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The Movie Alien Threat Matrix

Which movie aliens are the scariest? And what about the kindest? We did the math.

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Shea Serrano: This is at least a tiny bit reductive, but: At the beginning of Prometheus, a movie that’s kind of the prequel to 1979’s iconic Alien but not exactly, two smart people (archaeologists Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway) find what they believe is the final piece of an invitation made by a species of universe-creating beings asking humans to join them and hang out and talk about things. They hop in a spaceship with several other humans (and one android), zip across the galaxy to where their star map pointed them, and then they get there and guess what? Things go bad. Real bad. Real fast. The beings they’d gone there to meet (the Engineers) all look to be dead, and worse still: Something(s) begins killing the people in the ship, one by one, in especially painful and terrifying ways. Things happen and then more things happen and then some things happen, and then the movie ends with (a) Shaw as the ship’s only survivor, and (b) the birth of a Xenomorph, which is the main alien monster you think of whenever someone mentions an Alien movie.

The reason I bring all this up now (aside from today’s release of Alien: Covenant, the latest movie in the franchise) is to tell you something: Should you find yourself in a position where, for whatever reason, in whatever time period, under the guise of whatever, you have the opportunity to approach or meet or correspond with a movie alien, please do not.

There are absolutely times when it works out OK and good for people who do so, sure, and I’m of course talking about instances like in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial or Mac and Me or Cocoon or Arrival or Contact and so on. But it’s simply just not worth the risk. Because more times than not, that interaction ends with you getting your chest exploded open (Alien) or your entire everything getting vaporized (War of the Worlds) or you getting cotton candy’d to death (Killer Klowns from Outer Space) or you getting the skin peeled off your body in a South American jungle (Predator) or you thinking you’re about to have sex with an attractive woman only for it to turn out you’re about to be killed by having a tentacle shoved down your throat while she holds you under water (Species).

Can I share a thing with you? I’m going to share a thing with you. This is the Movie Alien Threat Matrix:

I made it with Jason Concepcion, who, like me, enjoys watching alien movies. (I would like to point out here that, in addition to liking alien movies, I also hate them. I hate them because they are creepy and scary, but also I hate them because I honestly believe that aliens exist and thinking about aliens in the universe makes me feel incredibly small and insignificant and unimportant, similar to the way it feels when I stare at the moon for more than a few minutes if I’m outside in my backyard alone late at night.)

At any rate, the Movie Alien Threat Matrix is a simple thing: It arranges a bunch of different movie aliens into locations based on how small they are or how big they are, and also how deadly they are or how friendly they are.

Same as when we did the Upset Ex-Lovers Character Matrix, this matrix raises some questions:

(Lucasfilm)
(Lucasfilm)

Why aren’t any of the characters from movies like ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘The Fifth Element’ on here?

Shea: As a general rule, we only included aliens from movies where the humans were surprised to learn that aliens existed. It seemed more fun that way, but it also just made more sense: Usually when you’re assessing a threat it’s because you don’t know enough (or anything) about the thing you’re assessing. That’s a core tenet of all of the movies included in the matrix, and in the answers to the questions going forward. In Star Trek and Star Wars and Guardians of the Galaxy and The Fifth Element, the aliens and the humans coexisted completely aware of one another, so those movie aliens all got nixed.

Why are Superman and Optimus Prime on here?

Shea: Because they are aliens. Sometimes I forget about that when I’m watching their movies or thinking about their characters, which is something that happens more often than I’d like to admit. But yes, Superman and Optimus Prime and basically any of the nonhumans who show up in their movies are aliens.

(Universal Pictures)
(Universal Pictures)

What’s the best trope in these kinds of movies?

Jason Concepcion: The four best tropes:

Fourth Place: Aliens living on earth without humans knowing it. Examples: Men in Black, Under the Skin, They Live.

Third Place: Humans falling in love with aliens. Examples: Starman, Cocoon.

Second Place: Government scientists chasing / trying to understand aliens. Examples: E.T., The Signal, Arrival.

First Place: Humans getting powers or advanced technology from aliens. Examples: The Avengers, Cowboys & Aliens, John Carter (technically he goes to Mars and the Martian environment makes him super-strong).

Shea: A very solid list. I would like to add the Thing Where When Someone Is Getting Abducted They Get Picked Up With A Light Beam By Their Chest And Their Arms And Legs Dangle and also the Thing Where There’s Always Some Slime Somewhere and also the Thing Where They Wait A Long Time To Finally Show The Alien. That last one is my favorite, and also is responsible for what I think is my most memorable moviegoing experience.

I was on a date in college with a woman, and we’d gone to see Signs together. Signs is an incredible movie and, I would argue, the most believable alien movie. It’s very suspenseful and very smart and they go a good, long time before finally showing an alien. And the scene where they show him — it’s a news station playing a clip that someone recorded at a kid’s birthday party — is absolutely perfect. They preface it with the "What you’re about to see may disturb you" line, and then they let the video play and it’s just loud shouting for a minute or so as the music builds louder and louder until you can barely even breathe and then — BOOM! I promise to you that, in that moment, I thought I was looking at real footage of aliens on earth. I felt it wash over my body. It was total fear and panic, and that’s to say nothing of the way I literally, hand to God, tossed my nachos into the air when that loud crash hit and the alien stepped out from the bushes. I knew right then that, no matter what, I would pay to watch every M. Night Shyamalan movie that he ever put out, no matter how bad.

Which is the overall no. 1 deadly alien? And I don’t mean, "Which is the deadliest alien?" (That’s an easy question to answer. All you to do is look and see how many people an alien killed.) I mean, "In totality, which is overall the best, most interesting, most compelling deadly alien?"

Jason: The five deadliest:

Fifth Place: The Thing, The Thing (1982): Trapped under the ice for one hundred thousand years, the Thing is accidentally freed when scientists at a lonely Arctic outpost discover its ship. The alien has the ability to mold its cellular structure in order to appear like any organism and to absorb the memories and personality of whoever or whatever it touches. Its only weakness is fire, which causes it to freak out in super-gross ways.

Fourth Place: The Female, Under the Skin (2013): Scarlett Johansson plays a laconic seductress alien who prowls the back streets of Scotland in search of prey. Lonely men — horny men, drunken men, men in general because the alien looks like Scarlett Johansson — are drawn to her. Once ensnared by her charms, the victim follows the alien back to its lair. It then cajoles the poor sap into a vat of viscous black liquid for later eating. So, she’s bad. BUT! After years, perhaps, of eating humans, she begins to empathize with them. To feel like a human herself. So, she’s, like, two-thirds bad.

Third Place: Zod, Man of Steel (2013): Imagine if Superman was a huge asshole.

Second Place: Martians, War of the Worlds (2005): Shouts to the tripods! They waited, buried deep underground, for MILLIONS OF YEARS before unleashing a devastating sneak attack on an unwitting planet Earth. Untold numbers of people, perhaps millions, are killed. Hoboken — HOBOKEN, GUYS — is leveled. Their mission is to kill off the human race. Then, on the cusp of total victory, they brick the shot. The tripods can cross the unimaginable vastness of space in high-tech robo-vehicles. But they are apparently not well-versed in virology or the concept of microscopic pathogens, and just get sick and die. RIP.

Shea: Watching this at an IMAX theater the day it came out was another great moviegoing experience. My whole body was tense by the end of it.

Jason:

First Place: Unnamed alien civilization, They Live (1988): In They Live, Earth, unbeknownst to the majority of its human population, has already been conquered by a race of ugly, skull-head fascist aliens. The aliens control the highest levels of the world’s governments. Major celebrities are in fact aliens. As are cable newscasters, politicians, important business figures, and perhaps your neighbor. They use subliminal messages to keep the people obedient and preoccupied with buying shit and to keep their true appearances hidden. Meanwhile, the aliens are destroying the environment and raiding Earth’s resources. And all this happens right under everyone’s nose. The only way to see the world as it truly is? A pair of special clunky blue-blocker-looking sunglasses like you can buy off the rack at Walgreens, which somehow block the alien transmissions.

They Live pretty much created modern, Alex Jones–style late-capitalist conspiracy theory paranoia. It’s hard to get more nefarious, more deadly, than that. Also, this is the most quotable science fiction movie of the last 30 years. And it has a fight scene in which the hero and his soon-to-be partner in revolution kick each other in the nuts roughly 50 times.

Shea: Two things here:

First, I’m legit shocked that the Xenomorphs didn’t make your list, Jason. I’m of the mind that they are, no question, the overall best deadly movie aliens. I think they’re perfect. Even their worst thing (the way they just drop a baby off inside you by forcing you to perform oral sex on them) is a fantastic feature.

Second, I’m also a tiny bit surprised that the aliens from Fire in the Sky haven’t made an appearance anywhere here in this article. I mean, I know they were mostly exploratory aliens and all they really wanted was to learn about humans, but that one scene where they show the aliens running tests on the guy was so incredibly uncomfortable. Even watching it now just on YouTube on a computer is still unsettling. The part when they misted him after dropping that rubber sheet over him! That part where they put that goop in his mouth! The needle in the eyeball! Gross, gross, gross.

Which is the overall no. 1 friendly alien? And, same as above, I don’t mean, "Which is the friendliest alien?" I mean, "In totality, which is overall the best, most interesting, most compelling friendly alien?"

Jason: Just like above, I’ll give you a top five. Fifth place is Grig from The Last Starfighter (1984): Grig has 6,000 children. Shea, imagine having 6,000 children …

Shea: I absolutely will not imagine that. I have three children and I spend, probably, a good 60 percent of every day not knowing where two of them are.

Jason: Fourth place is the Mondoshawans from The Fifth Element (1997): First off, I know this selection appears to violate the "not knowing about aliens" rule. But! When Mondoshawans arrived in Egypt in 1914, humans did not know about them. Therefore: loophole. The beetle-like guardians from The Fifth Element basically save all life in the universe every 5,000 years. They’re not, like, buddy-buddy friendly, but you have to acknowledge their dedication.

Third Place: Jerry the Drac, Enemy Mine (1985): This breaks the rule of humans not knowing about aliens, but I’m using Dracs (Louis Gossett Jr.) anyway because, in Enemy Mine, humans and the dracs have never actually communicated with each other. They’ve just been fighting. Dracs are hermaphroditic and very religious. Jerry teaches the human pilot Davidge (Dennis Quaid) about empathy and the importance of life, in all its forms. When Jerry (spoiler) dies in childbirth, Davidge raises his infant, eventually taking it back to its homeworld.

Second Place: Ford Prefect, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005): Ford (Mos Def) is a cool, chill humanoid alien who saves Arthur (Martin Freeman) from the destruction of Earth and teaches him important galactic survival skills like the importance of towels and, of course, "The Hitchhiker’s Guide."

First Place: The Fix-Its, *Batteries Not Included (1987): E.T. is cute. Mac from Mac and Me is weird but a pretty decent pal, and the Cocoon aliens are low-key fuckable in an interesting share-your-glowing-energy-ball way. But only the Fix-Its, in the history of movie aliens, were willing to help low-income people in a gentrifying neighborhood stave off eviction. That’s unbeatable. We need more Fix-Its in this world.

Shea: Mos Def was a wonderful movie alien. I hope he asked the director what he should do to seem alien-y and the director said something like, "Just be exactly like your normal self." He’s such a weirdo. Also, I appreciate the nod to The Fix-Its. Again, though, I am baffled by you not including E.T. here (though maybe he’s too obvious of a pick, I guess?), and also I’m baffled by you not including Mac, maybe my personal favorite friendly alien and also the only movie alien ever to dance on top of a McDonald’s counter and then escape government henchmen by riding away with a kid in a wheelchair.

(Warner Bros.)
(Warner Bros.)

Which human was the best at handling the idea that aliens existed when he or she found out that aliens existed?

Jason: Ma and Pa Kent from Superman were the best. They found a baby alien and raised it as their son. Game, set, match. After that is Arthur from Hitchhiker’s Guide. Then it’s Sam from Transformers (he discovers a race of alien robots that can morph into various human vehicles and never once does this revelation seem to shock him or hinder his overarching mission of getting laid). Then it’s Elliott from E.T. (he responds to discovering alien life by taking the E.T home, feeding it candy, and taking it out for Halloween). And then, to round out a top five, let’s go with John Nada from They Live. He discovers that civilization as we know it is actually a con job foisted on the planet by a rapacious alien race that keeps us addicted to shopping. And, instead of sulking about it or going insane, he decides to rob banks and kill aliens. I like it.

Which human was the worst at handling the idea that aliens existed when he or she found out that aliens existed?

Jason: It was Millburn in Prometheus.

Shea: YES. What an idiot.

Jason: He was supposedly a biologist, and supposedly a biologist who knows he’s on another planet, and yet still he reacted to the hatching of a proto-facehugger snake-worm by baby-talking to it as if it were a puppy. I don’t know that many scientists — I saw Bill Nye once from a few feet away, but he’s just an engineer — but I don’t think baby-talking an alien is how actual elite scientists would act. Again, I don’t know that many scientists. But I’m just saying. Anyway. The worm quickly snaps Millburn’s arm like a Slim Jim, melts through the other guy’s helmet, then impregnates Millburn’s mouth.

Shea: He should’ve consulted the Threat Matrix. He’d have known better.