It’s no mystery why audiences flock to motion pictures about flying saucers and little green men. Among science fiction’s subject matters – AI takeover, time travel, zombies, etc .– extraterrestrial contact has always seemed especially likely to become a reality. These films traditionally emphasize that family is the one thing we can still believe in when all other civilizational cornerstones are thrown into doubt.
With Us, Jordan Peele revealed an artistic kinship to Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams. Peele is the rare filmmaker who excites casual viewers and dedicated cinephiles alike. Nope – a tale about the bond between a brother and sister, which he describes as a play on the “great American UFO story” – further cements him as one of today’s premier engineers of blockbuster cinema.
A linguist’s (Amy Adams) perception of time is altered after the US military enlists her to interview extraterrestrial visitors. While government officials around the world race to determine whether these beings threaten humanity, she suspects we’re asking the wrong questions.
Whereas Nope pays homage to the genre’s greatest hits, Arrivaldeparts from preceding material. Unlike tech-heavy spaceships or flying saucers adorned with flashing lights, the basic, elemental structures in Arrival betray no sign of anything we might call engineering. The film – an academic meditation on the intersection between language and linear experience rather than an invasion thriller – plays more like Christopher Nolan than Spielberg. Though visually and structurally daring, Arrival imparts a conventional message.
‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977)
The “great American UFO story” is not any particular film but an aggregate of stylistic and narrative beats; ninety percent of that composite has this 1977 masterwork’s DNA. Richard Dreyfuss plays Roy Neary, a jack-of-all-trades type who uses his resourcefulness to investigate a string of UFO sightings. At the same time, scientists track strange occurrences around the globe, and a mother (Melinda Dillon) tries to rescue her abducted child.
Close Encounters of the Third Kindis a celebration of ingenuity and persistence, qualities NopeHaywood siblings (Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer) use to devise a state-of-the-art surveillance system and outsmart advanced alien spacecraft. Like Contact(a movie about aliens that does not fall into the UFO subgenre) and Arrivalthe film explores universally recognizable communication systems.
‘Cowboys & Aliens’ (2011)
In 1873, an outlaw (Daniel Craig) woke up in the desert with a mysterious object strapped to his wrist and no memory of how it got there. When high-tech ships tear open the skies over the Wild Wild West, he joins forces with a cattleman (Harrison Ford) to defend the frontier. Like Nope, this is a UFO feature buoyed by the distinct flavor of a western.
Neither critically nor commercially successful, Jon Favreau‘s Cowboys and Aliens deserves credit for fashioning a period piece out of a first-contact story. By and large, movies about alien invasions aim to scare audiences by upending the world they recognize; few go back and rewrite the course of human civilization.The only mainstream project since 2011 to attempt a similar feat of historical fiction – Dan Trachtenberg‘s Predator-prequel Prey– hasn’t even been released yet!
‘District 9’ (2009)
Arrival features depict either hostile extraterrestrials overpowering an inferior human race or humans militantly responding to harmless intergalactic travelers; District 9 falls into the latter category. The film’s crustacean-resembling aliens aren’t here to liquefy our brains into fertilizer but to find refuge until their malfunctioning mothership can be repaired. The prawns, as we call them, are segregated into slums managed by a neo-apartheid state in South Africa.
Neil Blomkamp‘s debut feature is inventive genre filmmaking and damning allegory. It’s a safe bet that Peele, who’s been celebrated as a genre-elevating storyteller himself, is also using the alien-arrival plot to unpack socially relevant topics.
No curation of UFO films is complete without Steven Spielberg’s tale of the friendship between a boy whose parents are going through a divorce and an extraterrestrial stranded during a botanical expedition. Certain images from this movie (and John Williams‘score) are indelibly etched into our pop-cultural memory.
The film’s ecofriendly and government-wary messaging reflects an ’80s shift in mainstream values. Keep an eye out during Nope for visual callbacks to this American classic. ETis so popular that Universal is re-releasing it for a 40th-anniversary theatrical run this summer.
‘Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius’ (2001)
If you’re a mid-’90s baby, there’s a good chance your introduction to alien-movie tropes and propulsion theory was given by a cartoon fifth-grader with a curious bouffant. Jimmy and his pals are ready for all kinds of trouble over summer break but get more than they can handle when aliens abduct their parents.
The film, which launched a series that ran for three seasons on Nickelodeon, successfully translates genre conventions into a kid-friendly format and includes a few clever references to alien-invasion classics for adult viewers. While some of the animation looks dated, this is still a fun and visually dazzling space adventure that will scratch your nostalgia for junior-high science fairs.
A story about contact with extraterrestrials set in the present day is practically obligated to address such an event’s implications on organized religion, but crises of faith are especially integral to M. Night Shyamalan‘s Signs. Following his wife’s death, Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) puts down the cloth and, with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), raises two children (Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin) and runs the family farm. Large crop circles appear on the property and later across the entire world.
Tension is expertly built upon the unseen, culminating in our first glimpse of the alien during a news broadcast – a scene made even more memorable by a reaction shot of Phoenix recoiling in horror. The Hess’ bond and Graham’s inner struggles lend this sci-fi thriller emotional heft. The main character’s spiritual journey renews his faith in not only God but also in his family’s fortitude.
‘Super 8’ (2011)
In 1979, high schoolers making a zombie flick got more “production value” than they bargained for when their camera accidentally captured evidence of a government secret. JJ Abrams’ ET movie uses a sensational plot to develop the highly personal one at its heart about fractured families.
Deriving its title from the camera and film format, Super 8is a retro monster movie as much as it is a love letter to filmmaking. Nope – its first trailer explicitly references Eadweard Muybridge‘s The Horse in Motionand subsequent material reveals that the Haywoods are using an IMAX camera for their “Oprah shot” –similarly doubles as a genre thriller and a visual artist’s tribute to the tools which allow him to perform his craft.
‘War of the Worlds’ (2005)
Loosely adapted from the seminal HG Wells novel, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds marries vintage and cutting-edge filmmaking techniques. Tom Cruise plays Ray Ferrier, a dockworker whose ex-wife (Miranda Otto) drops their kids (Dakota Fanning and Justin Chatwin) off on his doorstep before traveling to Boston. The awkward visit takes a turn for the worse when alien tripods precipitate an international crisis. The Ferriers’ domestic drama goes on the road as Ray races against civilizational collapse to reunite his family.
Spielberg has always been a master of character-based thrillers, and War of the Worlds deftly alternates between moments of epic-scale destruction and startling intimacy. Shot by the legendary Janusz KamińskiSpielberg’s return to UFO cinema simultaneously takes stylistic cues from alien classics – some of which Spielberg himself directed – and gives viewers breathtaking images that, since War of the Worlds‘release in 2005, have themselves become landmarks.
‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953)
The original adaptation of the 1897 book is very much a product of the post-WWII era, but some of its ideas continue to appear in similar fiction. The aliens’ red, blue, and green periscopic lenses serve two purposes: They’re a meta-reference to what in 1953 was still the new color phenomenon in major motion pictures, and they predict that primary colors – like music (Close Encounters) and prime numbers (Contact) – will be a lingua franca between humankind and extraterrestrials.
The 1953 and 2005 adaptations modernize Wells’ novel to presumably give viewers an easier time placing themselves in the action. One of these days, some major Hollywood studios ought to finance an expensive adaptation that’s faithful to the source material and set in the 19th century.
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