Like most film franchises, the more films that are produced the more it can become a cash grab, and the more likely the quality will suffer. The Alien universe is no different. Despite this, the lore and legacy of these films has continued to grow, and despite the low quality of the worse films in the entire franchise, they still have contributed to the overall universe that they inhabit. Sometimes this creates more questions than answers as the two most recent releases, Ridley Scott's Prometheus and Alien: Covenant have shown us, but the films have deepened the mythology considerably. For most of the Alien legacy, it is a woman, strong and smart, that has always been the main character. In a film series known for horror and military action it's Sigourney Weaver's fearsome portrayal of Ellen Ripley that sells it.
The Alien series has spanned almost 40 years, with the latest release coming in 2016. Plans include more entries and hopefully we'll see those at the top of the list but for now we're ranking the current eight Alien films.
Worst Films Of the Alien Universe
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem
Director: Colin Strause, Greg Strause Released: 2007
Despite having several on the nose homages to other entries in the series, particularly Alien and Aliens, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is a poorly derived film. You can appreciate that the Strauss brothers have a love for the franchise but Requiem is not the film that represents the quality of the best entries. The premise alone is hard enough to be taken seriously and in some ways that's not the film's fault but instead it's the interactions between the isolated town's people that leaves something to be desired. It is hard to care for any more than two of the characters and they begin to fall into the tropes of so many teenage-centered horror films. When it comes down to it, that's what Requiem has devolved to, a teen horror slasher flick. There is almost none of the science-fiction that any of the other Alien entries make so prevalent (even Requiem's prequel, the original AvP has sci-fi elements despite take place near the same time and on Earth). The weak characters become even worse as they begin to go against common sense and make beyond questionable decisions. The most disappointing thing about AvP: Requiem is that the aliens themselves have devolved into nothing more than a mindless animal and combined with the overwhelming number of them it cheapens their on-screen affect. In short, the aliens become desensitizing. The Predator continues to be shown as a more sentient being, understanding the situation where humans are just caught in the middle. Perhaps the worst facet of both AvP films is their setting on earth, which was the primary purpose of wiping them out in the previous (by creation date) films. Little did Ripley know that Aliens had been coming to earth so many years prior. It completely lowers the stakes.
Alien vs. Predator
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson Released: 2004
A somewhat interesting origin story is created here, but it is not executed particularly well. The discovery of a pyramid buried deep within the ice of Antarctica is interesting, as is the assembly of a scientific team, but the fact that the remaining expeditionary crew come complete with firearms eliminates any mystery or tension about the outcome. It's even a somewhat clever premise to get the predator and aliens to coexist, but the cleverness of the script ends there. The scenes in which it's the humans versus either the aliens or predators are mostly forgettable but several of the scenes where it is the namesake Alien vs. Predator battles are fun, particularly the first encounter where the predator utilizes all of its gadgets against multiple aliens. I understand the need for humans from a storytelling perspective but they just don't work within the action scenes. AvP is nothing special and it doesn't embrace the camp of the subject matte.r Yet still, IT has a couple of interesting moments that fans of the comics and video games will surely enjoy.
The Mixed Bag of the Alien Universe
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Released: 1997
Considered the black sheep of the Alien movie universe (debatable with Alien 3), Alien: Resurrection gets a bad rap due to its shift in tone. In many ways Alien: Resurrection is a dark comedy and satire but this seems to have fallen on deaf ears. While this helps to address the shift in tone, much of it misses the mark because it's just not executed well. In most films, any injection of humor usually bodes well, but in a film line such as Alien, it has been despair that has been the primary mood, and Alien: Resurrection has none of that. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet has admitted as much due to the fact that matching the previous tone (and inevitably due to Alien 3's financial and critical failure) would have been difficult to attain. Despite all of this, Resurrection still manages to be fun and have some several standout scenes. The pirate ship Betty's ragtag crew has exactly the type of camaraderie and attitudes that you'd expect and actor Ron Pearlman's Johner, particularly stands out, and provides most of, if not all of the effective comedic relief.
In one particular set-piece, the aliens swim after the protagonists underwater. Not only are the effects lovely, but the intensity and the aforementioned despair are most represented here. It's a good scene that is the main showcase of the dread seen in the previous entries of the any entries of Alien films up until this point. This is also counter to the rest of the film. While the commercialization of the Alien has been a recurring theme, it was always a secondary one to the alien race themselves. In Alien: Resurrection, the militarization and its proxies in the form of scientists, are the primary antagonist. This minimizes the the real threat, the alien. And it's only deep into the third act where the alien shines.
Director: Ridley Scott Released: 2017
Alien: Covenant finally explains where the aliens audiences were exposed to in the first four films, came from, and it may be a disappointing answer for some. And while the focus on this point consumes much of the second half of the film there is a complete lack of ancillary character recognition or development which never creates any tension seen in Alien, Aliens or even Alien 3. All three of those movies introduced and developed their characters, which when encountering the threat, meant something. There are several deleted scenes, and particularly a online prologue called "The Last Supper" that while only a paltry five minutes is a better introduction to the characters than anything found in Covenant. In fact there is a slew of deleted scenes that would've really slowed the pace of the film and made digesting everything all the more enjoyable.
Based on the complaints it would be hard to imagine getting any enjoyment out of Alien: Covenant but there are still impressive moments including Ridley Scott's trademark beautiful cinematography and actual answers to Prometheus' questions. The answers found are steeped in Greek mythology, where at least a cursory knowledge means you will get more out of it. Similar to Prometheus, Covenant explores the relationship between creators and the created and in that there is a revealing of who the story is actually about, all disguised as a horror movie. Individual scenes do well, and again they are stunning in the visual department. The whole time you're wanting more, more of the detail that Alien and Aliens did so much of in regards to every nook and cranny of the set design, character wardrobe and of course character relations and motivations. It's also extremely uneven, and never reaches a good balance between horror, action, science-fiction and philosophy. It's rather jaunting going from scene to scene without much of a connection. Similarly to it's prequel, Prometheus, there are many decisions that seem out fo place. Characters both over and under react to danger, characters show no sympathy to fallen friends, or empathy to their mate for no more than an instant. Alien: Covenant doesn't always know what it wants to be, a philosophical piece or a B-horror movie and it exceeds at neither but doesn't fail either.
Good but Flawed Alien Movies
Director: David Fincher Released: 1992
Alien 3 is a horror story in terms of its production woes. First time film director David Fincher doesn't even acknowledge this film because of its problems, but his now autueristic influence was still present. Alien 3 is also the rare film in which its extended director's cut makes a significant difference in its quality.
Alien 3 is much more akin to the isolation of the original Alien and shifts incredibly away from Aliens, even offing two beloved characters from the second film. This was not universally liked to say the least. However, if you can get over that, the new characters, although filling alternate roles, are quite memorable if only more subdued. While one of the largest production problems was the lack of a finished script, it would be hard to notice in the final product. The acting is very well done despite the lack of star power (Sigourney Weaver reprises her role). It has a Shakespearean quality about it as it includes many veterans of British television. As cumbersome as this debut may have been for Fincher, his directing and cinematography are still top notch. And the complaints with the lackluster story of Ripley stuck on a prison planet with no lifeline and no weapons are correct in that it isn't spectacular and it does seem to be trotting, but the extended edition adds a completely new subplot. It brings to the forefront a character who in the original film, is nothing more than an afterthought. This does a lot to alleviate the twiddling of thumbs in the second act as well as set up the encouraging third act that despite its lackluster CGI, has some of the best alien encounters in any of the Alien movies, up to that point and until now. Alien 3 seems to suffer only because of the iconic and masterful films that preceded it, especially when considering the action-oriented Aliens. Even when considering its predecessors Alien 3 still manages to be a good film, just not part of the greatness that inevitably it had no chance or reaching.
Director: Ridley Scott Released: 2012
Prometheus had the promise of the thinking man's entry into the Alien lore but didn't quite connect with several flaws which really damaged the otherwise promising plot. Prometheus is a prequel unto the first film (chronological by creation), Alien and the later created Covenant. It seeks to explain the origin of the aliens by exploring the origin of human life. The opening of the film is beautiful with a musical score to match and shows just enough to have you intrigued. Unfortunately, by the second act the plot is broken by unbelievable (as in, I can't believe that would happen) conflict and strange character motivations and actions. There is an action sequence in the middle of the film that seems completely out of place and there is no explanation as to why it happened. It serves only to break up the exploration and philosophical musings that have so far dominated the film. Thankfully, once the uneven second act concludes, Prometheus finds its regains its footing and the pace increases. Character motivations are still hard to believe in some instances but the previous events have at least set new these new actions in motion.
The promise of answering the origins of the aliens, or the human architects for that matter, is never quite addressed. This disappointment would have been mitigated if the earlier character decisions were more believable. In many ways, leaving the questions open ended versus providing answers many would not like (exhibit: Alien: Covenant) is a more acceptable ending, leaving hypothesis or theory to fill in the blanks. Despite all this, Prometheus still manages to be an engaging film. It adds to the lore of the Alien universe and you'll learn what that space jockey from Alien finally is The cinematography and score are both exquisite and Michael Fassbender's performance as the android David, stands out as the most fleshed out character in terms of motivation but the storytelling doesn't match the scope that was set up at the beginning.
Best Films of the Alien Universe
Director: Ridley Scott Released: 1979
When it boils down to it, Alien is a horror movie. But the setting sets it apart from everything in the genre, even today. In fact, Alien essentially created Sci-fi Horror as a sub-genre and it has no equal. Every instance of Alien is done so articulately that it set the bar high for all of the films with Director Ridley Scott being praised for his 'genius.' Scott's genius however wasn't in interpreting the script or adjusting the dialog, it was the literal attention to detail. In so many films, sets are created to aid in the storytelling, but with Alien the setting is used as a character itself. Early in the film, before any of the crew is introduced the camera moves through the desolate ship as door hatches slide open, vents shoot exhaust and ominous sounds of the uninhabited vessel does more than set the tone, it introduces you to the haunted house, face to face. The sequel to Alien, Aliens, pays an homage to this scene but it's never equaled in any of the films following it.
Alien also excels in two other areas, characters and pacing. Because of the relatively minimal crew of the spaceship Nostromo, each character gets some time to establish motivations and most of all, personality. These aren't cut and dry stereotypes. Yes, each character has some stereotypes associated with them; the engineers are brash, rude and blue-collar, the science officer is pompous, the navigator is the fearful and a weak woman, but they are by no means one-dimensional, and the way they play off of each other is necessary for them to either rise or fall in the moment and thus have it succeed. Because there is such time spent introducing the crew"s vessel, discussing the mission, exploring the distress call and even once the initial encounter takes place, everything is done in detail. It's a slow burn that when terror finally strikes, makes it all the more effective.
Alien is a science-fiction horror film, and it does it well, but there are deeper themes at play. While not easily apparent without context, Director Scott has explicitly mentioned that Alien is an allegory of the anxiety of men with regards to feminism. The crew is a representation of the workplace as a home to equality and a place where stereotypical gender roles have been ended. The alien gestation and genesis leads to its birth, a fear that is highly rational and one that women constantly have to face whereas men have not. It's subtle but this secondary fear that is tapped into, while invoking a grotesque reaction, is also making it a subconscious one.
Director: James Cameron Released: 1986
It's a good problem to have that the best two films in the franchise are all but equal, but Aliens is not only the best in the series, but one of the best movies of all time. The marketing described Aliens as a science-fiction movie focused on action, but it's filled with as much dread and horror as the original. If anything, the Xenomorphs are even more terrifying because between trained soldiers, advanced technology and human intelligence, their relentlessness is even more of a burden. Like Ridley Scott before him, James Cameron is a master of detail. Featuring some the best set design, Aliens also adds small details to the characters as well. Many of the Colonial Marines are hardly acknowledged directly but can be spotted and differentiated by the custom decals that populate their armor, or sometimes it's a couple of one-liners that give them just enough of a personality. The marines that make it the longest however are infinitely memorable. The space marine formula has been copied and tried numerous times since but has never matched the source material.
Aliens also cements Ellen Ripley's status as a heroine. The last 45 minutes is pure feminism. Absolutely no man thinks Ripley is anything but bad ass as she transcends sex altogether. It's a great extension of the first film's broken down gender stereotypes, essentially turning Ripley into a more complicated version of the muscle bound action tropes of the 80s.
While Aliens is more conventional than Alien, it's focus is less on subliminal fears and more of exploring the family unit and the trust that it bestows. There is a severe amount of distrust when the film begins, and by the second act there is an obvious bond between Ripley, Michael Biehn's Corporal Hicks and Newt. It's in this family unit, and the family unit of the marines that becomes everpresent throughout the film. It creates the connections, relationships and sometimes irrational motives of each, but they are believable because of those details that are present from the first to the last scene.