Aliens.  Unarguably the most popular single theme in science fiction, before even space exploration and dystopias.  Aliens are the poster-boys of science fiction, have been since it began, and will probably remain so as long as there is SF.

Unfortunately, the overriding majority of SF movies about aliens are done poorly.  The two most popular methods of depicting aliens are either to make them humanoid, usually mimicking an existing human group, faction or race in order to make a social or political statement… or to make them monsters to frighten us and to give us an excuse to fight.  The former depiction can occasionally be called clever; the latter is almost always juvenile.

But there have been a precious few SF movies that have approached the idea of aliens intelligently, and given the audience something serious to consider besides running, shooting or treating them like illegal immigrants.  I consider the list below to be the most intelligent of alien-themed SF movies.  (This list is certainly not comprehensive: Most notably, it’s mostly American; there are probably a few movies that haven’t been widely seen in the USA that should be on this list, but I can’t very well add movies I’ve never seen.)

In no particular order, I present my meager list of intelligent alien-themed SF movies:

ID monsterForbidden Planet—This may be the first movie to suggest, rather than actually deliver, aliens in its story; in this case, a race called the Krell that died off long before the humans in the story arrive, leaving behind only their vast caverns of still-running machines to be discovered by Dr. Morbius.  The officers of Spaceship C51-D are attacked, but not by aliens; instead, the monster is imagined by Morbius’ subconscious, trying to protect his daughter, and created by Krell machinery.  We don’t know what the Krell actually looked like, how they lived, anything about their biology; we only know their machines were so sophisticated that they may have been instrumental in killing off the entire species.

Klaatu and GortThe Day the Earth Stood Still—This movie suggests that there is a vast conglomerate of alien races out there, but we only see one—Klaatu—and he suggests that his appearance has been manufactured in order to better bring his message to Mankind.  Socially and psychologically, this makes a lot of sense, though in the end even that doesn’t assuage the fear and paranoia of most of the cast of the movie, and especially the military.  Klaatu also demonstrates the sophisticated technology at his disposal, selectively stopping power worldwide as a peaceful but serious example of their abilities.  Klaatu’s technology also extends his life after being injured, just long enough to present his message (and his warning) before leaving.

SolarisSolaris—Russian or American version, take your pick: Solaris effectively demonstrated that life in the universe may be totally outside of our ability to understand.  Solaris is a living planet, and the scientists hovering above trying to study it are as microbes trying to understand a human brain.  This point is driven home by the creations of Solaris, characters derived from the traumatic memories of the scientists which believe they are themselves alive, and know no more about why they are suddenly there.  The scientists don’t know whether Solaris intentionally sent these characters, or if it was some spontaneous reaction to their probes; are the characters counter-probes, efforts to communicate, attempts to help, hinder, delay or destroy them?  All they know is the existence of those characters are torture to the scientists, who eventually don’t care what they are or what they’re for, they only want to be rid of them.

2001 monolith2001: A Space Odyssey—Similarly to Solaris, the aliens in 2001 are supposedly too advanced for us to ever understand; and like Forbidden Planet, we never actually see them or find out what they want.  We only see their tool, the Monolith, which appears when it’s needed, leaves when it is not needed, and can influence early humans in using tools and learning to kill for food and protection.  In the year 2001, a Monolith dug up on the Moon sends a signal into space, driving an expedition to Jupiter where another Monolith in orbit transports astronaut David Bowman to places unknown to live out his life… then transforms him to a new life form designed to sit sentry over Earth.  Everything is accomplished by the Monoliths, though we never learn what their motives are or how their incredible feats are accomplished.  One of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous sayings is: “Any technology, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from magic;” and the Monolith is the embodiment of that saying.

2010 monolith2010: The Year We Made Contact—Long overlooked because Peter Hyams’ movie was so different in tone to Kubrick’s 2001, 2010 was still based on Clark’s sequel novel 2010: Odyssey Two, and excellent in its own right.  Again, like 2001, we never see the aliens, we only see the Monoliths, which accomplish many incredible feats.  This time, the Monoliths’ actions provide light and heat for a new life form that is just developing on Europa… and simultaneously send humans a warning to stay away from it.  We also find out that some aspect of David Bowman and the computer HAL are inside a Monolith… who knows what’s in store for them?  As for Europa, we see that the life form grows over millions of years into a swampy garden, with who-knows-what in its ponds… and a new Monolith shows up, jump-starting the evolutionary processes once again.

Andromeda StrainThe Andromeda Strain—The other side of the spectrum from the above movies, the alien life in The Andromeda Strain is bacteriological and microscopic, having arrived by colliding with a space probe that crash-landed in a western town.  It’s unique biology kills off all but two inhabitants in the town—an old man and a baby—and a classified team of scientists must figure out how the life form functions, and kills, before it has a chance to wipe out Mankind.  Based on Michael Crichton’s novel, it’s a murder mystery on a timeclock, with an abundance of medical realism but without all of the histrionics of alien invasion flicks with unrealistic biologies and intentional plot devices.

ContactContact—Another movie that never shows us aliens, Contact is about a radio signal that sends us schematics on a machine to take humans into space.  This movie is really more about the politics and social conflict of the endeavor than it is about actually building the Machine and going to meet the aliens.  And somewhat anticlimactic for both characters and audience, when Dr. Ellie Arroway finally makes the trip, the aliens scan her memories and present themselves as her late father, explain that this is a first step, and send her back without a shred of evidence that she ever left.  This may make Contact‘s aliens the most elusive of any movie, especially considering they deliberately sent the schematics and intended for humans to build the Machine and visit them.

Europa ReportEuropa Report—Filmed in the “found footage” style, this movies depicts a manned mission to Europa, which goes through a lot of the issues and mini-disasters we’ve come to expect from even realistic space expedition movies.  In a way, this can be considered a sequel to 2010, in that it visits the Jovian moon Europa, and by the end of the movie, a life form that seems to be attracted to the heat and light of the spacecraft envelops and destroys it… an approximation of events that were written into Clarke’s 2010 novel.  In the 2010 novel, the alien is a barely-ambulatory vegetable mass, acting purely on instinct in the name of self-preservation, and cannot be blamed for the human deaths it inadvertently causes.   In Europa Report, the alien is more active, octopus-like… but the result is the same.

ArrivalArrival—This movie is unique in that it not only tells an intelligent story about aliens… but we actually see the aliens.  Alien-looking aliens, no less!  The alien craft in Arrival park themselves in multiple locations, allowing groups from many nations to examine them at the same time and try to communicate.  Like Contact, politics inevitably enters the fray: Countries who distrust each other must work together to find out what the aliens want.  And the alien language is far too complicated to just plug in vowels and decipher.  A team of professional linguists finally decipher enough of their language, and in so doing, find a new way to understand the flow of time, and use it to avert a decision by other countries to attack the aliens.  The aliens look like giant cephalopods, suggesting they may not be aliens at all, but evolved creatures from our own oceans visiting us from the future (and as such, possibly excluding them from this list).  But they seemed to have come from space, even if they didn’t exactly go back to space at the end of the story.  Maybe we changed their future timeline?

So, that’s my list.  Are there any movies you think I should’ve included here?  Feel free to let me know in the comments.