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'80s Alien Movies That Should Be Required Viewing

For centuries, human beings have wondered if Earth will receive a visit from extraterrestrials one day. And if a few guests from elsewhere in the galaxy ever came calling, what would they look like? What kind of spaceships would they arrive in? Would we be able to communicate with them? Most importantly, would they be friendly visitors, or do we have something to fear from our cosmic neighbors?

We may not have proof of the existence of aliens just yet, but countless directors have explored what might happen if beings from the far reaches of our universe ever stumbled upon our planet, especially directors working in the 1980s. From funny cult favorites to charming children's movies to bone-chilling horror, the '80s were the golden age of fantastic alien films, and many of the extraterrestrial movies released during this decade are still beloved by fans and critics alike today. If you're looking to check out a few classic '80s alien movies, these films all deserve a place on your list.

The Thing is a masterpiece of paranoia

When John Carpenter's science fiction horror film The Thing was released in 1982, it failed to draw in large audiences, and the critics didn't have one kind word to say about it. Famed critic Roger Ebert even described it as "the most nauseating thing I've seen on a movie screen." But decades later, it's become clear that Carpenter was simply ahead of the curve, and The Thing is regarded as a classic horror movie.

Based on the novella Who Goes There?, The Thing follows a group of scientists who are cooped up at a lonely, isolated research base in the frozen landscape of Antarctica. But as it turns out, the scientists have company, and their unwelcome guest just happens to be an alien creature that crash-landed on Earth about 100,000 years ago. The crew soon realizes that the creature can copy any living being ... and it can make more than one copy at once. With this parasite among them, it's every man for himself. If the alien doesn't destroy them, their own paranoia just might be their downfall. 

And that's exactly what makes the viewing experience so terrifying. The tension between the crew members is practically palpable, and the sense of unease doesn't let up for a moment. After watching the harrowing final moments of the movie, you might just catch yourself looking over your own shoulder, wondering who you can really trust.

The Abyss is groundbreaking and claustrophobic

The thought of descending into the ocean's darkest depths is frightening enough, but what if you encountered an alien spaceship waiting for you at the bottom? This is the terrifying concept that director James Cameron explores in his science fiction film The Abyss. The Abyss is the kind of movie that will make you feel genuinely claustrophobic, and when the credits roll, you'll finally be able to catch a breath.

When an American submarine has a strange encounter with an unidentified object underwater, things go wrong, and the sub sinks to the ocean floor. But when a crew is sent in to salvage the vessel and investigate what happened, a member of the team spots something unusual — a strange light moving around the sub, signifying the presence of an entity beyond their understanding. The crew doesn't know whether or not this otherworldly being could pose a threat, but their difficult mission could turn members of the team against each other, making for a potential disaster miles below the surface.

You'll be intrigued by the plot of The Abyss, but the special effects really make this film stand out. Cameron was a pioneer when it came to experimenting with CGI, and although some scenes may look a bit dated now, the film was groundbreaking on a technical level. The stunning, surreal visuals of the deep will stay with you long after the final scenes. 

Aliens is a fantastic sequel and a landmark action movie

The 1979 film Alien was an instant success at the box office, and in 1986, James Cameron followed it up with the sequel, Aliens. While some movie buffs feel that sequels are often disappointing and rarely hold a candle to their predecessors, Aliens seems to be an exception to the rule. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, scoring victories for Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects. 

Aliens begins with Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) waking up after being in stasis for 57 years. However, her employers are in disbelief when she tells them what happened to her, and they're skeptical that there could be any more creatures posing a threat. But when Ripley winds up on a deserted planet with a group of gung-ho space marines, she comes face-to-face with her worst fear in cosmic battle with an army of terrifying monsters.

The first Alien film brought a strong, complex female protagonist to the big screen, and it would've been a shame to wrap up her story after just one movie. And in Aliens, Ripley is even more awesome, and fans will get to see a different side of her as she fights alongside her new crew. In other words, this sequel turns Ripley into one of the greatest female action stars of all time, one who inspired many action films afterwards.

Predator combines alien horror with '80s action

Predator is definitely a step above your typical action movie. Director John McTiernan creates such a suspenseful atmosphere that you can practically feel the titular alien breathing down your neck as he hunts his victims on screen.

Somewhere in the jungles of Central America, an elite American mercenary team is on a mission to rescue a foreign official and his aide who are being held captive. But they soon discover they've got a bigger problem on their hands, as there's an unseen threat stalking them through the jungle. And with this predator's ability to track its prey with thermal imaging and to disappear from view, there's nowhere for them to hide. It will take everything they have to survive their battle with an enemy they never anticipated facing.

The fast pacing of the narrative in Predator means that deep in the jungle, there's never a dull moment, and you'll be absorbed by the action in this claustrophobic setting. It's a brilliant combination of both the slasher and action genres, and it was pretty horrific for the actors, as well. From being bitten by red ants to passing out due to the heat, the cast endured extreme conditions during filming, and it shows in the intensity of their performances. 

They Live will make you think about who's really in charge

What if aliens already walked among us, and we just didn't know it yet? That's the premise of John Carpenter's film They Live, in which a drifter finds out that the elites running the show are actually aliens manipulating the human race for their own benefit.

When a random drifter, credited only as "Nada" (Roddy Piper), arrives in Los Angeles, it feels like something strange is in the air. On his first night in the city, a hacker takes control of the television stations, telling audiences that they're being enslaved a by signal keeping them in a trance-like state, and the only way to free humanity is by turning off the signal at its source. Nada happens upon the meeting of an underground group connected to the hacker, and he snags a pair of special glasses from their stash. When he puts them on, he finds that people of Los Angeles are not who they seem to be, and he's shocked to find out that the "people" pulling the strings in society aren't people after all.

They Live will prompt you to think critically about the systems that shape our lives and how we're influenced to make certain choices by factors beyond our control. And this movie has its fair share of action, too. A six-minute-long fight scene between Nada and his skeptical buddy, Frank (Keith David), is often cited as one of the best in cinema.

Believe it or not, Starman is an alien love story that actually works

If you think the concept of a romantic alien film sounds a little too "out there," John Carpenter's film Starman will redeem the idea.

In 1977, the space probe Voyager 2 carried a gold phonographic disk into space, with messages proclaiming that human beings are a peaceful species, and aliens are welcome to visit Earth. When an alien ship intercepts the probe, they decide to take humanity up on the offer. Naturally, their arrival doesn't go as smoothly as planned, and the ship is shot down. The single alien occupant is left to fend for himself, so the entity clones the body of a recently deceased man named Scott, who left behind a widow, Jenny (Karen Allen). Jenny is initially terrified of the Starman (Jeff Bridges), but as she observes his powers and realizes that he has no ill-intent, she slowly falls for him, and they set off on a cross-country adventure to help him return to his home planet.

The idea of an on-screen alien romance could have come across as gimmicky or cringe-inducing, but Carpenter handles this narrative with sensitivity. Scott and Jenny form a genuine bond, and you'll end up rooting for them to stay together somehow, even though these star-crossed lovers are from two completely different worlds. 

The Last Starfighter is perfect for Star Wars fans

Star Wars is probably the most famous space opera, but if you enjoy this genre, you might also like the 1984 film The Last Starfighter. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), a teenager who lives with his family in a trailer park, feels like he has no future. He was just rejected for a scholarship, and now, he worries that he's destined to go nowhere in life. There isn't much to do in his trailer park, so he spends most of time playing the arcade game Starfighter. With so much time on his hands, Alex quickly progresses in the game, and he eventually ranks as the highest-scoring player.

When Alex hits that high score, something odd happens. He's approached by a man named Centauri (Robert Preston), the creator of the game. Centauri offers him a prize for his victory — a ride in his fancy car. Alex accepts, but he doesn't realize that he's just agreed to a real, intergalactic fight with much higher stakes than a video game. Centauri's car is actually a spaceship, and Alex is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

So, what makes The Last Starfighter stand out among its '80s peers? Well, much like Luke Skywalker, Alex is the kind of character that people can see a little bit of themselves in. He's an "everyman," so it's easy to imagine yourself going on a cosmic adventure with him. Plus, with some neat alien designs and a sense of '80s earnestness, The Last Starfighter is a fun little film for people needing their Star Wars fix.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is pure '80s madness

The sci-fi comedy film Killer Klowns from Outer Space has become a cult favorite over the past few decades. The title promises dark humor and ridiculous fun, and that's exactly what this film serves up. So, if you're in the mood for a flick that will make you laugh with its absurdity, Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the perfect choice for movie night.

The premise is pretty simple. A group of aliens land on Earth, but they happen to look a whole lot like clowns. In fact, their ship even looks like a circus tent. Unfortunately, these unfriendly extraterrestrials plan on killing as many people as possible, and they take their victims in bizarre ways, from terrifying shadow puppets to deadly pies. With popcorn guns and some icky cotton candy, these clowns are equal parts horrifying and hilarious, and there's no predict where this zany movie is going to go.

For the Chiodo brothers, the director's team behind the movie, making a film like Killer Klowns was a risky move, but somehow, it paid off. Nothing about this film should really make sense, yet it's impossible to look away from the screen. The Chiodo brothers haven't directed another film since, but they definitely struck gold once!

Explorers introduced moviegoers to two talented stars

Explorers flew under the radar when it was released, but this movie actually represents the feature film debuts of two well-known actors. 

Ben Crandall, played by Ethan Hawke, tends to fall asleep after watching sci-fi films at night, and whenever he dreams, he sees himself soaring above the clouds, with his flight somehow made possible by a large circuit board below him. Sure, these dreams might just be his subconscious recreating scenes from his favorite movies, but he can't shake these visions, and he wonders if there might be a way to turn his dreams into reality.

Ben creates sketches of the circuit board from his dreams and shows them to his friend, Wolfgang Muller, played by River Phoenix. Wolfgang just happens to be a child prodigy, and if anyone can help Ben bring his visions to life, it's him. As the boys slowly figure out how to put together a space ship that just might put them into orbit, the authorities catch on, but Ben and Wolfgang won't give up on their quest to explore the stars.

Explorers may not have made a big impression upon its release, but this film is a unique coming-of-age tale. And if you're fan of Hawke's or Phoenix's work, you'll enjoy seeing the early talent they both demonstrated in this film and how they kicked off their careers. 

The Hidden blends multiple genres into one cool film

Fair warning — if you're squeamish, The Hidden just might make your skin crawl.

When a quiet, law-abiding citizen robs a bank and murders every security guard inside, Detective Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) is assigned the case. However, the L.A. cop soon finds he has company when FBI Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Twin Peaks' Kyle MacLachlan) shows up on the scene. Together, the two have to figure out what's going on, and as you've probably guessed, there are sci-fi shenanigans afoot. As it turns out, our bank robber was host to an evil extraterrestrial, and this parasite starts body-hopping and killing anyone who gets in its way. However, Agent Gallagher knows what's up because he might be hiding a few secrets as of his own.

The Hidden can't be defined by one genre, and whether you're interested in sci-fi, horror, or action, you'll be drawn in by this film. And the plot defies attempts at prediction. Just when you think you know what's about to happen next, The Hidden will turn your expectations upside down.

Cocoon mixes aliens with AARP members

Cocoon has little in common with most '80s alien films, but you'll be drawn in by the unique plot and intriguing visuals. In fact, this movie won two Academy Awards — one for Best Visual Effects and one for Best Supporting Actor for Hollywood veteran Don Ameche.

In Cocoon, we learn that about 10,000 years ago, a group of aliens called the Antareans lived on Atlantis, but when the lost kingdom sank, the Antareans went back to their home planet, leaving behind 20 aliens in cocoons at the bottom of the ocean. Now, the Antareans have come back to collect the cocoons, and for temporary storage, they rent a home with a pool and "charge" the water with their life force.

However, when a couple of elderly residents from a nearby retirement home sneak in for a swim, they realize that all of their aches and pains have faded away. They feel young again and rejuvenated, and their newfound knowledge leads to a life-changing decision.

Within this genre, Cocoon is truly in a league of its own. Even the fact that this film is centered around the stories of senior citizens with aspirations beyond enjoying retirement is somewhat unique. The Antareans may be at the center of this movie, but Cocoon is a human story at heart.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is an '80s alien classic

So many filmmakers imagine aliens as a threat to the human race, but E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial introduced us to a friendly alien who wouldn't hurt a fly. E.T. is a beloved family film, and watching it today could make anyone feel nostalgic for their own childhood. And as one of Steven Spielberg's best movies, it even pops up on multiple lists of the greatest films ever made.

Under the cover of darkness, a small crew of aliens is exploring a California forest, searching for plant specimens to bring home with them. When a group of government agents startles them, they quickly flee, but in their haste, they leave someone behind. Not long after, a young boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas) finds the frightened alien hiding in his tool shed. Slowly, Elliott teaches the extraterrestrial that he can be trusted, and his siblings agree to keep their new friend a secret. The alien even dubs himself "E.T.," and although he's curious about life on Earth, he misses his home planet. But can the kids help him get home before it's too late? Or will their secret be exposed before they can fulfill E.T.'s wish?

Alien films for mature audiences may depict extraterrestrials as hostile invaders, but E.T. shows us what an encounter with the unknown might be like through a child's eyes. And in addition to being an example of incredible filmmaking, the movie's core message encourages audiences to have a curious attitude towards things we don't understand.