As the author of Silver Screen Saucers, a book about the historical intersections between UFO fact and fantasy in Hollywood, I’m often asked, “What are your favourite UFO movies?” I’m also asked, “What are the best UFO movies?”
To my mind, these are two very different questions. I’ve always been keen to make a clear distinction between ‘favorite’ (a term which triggers subjective and impulsive choices, often stemming from nostalgia) and ‘best’ (which demands objective judgements based on technical and artistic value). For a film snob like me, ‘favorite’ and ‘best’ can sometimes be worlds apart.
Citizen Kane is, undeniably, a great film; a towering achievement that pushed the boundaries of cinematic craft and form. It’s also as boring as cabbage. Seriously, I’ve yet to meet anyone who feels pumped at the notion of watching Citizen Kane. My point is, I recognize Orson Welles’ film as one of the best ever made, but I’d happily never watch it again in my lifetime.
Big Trouble in Little China, on the other hand, I could watch till the cows come home. Because it’s AWESOME. An awesome, goofy, dated, ‘80s movie with rubbery monsters, a mulleted Kurt Russell, made-up Chinese mythology and supernatural kung-fu. If you’re over the age of 40, however, and maybe younger than 30, you’re likely to disagree with me. Strongly.
My love for John Carpenter’s (HUGELY UNDERRATED!) action-fantasy is mainly a nostalgic one. I first saw it as an adventure-seeking six-year-old. You get the idea.
Anyway, returning to the question at hand. When asked about the best UFO movies, I think of titles like The Day the Earth Stood Still, This Island Earth, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Man Who Fell to Earth, or The Thing. But when it comes to my favorites, there are only a few I can repeatedly revisit with undiminished enthusiasm.
Here are my five favorite UFO movies, the first of which (in case you were thinking I’d overlooked it) also happens to be one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time…
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
Close Encounters was a miracle of a movie. It imparted to the viewer a message of universal hope, revealing to cinemagoers that aliens were not necessarily a force to be feared. According to Spielberg’s vision, aliens were simply misunderstood – not our malevolent destructors, but our gloriously benevolent friends. Here was the work of an unashamed idealist, its director’s childlike sense of wonder infusing its every frame.
The film’s plot, such as it is, follows Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss), a Spielbergian everyman with a thirst for adventure who is trapped in a joyless marriage with bratty kids in middle-American suburbia. Roy’s life is turned upside down one night after a close encounter with a UFO convinces him that we are not alone in the universe. Roy embarks upon an obsessive and isolating quest for the truth behind the UFO enigma and ultimately finds himself at Devils Tower in Wyoming where he meets angelic alien beings with whom he blissfully takes his leave of our humdrum planet.
Production designer Joe Alves based the movie’s aliens on what he heard directly from UFO witnesses during his research in the mid-1970s: “The descriptions I heard were of these big-eyed things with small mouths and no nose, long fingers, that kind of thing. So I made some sketches and I also made a couple of clay models.” Spielberg was pleased with Alves’ designs: “Steven said ‘I like these simple little childlike beings. That’s what I want.’”
Spielberg’s film is rich in UFOlogical detail beyond the appearance of its aliens, from its depiction of silent but spectacular UFO manoeuvres, UFOs interfering with electrical grids and car engines, government secrecy and disinformation surrounding the subject, even alien abduction (around a decade before such stories began to permeate the literature). The movie achieved its extraordinary UFOlogical realism thanks in part to the advice of legendary UFO investigator, Professor J. Allen Hynek. It was Hynek’s classification system for UFO sightings that gave Spielberg’s movie its unusual title (a ‘Close Encounter of the Third Kind’ referring to any sighting of a UFO within 500 feet of the witness during which UFO occupants are also observed), and Spielberg appointed the man himself as his official UFO advisor on the movie.
For years, Close Encounters has been the subject of fervent speculation in the UFO conspiracy community. This speculation can be traced back to the production of the movie itself. On 23 July 1976, after a hard day’s shoot, around forty of the Close Encounters cast and crew gathered in the sticky night air of Mobile, Alabama, to hear a lecture on UFOs delivered by Hynek (who had been flown in for a brief cameo in the film’s closing scenes). It was shortly after this lecture that the co-star of the movie, Bob Balaban (who plays the character of translator, David Laughlin), spoke of an intriguing rumour that had been circulating during the production – “a rumour,” said the actor, “that the film is part of the necessary training that the human race must go through in order to accept an actual landing, and is being secretly sponsored by a government UFO agency.”
What we know for sure regarding Close Encounters and officialdom is that the movie was denied cooperation from both the US Air Force (USAF) and NASA. Indeed, not only did NASA refuse its cooperation, it even sought to convince the director not to make the film at all. In a 1978 interview for the journal Cinema Papers, Spielberg said:
“I really found my faith [in UFO reality] when I heard that the government was opposed to the film. If NASA took the time to write me a 20 page letter, then I knew there must be something happening.”
Spielberg’s movie remains hugely significant today for the fact that it played a central role in Hollywood’s mid-to-late-1970s economic revival – its $338 million worldwide box-office gross forced aging studio executives to recognize America’s vast and largely un-catered-for youth market and to adapt their studios’ output accordingly. Along with two other alien-themed films – Star Wars (1977) and Superman (1978) – Close Encounters acted as adrenalin, shot straight into the heart of a dying industry (although many critics would later argue, perhaps justifiably, that this adrenalin acted as poison in the long-term, stifling creativity and individuality in Hollywood).
It had taken the better part of thirty years, but Hollywood’s aliens had made the transition from invaders to saviors. Remarkably, this transition was affected almost single-handedly by a wunderkind director with a vision. With Vietnam and Watergate still fresh in the mind, Close Encounters came as a reassuring hug for America towards the end of a decade of disillusionment, and, for the next few years, Spielberg’s movie would redefine Hollywood’s working relationship with aliens.
Flight of the Navigator (1986)
Disney’s Flight of the Navigator is an endearing family adventure directed by Randal Kleiser, of Grease fame. It follows the adventures of twelve-year-old David Freeman, who mysteriously vanishes one evening while walking in the woods, only to reappear eight years later not having aged a day. Meanwhile, an alien spacecraft is discovered nearby, which NASA believes may explain David’s disappearance. By accessing complex technical data mysteriously uploaded into the boy’s subconscious mind from an alien source, NASA learns that David has, in fact, spent the last eight years on a planet called Phaelon, some 560 light years away.
Flight of the Navigator transports me instantly back to my childhood, but it’s more than just a nostalgia trip. It’s a solid movie. A well-told story that delivers action, adventure, and genuine emotion in equal measure. It also invites UFOlogical observations. It touches on the theme of alien abduction, including the phenomenon of ‘missing time’ (in this case eight years); it also features a secret UFO retrieval and scenes of the spacecraft parked in a secret government hangar.
The movie also recalls the story of 1950s contactee, Daniel Fry. In his 1954 book, Fry describes how, on 4 July 1949, he witnessed a flying saucer landing in the desert. As Fry told it, he approached the object and cautiously laid a hand on its metallic skin. It was then that he heard a loud disembodied male voice, “Better not touch the hull, pal, it’s still hot!” Fry leapt backwards in shock as the voice continued with a chuckle, “Take it easy, pal, you’re among friends.” Through the conversation that ensued, Fry discovered that the voice belonged to a human-like alien being (whose name he would later learn was ‘Ah-Lahn,’ or ‘Alan’ for short) who was operating the remote-controlled craft from a mothership some 900 miles above the Earth. Fry claimed to have been invited aboard the smaller, remotely-piloted craft and flown to New York City and back within 30 minutes, the wondrous sights below him miraculously being made visible by technology that renders metal translucent.
Flight of the Navigator recalls Daniel Fry’s testimony with its talking, artificially-controlled UFO, nicknamed ‘Max’ (voiced by Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens), treating its awestruck passenger to a whistle-stop tour of America, the sights below being made visible to David, as they were to Fry, by a translucent metal door. As with ‘Alan’ in the Fry case, Max in Navigator even uses colloquial language, prompting David to declare; “You sound just like a human!”
They live (1988)
Based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story, Eight O’clock in the Morning, They Live follows a blue collar drifter (played by Roddy Piper) who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the stark reality of corporate America where shops are covered with subliminal signs that say “SUBMIT,” “STAY ASLEEP,” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY.” The world is being secretly run in this Orwellian fashion by malevolent, skeletal-faced aliens who are allied with the US establishment – the human elite having been promised tickets off-planet when Doomsday arrives.
They Live was pulled from cinemas just two weeks after its release date in November 1988. While Carpenter blamed audiences who “don’t want to be enlightened,” co-star Keith David had a more conspiratorial take on the film’s failure: “Not that anybody’s being paranoid,” said the actor, “but it was interesting that They Live was number one at the box office… and suddenly you couldn’t see it anywhere – it was, like, snatched.”
They Live is an oddity, not Carpenter at his best, but arguably at his most interesting. Like its protagonist, the movie seems to drift aimlessly for a while; it’s hard to identify where it’s going, if anywhere. But, from the moment we don those shades with Roddy, it’s hard not to share in his horror and outrage at the unmasked world in which he now finds himself. We’re horrified, but electrified also, because we recognize a fundamental truth in what we’re witnessing – our culture, our society, our world, is very far from what it seems. Carpenter’s film captures this brilliantly, and with deadpan humor. Not necessarily one of the best UFO/alien movies ever, but definitely one of my favorites.
Whitley Strieber’s 1987 book about his claimed encounters with non-human entities acted as a catalyst for thousands more men and women to recognize and deal with their own similar experiences. It was an instant bestseller, and, to date, has sold more than two million copies worldwide. The 1989 movie adaptation starred Christopher Walken in a compellingly manic performance as Strieber, and Lindsay Crouse as his late wife, Anne (also a strong, naturalistic performance).
Both book and movie are primarily focused on an experience which occurred 26 December 1985, when Strieber was, for lack of a better word, ‘abducted’ from his cabin in upstate New York while on a short break with his family and some close friends. Strieber had almost no conscious recollection of what had happened to him. In the months that follow, he begins to suffer an untraceable emotional and psychological toll. Eventually, he agrees to be hypnotically regressed by psychiatrist Janet Duffey (played in the movie by Frances Sternhagen), and it is through these sessions that the bizarre events of that night come back to confront him – events involving small, spindly, beings with oversized oval heads and large hypnotic black eyes. Other beings are encountered too – hooded dwarf-like creatures with blue skin with whom Strieber clowns around at one point, dancing with them and high-fiving them. There’s even a robot.
These events, depicted onscreen, make no sense to the viewer on a narrative level, just as they made no sense to Strieber. His memories have the feel of a surreal nightmare. They are symbolic impressions only. Time and space are meaningless. His communications with the entities are nonsensical. Despite the fear they invoke in him, Strieber eventually realizes his abductors are not hostile, although certainly they are tricksters, concealing their true nature while peeling back the layers of his own. Crucially, in both book and film, Strieber draws no conclusions about the origin of what he terms “the Visitors.” The extraterrestrial hypothesis is considered, but is far from satisfactory.
Communion was the first Hollywood entertainment product to engage thoughtfully with the more surreal aspects of the abduction phenomenon. With a screenplay penned by Strieber himself, the movie captures the tonal essence of his book, if not its deeply layered psychological and metaphysical complexity. It’s a flawed film, but it dares to show abduction for the baffling, hallucinatory, deeply troubling, intellectually challenging, and spiritually transformative phenomenon it is, or that it can be. This is a film, which, for the most part, is rooted firmly in our own mundane world. The thought of non-human intelligences breaking through into this reality from a strange realm is psychologically jarring, both for Strieber and for the viewer. “You expect answers so quickly,” Strieber’s psychiatrist remarks to him at one point in the movie, “we don’t even know all the questions yet!”
As real life does not conform to genre, so Communion comes in many shades: sci-fi, horror, family drama, but above all else it’s an existential story. Its failure at the box-office should have come as no surprise. Although he wrote the screenplay, Strieber did not always see eye-to-eye with director Philippe Mora (an old friend of his), and he was famously dissatisfied with the end product. Strieber recently commented that no Hollywood movie to date, including his own, has believably simulated the true nature of the abduction experience. “Nothing does and nothing can,” he told Catherine Austin Fitts on his Dreamland radio show. “The reason is you’re not in ‘this’ reality… you’re between worlds. And some of the physics of where you are is different from ‘this’ physics. You’re in a different level of reality of yourself.”
Communion, despite its flaws, is a firm favorite of mine. I’m a devoted horror fan, and, it’s fair to say, this is a deeply creepy movie. It’s also an important one, not only for its ambition, but for further popularizing the image of the now archetypal Gray alien – an image which first came to prominence on the cover of Strieber’s own bestselling book and would later feature on the movie’s VHS cover, staring hypnotically into the eyes of millions of freaked-out customers in video rental stores worldwide. “That image of that iconic Gray alien is forever seared into the consciousness of our pop-culture,” observes author Mike Clelland. “It is as instantly recognized as Ronald McDonald or Santa Claus.”
Under the Skin (2013)
A beautiful, nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson) seduces random men off the street and lures them to their doom. Something cold and otherworldly moves beneath her skin. The precise nature of her mission on Earth is never specified and, like most everything else in this striking and challenging film, is left open to viewer interpretation.
Based on the novel by Michel Faber, Under the Skin divided critical opinion, with some commentators dismissing it as pointless and impenetrable, others hailing it as a masterpiece. I go with the latter. I first saw this film at a sparsely-attended showing at my local cinema one night in 2014. There were five or six of us in total, all strangers. We watched the film in silence, and, when the credits rolled, we staggered out in a daze, our faces a collective expression of, “What the F***k?”
Such was the power and originality of this film that we all spontaneously gathered in the lobby and launched into a discussion about what we had just witnessed. What did it mean? I came away with themes of urban alienation, isolation, sexual identity, humanity, and compassion. Plot was irrelevant. Imagery was King. And what stunning imagery. As a UFO nerd, I also found myself drawing parallels with real-life accounts of alien abduction, despite the absence onscreen of little Gray aliens or flying saucers (although lights in the sky do feature early on).
Johansson, a succubus, of sorts, lures her men into various dilapidated buildings wherein they submit entirely to her desire. Upon entering these seemingly normal urban spaces and shedding their clothes, the men find themselves in a distinctly alien environment and submerged in a strange dense liquid. Abductees often have reported moving inexplicably and seamlessly from an earthly environment to an alien one. In the film, Johansson’s alien leads her men into what appear to be earthly structures, but which inside are surely alien spacecraft, or an alien dimension of some sort. In one abduction scene, a man with a neurofibromatosis disfigurement (Adam Pearson) remarks to his naked seducer: “I’m dreaming.” Given his situation and surroundings, certainly he has no reason to believe otherwise. Many abductees have described their experiences as being dreamlike, and yet clearly distinct from a dream.
Like it or loath it, and however you want to interpret it, Under the Skin makes for a truly unique viewing experience; it’s pure, undiluted cinema. See it.
So, there you have it. Five of my favorite UFO movies. What would make your top five?
Silver Screen Saucers: Sorting Fact from Fantasy in Hollywood’s UFO Movies is available in paperback and as an eBook.