As 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien, it’s the perfect opportunity to look back on the series. Today, we celebrate the original May 25th, 1979, release of this horror-suspense masterpiece by offering the definitive, absolutely unequivocally official ranking of all films in the Aliens franchise. This is it – the absolute truth of the Alien films (yes, I included the AVP films in this list, mostly because they are technically still considered part of the franchise).
It goes without saying that there are spoilers ahead!
8 – ALIEN VS PREDATOR: REQUIEM (2007)
In this 2007 film from The Brothers Strause, the action picks up right after the first AVP film with a Predator spacecraft crash-landing in the middle of Colorado. Let’s be honest here, I’m not entirely sure that anyone wanted to watch an Aliens movie set in Colorado. The resulting action is a muddled mess of humans, predators, and a handful of aliens running amok in a small town. Unfortunately, the cinematography is so muddled that the film’s lighting doesn’t actually let you catch most of the action.
The idea of a “Predalien” (a monstrous Predator-Xenomorph hybrid) sounds pretty awesome. Before the film came out, the buzz about it was all optimistically excited to see the creature, previously exclusive to Dark Horse comics, appear on screen. Regrettably, the concept is just about the only good thing about the film.
7 – ALIEN: COVENANT (2017)
This one is probably going to be an unpopular decision, but I stand by it. Alien: Covenant is a mess. While this film is beautifully shot and includes a lot gorgeous effects, it just doesn’t work.
The problem with the film, ultimately, is that those big moments fall flat because they are all flash and no substance. The entire movie feels like Ridley Scott waffled between exploring the philosophical questions of Prometheus (2012) and emphasizing the science-fiction horror roots of the original film. In trying for both, neither portion develops to any satisfying conclusion. It doesn’t help that all the characters make the worst possible decision at every opportunity. Quarantine procedures? Common sense? Who needs them!
But I think we can all admit that Michael Fassbender offers a stellar performance as both the android David and Walter, highlighting how much he embraces every role to perfection.
6 – ALIEN VS PREDATOR (2004)
There’s something to be said about B-films that know exactly what they are. This movie is exactly that. Set long before the original film, AVP offers a love letter to long-time fans of the expanded universe, bringing a mash-up straight from the ’80s comics onto the big screen.
When Weyland Corporation discovers a mysterious heat signature beneath Antarctica, Charles Weyland, played by Lance Henriksen, mounts an expedition to the region. The team discovers an ancient temple of Aztec origin constructed to house a training ground for Yautja (The Predators). This alien species travel the galaxy trophy hunting just about everything, including the xenomorphs. Somehow, the expedition occurs just as a group arrives on site, setting off a chain of events that end up deadly for just about everyone involved.
The cast is mostly forgettable in favor of the main event: watching two franchise giants battle it out for supremacy. AVP is almost non-stop action with some pretty impressive kills. In the end, I think the audience is the clear winner.
5 – ALIEN3 (1992)
It’s hard to talk about this film without acknowledging the issues that plagued the entire production. Script changes, re-writes, and massive tonal shifts midway through shooting aren’t a good sign. With the off-screen deaths of fan favorite characters Bishop, Hicks, and Newt at the beginning of the movie, it alienates fans without offering a good enough pay-off to justify the deaths.
Still, Sigourney Weaver gives a stellar performance as Ripley, stranded on a maximum sentence prison planet with the looming threat of the xenomorph looming amid the dark interiors. The cast is just fantastic, with Charles Dance’s penance-seeking doctor the obvious stand-out in the cast. The quadruped xenomorph (gestating from a dog in this film rather than a human) brings a really unique design, but the CGI often fails the creature.
Overall, director David Fincher manages to make a gorgeous, haunting film that’s almost entirely character-driven. It just isn’t really an Aliens film. On a more positive note, William Gibson’s original script recently resurfaced as an excellent comic from Dark Horse.
4 – ALIEN RESURRECTION (1997)
However you feel about the film, Alien Resurrection is probably the most imaginative Aliens film to date. Mad scientists, hybrid cloning, and mercenaries collide in the film in a delightfully bizarre adventure that never quite feels cohesive with the other movies. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) reappears 200 years after her death in the last movie only to be revealed to be a cloned experiment somehow carrying Xenomorph Queen DNA. With Brad Dourif playing the main scientist, you just know it’s going to go sideways almost immediately when the mercenaries (which include Winona Ryder and personal favorite Ron Perlman) dock at the military-funded science station.
With a script from Joss Whedon (which shares some curious similarities to his later sci-fi series Firefly) and directed by French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Children, Amelie), Resurrection is also the strangest of the Alien films.
3 – PROMETHEUS (2012)
Like many, I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of Prometheus the first viewing. The film grew on me the longer I thought about it, which really highlights why it’s so high on this list. It’s a much more interesting movie than the surface suggests. It’s also easily the second-best film Ridley Scott’s made in the last decade after The Martian (2015).
The film acts as a prequel to the events of the original, focusing on larger philosophical questions rather than the aliens. It strays from the series’ horror roots and goes in an entirely new direction. Prometheus cares less about being about xenomorphs than it does with exploring the themes of humankind’s search for a higher power and the overreach of science. Really, the highlight of the film is Michael Fassbender as David, the curious, morally ambiguous android whose quest for biological perfection takes him to very dark places.
While you can debate the merits and ultimate purpose of The Engineers, it does provide a unique backstory for the earlier movies. Prometheus returns to body horror with some shocking moments. Who can forget Noomi Rapace’s horrifying alien baby abortion scene?
2 – ALIENS (1986)
It’s incredibly rare that a sequel is as good – or better – than its predecessor. Aliens blows away expectations while transforming the concept from body horror suspense into science fiction action-thriller. After Ripley’s pod is discovered floating in space, she discovers that it’s been 57 years since she went into stasis. However, the planet where her crew discovered the xenomorph was colonized during that time. And that colony has gone dark. She’s recruited by Weyland-Yutani to return to the planet, LV-426, with a unit of Colonial Marines, to discover their fate.
The cast is fantastic on every level. Sigourney Weaver reprises Ripley while marines Hicks (Michael Biehn), Hudson (Bill Paxton), Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Gorman (William Hope), and android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) really add depth and charm to their characters. In bringing Newt (Carrie Henn), the young orphan they discover on the planet, into her care, it explores Ripley’s more emotional aspects. It makes Ripley a more complex, interesting character without compromising her strength or capability.
Not only is it the most quotable film in the series (“It’s Game over, man!”), it’s just the most fun. While the original film only had a single xenomorph, Aliens takes the audience into an entire nest of them, introducing Stan Winston’s massive masterpiece of practical effects: The Alien Queen.
1 – ALIEN (1979)
Is anyone really surprised? Alien is at the top of the list where it deserves to be. Nothing compares to the horror and imagination of the original film. Ridley Scott made film history in 1979, introducing audiences to a new kind of terror by blending horror and science fiction in the perfect experience. Even the tagline – In Space, no one can hear you scream – was unlike anything audiences had seen before.
Essentially, Alien is a haunted house story set in space with a cast of characters who are basically space truckers hauling scrap. It’s heavy on cosmic horror and dread without sacrificing the character studies at the core of the story. Sigourney Weaver cements herself as a science fiction staple as Lt. Ellen Ripley, Warrant Officer abroad the Nostromo. Ian Holm’s Ash provides the template for countless cutthroat AI in future science fiction. And I am still in awe of the brilliance in Kane’s (John Hurt) horrifying and unexpected demise at the first appearance of a chestburster.
Unexplained phenomenon, disappearing crew, and corporate espionage heighten the tension. The most effective kind of horror relies on the audience’s own imagination to build suspense. Alien knows exactly how to do that. H.R. Giger, a Swiss painter known for blending man and machine into biomechanical, surreal nightmares on canvas designed the titular creature. An insectoid with no discernible eyes and composed entirely of sleek, curved lines and sharp edges, the xenomorph is a beautiful, terrible thing. With Alien, writer Dan O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott bring that even further with their parasitic reproduction and unknown origins. The film shows you just enough of the threat to terrify without giving anything away.
There are few perfect films in the world. Alien stands as one of them.
Now that you’ve read the rankings, what’s your opinion on the best and worst the Alien franchise has to offer?