A Survey of Aliens in Cinema History


Almost as long as there have been movies, there have been alien movies. Whether they’re zapping intruders on a moon romp, abducting helpless teenagers, terrorizing the planet, or simply visiting, extraterrestrials have been a prominent force on both the silver and television screen throughout the history of both mediums. But though the possibilities of imagined space creatures are endless — from sassy moon babes with ring skirts to gelatinous blobs with teeth — the paths of alien design follow distinct trends in film history.

This week sci-fi alien invasion movie Skyline , the latest from the Brothers Strause, opens in theaters. In honor of its contribution to the annals of aliens in film, we consider the limits of designing Martians, Mooninites, and Sun People — and look at the history of alien movies — after the jump.

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon), 1902

“A Voyage to the Moon” is the first science fiction film, running just 14 minutes. In it, a group of intrepid astronomers meet the Selenites — aliens that look as much like chimpanzees in masks as they do humans, hopping awkwardly from rock to rock. The jumpsuit and mask combination is one that would quickly become a trope of sci-fi movies, as space men began to look just like us, only shinier, and with much poorer posture.

Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, 1936-1940

The first real wave of aliens as cinematic force came courtesy of Flash Gordon, a come strip hero turned television staple. With his cartoon prince good looks, Flash Gordon traveled around aiding planets in need. The aliens he encountered are almost uniformly of the almost-human variety. There’s the evil Emperor Ming, an uncomfortably orientalist portrayal of a ruler who seems to be based on Genghis Khan. Then there are various interplanetary species who walk upright and have basically human bodies, but with an essential and terrifying defect. Take the rock people, from the clip above, who are — yes — people made out of rock. Note that even in 1940, people communicated with alien species by speaking over-enunciated English and frantic hand gestures.

Invasion of the Saucer Men, 1957; The Thing From Another World, 1951

The wave of b-movies in the 1950s was when alien innovation began to get interesting. Dozens of films — notably, The Blob, Robot Monster, and I Married a Monster from Outer Space — re-imagined the invading aliens in all varieties. In The Blob, the alien takes the form of an all-encompassing gelatinous goo that eats everything in its path. Invasion of the Saucer Men was one of the pioneers of a now familiar trope: the alien as a green man with oversized eyes, a bulbous, veiny noggin, and pointy, cat-like teeth. The Thing from Another World followed a vaguely humanoid path, but the aforementioned thing is impervious to electrical shock, flame, or bullets, and possessed by hostile forces. Some, like those in Monsters from the Planet Venus, were based on dinosaurs. Other aliens involved robotic components, cold and passionless murderers set on reducing Earth to dust.

Dr. Who and the Daleks, 1965; 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968

The 1960s continued the alien innovations that began in the 1950s, both through popcorn-boosting sci-fi thrillers like Dr Who and the Daleks and artier cinema fare like 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Dr. Who, the alien planet is full of two species of aliens, a race of blonde giants and one of radioactively crippled humanoids who have encased themselves in robot shells. Again the range of extraterrestrial life was boggling — from the sexy space adventures of Barbarella to the seat-gripping rampages of The Green Slime, in which toxic-waste coated monsters could cause death with a single touch.

Star Wars, 1977; Alien 1979

Slugs, robots, enormous seven-eyed creatures, adorable fuzzy things that live in trees — the sky’s the limit when it comes to aliens in the Star Wars movies, the first installation of which appeared in 1977. As special effects technology advanced, so too did the forms of aliens in films. The 1970s saw an evolution from the stop-motion monsters and herky-jerky robots of the past few decades into alien creatures that were as marvelous as they were terrifying. But it was 1979’s Alien that really upped the ante on horrific space creatures meant to destroy us, thanks to the scene of an alien bursting out of a human’s body cavity. Not to mention the face-hugging creature, complete with slithery tail and human-like fingers. The reptilian skin and glinting, shark-like teeth coupled with enlarged head became the standard alien look for much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Star Trek film franchise; E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, 1982

In the 1970s, aliens began to appear outside of horror and action movies as sort of hyper-intelligent domestic animals, the kind of cuddly monsters that you would want to keep around the house. The Ewoks in Star Wars may have started the trend, but E.T. undoubtedly was its culmination, pitting the friendly alien and his kid pals against the evil monolithic government. The 1980s also introduced the sweet, if weird, Alf to people’s homes. Star Trek, though it debuted as a television series in the 1960s, hit the silver screen during the 1980s to bring the adventures of the cavalier band of space explorers to the multiplex. The franchise features so many different kinds of alien races, that it calls for a chart.

Men in Black, 1997; Independence Day, 1996

It seems somehow fitting that Will Smith would have a hand in both the biggest action alien film of the 1990s and one of the blockbuster alien-related action-comedies. The evil gray, reptilian aliens in Independence Day might not hatch out of Tommy Lee Jones’ chest, but in their basic design they’re very similar to Alien‘screatures. They’re vicious and have no sympathy for the human race. The Men in Black aliens range from creepy to cute to totally gross, and some of them even have serious dancing chops. But the trend of adorable aliens vs. terrifying aliens continues, both in cinema and on television. We’re of the opinion that alien design peaked in the 1970s, MIB‘s charms notwithstanding. Observe: