Originally published on Flickering Myth on 06/05/17.
With the long-awaited Alien prequel/sequel Covenant very nearly upon us, it’s time to once again dig up one of sci-fi’s longest-running franchises, to finally, and definitively, separate the classic, from the garbage. Few expected a further forty years of movies when Ridley Scott first birthed H.R. Giger’s Xenomorph way back in 1979, let alone the idea that the very last filmmaker to take a stab at the decade-spanning nightmare fuel, would be Scott himself.
Yet here we are, no less than three direct sequels, two spin-offs and now a further two prequels later, with the original creator’s name at the helm once more. Not all are great, some are barely watchable, but among the trash and garbage that the series at some point became, there’s some real extra-terrestrial themed gems dotted throughout. Here’s your ultimate guide to all 7, from worst, to best.
7. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
This eventual big-screen versus match between two of the sci-fi genre’s all-time biggest monsters was inevitable, but should’ve really stayed between the pages of the fan-driven comic books that inspired it. Whilst not linked directly to the original Alien series (most simply call the AVP pair ‘spin-offs’), there’s simply too many easter-eggs here to ignore the connection (the existence of both Weyland and Yutani to name just two), even as directing duo the Brothers Strause totally tear apart everything that made either of the leading figures even the tiniest bit effective in the first place.
This is a shoddily-assembled and hugely brainless monster mash, more focussed on body-count than any sense of horror or story. And although R-rated and violent enough, it’s still marginally worse than its predecessor thanks to plenty of overly-dark fight sequences and one of the stupidest climaxes of any monster movie to date. Not to mention the Predalien, which is exactly what you think it is, and looks even sillier than you’d expect.
6. Alien vs. Predator (2004)
But it must be said that a great deal of Requiem’s issues all span out of the major stupidity of the Paul W. S. Anderson-backed original. Despite rocking one of the most badass tag-lines in the entire franchise (“Whoever wins… we lose.”), Anderson’s post-Event Horizon, pre-Resident Evil stab at uniting two of the movie world’s fiercest monsters, goes tits-up incredibly quickly. First off, it’s the only PG-13-rated film on this entire list, so the action itself feels very peeled-back and tame; again it’s claiming not to be an Alien movie, then constantly pumps itself full of callbacks (here, Aliens’ Lance Henriksen as “Charles Bishop Weyland” – I mean come on) and lastly – and arguably worst of all – it doesn’t make any sense.
It’s set on Earth, over a hundred years before the first xenomorph was discovered in space; a Predator, created as a distinct nemesis of humans, teams up with the humans, and the whole thing is set in an as-yet undiscovered pyramid under the friggin’ antarctic. It’s a total mess that reduces both of the genre’s most badass monsters to cheap, world-less puppets and it would be a whole lot easier if both it and it’s sequel just never existed.
5. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
The last in the original Alien sequel timeline, Resurrection comes courtesy of a lot of very talented individuals. With a script from Buffy’s Joss Whedon, direction from Delicatessen and Amelie’s Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and a cast that included everybody from Winona Ryder, to Ron Perlman and the return of franchise champion Signourney Weaver, on paper this should’ve been nothing short of a masterpiece. The result however, is about as far from the word as ever thought possible.
Nothing quite lines up: the playfulness of Whedon’s words get lost in overly-dark tonal shifts, each of the characters rarely play off of anything more than a single quirk, and Weaver’s Ripley trades badass heroine for super-touchy, wide-eyed clone, obsessed with feeling up absolutely everything in sight. Jeunet hasn’t made another Hollywood picture since, and it’s fairly obvious why: his off-the-wall, darkly comic style makes Resurrection feel at total odds with what the series is at heart. It’s not totally awful, and certainly has its moments, but is also far, far, far too silly to ever really work.
4. Alien 3 (1992)
Often hailed as the worst of the bunch, but really far from it, David Fincher’s feature debut is certainly troubled. Presented in two forms, original and ‘assembly’ cut, that differ rather wildly from each other in certain ways, Alien 3 certainly suffered from a tremendous amount of studio distrust, having already cost Fox millions of dollars in failed screenplay drafts and stalled production starts before the cameras had even started rolling. To this day, Fincher calls it “the worst thing that ever happened” to him, and the resulting movie, although messy, has its charm.
For one thing, it keeps to the original’s darker tone, using the xenomorphs sparingly and giving Weaver plenty of drama to play with. It makes huge waves with the franchise’s overall direction plot-wise, not being afraid to take big risks, and it never once feels like it’s just retreading what’s already been done like a great deal of more contemporary sequels. It’s definitely not the most entertaining, but often feels easily slated because it was the first in the series to be something of a step-down from its predecessor, and is easily worth a re-watch alongside the top three.
3. Prometheus (2012)
Ridley Scott’s first return to the Alien series, the first official prequel to his original, had a hugely mixed reception on its release. Promising everything from 3D effects-driven landscapes, to a ferocious new heroine for a new generation, and most appealingly of all, the very origins of the xenomorphs themselves, it was a huge void to fill. So it’s fairly understandable that Scott only managed half of what he set out to do. Between Noomi Rapace’s brilliantly-played scientist, Michael Fassbender’s retro-fitted android and decent nods here and there from the likes of Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Rafe Spall, the cast were certainly in place for a runaway success. And with a mega-money price-tag, the effects were too.
But the crux of it is that Prometheus struggles majorly in the story department. It’s packed full of incredibly tense and cleverly remastered moments that sit neatly beside the original. But the lack of a genuinely involving antagonist, with Scott replacing the tried-and-tested xenomorphs with doughy, statue-esque ‘Engineers’ – apparent Gods in a very weird and ham-fisted creation parable – really sinks this one hard. Rapace and Fassbender deserved a better, more horror-orientated movie, and from the looks of Covenant’s trailers, it’ll be something of a soft reboot of what fans were initially expecting from this one.
2. Aliens (1986)
Including James Cameron’s 80s action masterpiece Aliens in the same list as a lot of those already covered just feels wrong. Deeply, and devoutly wrong. The space between second and third place here is almost astronomical; Cameron’s original and in many ways, unexpected sequel, not only stands among the finest follow-ups in movie history, but also as one of the most celebrated sci-fi films full stop. It’s an extremely basic idea – the addition of a single letter to an already simplistic title that tells you absolutely everything you need to know – but one that totally changes the game (and in many ways, the genre, too).
More of an action picture than anything else, Cameron stays true to Giger’s xenomorph designs, expanding where possible (the Alien Queen here might be the franchise’s greatest big bad) and really putting his own spin on an already beloved classic. After an entire generation grew up running away from what scared them, Cameron instead forced them to chase it themselves, head-on, turning Ripley from a free-thinking survivalist into a hard-edged, gun-toting action hero, lending a giant hand in the legacy that followed.
1. Alien (1979)
But, it must be said that no matter how hard he tried, Cameron could never even come close to the frankly immortal reputation that Ridley Scott’s original space-set nightmare built for itself. Very much the quintessential horror film, born from the mind of John Carpenter’s college buddy, the great Dan O’Bannon, and helped along by a perfect storm of creative maestros; Alien married the tension of Jaws with the sci-fi driven creativity of Star Wars and draped the entire thing in the thickest black cloth money could buy.
To date, nearly forty-years on, it remains one of the most influential, forward-thinking and academically-rich movies ever, creating the ultimate antagonist: a snarling, body-invading emblem of pure fear. In shifting Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley into leading lady status, Scott and co. even kick-started a whole new wave of movie-driven feminism too (although Cameron’s later involvement in this simply cannot be ignored), and birthed an entire generation of thick-skinned, fast-talking female leads.
Whether they realise or not, every horror film to date owes some form of debt to the 1979 original Alien, and absolutely no amount of shoddily-designed sequels, prequels or spin-offs can take away from that genre-defining legacy.