In 1972, ufologist Josef Allen Hynek categorized the three kinds of alien encounters, from UFO sightings to alien observations. Ufologists have since created a fourth classification: Alien abduction! The scifi thriller The Fourth Kind explores the phenomenon, as have so any movies in the past. Here’s a look at ten cinematized abductions. Some of these characters’ captors are evil incarnate, but others, as it turns out, are just overly curious intergalactic anthropologists.
10. Alex Rogan (Lance Guest), The Last Starfighter (1984)
This may not have all the benchmark traits of an alien abduction movie, but one scene says it all: When Centauri shows up at Alex’s trailer park, he charms the glum starfighter into his car by praising his arcade skills! Once Alex is strapped in, Centauri whisks his bewildered passenger into outer space. The fact that Alex ends up having the time of his life (what, no probes?) lands this one at the bottom of the list.
9. Sam Phillips (Philip Sayer), Xtro (1982)
In this disturbing, gory low-budget flick, a father is playing with his son in their backyard when he suddenly gets sucked up by a beam of white light. He returns to Earth three years later to find his wife and son, but something is different. Could it be his ability to transform into a freaky creature with four legs? Bingo! The movie’s ending — no spoilers here — makes it one of the starker abduction movies to date.
8. Everyone’s Parents (various), Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius (2001)
The premise of this computer-animated film must have tickled kids silly: When Jimmy Neutron and his friends wish that they didn’t have parents, lo and behold, they wake up the next morning to find that every parent in the city has been snatched up by aliens. Alas, they quickly learn that living curfew-free isn’t as cool as it sounds. The cute use of the abduction narrative wins enough points to land this movie at number eight.
7. Spencer Armacost (Johnny Depp), The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Aliens pull the old spouse switcharoo on poor Charlize Theron by taking her astronaut husband (Johnny Depp) during an outerspace mission, then replacing him with a clone. You don’t get any real alien action here — just some garbled audio frequencies that are meant to indicate alien presence — but the movie does offer a sympathetic perspective of the people left behind. It ain’t easy being the wife of an abductee.
6. John (Rufus Sewell) and Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly), Dark City (1998)
The abduction conceit is a little more sophisticated in this Alex Proyas flick. Come midnight each night, a group of men called The Strangers takes temporary custody of human minds, turning them into guinea pigs. This one gets bonus points for the fact that it’s implied that the whole society here was abducted from Earth at some point. Creepy!
5. Whitley Strieber (Christopher Walken) Communion (1989)
Whatever creepiness that’s lost in this pic’s cheesy effects is made up for in Christopher Walken’s performance. Playing the role of real-life author Whitley Strieber, who wrote a book about his own abduction, Walken gets jiggy with his abductors in the buff, and even dons a mask to look like them! Alas, the aliens end up probing their victim in every conceivable way, making this an incredibly uncomfortable abduction to watch and landing the movie firmly in fifth place.
4. Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)
Some aliens are sadistic, but some — as in this case — are enlightening. When Billy Pilgrim is seized from his bedroom by a giant orb of white light, he wakes up trapped in a geodesically domed zoo. The planet’s aliens espouse a come-what-may philosophy of life that ultimately strikes a chord with Billy, who’s still rattled by the atrocities he witnessed in World War II. That droll twist earns this movie a slot at number four.
3. David Freeman (Joey Cramer), Flight of the Navigator (1986)
The horror of being taken is eclipsed by a greater horror here: waking up to learn you’ve been missing for eight years and were declared dead by your own family! This is Disney, though, so the mood remains cheery — turns out the aliens just wanted to learn more about humans. Aw. Also, the kid gets to fly a silver clamshell around the world in the company of a friendly auto-pilot voiced by Paul Reubens.
2. Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), Fire in the Sky (1993)
After a crew of loggers witness their friend (D.B. Sweeney) get snatched by a spaceship, disbelieving authorities suspect them of foul play. When he returns five days later, he describes his traumatizing sojourn on the mothership, where the aliens shrink-wrap him in a rubbery film, stick bolts in his ears, and so forth. Sweeney’s palpable terror lands this pic high on the list, second only to…
1. Barry Guiler (Cary Guffey), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
If anyone was going to turn alien abductions into a sentimental affair, it’s Steven Spielberg. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, aliens have slyly been hoarding humans on their disco-lit flying saucer for years. When they learn that mankind likes to jam with them to John Williams music, they deposit their human specimens (including young Barry) back where they found them. The story captured the hearts of millions — and top honors among abduction movies past.