The saucers are here! According to a recent government report, the Pentagon received hundreds of U.F.O. sighting reports in 2022. And after the Chinese spy balloon was shot down weeks ago, even more sightings (terrestrial and extra) have occurred.

Not since the fiendish fifties has there been such a rash of unidentified flying objects! Are they spy balloons or visitors from beyond the stars? We may not have the answer till it’s too late, but we can arm ourselves with knowledge in case one of those U.F.O.s turns out to be an alien spaceship. Since movies always have the answers, I will now probe (not rectally) the history of U.F.O.s in cinema. Prepare yourself… the invasion is about to begin!

On June 24, 1947, American aviator Kenneth Arnold claimed to have witnessed nine bizarre objects flying near Mount Rainier, Washington. Arnold’s account captured the public’s curiosity and led to the press coining the term “flying saucer.” After the Arnold incident, reports of flying saucers and mysterious ships began to proliferate. In the same year, a United States Army Air Force balloon crashed near Roswell, New Mexico. That event, commonly known as the “Roswell Incident,” is the most (in)famous flying saucer claim in history. The following decade was dominated by stories of mysterious aircraft.

The Day the Earth Stood Still

In the wake of the Arnold encounter and the Roswell incident, Hollywood began creating their own U.F.O.s. While some say that The Day the Earth Stood Still was the first flying saucer picture, that honor belongs to The Flying Saucer, a film that can unequivocally be described as… a film. Okay, so The Flying Saucer isn’t exactly a thrill-a-minute good time, but it did exploit U.F.O. imagery before it became prevalent in the movies. If you like Cold War spy nonsense and Alaskan landscapes, then you’ll get a kick out of The Flying Saucer!

1951’s sci-fi classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still, handled the subject with ethereal poetry. It also added real aliens to the formula. Unlike subsequent films, the extraterrestrial is a benevolent figure, though one who delivers a grim warning about humanity’s violent tendencies. It features an ominous robot, heat rays, and all the other neato elements that we now associate with alien movies. To this day, many consider The Day… to be the finest example of U.F.O. cinema.

The Thing from Another World

In the same year, a saucer was found beneath the ice in The Thing from Another World. This time, the space traveler is a killer vegetable man (it’s less silly in context). 1953’s War of the Worlds (adapted from the 1898 H.G. Wells novel, which predates most modern U.F.O. sightings) depicted an invasion by Martian warships, soon to become a genre film staple. In 1953, sinister extraterrestrials landed on Earth and controlled human minds in Invaders from Mars, a film that was remade by Tobe Hooper in 1986. We then encountered alien ships on alien planets in 1955’s This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet the following year.

Invaders from Mars 1953

Now, all those films are exceptional, but they are far more concerned with the creatures that surround and/or inhabit the flying discs. If you want a groovy movie that treats the U.F.O.s themselves as main eventers, look no further than Ray Harryhausen’s 1956 ship-wrecker, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, the Ikiru of stop-motion alien invasion films. Its star-ships are possibly the best saucers on film, animated with that handmade sorcery that put Harryhausen in the pantheon of immortals.


Spielberg replaced horror with wonder with two films on the subject: 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 1982’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Close Encounters tells a humane story about an obsession with inhuman life, and E.T. is a charming fantasy about a boy who befriends an adorable alien. Around the same time as E.T., John Carpenter remade The Thing from Another World as The Thing, once again demonstrating the potential evil of unearthly creatures


Flying Saucers from the real world inspired 1993’s Fire in the Sky, a harrowing thriller inspired by the alleged alien abduction of Travis Walton. Adapted from Walton’s book The Walton Experience, Fire in the Sky depicts its subject with a sincerity uncommon in saucer films. A few months after Fire, The X-Files premiered on FOX, bringing saucers and their pilots to the small screen.

mars attacks.jpeg

1996 was perhaps the last notable year of the cinematic saucers. Many disc flicks were produced after ’96, but none have been as indelible as that year’s double feature of otherworldly offerings: Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. Both movies owe their existence to Harryhausen’s saucers: Burton’s flick plays out like a black-as-a-widow spoof of the Harryhausen masterpiece (complete with a parody of R.H.’s amazing Washington Monument sequence), and Emmerich’s often gives the impression of an unofficial remake, especially with its wanton destruction of Earth’s monuments.

With U.F.O.s making a comeback in real life, there’s no doubt we’ll see them again in our cinemas. How will the recent incidents affect future depictions? Only time will tell. For now, just remember to watch the skies; they may be watching you!

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