NB: Some spoilers follow.
Back in the ’70s, the film world was turned on its head when out of nowhere, a space epic stunned audiences worldwide – with mind blowing special effects and a meticulously planned mythology that would endure for decades, it spawned sequel after sequel, a cult following, respect from filmmakers and tons of merchandise. Then after a few decades of silence, the promise of more films sparked a new wave of fandom. That’s right – Star Wars.
But also, the Alien franchise is a thing that exists and is totally worth your time. It’s a landmark franchise that delights in giving different directors a chance to add their mark on an icon (for better or worse). Here’s the entire scope of the horror/sci-fi behemoth franchise ranked from worst to best.
Disqualified: Alien vs Predator and Alien vs Predator: Requiem
Look, they just don’t count, alright? It’s not that they’re bad (they are) it’s that they’re weird outliers that serve little narrative purpose. Sure, they’re colossally dumb and can be enjoyed in a way that only colossally dumb films can, but it’s hardly canon. Freddy vs. Jason adds nothing to the canon of A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th (although Jason X somehow does). Just as The People Vs. Larry Flint or Kramer Vs. Kramer add very little to th- wait, never mind. The point still stands.
6. Alien³ (1992)
Director: David Fincher
The result of deeply, deeply troubled production that David Fincher has all but washed his hands of, but one that some people still rate as a flawed masterpiece. Not us, though.
Sigourney Weaver reprises her role as Ellen Ripley for a third time and finds herself in an all-male prison-turned-cult for the worst of the worst in the universe. The cast is excellent (Charles Dance! Pete Postlethwaite! Brian Glover!), but my god, everyone is hamming it up to the nth degree. This alone you can forgive, but compound it with some truly ham-fisted attempts at CGI and a story that was almost literally taped together from vague scraps of narrative left lying around the set and you’ve got a real dud.
Interesting aspects of this movie aren’t lacking, however – the fascinating duality of Ripley’s character as both untouchable woman in a world of rapists, murderers and aliens whilst also being the helpless carrier of a chest-bursting alien parasite puts her in an entirely new set of circumstances; she’s screwed from the get-go and has very little to lose.
Sadly, the interesting aspects of the film are buried under the needlessly nihilistic plot, which completely throws the ending of Aliens out of the window in the opening few minutes and then never ceases to be relentlessly mean to its protagonist for the sheer sadistic joy of it. This fact bolstered by the grotesque spectacle of the gore and splatter on display – yes, this franchise is rampant with bloodshed but at its best it’s used to shock and repulse, here it’s just thrown around for cheap kicks. Yet they throw away the horror and impact of some truly amazing Xenomorph models and puppet effects (an H.R. Geiger redesign, no less) to bring in that god-awful ’90s CGI.
Frustratingly, at times what should be a straightforward movie about a group of prisoners trying to kill an alien just becomes confusing.
Mercifully, this dreadful experience didn’t put David Fincher off movies altogether and he’s delivered some modern classics in the years that followed. He even revisited this debut with the 2003 Assembly Cut of the film, which is considerably less terrible than the 1992 theatrical cut and if we were considering the Assembly Cuts here, then this film would be higher up this list. But we’re not, and that’s just the nihilistic, pointlessly mean world we live in.
5. Prometheus (2012)
Director: Ridley Scott
Ridley Scott’s return to the franchise he started back in 1979 was met with, er, let’s just say mixed reviews to be polite.
Loathed by some, tolerated by others, loved by few, but probably not as deserving of its bad reputation as people seem to think. Prometheus is a prequel to the original film and the start of the mythology as a whole. It follows a team of scientists and astronauts as they follow their interpretation of ancient cave paintings to a distant planet in the hopes of meeting the very people who created life on Earth. What they find, predictably, is a desolate world wherein something very terrible happened in the distant past.
As they try to piece together what went down, they also have to try and survive the horrendous pathogen that seems to be infecting the crew – it ain’t quite Xenomorphs yet but it’s still pretty gruesome.
It’s a bold move for the franchise, which has its roots in horror and action to take its origin story into the realms of philosophy, theology and what it means to be human. Perhaps it was poorly received because nobody was expecting something like this, or maybe the fact that there are some allegedly very smart characters in this film making some catastrophically dumb decisions – especially surrounding how they choose to treat unknown creatures that are swimming around in what is essentially the site of a massacre.
It’s not a bad film by any means – it’s a thoughtful, heady film that’s boxed in by its own flaws. It tries to accomplish so much but barely accomplishes anything in its runtime. For example, The Engineers; the perfect Adonis-like assumed creators and would-be destroyers of life on Earth have amazing narrative potential that’s sadly never really addressed and that’s just one dangling thread of many. Yet still, come for the strange philosophical origin story, stay for the AMAZING performance from Michael Fassbender. It’s almost good enough to make you forgive the movie its shortcomings. Almost.
4. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Who’s gonna fight us for putting this number four at number four?! Anyone? Film twitter? The ghost of Roger Ebert? David Fincher…?
Whatever, this film is ridiculous but in a way that you can love it. Ripley, dead at the end of the third movie (some 200 years ago) has been cloned, is now dead behind the eyes, bleeds acid and willing to kick the shit out of Ron Pearlman at a moment’s notice.
Written by Joss Whedon and serving as a dry run before he went on to create Firefly, the movie also boasts a bizarre performance from (pre-shoplifting, pre-Stranger Things) Winona Ryder as part of a gang of space misfits and ne’er-do-wells.
Just like Alien³, this movie had some real problems with production and so the tone is all over the place, but instead of wallowing in a pit of despair like its predecessor – Alien: Resurrection just embraces its ridiculousness and runs head first into a wall with it.
Ripley was cloned so that people could make money off the Alien she was incubating in her body at the time of her death, but mistakes were made and Xenomorphs escape and cause havoc, before the terror is outsourced to a whole new beast: the newborn. A human-alien hybrid that looks just as ridiculous as it sounds, the latter half of the film is a bizarre motherhood allegory played out between Ripley and a grotesque, uncanny creature with a twitching nose and what I can only assume is vape smoke billowing from its mouth. You see way too much of these creatures for them to be scary anymore, so they have no choice but to be ridiculous.
So when this monstrosity dies (er, spoiler for a 20-year-old movie?) it is honestly one of the most hilarious things the franchise offers. People seem to think the comedy and the ridiculousness are unintentional, and perhaps that’s why this film lives at the bottom of so many lists, but you know what Jeunet went on to make after this? The completely serious and not at all magically whimsical and a little bit silly masterwork Amélie. Cased closed-ish.
3. Alien: Covenant (2017)
Director: Ridley Scott
Alright, listen, this film is far from perfect. Just because it’s third it doesn’t mean it’s close to the top two. There’s a vast chasm in quality between the top two and the rest of the franchise, but we’re calling it – Alien: Covenant is the best of a mediocre bunch.
It’s a prequel that’s also a sequel – set ten years after the end of Prometheus, it follows a crew on their way to colonize a far-off Earth-like planet, only to suffer some serious tragedy early on. It actually follows a very similar narrative arc to Alien; sleeping crew is awoken early from hypersleep, traces mysterious signal to nearby planet, investigates said signal, becomes infected with lethal alien pathogen that turns people’s chest cavities into incubators for perfect killing machines, general misery and bloodshed. It’s new, so we won’t give much more than that away – but there is much more to it than that.
Covenant expands on the interesting mythologies laid out in Prometheus (but not enough) and feels tonally closer to Alien than many of the other films in the series – there are some genuinely horrific moments in this film that feel shocking.
Michael Fassbender returns and truly steals the show once more with a powerhouse performance – he does seem to be one of the few characters capable of clear and decisive thinking. Sadly, where this movie falls flat is yet again with smart people making dreadful decisions, most of which are quite spoiler-filled, so we’ll save you that.
Covenant spends an awful lot of time building up to things that never pay off (a crew members’ religion is mentioned repeatedly but has no narrative consequence, for instance) but nearly manages to make up for it by being three things: beautiful, horrifying and mysterious. Is it perfect? No, but it stands up pretty damn well.
2. Aliens (1986)
Director: James Cameron
Where Alien is a masterwork in horror/sci-fi (see below), the 1986 sequel is an entirely different, but just as effective, beast.
James Cameron’s Aliens is an action/sci-fi hybrid that is so good, it basically became the template for a heap of action tropes that would follow. Off the back of The Terminator (and to a much lesser extent, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning), Cameron probably felt like he could accomplish anything, and so putting his own stamp on Ridley Scott’s bare-bones exercise in terror seemed like a good move. He was actually right.
Cameron really goes big here – upping the stakes from one solitary foe to an entire ungodly swarm running amok in a colony. The story picks up 57 years after the original – Ripley has been in Hypersleep for an abnormally long time and upon waking discovers that the barren, hellish planet that housed the nightmarish nest of alien eggs from the first movie has been colonized – without proper precautions taken. Understandably, she fears the worst, and along with a rag-tag team of mercenaries, undertakes a mission to investigate why the planet has stopped communicating. It turns out everything was fine and nobody picked up the phone because they were too busy having a lovely time in a utopian future colony. Oh, wait, no, it’s because there’s a huge fucking nest of Xenomorphs in the compound and they’ve killed everybody except for a little girl called Newt who just so happens to be excellent and hiding.
Aliens is a big, loud and bombastic ’80s action movie that still manages to wrestle with terror. It also expertly navigates through narrative arcs of PTSD, motherhood, war and capitalism in a balanced, if a little heavy-handed, sort of way. But c’mon – would it be an ’80s action movie if there wasn’t a money-hungry ’80s guy there to ruin everything? Oh, and special shouts to Lance Henriksen who is incredible as the synthetic Bishop and I only wish he got more screen time in this movie as opposed to kinda-sorta-similar-ish roles in Alien³ and Alien vs. Predator.
Cameron may be a different kind of filmmaker these days (as we might see with these supposed four Avatar sequels) but in this film he is focused in his goal of building up to a series of expertly-crafted “oh, fuck” moments.
A lot of people rank Alien and Aliens as near equals, both very different movies that excel in their style, but for us, it comes down to fear over firepower as you’ll see.
1. Alien (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott
No prizes for guessing this outcome – the original and the best, Alien is a masterclass in atmospheric tension and downright good horror.
The story goes that Ridley Scott’s elevator pitch, in which he described the movie as “Jaws in space” is what won him the opportunity to make Alien in the first place, and to be honest it’s a pretty damn good description. However, Alien goes deeper and darker into the pitch-black unknown than Spielberg and Jaws would ever dare to tread.
The crew of the Nostromo, a commercial ship on its way back home, are awoken early from hypersleep to answer a distress beacon. Deep in an unknown section of the galaxy they decide to investigate and land on a small planet with harsh weather conditions. Whilst there they discover an abandoned, derelict spacecraft with a giant mummified creature sat inside – with evidence that something burst from its chest. It isn’t long before the crew discover a room filled with eggs and Kane (played by the incredible John Hurt) is attacked by one of the now-infamous face huggers.
Taken back to the ship, Kane looks certain for death, until making a dramatic recovery. The iconic chest burster scene that follows this is probably one of the greatest scenes in horror history. If the name doesn’t give away what happens then nothing will – but that doesn’t make it any less stunning. It’s at this point the crew realise that whatever they have on board with is one mean motherfucker (with acid for blood, no less) and they need to kill it before it kills them.
Leaving the most nightmarish pieces of the puzzle for your imagination to fill in is the greatest trick in horror. The Norwegian’s camp in John Carpenter’s The Thing makes for such a horrific scene, and Janet Leigh’s untimely death in Hitchcock’s Psycho is so damn famously shocking because you’re forced to imagine what happened. It’s one of Ridley Scott’s greatest assets in Alien – the fear of the unexplained.
Scott’s masterful building of a mythology doesn’t stop to spoon feed you, but you’re still left to speculate as to how the hell that alien ship landed there in the first place or where the Xenomorph came from in the first place. This technique also makes the bare-faced moments of gore and splatter that much more harrowing; the film leans heavily on tension, atmosphere and dread – but when it has the brazenness to show you something exploding from John Hurt’s chest cavity, you stand the fuck up and pay attention.
From start to finish, every aspect of this film is meticulous in its craft – every corner of every piece of the set designed to make you wonder what might be lurking behind it, every unanswered question left dangling like a limb torn from the body purely to make you feel uneasy about it dangling there, every pounding beat of the purposefully minimal plot is ruthlessly efficient in its attack. Plus, not forgetting the most important aspect; it introduced the world to Sigourney Weaver’s career defining role as Ellen Ripley. As Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Alien: Resurrection once said:
The people who made the first Alien were artists, Ridley Scott, (alien designer H.R.) Giger, the writers – they invented everything. The rest of us who follow are artisans. That first film is a work of art, an entity all its own.
For more viewing, check out these 10 feminist sci-fi movies you probably haven’t seen.