Last year marked the 30th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s famous “disarmament” speech before the U.N., when he surmised that warfare worldwide “would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.” Whether you believe in aliens or not, you can’t ignore their influence on pop culture, especially at the box office. Which raises the question: What are the best alien invasion movies of all time? First, some parameters; do you count Predator as an invasion, or is the deadly creature just on a weekend hunting trip? How about The Thing, an alien so hapless he crashed in Antarctica millennia ago and froze into hibernation? Although both movies are classics, neither meets our standards for an alien invasion, which requires a coordinated attack that threatens the world. You’ll find plenty of that in the 10 films listed here. (Editor’s note: We published a similar story several years ago, but several great invasion movies have been released in the past few years so we rebooted that story)
10. Battleship (2012)
The Invasion: Scientists discover a distant Earth-like exoplanet and beam messages to the planet. They get a reply when a fleet of ships approaches Earth; as one character notes, “It will be just like Columbus meeting the Indians — only we’re the Indians.”
What Makes it so Good: If you’re looking for complex character development, good dialogue, insights into the human spirit … you aren’t likely to be watching an alien invasion movie anyway. Critics and audiences alike panned this movie, some probably disappointed it didn’t approach the high standards of Independence Day. But it is unexpectedly good as far as these types of movies go, whipping an interesting mix of SETI and pop science, World War II history, modern naval warfare and first contact into a fun package. This is good, popcorn-munching fun, a chance to cheer for Earthlings battling alien invaders.
9. The Abyss (1989)
The Invasion: A salvage team racing to reach a sunken U.S. nuclear sub before it falls into Russian hands encounters “non-terrestrial intelligence” life forms.
What Makes it So Good: Director James Cameron almost always delivers, and although this isn’t an epic picture on the scale of Avatar, Titanic or the Terminator flicks, it’s still well worth seeing today, 30 years later. Look for the special director’s cut version, which adds a political dimension to the film. And without giving too much away in a spoiler, the aliens’ message to humanity is clear — evolve as a species or suffer the consequences, similar to the theme from the 1951 sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still (see No. 5 below).
8. Signs (2002)
The Invasion: A Pennsylvania farm family finds a giant crop circle in their field. As other such circles begin appearing worldwide, the family (led by patriarch Mel Gibson) suspects they are not alone on their farm.
What Makes it so Good: This is a unique contrast to other invasion films, focusing on one family’s terror rather than an invasion destroying cities and killing thousands. Many movie fans have a love-hate relationship with Shyamalan, whose work swings between brilliant (The Sixth Sense) and absolutely dreadful (The Happening). Signs earned mixed reviews but is definitely toward the upper end of his body of work.
7. Cloverfield (2008)
The Invasion: An enormous creature wreaks havoc on New York City and a group of 20-somethings tape the carnage as they try to flee the city.
What Makes it so Good: A viral marketing campaign helped this film explode at the box office, but it lives up to the hype. Some truly scary scenes here in the streets and subway tunnels of Manhattan. The movie’s jerky, hand-held-camera viewpoint turned off some fans and critics, but come on — this is a monster/alien movie, not a remake of Gone With the Wind.
6. War of the Worlds (2005)
The Invasion: Giant three-legged alien ships buried in the ground for untold millennia come to life in a lightning storm and start vaporing humans, buildings, bridges, etc. with death rays.
What Makes it so Good: The excellent 1953 original film version of H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds could easily occupy this spot instead, but Steven Spielberg’s modern take gets the nod because of the better special effects. Any movie featuring characters rushing down a city street as an alien death ray vaporizes everyone around them is edge-of-the-seat viewing. Tom Cruise’s character is initially in over his head with his predicament as a father out to save his children from this extraterrestrial threat. (Incidentally, Cruise’s infamous couch-hopping incident on Oprah Winfrey’s show that damaged the actor’s reputation came during an appearance to tout this movie.)
5. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Invasion: A flying saucer lands in Washington, D.C., and a menacing robot and a mysterious human-like alien emerge.
What Makes it so Good: Forget, if you can, the horrendous 2008 “remake” of this classic starring Keanu Reeves. The original, one of the first of a wave of 1950s sci-fi classics, remains one of the best. If you can get past the dated special effects, this movie remains very watchable today, leaving a new generation to ponder the meaning of the phrase “Klaatu barada nikto.”
4. Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (2014)
The Invasion: Set in 2020, Earth forces are waging a losing battle against aliens that arrived several years earlier.
What Makes it so Good: This is the Groundhog Day of alien invasion movies. Tom Cruise gives another strong performance in his second movie on this list, so perhaps these films are his forte. Co-star Emily Blunt and the late Bill Paxton are also good. While the special effects are fine, the aliens appropriately scary, the real reason to watch this is to see how Cruise’s character repeatedly travels the time loop, trying to make things right (much like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day).
3. Men in Black (1997)
The Invasion: Aliens have been on Earth for a while now, monitored by the clichéd “Men in Black,” who must work overtime following the arrival of a new alien threat.
What Makes it so Good: The pairing of a jaded veteran agent (Tommy Lee Jones) and naïve newcomer (Will Smith) has worked for years in police movies, and it worked like magic in this alien invasion adventure/comedy. Cool special effects, a great sense of humor — the hilarious scene in the morgue where Linda Fiorentino’s character tries to warn Smith is a classic — and the Smith & Jones chemistry carry this film.
2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
The Invasion: When people go to sleep, their bodies are replaced by emotionless duplicates grown from giant seed pods.
What Makes it so Good: The tense atmosphere and feeling of paranoia in this movie made it an almost instant classic. Because it relies on its story and characters rather than special effects, it has aged very well. And the twist ending is simply brilliant. Ironically, the film director reluctantly added it at the movie studio’s insistence, and later said it “nearly ruined” the movie. Many movies of the 1950s used fiction as a metaphor for the public concern over communism and the Cold War, but none did it better than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The film has spawned several remakes and similar-themed movies, with the 1978 version (starring Donald Sutherland) arguably better than the original.
1. Independence Day (1996)
The Invasion: Giant spaceships threaten the entire planet.
What Makes it so Good: A cast of memorable, colorful characters, great special effects and a decent story —by summer blockbuster standards, anyway — make this a timeless classic. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the sequel released in 2016.
One More: Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
The Invasion: An evil-doer opens up a wormhole to Earth, inviting a scary alien invasion force.
What Makes it so Good: This is a great film that we enjoyed more than just about any other film on the above list. It just seems to be more of a superhero film, rather than an alien invasion film. If you haven’t seen it, it’s definitely worth a watch, even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of superhero movies. Man of Steel (2013) is another excellent superhero film that also features an alien invasion element.