Five UFO Movies to Watch
Summer is back ! Fortunately, the United States is slowly reopening. Around the same time last year, most of us were squatting in our homes hoping that vaccines would arrive to save us from the COVID-19 pandemic. They did it, and in record time. It is possible, at least for now, to eat out again, go to the movies and go to the baseball stadium. But while we have more choices for what to do this summer than last summer, the heat and humidity of the season ensures that most of us will still be spending a lot of time indoors. So we decided to relaunch the series of summer movie recommendations that we started last year. We will be posting a new list every Friday until Labor Day.
The same rules as last summer’s series apply: First, we’re limiting our choices to English-language films. Yes, many great foreign policy films have been made in languages other than English. But we will not pretend to know which are the best films in Italian, Japanese or Spanish. Second, we’ll only pick a movie once for these summer listings. So you won’t see the 2016s Arrival today because we recommended it last year. Third, each movie must be available for streaming or rental online.
Wars and conflicts
We start things off with a subject that has long captured the imagination of the public and of Hollywood: Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) and Aliens.
Why start with films about UFOs and aliens? Two reasons. First, filmmakers often use stories about UFOs and aliens as metaphors for personal and political relationships, showing how fear of “the other” can tear the world apart or bring it together. Second, UFOs – or if you prefer, Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAPs) – are in the news. Late last month, the office of the director of national intelligence released a nine-page report revealing that indeed, many flying objects cannot be explained. The report, however, did not take a position on the existence of extraterrestrials. Either way, most Americans seem to have made up their minds on the matter. A recent Pew Research poll found that 51% of them believe the military’s UFO / UAP sightings are likely evidence of alien life.
We have no position as to whether humanity has been visited by other residents of the universe. We have five great movies to recommend on how UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors could reshape the world as we know it. We’re also launching a Colleague Bonus Pick.
The day the earth stood still (1951). An alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands behind the White House. It carries a message from an interplanetary organization: Humans cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, and Earth must submit to the organization’s oversight or “face erasure.” When the U.S. government rejects Klaatu’s request to address world leaders, he fled to Washington to learn about humans. Based on Harry Bates’ 1940 short story “Farewell to the Master”, and directed by Robert Wise, The day the earth stood still portrayed benevolent aliens and heroic scientists, unlike other popular sci-fi horror films of 1951, Man from Planet X and The thing from another world. Producer Julian Blaustein said the film called for a “stronger UN” as the nuclear arms race intensified. The day the earth stood still received the now retired Golden Globe for “promoting international understanding.” The American Film Institute ranked it fifth best science fiction film of all time. You can watch it on Apple TV, Google Play, or YouTube.
War of the Worlds (1953). A UFO crashes in a small town in California. However, it does not carry friendly aliens. Rather, it is part of the first wave of a Martian invasion. World capitals are quickly overwhelmed, and defeat seems imminent. Taking the premise of HG Wells’ stunning 1898 novel, director Byron Haskin follows a scientist and a commuter, played by Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, as they frantically search for the weakness of the Martians. The film’s implicit theme is the fear of the “other” of the Cold War and the global conflict. At least moviegoers in 1953 knew that the War of the Worlds was fictional: When Orson Welles adapted Wells’ novel for radio in 1938, many listeners thought it was a real show announcing a Martian invasion. The film’s “spooky” special effects won an Oscar, and the American Film Institute ranked the Martians as the twenty-seventh greatest villain of all time. You can look War of the Worlds on Amazon Prime, HBO Max or YouTube.
Wars and conflicts
Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Roy Neary’s (Richard Dreyfuss) life is turned upside down when UFOs fly over him in Muncie, Indiana. They leave him with a story no one believes in and an inexplicable mental image of a mountain. Meanwhile, the U.S. military and researchers around the world are investigating a sudden increase in UFO sightings and mysterious incidents. Director Steven Spielberg said the US Air Force and NASA refused to cooperate in the filming of Close encounters-may be worried that the film triggers public paranoia around UFOs like Jaws made with sharks. However, President Jimmy Carter and many American moviegoers were big fans. American Film Institute ranked Encounters of the Third Kind the thirty-first most exciting movie of all time. He won two Oscars, one for cinematography and the other for sound effects, while being nominated for seven others. You can find it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Independence Day (1996). When ranking summer blockbusters, Independence Day almost always makes the list. Earth is undergoing a devastating attack from alien invaders. Professional armies and air forces are wiped out. A motley crew emerge as heroes as the United States rallies the world for a counterattack that begins, you guessed it, on July 4th. With explosions, catchy presidential speeches and an all-star cast starring Will Smith, Bill Pullman and Jeff Goldblum, Independence Day carried an optimistic message of global unity under the banner of American leadership. Perhaps not surprisingly, the film was shot in an era of America’s undisputed unipolar power – perhaps making its heart-wrenchingly naive message a quarter of a century later in an era of competition between The big powers. (Independence Day also introduced the Hollywood tradition of massive movie advertising campaigns.) Directed by Roland Emmerich, Independence Day won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects and was nominated for Best Sound. You can watch it on Amazon Prime, HBO Max, or YouTube.
District 9 (2009). A spaceship arrives over Johannesburg in 1982. It is not filled with benevolent messengers or hostile invaders. Instead, it’s full of malnourished aliens. Under international pressure, South Africa is confining the aliens to a slum called District 9. Twenty years later, during a forced displacement of the aliens out of the city, the alien handyman Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) plans his escape from Earth when Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a human, comes in contact with alien fuel in his laboratory and begins to mutate. Director Neill Blomkamp highlights the brutality and inequality of alien life in a clear comparison to apartheid, with particular similarities to the forced relocation of black residents of Cape Town District 6 in 1966. District 9 remains relevant today in the conditions refugees face in dangerously overcrowded camps and international tensions linked to increasing global migration. You can stream it on Amazon Prime, Starz, or YouTube.
This week, we turned to our colleague Terry Mullan for a bonus pick. Terry is Deputy Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance program at CFR. He supported our recommendation last year to Arrival. He also suggested:
The phenomenon (2020). If you want to refresh the history of UFO sightings, The phenomenon is for you. The documentary examines reports from the 1940s to the present. Longtime director and “ufologist” James Fox uses archival footage and interviews with eyewitnesses and officials to demonstrate that the government knows more than it has told us. Terry said, “While there is a need to go from the existence of a government program on unidentified aerial phenomena to the existence of extraterrestrial encounters, The phenomenon includes intriguing new testimonials from Navy pilots and former senior government officials including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, Chief of Staff of Clinton John Podesta and former Assistant Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Christopher Mellon. You can look The phenomenon on Amazon Prime, Google Play or YouTube.
Next week we will have some movie suggestions about love and war.
Check out our recommendations from last summer for foreign policy films on the costs of war, foreign intrigue, WWII, the threat of nuclear war, journalists, uprisings and revolutions, and prisoners of war. We also suggested foreign policy comedies, satires, movies with women in mind, etc. Still looking for something to watch? You can find all the movie (and book) recommendations from The water’s edge here.