberty Hall in Lawrence, KS to discuss alien abduction and ongoing UFO sightings. Coincidentally, while this 3-day conference visited my town, the new alien comedy “Paul,” starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as two British nerds who discover an alien in Area 51, opens in theaters. The military vs. alien invasion action pic “Battle: Los Angeles” has been raking it in as well. In June, J.J. Abrams releases the highly anticipated “Super 8,” which deals with an alien presence found in 1979 Ohio. There are not a huge amount of films that deal seriously with the matter of extra-terrestrials and UFOs, but this list compiles the best. Again, that may not be saying much. Here’s the Top 10 First Contact / UFO Movies.
Runners-up: Communion (1989), Knowing (2009), Mars Attacks! (1996)
Scenes shot for this Milla Jovovich movie were passed off as “original documentary footage,” and Universal Pictures acknowledged that it created fake online news articles and obituaries to support the movie’s “truth.” However, that doesn’t stop some people from believing that the mysterious disappearances in Nome, Alaska in 2000—which the film is set around—were alien abductions. Trying to fool an audience into believing what they are seeing is real isn’t very nice, but the fact that many still believe it to be real shows how much people want to believe. This page alone has (as of this writing) 956 comments about just that. Whew.
Since I was trying to stick to ‘serious’ films only, I couldn’t put the ultra-campy “Mars Attacks!” on here, but leaving this Will Smith blockbuster off the list—famous mostly for its scene of the White House being blown to smithereens by an invading alien force—just seemed wrong somehow. “Independence Day” was the top-grossing film of 1996 and it launched Smith’s A-list movie career, but it’s basically a disaster film with a sci-fi premise that took advantage of then-new CGI technology to create iconic scenes of aliens destroying world monuments. “Mars Attacks!” is a flawed film for sure, but its a mess and it’s just as much, if not more, fun. Oh well, I said it would be rough going at the start…
This Disney film holds a special place in the hearts of kids of a very specific age. If you saw this movie at just the right time in your adolescence, chances are you were dazzled, charmed, and more than a little reminded of “E.T.” (Although the plot here is even weirdr and somehow more sinister.) A 12-year old boy (Joey Cramer) from 1978 is knocked unconscious and awakens in 1986, later finding out that he had been abducted by an alien spaceship. Like Disney’s “Tron,” “Flight of the Navigator” featured state-of-the-art CGI for the time, actual handmade models, and even a little stop-motion. Paul Reubens (better known as Pee-Wee Herman) was the voice of Max, the robot that the boy helps get back to its home planet of Phaelon and Sarah Jessica Parker played a NASA intern. Strange days indeed…
Both screen versions of H.G. Wells‘ classic book differ greatly from the source, but each stands out in its own way. It should first be noted that the aliens in these films are not benevolent creatures, but rather beings bent on taking over the planet. Steven Spielberg‘s CGI-heavy remake goes way farther with the terror aspect, but credit should be given to the color special effects of floating Martian manta rays in the 1953 version, which terrified audiences back then. In both movies, its the viruses and bacteria of Earth that eventually do the invaders in.
This low-budget thriller concentrates on the “true” story of a group of loggers in Arizona who experienced contact with a UFO. One of the men (D.B. Sweeney) was hit by a blinding light and disappeared—only to show up five days later, claiming to have been abducted by aliens. The story mostly focuses on his experience coming back home, the police investigation (all the men passed multiple lie detector tests), and the guilt of one of his friends (Robert Patrick) from having left him there. Even though some of the dialogue isn’t the best and it’s overbearingly earnest, the alien abduction scenes are well done and he film is a modest success.
James Cameron‘s obsession with love stories, sunken ships, and alien life forms should have been obvious way before “Titanic” or “Avatar.” When a team of Navy SEALs go searching for a U.S. submarine at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, they find a bunch of mysterious underwater beings. Where are they from? (I’ll give you a hint: The movie is on this list.) Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio are the estranged couple who will find out, if they don’t drown first in a series of frightening underwater ordeals. It turns out that shooting the film was crazy strenuous on the actors and the movie went over-budget. Go figure — on a Cameron movie? The end result is a pretentious, sometimes ponderous film with moments of real magic and wonderment.
Robert Zemeckis adapted this Carl Sagan novel for the screen, casting Jodie Foster as a scientist who finds a repeating series of prime numbers and a video of Hitler being broadcast from 26 light years away in space. It turns out to also contain plans for a machine that can carry one human visitor to who knows where, and Foster is selected to be the one to make contact with the unidentified beings who sent them. Besides depicting that contact in some sort of dreamlike hallucination state, the film spends a lot of time on the issue of science vs. faith. Matthew McConaughey is the religious friend who decries Foster’s lack of faith and Jake Busey is a crazed fanatic with destructive plans. In the end, Foster’s character is saddled with the unwavering faith that her experience really happened and the tables are turned.
What is there to say about this movie? Yes, it’s a about a cute little alien stranded on Earth who befriends a young boy (Henry Thomas), but it also has some scary undertones of sinister governmental meddling and the unrelenting, seemingly uncaring scientific need for research. In that respect, it echoes some of the classic themes of the next film on this list.
Director Steven Spielberg engages the heart(light) and asks the audience to sympathize with poor E.T. rather than wanting him poked and prodded and studied by scientists. It may not have any deep or ‘serious’ message, but by sticking with a view of the story through a child’s eyes, it has plenty of emotional connection. If that’s not an effective way to convince you of the possibility of alien life, I don’t know what is.
An alien named Klaatu (Micheal Rennie) lands a UFO in Washington, D.C. He’s shot by an overzealous infantryman and taken into custody, but soon escapes and disappears within the city while his giant robot stands guard. This smart sci-fi film spends most of its time wrestling with mankind’s penchant for war and violence, as the alien blends into the fabric of everyday life to observe the huan race.
Klaatu issues a warning that if the world leaders do not terminate their destructive tendencies, “Planet Earth will be eliminated.” His experiences with a World War II widow (Patricia Neal) and her son give him hope, but the military keeps giving him trouble. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” spends most of its time grappling with the big picture of our human footprint and not special effects, and remains a thoughtful classic. A 2008 Keanu Reeves remake where the fate of the world was decided at a McDonald’s didn’t exactly make the earth stand still. In fact, it made serious sci-fi fans wriggle uncomfortably in their seats for a good two hours of generic CGI nonsense and empty platitudes. John Cleese should be ashamed for his part in the film, even if it lasted about 10 whole minutes.
Steven Spielberg makes his third appearance and closes out the list because “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” still contains the most convincing alien contact ever put to celluloid. It also managed to frighten and be optimistic at the same time — a rare feat on this list indeed. The year was 1977, and the visual effects and models that created the film’s massive flying saucers with rounds of glowing lights are still impressive.
Apart from the visuals, Spielberg puts together an even-handed account of one man’s journey (Richard Dreyfuss) to a mysterious UFO landing site, accompanied by the parallel story of a French scientist (François Truffaut) who is putting the mystery of recent unidentified sightings together to build a peaceful welcoming committee for the aliens. The writer/director’s peaceful version of alien contact is a welcome change from the hostile UFO assault movies that came before it, and it has something that other UFO films lack—a soothing and hopeful resolution.