In the mid-1940s and the 1950s, scores of people began to report seeing mysterious flying discs in the sky. It could have been mass hysteria caused by the trauma of going through one massive war and the fear of another, but Hollywood was happy to capitalize on the paranoia. Aliens ships descended on the cinema and have continued blowing up Washington, D.C. to this day. Here are the 12 best UFOs that have ever invaded movie screens.
12) E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Forget for a minute that the fat spaceship in E.T. looks like an Aquapod water bottle. When E.T.’s mother ship landed, it was the culmination of a string of fantastic events experienced by a bunch of American suburbanites. It was a scene that managed to be majestic, happy and tear-jerkingly sad. As adults, we know E.T. had to go back to his own kind, who we glimpsed waiting for him in the ship. But as kids, we didn’t want E.T. to go home! Combined with the soaring John Williams score, the arrival and departure of this UFO still gives us lumps in our throats. Maybe it’s indigestion from eating all those Reese’s Pieces. 11) Fire in the Sky
The UFO that whisks away logger Travis Walton isn’t too impressive on the outside; it’s more of a vague shape with a red glow. What is truly frightening is what Walton encounters on the inside – partially weightless catacombs and the mutilated bodies of abducted humans who didn’t survive the aliens’ experiments. Having Travis save himself by climbing up a “rope” that turns out to be a dead person’s intestines is pure genius. Travis then gets caught by the realistic aliens and subjected to a series of horrifying tests, topped off by having a needle inserted into his eye. What’s creepier is that the movie is based on a supposedly true story. However, the whole sequence in the ship was Hollywood-ized, as Walton’s version was a lot more dopey and benign.
This was a UFO of a different sort — it was built by humans, based on blueprints sent by aliens as an invitation to the stars. Jodie Foster’s character makes the voyage in the ship, which is a pod dropped between massive, spinning rings that are pulsating with electromagnetic energy. Foster is hurled across the cosmos through wormholes, catching a glimpse of a beautiful alien civilization and encountering a being who appears as Foster’s character’s father to tell her that humans have just taken the first step of an amazing journey. To everyone else on Earth, it appears that Foster’s ship just dropped into the ocean below it and that she hallucinated the whole thing. However, her recording devices on the pod show she was gone for 18 hours. This film, based on a book by Carl Sagan, gave a hint of the wonders that could really be out there.
9) *batteries not included
The twist in this film was that the little flying saucers who came to save residents of a New York City apartment building from evil land developers and fix things were actually robot aliens. The good-natured UFOs even replicated, having baby flying saucers. It was all very cute. It was the mid-1980s and Steven Spielberg was involved; what did you expect?
8) The Day the Earth Stood Still
It’s been said that if aliens really wanted to make contact with humans, they should stop buzzing farmers and just land on the White House lawn. In this 1951 film, that’s pretty much what happens. The humanoid Klaatu and his powerful robot Gort arrive on a mission of peace. However, humans quickly screw everything up with their violent ways, ignorance and paranoia. Klaatu tells everyone that the rest of the universe fears the Earth’s development of atomic power and will use an army of Gorts to destroy the planet if they persist in their destructive ways. Good going, humanity. Despite a likely accurate portrayal of how badly humans would cock up a peaceful alien visit, viewers are treated to an archetypical vision of an introductory alien visit when Gort and Klaatu’s classic disc-ship descends and lands in Washington, D.C. It’s both amazing and tense.
7) Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
A massive cylindrical probe shows up over Earth and begins monkeying with the planet’s weather, brining Earth to its knees. The mysterious alien cylinder is so huge that not even the Enterprise could take it down, although that wasn’t an issue since Kirk blew his own ship out of the sky in the previous movie. The alien probe wants to talk to whales, by God, and Kirk and crew travel back in time to steal two of the now extinct mammals. Once everyone gets back to the future, the probe talks to the whales about goodness knows what and then heads back to parts unknown. What was cool about the probe was that it managed to be very alien in a franchise where new aliens were met during every movie and episode.
6) Killer Klowns from Outer Space
One of the oddest and creepiest alien invasions every depicted on film was of aliens who happened to both look and act like clowns but were much more monstrous and sinister (which is quite a feat, since normal clowns are pretty sinister in their own right). The Klowns attacked in ways that seemed harmless at first, like with shadow puppet dinosaurs that ate people and balloon dogs that functioned as bloodhounds. Keeping up with this theme, it’s no surprise that the Klowns’ spaceship looked like a Big Top circus tent erected mysteriously in the middle of the woods. The inside was more functional as a ship, although it was brightly-colored and stored giant wads of cotton candy. Only it wasn’t exactly cotton candy — it was used to store and digest humans, who were then sucked out with
a crazy straw by the Klowns.
5) X-Files: Fight the Future
In the first X-Files film, Mulder travels to Antarctica to rescue Scully from the Cigarette-Smoking Man, awakening a bunch of slumbering aliens in the process. Mulder watches as their ship flies off over the ice in a breath-taking scene, and it was the first time The X-Files had been really generous in showing an alien craft. However, the ever-skeptical Scully was half-conscious when she caught a glimpse of the flying saucer, not enough to convince her that Mulder wasn’t batshit crazy. Typical.
4) Independence Day
The alien attack in ID4 has become iconic — GINORMOUS, disc-shaped ships hovering over the Earth’s major cities, seemingly on a mission to blow up the Earth’s landmark buildings including the White House. The presence of the ships succeeded in showing that Earth was majorly fucked. But they lost serious points when there were taken out by Jeff Goldblum and an Apple laptop computer.
3) The War of the Worlds
The special effects team that worked on the 1953 film adaptation of H.G. Well’s novel had a hard time creating the Martian tripods featured in the book. That was fortunate, as the hovering war machines they came up with were far better. The ships looked like green and black manta rays and shot fiery death at anything that moved from long stalks that looked like golden cobras mounted atop each ship. The ships were meant to be hovering on invisible, electronic legs that were only depicted in one scene of the film, referencing the original tripods. These UFOs had unique designs that differed nicely from the typical flying saucer of the day.
2) Earth vs. the Flying Saucers
Released in 1956, this film is the epitome of the mid-20th Century vision of a flying saucer invasion. It begins with a misunderstanding when a UFO pays a visit to an Earthen launch of satellites; violence erupts. The next thing you know, flying saucers are causing havoc across the globe. Forget CGI; the effects in this film are awesome, with the UFOs animated by stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, known for the famous skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts. The flying saucers blend pretty well with real people but succeed more in style, in a way that’s unsettling and creepy just like Harryhausen’s other miniature work. The mystique of black and white and Cold War fear plays a role here, too. The best part is when Earth figures out how to jam the UFO propulsion systems, leading to the flying saucers crashing kamikaze-style into the Washington Monument and other landmarks. These UFOs were homaged very strongly in the design of the ships used by the bastardly aliens in latter-day flying saucer spoof Mars Attacks.
1) Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Spielberg’s touch is present to the max in Close Encounters, capturing the magic and mystery that tales of UFO sightings have imparted to the public. The UFOs managed to both be awesome and terrifying, mysterious beyond human comprehension. When they finally land near Devils Tower in Wyoming, it’s hard not to be awed and inspired by the unearthly designs of the various craft created by visual effects maestro Douglas Trumbull. The ships seems to have a sense of humor, too, sneaking up on Richard Dreyfuss like they’re another car behind his truck and, later, speaking in peppy musical notes. The ships in the film are wisely imbued with the kind of weird behavior that real UFOs supposedly have, like interfering with electronics and abducting people. The movie was a better reflection of actual UFO sightings than the flying saucer invasion flicks of decades past. You know it’s a movie, but it’s hard not to get sucked in and think you’re one of the jaw-dropped humans watching the spectacle unfold on a dark night in the desert.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.