We take a look back at some of the best and worst alien abduction movies from the past 30 years…
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There are others who believe that aliens are lurking high in the sky, ready and willing to abduct humanity for their own purposes. Many people have come forward with similar claims of extraterrestrial abduction, time dilation, unusual medical examinations, and grey-skinned extraterrestrials since the Betty and Barney Hill case went public in the mid-60s.
Since the late 1970s, filmmakers have explored the subject of extraterrestrial abduction multiple times, despite the differing opinions of psychologists and ufologists. It’s clear from this list that the output of these kinds of films can be very diverse.
1. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
When Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was a financial success, he took the dangerous step of redoing Firelight, a low-budget film he had directed at the age of 16 and had never seen before. A new level of seriousness and artistry was brought to the subject of UFOs and extraterrestrial abductions in the film Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
Foreshadowing Betty and Barney Hill’s own abductions, aliens in Close Encounters silently steal individuals from all walks of life, including WWII fighter pilots (whose planes are later discovered abandoned in the Sonoran Desert) and a three-year-old boy (Cary Guffey).
An unusually shaped mountain he sculpted from mashed potatoes has been lampooned numerous times since Richard Dreyfuss’s character, an electrical engineer, develops an unhealthy preoccupation with skylights.
As the film builds to its finale, it contains breathtaking special effects by Douglas Trumbull (with Carlo Rambaldi on alien construction tasks) and an iconic score by John Williams.
Aliens kidnapped by Spielberg are found to be harmless and childlike, and the movie ends with the abductees returning to Earth while Dreyfuss boards a cathedral-like mothership, presumably bound for an adventure in another galaxy far, far away.
2. Flight Of The Navigator (1986)
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Close Encounters for the whole family, Flight Of The Navigator was Disney’s take on an alien abduction narrative that was more kid-friendly than the original. A car accident leaves 12-year-old David (Joey Cramer) comatose for eight years before he regains consciousness. In a brain scan, it is revealed that his abductors implanted star charts in his head, and that his eight-year absence was caused by a faster-than-light flight to the planet Phaelon.
A Disney film, Flight Of The Navigator is awash with attractive aliens and low on unsettling experiments; the latter half is an excuse for its young hero to take a joyride in a gleaming alien spacecraft.
Fun sci-fi adventure Flight Of The Navigator has a memorable CG depiction of a dazzling flying spacecraft but its breezy second half can’t catch up to the interesting set-up of the first half of the film.
3. Communion (1989)
Actor Christopher Walken plays Whitley Strieber, the novelist who claims to have had an extraterrestrial encounter, in this film dramatization of his story.
Strieber is tormented by visions of odd lights and shadowy figures in his forest cabin as he makes his way home. While being hypnotized by a psychotherapist, the man recounts his abduction at the hands of pale aliens.
The nature of Strieber’s interactions in Communion is frequently vague, which adds to the strangeness of the picture. Is the film’s low production value reflected in the awful puppet effects, or does the author’s apparent recollections have a delusional nature? If nothing else, Communion serves as a reminder of how terrifying close encounters with extraterrestrial life may be for people who have never experienced it.
Even though Communion was panned by reviewers in the late 1980s, it’s still worth seeing for the bizarre and semi-improvised acting of Christopher Walken. He wears strange headwear for most of the movie while grumbling under his breath and bemoaning the fact that paintings “attack without provocation” Alien abduction of such a ferocious man is, in fact, astonishing.
4. Fire In The Sky (1993)
Robert Lieberman’s Fire in the Sky, on the other hand, takes its characters’ experiences as objective facts, enabling the audience to form its own conclusions.
“Fire in the Sky” opens in November 1975, with Travis Walton (D. B. Sweeney) and his co-workers (Robert Patrick and Hancock director Peter Berg) returning home following a day of logging in the forest.
He steps out of his truck to have a better look at a UFO, and he is blinded by a beam of light as a result. His coworkers drive away and abandon him, acting selfishly. Five days later, a traumatized and nude Walton is discovered. One by one, Walton’s memories of what happened on board the UFO begin to fade when he is interrogated by a suspicious local Lieutenant (James Garner).
While the story of Walton’s abduction is told in some detail, the focus of Fire In The Sky is mainly on the emotional ramifications of his ordeal. As Walton’s coworkers express their regret for leaving him behind, the personal details of the characters’ lives are revealed at an exhausting pace in interviews.
But when the film eventually delves into what happened to Walton, it’s surprisingly powerful. This nine-minute scenario, where Walton is hauled about the ship and put to bizarre tests, is one of the most memorable in 1990s sci-fi films, and its depiction of what an alien starship may look like is one of the most memorable in the genre.
5. Independence Day (1996)
For the sake of completeness, Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day includes references to Area 51 and the 1947 Roswell catastrophe.
Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a crop duster, claims to have been abducted by extraterrestrials, and his tales are often used as fodder for jokes in his neighborhood tavern.
The film’s ending gives Casse the chance to avenge himself, which he takes advantage of with a defiant “Up yours!” and a final act of self-sacrifice.
6. Progeny (1998)
From Re-Animator producer Brian Yuzna (who also directed Society and produced Close Encounters Of The Third Kind), Progeny is a typical irreverent, goofy movie.
Jillian McWhirter, an extraterrestrial abductee, learns that she is pregnant and that the child she is carrying isn’t totally human.
A talented cast, led by the likes of Arnold Vosloo, Wilford Brimley from The Thing, and Brad Dourif, all take on the corny premise with admirably straight faces, and Progeny is full of moments that are absolutely hilarious, whether they’re intended or not, such as floating, naked bodies and rubbery alien effects (including plenty of rubbery tentacles).
7. Altered (2006)
Eduardo Sánchez, the writer and director of The Blair Witch Project, helmed this low-budget sci-fi horror film, which turned out to be quite good. All of Altered’s characters, like Russell Casse in Independence Day, have been abducted by aliens and are driven to vengeance.
In an unusual inversion of Blair Witch, the three abductees reunite several years later and trek to the woods to hunt down a xenomorph. Altered devolves into a bleak, gloomy horror as their weapons fall short against the alien’s powerful jaws and crafty strategy.
Altered, which was mysteriously neglected by Hollywood distributors in 2006, deserves a second chance now that it’s available on DVD. More concerned with the chase between humans and aliens than with abduction, the film nevertheless has an excellent script and stunning cinematography, as well as a particularly intense sequence straight out of Day Of The Dead.
8. Night Skies (2007)
Roy Knyrim’s Night Skies, another low-budget oddity, is less successful than Altered in its attempt to mix UFO-based sci-fi and horror.
The film, which was partly inspired by a real-life mass UFO incident in Arizona ten years earlier, follows a group of traveling companions (led by Jason Connery) who come upon odd lights in the sky before coming face to face with extraterrestrials.
It takes too long for Night Skies to get going, and it falls into the same trap as the earlier picture, Fire In The Sky, by opening with prolonged scenes of talk.
While it does have a few surprise moments, the abduction itself isn’t memorable or well-crafted in the same way as Sánchez’s Altered (the ship’s interior looks like it’s made of tripe), even though it isn’t as bad as Fire In The Sky either.
9. The Fourth Kind (2009)
Like Spielberg’s classic, this latest alien abduction story bears the name of famed ufologist J. Alan Hynek’s classification of extraterrestrial experiences. Milla Jovovich stars in this most recent narrative.
Dramatized scenes are interspersed with’genuine’ footage of abductees being hypnotized in The Fourth Kind, which appears to be based on real events.
Dr. Abbey Tyler (Jovovich) is a psychotherapist in Alaska who hypnotizes her patients to recount their abduction stories.
While The Fourth Kind is technically a fake documentary, its attempt to replicate the poltergeist-like horrors of Paranormal Activity with extraterrestrial abductions fails for the most part.
There are no aliens to be found in the film, which is due to its status as a documentary. The Fourth Kind is the only film on this list that doesn’t feature any extraterrestrials at all. There are instead long stretches of people sleeping on their beds or couches and yelling, “It’s not an owl!” instead.
While it produced a respectable profit on its $10 million budget, a cash-in sequel may not offer much more. After all, audiences will only pay to see individuals reclining on couches so many times before they become tired of it…
It’s interesting to see how the tone of the alien abduction movie has changed over the nine films we’ve seen so far. Having Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as the most expensive and visually lavish film of its kind is a reflection of both the power Spielberg had at the time and the public’s fascination in the subject of extraterrestrials in the late 1970’s.