The history of the silver screen is rife with visitors from other worlds, or creatures humans meet in our exploration of deep space. Indeed, some of the most iconic characters in movie history don't always hail from humanity's home planet. From friendly extra-terrestrials who just want to befriend a young boy and share his sense of wonder about our world, to terrifying predators who think hunting humans for sport is the way to go; from chest-bursting monsters who the military foolishly imagine they can weaponize to ghostly, inspiring creatures who come to teach us about our best selves, aliens are all over our culture.
While sometimes they are simply there to entertain or to scare, often they are designed as a way for writers to explore issues that are essential to us, and to investigate our own nature. From the Klingons as a way to observe warrior culture and its parallels in the modern world to District 9's refugee aliens struggling to survive in a concentration camp, aliens help us to take a step back and think about who we are, and who we really want to be.
How well do you know the most recognizable of these most foreign of characters? Take this quiz to find out!
Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is a 7-foot-tall, 200-year-old Wookie. He is also copilot and best friend to Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Writer/Director George Lucas is said to have based Chewbacca’s look on his big, hairy Alaskan malamute named Indiana (a name Lucas later chose to use for Ford’s most well-known role – Indiana Jones).
Christopher Reeve was a virtual unknown on the big screen when he was selected to play the role of Superman. Director Richard Donner felt Reeve (who was 6 feet 5 inches tall) needed to add on a few pounds to help him better look the part so Reeve gained over 40 pounds – moving from 170 to 212 pounds.
Director Tim Burton singles out Jack Nicholson (who played both President Dale and a shady Vegas businessman) as the reason for the film featuring so many well-known stars. Apparently, famous actors initially turned down the roles offered to them until Nicholson joined the cast – then everyone wanted to get on board!
Apparently, the actors in Starship Troopers really had to use their imagination when doing scenes involving the giant alien Klendathu arachnids. That’s because the director, Paul Verhoeven, used several commonplace props as stand-ins – including a broom and even himself.
Gort is an 8-foot-tall robot constructed from one seamless piece of metal. He is described by his companion Klaatu (Michael Rennie) as part of an interstellar police force. Gort is portrayed by American actor Lock Martin, who was 7 feet 7 inches tall in real life.
E.T.’s raspy voice is provided by American actress Pat Welsh. That raspy quality is not acting, however, but the result of Welsh having been a long-time chain smoker.
The alien Symbiote race made its first appearance in the Marvel Comics universe in May 1984. At that time, three comic books simultaneously featured the story of a symbiote being brought to Earth by Spider-Man.
Roddy Piper stars as an unnamed drifter in this cult classic directed by John Carpenter. Before the movie, Piper was already an international wrestling star and Carpenter has admitted to having been one of his fans. Piper, on the other hand, had not heard of the famous director. Both ended up being good friends.
Arrival was nominated for eight Academy Awards of which it won one (for Best Sound Editing). The film shows humans trying to communicate with an alien race of Hetapods which has arrived on Earth. Upon its release, Arrival led to a growing interest in linguistics and the power of understanding language.
So far, the Jar Jar Binks character has made several appearances in the Star Wars franchise, including three feature films and the Star Wars: The Clone Wars Star Wars animated television series. American actor Ahmed Best provides motion capture and the voice for Jar Jar Binks.
The Yondu Udonta character made its first appearance in January, 1969 in an issue of the Marvel Super-Heroes comics. In the film, Yondu is portrayed by actor Michael Rooker.
Jeff Goldblum has a supporting role in this film about aliens replacing humans by replicating them in pods. The dog-man, which appears close to the end of the film, is an apparent mutation after a hobo and his dog are replicated together. That concept is very like the one featured in The Fly (1986) in which Goldblum plays a scientist who is mutated with a fly.
Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is half-human and half-Vulcan – a fact which contributed to his troubled childhood. He first appears in the original Star Trek TV series in episode 6, titled “The Man Trap” (1966). The Vulcan salute of a double-finger V sign (often accompanied by the phrase “Live long and prosper”) was invented by Nimoy, who first used it in the episode “Amok Time” in 1967.
As the movie progresses, Audrey II grows from a seedling into a gigantic man-eating monster. To portray Audrey II, director Frank Oz used six animatronic flytraps, ranging in size from four inches to over 12 feet tall. The final humongous version of Audrey II required roughly 60 people to operate it.
The aliens in The Abyss are given the name Non-Terrestrial Intelligence (or N.T.I.s). It is revealed, however, that even though they come from a different planet, they were on Earth long before humans.
The aliens (called Mimics) were specifically designed to look as alien as possible. The filmmakers wanted the creatures to have no human likeness whatsoever or to resemble anything on Earth – now or in the past.
Tomar-Re made his first appearance in the DC Comics universe in a 1961 issue of Green Lantern. In the movie, while the Tomar-Re character is computer-generated, the voice is provided by Australian actor Geoffrey Rush
Yoda did not appear in the very first Star Wars film (now titled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope). He makes his first appearance in the second film, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back and has been featured in subsequent films. Stuart Freeborn, a special effects artist and Star Wars makeup supervisor has revealed that he modeled Yoda’s face upon both himself and Albert Einstein.
The alien scavenger, Jaylah, is played by Sofia Boutella, an Algerian-French dancer, model and actress. Star Trek Beyond’s co-screenwriter, Simon Pegg, has revealed the character is, in several ways, inspired by actress Jennifer Lawrence. In fact, Jaylah’s name is modeled after Lawrence’s and her attitude was influenced by Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree Dolly in the 2010 film Winter’s Bone.
English singer David Bowie plays the part of Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien on Earth trying to transport much-needed water back to his home planet. By his own admission, Bowie was heavily into drugs during the filming of the movie – a fact which, sadly, helped his portrayal of the gaunt, alabaster-skinned, orange-haired alien.
District 9 is based on a 2006 short film titled Alive in Joburg. Both films were written and directed by Neil Blomkamp, who stated that he wanted the aliens in District 9 to look both human and barbaric at the same time. He has expressed some regret that they had to look humanoid at all, but felt that was the only way to get the audience to truly empathize with them.
War of the Worlds is based on an H. G. Wells novel of the same name. Just as in the novel, the focus is less on the aliens themselves and more on the 150-foot Tripods they move around in. The filmmakers used the motion of aquatic animals as inspiration for how both the Tripods and the aliens move.
Mac is actually an acronym which stands for “Mysterious Alien Creature.” Mac and Me was nominated for four Razzie Awards and ended up winning two of them – Worst Director and Worst New Actor. That has not stopped the film from developing into a cult classic with many fans still awaiting the sequel promised in the closing scene.
Frank the Pug (portrayed by Mushu) has a small part in this film but ended up having a much larger role in Men in Black 2 (2002). Sadly, Mushu died before the filming of the third movie. He is, however, shown in a picture in Agent J’s room, as well as on a billboard announcing “The Incredible Speaking Pug.”
Prolific American voice actor Corey Burton provides the voices for the Krites (also spelled “Crites”). He explained that he used a combination of Japanese and French to come up with the language spoken by the frightening little aliens.
In the film, American actress Milla Jovovich portrays Leeloo (or as she effortlessly rattles off: Leeloo Minaï Lekatariba-Laminaï-Tchaï Ekbat de Sebat). Leeloo is the Fifth Element and she learns her impressive martial arts fighting skills by watching television. Jovovich, however, was still a novice at it, so for scenes where Leeloo performs a very effective high kick, the filmmakers used a fake leg on a stick.
Lieutenant Commander Worf, a Klingon and Starfleet officer, features prominently in the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series and its related movies. American actor Michael Dorn has acted extensively in the Star Trek franchise as Worf.
Director John Carpenter has admitted that The Thing was never meant to be a funny or endearing film. It was meant to be scary – and scary it is. Some of the credit for that goes to the special make-up effects team (led by Rob Bottin) which worked hard on making the shapeshifting creature as believable and scary as possible.
Norse mythology features Thor as the hammer-wielding son of the god Odin All-Father. In the movie, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) falls in love with scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) of Earth. In mythology, however, he is married to Sif (portrayed simply as a childhood friend in the movie and played by Jaimie Alexander).
While this film does not reveal much about the aliens, its sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), does – including their name: Harvesters. The aliens were designed by Patrick Tatopoulos, who wanted it to be obvious to viewers that they were not being portrayed by people in costume.
Often called the Xenomorph, the alien in the film is portrayed by 6-foot-10-inch tall Nigerian student Bolaji Badejo. It was designed by Swiss painter H. R. Giger, who suggested that his creature should be shown as having no eyes. It was the filmmakers’ decision to do most of the filming of the Xenomorph from the side and to make the creature black (they had originally made it translucent).
The alien huntress Neytiri is portrayed by American actress and dancer Zoe Saldana (who also plays Gamora in the Guardians of the Galaxy films). While Saldana provides the performance capture used for Neytiri, the appearance of the alien is completely computer generated.
Gordon Shumway, otherwise called ALF (for Alien Life Form), is portrayed by puppeteer Paul Fusco. Interestingly, it is Fusco who created ALF in 1984 and went on to become co-creator of the ALF television series, which ran from September 1986 to March 1990.
The aliens in Signs remain unseen for much of the film, and when they are seen they are naked. These two facts can be explained by their ability to change color, thus allowing them to blend in, unseen, with their surroundings. If they wore clothes, then they would lose this advantage.
The blue, many-tentacled Diva Plavalaguna is played by French actress Maïwenn Le Besco (who was at the time married to Luc Besson, the film’s director). Besson kept the appearance of the Diva a secret so that the cast saw her for the first time when she walked on stage for the filming of the opera scene.
French actress Mathilda May portrays the alien energy vampire referred to as “Space Girl” or simply “The Female.” Due to the fact that May is naked for most of the film, many reviews of the film also refer to her character as “Naked Space Vampire.”
The Worm Guys (also called Worm Aliens) appear in the very first Men in Black, but they play a greater role in both the second movie and the animated series. Their hedonistic tendencies and love of coffee are perhaps their two most memorable traits.
To create the Blob, filmmakers used latex colored with red vegetable dye. Then, by oozing the latex over miniature sets, they were able to make the gelatinous mass look truly massive. In keeping with the idea that the Blob becomes more aggressive with every victim it devours, the filmmakers made the dye redder after each kill.
Veteran Canadian voice actor Peter Cullen provides the voice of Optimus Prime in this film just as he did in the original Transformers TV series. Cullen has reprised his role for all sequels, so far, in the Transformers film franchise.
Jojo the Klownzilla is portrayed by the film’s co-producer, Charles Chiodo, in a mechanically controlled clown-head mask and a rubber suit. Chiodo’s co-producers were his brothers Edward and Stephen, with Stephen doubling as the show’s director. Stephen also receives credit as writer along with Charles.
Blue-skinned, red-eyed Draags are often described as a contradiction in evolution. They are highly intelligent, having developed an amazing mental capacity, yet they are inexplicably cruel to the Oms (humans) who live among them. They choose to treat the humans as animals even though it is obvious that they are also intelligent beings.
Veteran actor Seth Rogen provides both voice and motion capture for Paul, the alien. According to noted film critic Roger Ebert, Paul “is Seth Rogen in every aspect, except physical appearance.”
Kevin Peter Hall, who stood 7 feet 2 inches tall, was the actor inside the Predator suit. He actually got the part as a replacement for Jean-Claude Van Damme who felt that the inside of the suit was unbearably hot. The voice of the Predator is provided by Peter Cullen – the same actor who voices Optimus Prime in most of the Transformers franchise.
The tree-like creature Groot first appeared in a November, 1960 issue of the Tales to Astonish series by Marvel Comics. Although the character is a superhero in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, he was depicted as an alien invader wanting to experiment on humans when he was first introduced.
The voice of Megatron is provided by Hugo Weaving (who portrays Agent Smith in The Matrix trilogy and Red Skull in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)). He returns as Megatron’s voice in the sequels Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) and Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011).
The alien race depicted in the movie is said to have come from an aquatic planet and are able to survive on Earth only if they remain hydrated. They are often likened to an insect colony, with the Queen being very much larger and more monstrous than her minions. Thanks to their telepathic link to her, if the Queen dies, then so do the rest of the colony.
The Little Green Men (otherwise known as Squeeze Toy Aliens) appear in all three of the Toy Story Films made to date. They do not know they are toys and think they are really aliens whose fates are determined by “the claw” – the mechanical arm in a claw game machine.
In this film, it is made obvious that Mechagodzilla is an extra-terrestrial. In the 1993 film Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, however, Mechagodzilla is a man-made machine. Apparently, despite the name of the second film, it is not a sequel or remake of the original film.
Boris the Animal is portrayed by Jemaine Clement, a New Zealand comedian, actor and musician. Commonly referred to simply as “The Animal”, Boris’ true form is only seen in the few seconds before he is terminated by Agent K.
The Silver Surfer has been a part of the Marvel Comics universe ever since he made his first appearance in a Fantastic Four comic in 1966. In the movie, he is portrayed by actor/contortionist Doug Jones. The voice of the Silver Surfer is supplied by Laurence Fishburne.