Jordan Peele’s “Nope” is nearly here.
Peele’s third film as writer/director, after “Get Out” and “Us,” recently debuted a tantalizing trailer (and an equally mysterious Super Bowl spot). While still shrouded in secrecy, “Nope” (starring Keke Palmer, Daniel Kaluuya and Steven Yeun) seems to be about a ranch that is visited by otherworldly supernatural forces including (but not limited to) little green men and perhaps the most ominous dark cloud since the tornado that sucked up Dorothy and Toto.
And while the film isn’t hitting theaters until July 22, we thought we’d wrangle up a list of UFO movies that you can watch while you wait that might end up serving as primers for Peele’s main course. There is a large amount of speculation at play, but when it comes to Peele’s films, the guessing game is part of the fun.
“The UFO Incident” (1975)
The Betty and Barney Hill case is one of the most well-known in the history of UFOs – in 1961, an interracial couple (played in the film by James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons) were supposedly abducted by a flying saucer. Many of the hallmarks of alien abductions were introduced in the case and its aftermath, including the idea of “missing time” that is associated with many UFO cases. This made-for-TV-movie was handsomely produced by Universal and released around Halloween for maximum spooky effectiveness but is now remarkably hard-to-find on home video or streaming (Kino Lorber was supposedly working on a remastered Blu-ray but it has yet to materialize).
“The UFO Incident” has a connection to another movie on the list – it was argued by a cognitive therapist that Travis Walton’s abduction (see below) was largely influenced by the fact that the TV movie aired the week before.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977)
It’s clear from the “Nope” trailer that its biggest touchstone is Steven Spielberg’s beloved classic, only with “Nope,” it seems considerably more evil. “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is based in part on the actual government investigation into the phenomenon. (The title comes from a distinction made by J. Allen Hynek who led the storied Project Blue Book.) Richard Dreyfuss, then Spielberg’s big screen stand-in, plays an average joe in Indiana whose close encounter with a UFO leads to increasingly otherworldly connections. Where Spielberg’s film was filled with wonder and awe (thanks largely to Vilmos Zsigmond’s jaw-dropping cinematography), Peele’s movie seems to be stuffed with abject terror.
Alien abduction entered the mainstream with “Communion,” the supposedly true story of author Whitley Strieber (played in the movie by a superb Christopher Walken), who is abducted by “visitors” while on vacation. Director Phillipe Mora is a schlock auteur who knows how to bring the (admittedly sometimes corny) thrills, and Walken does a great job at emotionally grounding the fantastic scenario. The bug-eyed “grey alien” design, introduced in “Close Encounters …” was fully popularized here. (It would become cemented in the public consciousness in the next decade, thanks to shows like “X-Files” and “Sightings.”) “Communion” features a score by Eric Clapton (yes really), that was never commercially released, which is reason enough to track this down.
“Fire in the Sky” (1993)
Perhaps the “Citizen Kane” of alien abduction movies, “Fire in the Sky” is still genuinely unsettling, the tale of forestry worker Travis Walton (D.B. Sweeney), who was abducted from Snowflake, Arizona, by an unseen force. His dimwit buddies (including Peter Berg and Robert Patrick) were picked up and charged with murder; when he reappeared it only led to even more questions and an ever-deepening mystery.
James Garner is terrific as the local sheriff investigating the disappearance, and the movie’s centerpiece, a lengthy abduction sequence exquisitely shot by Bill Pope with effects from ILM, is deeply terrifying. (The adaptation also wisely chose to exclude some of the more head-scratching elements of Walton’s account, including his interaction with a second alien race he referred to as “the Nordic” who aided him in his escape from the UFO.) Also, like “Nope,” “Fire in the Sky” inverts the typical big-eyed alien trope, instead offering up small-eyed aliens which are somehow even creepier.
“Independence Day” (1997)
Part of the press release for the “Nope” trailer described the movie as Jordan Peele “reimag[ing] the summer movie with a new pop nightmare.” And when you think of summer movies and alien invasions, it’s hard not to think of “Independence Day,” Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s apocalyptic extraterrestrial extravaganza.
The “Nope” trailer playfully utilizes imagery immortalized by “Independence Day,” twisting it to its own needs – an overhead shot with an ever-darkening shadow; characters looking up in wonder (or is it horror?); and a knowledge and understanding of abduction culture. But where Emmerich and Devlin were going for more mainstream appeal, Peele undoubtedly has a more subversive agenda. If you want more big summer alien mayhem fun, we would also suggest Steven Spielberg’s Tom Cruise-led “War of the Worlds.”
Arguably M. Night Shyamalan’s most purely entertaining feature, “Signs” pits a small group of people (this time a widower played by a never-better Mel Gibson and his family) in a desolate location (a Pennsylvania farmhouse) against a burgeoning alien invasion. And like “Nope,” “Signs” incorporated alien abduction mythology, conspiracy theories (the “signs” of the title are a series of crop circles), and a Spielbergian mixture of wonder and terror. Twenty years later, it’s still as funny and scary as it was when it was first released. Hopefully the alien design, one of the few shortcomings of “Signs,” is more effective in “Nope.”
“Super 8” (2011)
If you’re going to riff on Spielberg, you might as well get Spielberg to help. This was the approach that J.J. Abrams took while crafting “Super 8,” his love letter to Amblin movies that happened to also be an Amblin movie produced by Steven Spielberg himself. In “Super 8,” the setting is the late 1970s, when a train carrying materials from Area 51 crashes in a small American town. Onboard the train is, of course, an alien creature that ends up causing havoc in the town and becoming an object of fascination for a group of young kids who are making a horror movie. While “Super 8” isn’t perfect (the mixture of horror and cuteness, when it comes to the creature, is never calibrated correctly and the super 8 film doesn’t really matter), it does capture an old school sense of fun perfectly befitting the Amblin name.
“The Vast of Night” (2019)
One of the best movies of 2020, “The Vast of Night” is framed like an old episode of a “Twilight Zone”-style TV series called “Paradox Theater,” and in this particular episode a sleepy New Mexico town starts to experience, um, aerial phenomenon. (Let us pause here to remember that Peele rebooted “Twilight Zone” for Paramount+ and that his two previousl movies as writer/director have a decidedly “Twilight Zone”-y feel.) The movie, like what “Nope” seems to be suggesting, is rooted in an overwhelming feeling of escalating dread, as curious townspeople begin to report more and more nefarious activity. (The two leads are a radio DJ and a switchboard operator.)
Financed by earnings the filmmaker Andrew Patterson made while shooting commercials for the Oklahoma City Thunder and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh, the narrative is captured via a series of long, unbroken takes. Its combustible combination of ideas and visual inventiveness is very reminiscent of Peele’s output. We bet this and “Nope” will make a perfect double feature.
“The Phenomenon” (2020)
Think of “The Phenomenon” as the documentary companion to the bombshell 2017 New York Times article about how seriously the United States government is actually taking the UFO phenomenon. Narrated by PBS mainstay Peter Coyote (who also appeared in “E.T.”), it offers a sampling of some of the most notorious UFO sightings of the 20th century, how they were documented, and what was done afterwards. If you don’t already believe in UFOs, then “The Phenomenon” will at least plant the seeds of doubt. It’s not the sexiest documentary, but if you want a pre-“Nope” refresher course on real-life sightings, this is a thoroughly entertaining one-stop shop. (We also highly recommend the J.J. Abrams-produced Showtime documentary series “U.F.O.,” which covers similar ground.)