Close encounters: Top 10 UFO Movies of all time
In celebration of student life’s weeklong Dream Big event covering all things galactic and interplanetary, Ufologist Chris Rutkowski, who spoke on campus this week as part of Dream Big, fills us in on the best UFOlogy and UFO culture movies ever made. Consider yourself immersed. Perhaps even abducted.
1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). This was a grand tour of ufology, with pre‑X‑Files government conspirators, UFO fanatics and early abduction themes. Richard Dreyfuss is outstanding as an average guy whose UFO experience turns his life upside down. The railway crossing scene, where he gets burned by a close brush with a UFO, is memorable and taken from witness’ narratives of actual close encounter reports. The movie is also noted for its attention to detail from actual UFO sightings and the people who study them. The French scientist working with the American government is patterned after Jacques Vallee, while noted ufologist Dr. J. Allen Hynek actually makes a cameo appearance during the climactic scene towards the end where the “mother ship” finally lands. The movie’s title refers to the most extreme of the UFO encounter categories defined by Hynek in his research: the first kind is a sighting within 500 feet; the second kind is a case in which physical traces are noted; the third kind is contact with aliens.
2. The Abyss (1989). In James Cameron’s film, unidentified underwater objects (UUOs) turn out to be curious aliens. Given that much of the Earth is covered by water and much of the oceans’ depth is still unexplored in detail, it makes perfect sense that aliens might choose to establish a base on the ocean floor, undisturbed by humans. Again, this is partly based on claims that there are underwater UFO bases off the Eastern Seaboard, at the bottom of Lake Ontario and within the Bermuda Triangle. The stunning effects and cinematography make this film an outstanding first‑contact story.
3. Uforia (1980). This is a sadly underrated story of a checkout clerk played by Cindy Williams, who thinks she’s been chosen by aliens to carry their message of peace to the masses. She attracts quite a following, and there’s lots of resemblance to Elmer Gantry when her boyfriend begins exploiting her as a contactee who is acting as the aliens’ ambassador. But then it seems the government is taking her seriously for some reason…
4. The UFO Incident (TV movie, 1975). This teleplay of Fuller’s The Interrupted Journey has wonderful, low‑key and believable performances by Estelle Parsons and James Earl Jones as Betty and Barney Hill. A thoughtful portrayal of the “grandaddy” of all UFO abductions, this movie accurately portrayed the confusion and angst felt by the Hills as they tried to come to terms with memories of their experience.
5. Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956). This was one of the best saucer movies of the 50s, with excellent special effects for its time, including the frequently‑seen stock footage of plastic model saucers flying over Washington, D.C. The malevolent aliens were clearly here to take over the planet, with displays of force such as blowing up buildings. The film conveyed the fear and panic that many people expressed regarding the “invasion” of saucers over the USA in the 1950s, and the military response to the alien menace.
6. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). A classic even beyond ufology, this film turns the alien invasion theme on its head. When Klaatu’s saucer hovers over Washington, it creates absolute chaos, despite his good intentions. This is a story of hope and peace dashed by our inherent xenophobia, and the inappropriate and unwise use of military force when faced with what we might perceive as a threat to ourselves and our society.
7. Hangar 18 (1980). Probably the true forerunner of the X‑Files, this movie out-Roswelled Roswell, revealing a military base where a crashed saucer is under study. Another example of fiction meeting fact, Hangar 18 was a real location at right-Patterson Air Force Base in which the debris from a crashed flying saucer from Roswell was allegedly housed. In the movie, when a saucer collides with a NASA vehicle, it’s all quickly hushed up because it’s election time. Can the heroic astronauts find the saucer in time? Aliens = good. Government = bad. Thrash rock group Megadeth recorded two songs about aliens at Hangar 18, neither story ending well for the humans.
8. Communion (1989). This very strange film is less a UFO movie than it is a character study of abduction researcher Whitley Streiber. Christopher Walken goes over the top to portray dissociation and paranoia when aliens seem to be haunting Streiber’s life. The ultimate message seems to be that aliens are in complete control and that they will show us only what they want. The movie does convey many elements of abductees’ experiences well, especially the multi-layered memories and confusion that are part of some stories.
9. Fire in the Sky (1993). Panned when it first came out, largely because of the end sequences in which Travis Walton is encased in goo similar to the Matrix or Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Those scenes were not part of Walton’s actual story, which was fantastic enough without Hollywood embellishment. Leading up to the final scenes, however, the film accurately portrays how UFO case investigations are conducted, and the difficulty in unraveling witnesses’ testimony in complicated cases.
10. The Brother From Another Planet (1984). In this low-key but sympathetic John Sayles movie that stars Joe Morton, the UFO is seen only at the beginning, but the story of an alien dealing with the reality of being stranded on Earth like a fish out of water again underlines our xenophobia. Yes, I liked E.T., which had a similar theme, but this low‑budget film gets my vote as a touching, yet powerful statement about our society.