The 10 best screen aliens – in pictures

With Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus set to land on 1 June, here are 10 others in the fine tradition of cinematic extra-terrestrials
10 best: This Island Earth
This Island Earth (1955)
Few creatures typify the classic 'bug-eyed alien' stereotype better than the marauding lobster-handed 'Mutant' seen terrorising Faith Domergue in publicity images for This Island Earth. Sadly, budget and time constraints meant he was only properly mutant from the waist up – the planned 'weird alien legs' were ultimately reduced to mere silver trousers on screen. This perennial favourite gave us a race of high-foreheaded brainboxes from the planet Metaluna. Their elevated hairlines would inspire the TV ads featuring the Tefal scientists, who briefly usurped the Cadbury’s Smash Martians as icons
Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
10 best: The Blob, film poster
The Blob (1958)
Perhaps the most spectacularly simple space alien ever conceived, this gooey, gelatinous mass was originally backed by church groups who had been bamboozled into believing that its adventures were a Christian morality tale (sinners get glooped while the righteous endure). Starring a young 'Steven McQueen', this 50s classic featured special effects achieved by dropping slime over 'dimensionalised' photographs and then filming it falling off in reverse. Simple but brilliant. The Blob even had its own catchy theme tune, co-written by Burt Bacharach ('A splotch, a blotch, be careful of the Blob!')
Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
10 best: 1979, ALIEN
Alien (1979)
Screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shusett first got the idea for their chest-busting xenomorph after reading about wasps that paralyse their prey to create a living food-sack for their spawn. Pulsating eggs, leaping face-huggers and giant beasties with extending mandibles and acid for blood followed, as director Ridley Scott and Swiss artist HR Giger redefined the face of alien predators for years to come. Later instalments suggested the shape of each particular alien was defined by its host (humans in parts one and two; a quadruped in Alien 3), upon which subject Prometheus may shed some light – or not
Photograph: Allstar
10 best: 'ET' FILM - 1982
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Steven Spielberg describes his melancholy masterpiece as 'my most autobiographical movie'. It tells the story of an anxious boy from a broken family (the director struggled to cope with his parents’ divorce) who forges a bond with a lost alien desperate to 'phone home'. Critics marvelled at the universal sympathy ET inspired in audiences despite an appearance regularly likened to 'a walking penis'. Powered by puppeteers, complex animatronics and (in some sequences) a dextrous performer walking on their hands, ET also famously employed the voice of actor Debra Winger to help create his extraterrestrial croak
Photograph: Rex Features
10 best: 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
The actual form of the aliens in Kubrick’s epochal masterpiece is never revealed, but their presence is signalled throughout by the appearance of a mysterious monolith. Originally described in Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel as pyramid-shaped, it appears on film as an enigmatic oblong that functions variously as a teacher, an interstellar alarm, a star-gate and (ultimately) some form of rejuvenating deity. What it all means remains a mystery, though many have observed that the measurements of the monolith closely resemble the upended dimensions of a CinemaScope screen. Spooky!
Photograph: Rex Features
10 best: MARS ATTACKS!
Mars Attacks! (1996)
'Aack aack ack ack aack!!' Little green men go on a diminutive killing spree in Tim Burton’s bonkers alien invasion gem, inspired in equal measure by the weirdly collectible Topps trading cards and the notoriously terrible movies of Ed Wood. The result is a delirious joy, like Plan 9 from Outer Space remade with a massive budget and a star-studded cast. Memorable moments include Lisa Marie’s face falling away to reveal a grinning green alien skull beneath. But like all space invaders these Martians have a weak spot – in this case, the sound of country yodelling, which makes their heads explode
Photograph: Allstar
10 best: The Thing, 1982
The Thing (1982)
When John W Campbell Jr’s story Who Goes There? first came to the screen in 1951 as The Thing from Another World, its alien FX famously stretched to the sight of James Arness dressed up as 'a big carrot'. Years later, the advance of latex technology enabled John Carpenter to explore the shape-shifting aspects of the story in his head-scrambling – and at first sorely underrated – classic The Thing. The result is a fiesta of exploding dogs, toothy chest-cavities, melting limbs and (most spectacularly) a severed head that sprouts giant scuttling spider legs, prompting the movie’s most quotable line: 'You’ve got to be f**king kidding!'
Photograph: Public Domain
10 best: The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
'Klaatu barada nikto!' Handsome Michael Rennie and his giant silver robot Gort, whose metal face shoots powerful rays, presented the scary but benevolent face of aliens in the 50s, bringing the human race’s technological advancement to a halt in order to warn Earthlings of the dangers of their newfound knowledge. The Christ-like overtones of the central character have exerted an unearthly pull on wannabe messiahs ever since; Ringo Starr cast himself as Klaatu on the front cover of his 1974 album Goodnight Vienna, while Keanu Reeves employed his trademark 'barely human' face in a recent rubbish remake
Photograph: Hulton/Getty
10 best: The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Nic Roeg cast David Bowie as the spaceman who comes to earth after seeing him in the documentary Cracked Actor. Bowie inhabited the alienated 'space oddity' to the full, resorting only briefly to 'space lizard' makeup, but more generally relying upon sheer charisma and a British accent (plus, of course, his famously mismatched eyes) to suggest he was not of this world. Cover photography for not one but two of his subsequent albums featured Bowie as starman Thomas Jerome Newton: Station to Station and Low – the latter containing original music intended for the film
Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive
10 best: The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
As the 'sweet transvestite' Frank-N-Furter, from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania, Tim Curry remains the most lusted-after space alien in the history of cinema – a vision of interstellar haute couture in glam boots, stockings and spangly corsets on a mission to encourage the people of earth to 'give yourself over to absolute pleasure'. A flop on its release, the film version of Richard O’Brien’s campy stage musical became the definitive cult movie, drawing legions of fans who dress up as their favourite characters and engage in rowdy 'audience participation'. Let’s do the time-warp again!
Photograph: The Ronald Grant Archive
Photograph: Ronald Grant Archive


Mark Kermode

The GuardianTramp

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