Staff Picks: Aliens
Movies about extraterrestrials.
Feature Presentation’s Staff Picks is not a best-of list. How do you even craft a list of the best of something as subjective as film? This is a list designed to highlight films (and occasionally television shows or other mediums of entertainment) of a certain theme or topic. It’s a watchlist, they are suggestions. Movies on this list will very in quality, length, genre, and home video or streaming availability.
This list’s theme: Aliens
John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (2020)
John Shepherd spent 30 years trying to contact extraterrestrials by broadcasting music millions of miles into space.
Let’s start this list off with a quirky little short film. This mini-documentary (it runs about 15 minutes) is difficult to talk about, partially because the thesis is brought to life in a reveal that shouldn’t be ruined here. All you need to know is that John has spent his whole life sending jazz and reggae music into the ether in hopes that those jams will elicit alien contact. He turns dials and knobs and waits…and waits…and waits…for over 30 years. He does make a connection, one that you’ll have to see to believe.
Alien from L.A. (1988)
When her archaeologist father disappears on an expedition, Wanda sets out to look for him. What she finds is a secret underground world, where no one believes in life on the surface and where she and her father are taken for spies.
I’ve decided to only include movies on this list where aliens come to Earth. A list that simply included creatures different than us could run the gamut of anything from Star Wars to Guardians of the Galaxy. This list is meant to be an examination of what happens in film when something foreign to us shakes up our lives in an intense way. Many filmmakers use this as an allegory for inter-human interaction, naturally.
So I’ll break my own rule immediately but suggesting a movie that poses humans as the aliens to creatures found deep inside the earth. Perhaps it’s a cheat, but not only do I make the rules, but no other film on the list flips the script in such a way to subvert expectations but still have the same conversation.
Alien from L.A. is a bizarre little B-movie from the mind of Albert Pyun, produced by the Cannon Group, and starring former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kathy Ireland.
You should know by now what kind of movie you’re getting. It’s cheap and it’s bizarre, but it’s also curious and surprisingly thematically rich. Nerdy Wanda Saknussemm (played charmingly by the most unconvincing of nerdy social outcasts Ireland) literally falls into a rabbit hole that leads her into an underground society that sees her as other. This is nothing new to her as she’s used to this above ground in Malibu Beach since she isn’t the prettiest (sure) or the most fun (sure).
Albert Pyun has been known as a bargain-bin director for years, but only recently has been given credit as the auteur his collaborators believed him to be. Alien from L.A. is a great example of the kinds of conversations he wanted to have, wrapped up in the colorful, neon, creative package of the production.
The film was mocked years ago on Mystery Science Theater 3000 and although it gives plenty of fodder for farce, I’m glad it’s getting a reappraisal now thanks to an excellent restoration by the folks at Vinegar Syndrome.
How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2017)
Croydon, 1977. A trio of punk teenagers goes to a party to meet girls, but they find that girls there are very different from what they expected.
In so many movies where aliens come to Earth, the aliens end up, whether on purpose or not, teaching us something about ourselves and the uniqueness of being human. Often times we put aside our differences and come together to fight the evil aliens, learning something about the innocence of our basic humanity and the guiding principles that bind us all.
But what if we taught the aliens something instead?
This tale, originally thought up by Neil Gaiman, follows several teenage boys who meet several teenage girls who are…well…not like other girls. When they turn out to be horny, psychedelic, creepy aliens — they don’t hesitate to get to know them better.
But the real discovery comes when they learn something about the aliens: they are all about conformity. They dress alike, they act alike, and they think alike. And these punk rock boys won’t take that. Here comes the lesson: they teach the aliens all about individuality and the importance of distinctiveness. Director John Cameron Mitchell is no stranger to the punk rock world — he’s the creator and original star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and just like Hedwig, this movie takes a few detours into concept over content, but it’s a fun teenage spirit movie that manages to avoid all of the cliches and cringe of the typical teen rebellion story.
Fire in the Sky (1993)
A group of men who were clearing brush for the government arrive back in town, claiming that their friend was abducted by aliens. Nobody believes them, and despite a lack of motive and no evidence of foul play, their friends’ disappearance is treated as murder.
This was the first movie I ever sailed the seven seas to find online. My mother came home one day from work, telling probably nine-year-old me about a movie her coworker suggested. I found it somewhere online (worried the entire time about computer viruses) using the desktop computer in my bedroom. That evening, my mother watched it from the desk chair and I watched it from my bed.
I tell you that to tell you this: It scarred me for life.
Revisiting the movie recently, I realized I had forgotten damn near everything about it except the infamous alien probing scene. That’s partially because a lot of that stuff is slow and boring, but mainly because that scene will give you nightmares that will last a lifetime. Thanks, mom.
If you want an alien movie that goes all-in on abduction theories and stories, this is the only choice.
War of the Worlds (2005)
Ray Ferrier is a divorced dockworker and less-than-perfect father. Soon after his ex-wife and her new husband drop off his teenage son and young daughter for a rare weekend visit, a strange and powerful lightning storm touches down.
Alright fine, we’ll end this list with a balls-to-the-wall big blowout alien invasion flick.
It’s not Spielberg’s first encounter with aliens, but easily his most bleak offering on the matter. Both Close Encounters and E.T. find hope in the potential relationship between humans and aliens, while War of the Worlds does just the opposite and pits the two against each other.
It’s hard to find a way to end disaster movies and apparently even harder to end alien invasion movies (á la Signs), but the ride he gives us along the way is worth the price of admission.
Credit: Each plot synopsis comes from Letterboxd via TMDb.