Ranking any franchise is a personal and difficult process, but the Alien series represents its own challenges. Were you more affected by the intimate shocks of the 1979 original or the action-led 1986 sequel? Were you impressed by Alien 3‘s commitment to its bleak tone, or irked by its soupy darkness?
You’re sure to have your own opinions as to how the Alien movies should be ranked, though we’d wager that, like us, you’d place the Alien vs Predator spin-offs quite far down the list. But then there’s Ridley Scott’s prequel, Prometheus, a film some might rank far above Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s quirky Alien: Resurrection, and perhaps even David Fincher’s Alien 3.
Accepting, then, that the ranking below is very much down to personal taste, here’s how I think the Alien franchise’s prequel, sequels and spin-offs compare, from the very worst to the very best.
7. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
The previous crossover movie, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, had already left both Alien and Predator franchises at something of a low ebb. But surely a new entry, this one full of R-rated mayhem instead of the PG-13 violence of Alien vs. Predator, would be better, wouldn’t it?
Not really, no. With Anderson off making a Death Race 2000 remake, the task of directing Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem fell to special effects merchants the Strause brothers. Their approach is akin to one of the numerous Friday the 13th sequels that appeared in the 1980s: crank up the bodycount, shower the screen in gore, and don’t worry too much about atmosphere or coherent storytelling.
This time, the battleground is the small town of Gunnison, Colorado, where a crashed Predator ship (the one leaving Earth in Alien vs. Predator) crashes into a forest, spewing out a new form of hybrid xenomorph – the Pred-Alien – plus a retinue of bony-fingered facehuggers. If you want an idea of how much of a B-movie Aliens vs. Predator is, consider that it starts with a small boy watching as his father’s arm is burned off by alien acid, before the messy-haired moppet is himself impregnated by a facehugger. Later, an alien menaces a young girl at a window. Then the Pred-Alien heads to a hospital and shoves its tongue down a pregnant woman’s throat.
We love B-movies at Den Of Geek (especially some of the Friday the 13th sequels), but Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem somehow manages to be schlocky, tasteless, and boring – which, now we think about it, is something of an achievement. The cinematography is terrible to the point of confusion – some scenes are barely lit at all – and some events don’t make any sense. One example: a waitress gives birth to about half a dozen chestbursters, seemingly for no other reason than to make sure there are lots of aliens to shoot at in the grand finale.
There are attempts to scare up the spirit of the classic Predator, as someone yells, “Get to the chopper,” but it’s all in vain. The ending hints at a sequel, but thankfully, this Aliens vs. Predator‘s dismal box office receipts nipped that ambition in the bud.
6. Alien vs Predator (2004)
Taken as an adaptation of the comics, Alien vs. Predator is by no means a disaster. Lance Henriksen returns to play Charles Bishop Weyland (the man who would form the basis of the Bishop android 150 years’ hence), who leads a team of humans into an ancient pyramid lying beneath the ice of Antarctica. Unfortunately, the pyramid turns out to be an ancient battle arena where Predators test their mettle against acid-spitting xenomorphs, and the hapless humans find themselves caught in the middle of the mayhem.
Amalgamated Dynamics, the effects team behind Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, again do great work here, and director Paul W.S. Anderson gets quite a lot of mileage out of his $60 million budget – largely by shooting the thing in Prague. Unfortunately, Anderson seems more interested in getting to the (PG-13-friendly) smackdowns between his title monsters, and the human characters are mostly treated as cannon-fodder – even Sanaa Lathan, the nominal heroine, barely registers among all the goo and flying limbs.
It has to be said, though, that Alien vs. Predator at least delivers on the promise of showing what a big screen fight between two of cinema’s most famous creatures might look like. It’s a pure B-movie from start to finish, but unlike the dismal 2007 sequel, it’s at least possible to see what on earth is going on.
5. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
There are lots of people who would rank Alien Resurrection much higher – higher, perhaps, than Alien 3. I’m not one of them. In Alien Resurrection‘s defense, it has a sterling pedigree: a script by Joss Whedon, one of France’s most acclaimed directors (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, of Amelie fame), a sharp cinematographer in Darius Khondji, and a top-notch cast, including Ron Perlman, Brad Dourif, and Winona Ryder.
Taken as a standalone science fiction film, Alien: Resurrection is fun space opera – it could even be seen as a precursor to Whedon’s cult series, Firefly. But it seldom feels like an Alien movie; the xenomorphs have long since lost their power to inspire fear, and in swerving so harshly away from the grim tragedy of Alien 3, Resurrection often descends into farce. It’s difficult to know what to make of the Newborn – a freshkind of alien with pink flesh and a cute, twitching nose like something out of Bewitched. Or the scenes of alien-based slapstick, like the moment where a facehugger erupts from the abdomen of one man and smashes through the skull of another. The Alien universe and Jeunet’s brand of whimsy make for strange bedfellows.
Seemingly intent on distancing itself from the events of Alien 3 as much as possible, Resurrection sees a cloned, xenomorph-gene-spliced Ripley wake up 200 years after she threw herself into a furnace. Ripley’s alien-powered metabolism allows Sigourney Weaver to explore a more predatory side of her character (and take part in a now-famous basketball scene) but she also becomes more aggressive and aloof. Her line “Who do I have to fuck to get off this boat” just about stops the film in its tracks. Then there’s Dan Hedaya’s ranting, scenery-chewing performance, which even extends to his death scene: he expires with his eyes crossed.
Although often beautiful to look at, with some of the best special effects of the series up to that point, Alien: Resurrection is, for this writer, a strangely awkward film – not unlike the gelatinous, twitchy-nosed Newborn itself.
4. Prometheus (2012)
After more than 30 years, Ridley Scott made his return to the Alien universe – and the sci-fi genre – with Prometheus. Serving both as a prequel to 1979’s Alien and an expansion of its mythology, Scott’s film begins with a confidently grand sweep: a hairless, statuesque alien entity sacrifices itself on a barren, earth-like planet, thus creating the seeds of life from the ashes of its body. A single cut later, and we’re years into the future where an archaeological discovery prompts the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to launch a mission into the depths of space. The objective is to discover the identity of a species dubbed the Engineers.
Whether deliberately or not, Prometheus taps into the same Erich von Daniken-type concept of Alien vs. Predator – that of aliens visiting Earth before our existence, and perhaps even creating the first sparks of life. It’s also an idea that goes back all the way to H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, and many of the events in Promtheus serve to underline the debt the Alien franchise owes to that American master of the weird tale.
Certainly, Prometheus drips with the same cosmic dread that informed much of Lovecraft’s best work. Ridley Scott depicts the universe as a cold and indifferent place, just as Howard Philips did, and like his ancient gods, the Engineers are an unscrutible, capricious bunch: seemingly keen to create life one moment, and intent on snuffing it out the next.
It’s these moments of astral chilliness that are Prometheus‘ strongest. The scene where David wanders alone around the ship of the title. The first discovery of that chamber on the alien planet, with its Giger-esque reliefs on the walls and row after row of weird, egg-like silos. Prometheus is at its weakest when the members of its neurotic international cast are allowed to speak. They bicker and sulk like children on a school trip, bumble over vital scientific findings. They get lost despite having cutting-edge mapping equipment at their disposal. One of the crew notices evidence of some hideous alien infection sprouting from his face and doesn’t bother to mention it to anyone.
For these and many other reasons, Prometheus emerged as a disappointment, at least when compared to Alien. Its menagerie of fleshy, squid and eel-like creatures are a poor replacement for Giger’s Starbeast, and its characters don’t shine as clearly-defined individuals like those in Aliens. But as mentioned above, Prometheus comes into its own in its quieter, purely cinematic moments, where it really does feel like a rocket trip into the unknown reaches of a scary, indifferent universe.
3. Alien 3 (1992)
Swiftly put into production after the success of Aliens but taking almost six years to reach the screen, Alien 3 was a nightmare from start to finish. Beginning as a collection of ideas rather than a clear story, and perhaps even ending that way if you ask its most vocal detractors, the movie went through a revolving door of directors and writers before a 27-year-old David Fincher stepped in for his debut.
Had Fincher known what was coming next, it’s likely he would have remained in TV commercials and music videos for a few more years. But despite all the behind-the-scenes problems, which are well documented, he managed to pull something genuinely interesting from the quagmire of interfering studio bosses, script rewrites, and reshoots.
Alien 3 sees Ripley land on the barren planet Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, which happens to double as an all-male prison planet. Waking from her hypersleep to learn that the shred of comfort she gained at the end of Aliens – a potential lover in Hicks, a surrogate daughter in Newt – were killed in the crash, Ripley realizes that an alien has landed with her. Worse still, she begins to suspect that she herself may have been impregnated by an alien during cryosleep.
A gothic sense of impending doom hangs like a fog in Alien 3. It’s a movie seemingly obsessed with mortality and the fleshy vulnerability of all living things. Whether it’s the new alien, emerging in a slick of blood and amniotic fluid from its host or the full-grown monster breathing its foul breath over Ripley’s shaven head, Fincher’s camera captures every nuance of the planet’s deathly texture.
That texture extends to the performances. Sigourney Weaver, who at this point was intent on quitting the franchise, turns in what I’d suggest is her finest performance as Ripley. It’s a turn full of sorrow and loneliness, but also determination: the alien is an inescapable demon from her past, and she fights it right to the bitter end. Weaver’s joined by a great supporting cast, including Charles Dance as disgraced physician Clemens (who deserved a much larger role), Charles S. Dutton as Dillon, the inmates’ moral compass, and Brian Glover as incredulous prison warden Andrews.
Admittedly, Alien 3‘s production difficulties are apparent at times – even in the far superior Assembly Cut, released in 2003. The proportions of the alien vary from one shot to the next, and the final third descends into a muddy and bewildering chase through narrow corridors. But Alien 3 also gets back to the haunted-house-in-space moodiness of Alien, and while it gives Newt and Hicks cruelly short shift (an idea taken from director Vincent Ward’s earlier story concept), it treats Ripley and her nemesis with dignity and intelligence. Plus: Elliot Goldenthal’s score is a thing of bone-chilling beauty.
2. Aliens (1986)
Still a relative unknown in Hollywood when he came up with his concept for Aliens, James Cameron didn’t seem fazed by the task of following Ridley Scott’s seminal space horror movie. To a modern audience accustomed to sequels and multi-film universe building, the way Cameron took the bones of Alien and scaled them up into something bigger – while at the same time remaining true to its nightmarish spirit – might be easy to overlook. But even all these years later, Aliens is still one of the greatest sequels of all time.
Rather than create a retread of what came before, Cameron treats Alien as the first half of a much larger story. Ripley, having survived her encounter with the ferocious creature that hatched out on the Nostromo, is rescued and brought out of cryosleep. Traumatised and haunted by nightmares of what she’s seen – nightmares, it’s implied, she’s been having ever since she got into her cryotube – Ripley’s offered a chance to head back to where the alien was first discovered: LV-426. During the years she spent drifting in space, a colony was set up on the windswept planet, which has since winked out of contact. Hired as a kind of advisor to a group of over-confident Colonial Marines, Ripley returns to face the toothsome menace that wiped out her crew.
Although Cameron clearly loves showing off the details of his futuristic weaponry, and revels in the fast-talking patter of his characters, he never loses sight of what makes Ripley the perfect survivor: unlike just about everyone else in the Alien universe, she never underestimates the xenomorph’s power. This, I think, is what makes Aliens so engrossing, even after repeat viewings: unlike the Marines, Ripley isn’t a warrior, but it’s thrilling to see how events turn her into one toward the film’s end.
These, of course, are only some of the aspects that make Aliens such a fantastic film. Lance Henriksen is superb as Bishop, the cagey but ultimately benign android. The script is endlessly quotable. The score is note-perfect. The action ramps perfectly to a thrilling conclusion. After Aliens, it’s little wonder that Hollywood’s screenwriters struggled to think of a way to follow it.
1. Alien (1979)
Having heaped praise on Aliens, it might seem a strange to rank it behind Alien. But for me, the original remains the best: prowling, disturbing, unsettling. From those opening credits, where the title gradually appears to the sound of howling wind and Jerry Goldsmith’s murmuring score, Alien is a masterpiece of sustained unease. There are jabs of horror, some of them quite shocking today, but still the tension remains; every frame of the film seems haunted somehow.
The minimalism of the plot is one of Alien’s strengths: here is a group of astronauts is woken from its sleep in an unknown system, apparently because of a distress signal emanating from a nearby planet. Stopping off to investigate, they unintentionally bring something horrible back to their ship.
Alien is one of those rare films where every casting and design decision seems perfect. Cast for the strength of their acting rather than star magnitude, Alien’s cast – which includes Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Yaphet Kotto, and John Hurt as well as Sigourney Weaver – provide muted, mundane realism. Their characters don’t philosophize about the enormity of the universe or their place in it – they grumble about bonuses and the state of the ship’s food.
That grounded realism plays off against the otherworldy imagery conjured up by artist and designer H.R. Giger. When the crew of the Nostromo stumble on the derelict alien craft, there’s the real sense of two worlds meeting for the first time. The artefacts they find inside all hint tantalizingly at a much bigger mystery (one that would be expanded on in Prometheus), and also point to their own imminent doom.
Alien’s most famous set-pieces barely need describing in detail yet again: the discovery of the Space Jockey, the opening of the egg, the birth of Kane’s son. Those sequences are so powerful that it’s easy to fix on them while at the exclusion of other incredible moments, such as the early tracking shot through the Nostromo, as its crew awakens; Brett’s ill-fated search for Jones the cat, brilliantly cut together by editor Terry Rawlings; every scene between Ripley and Ian Holm’s Ash, whose passive-aggression eventually gives way to violence with an alarmingly perverse edge.
Watching Alien yet again after more than 35 years, and particularly in light of the sequels which followed it, Scott’s film still functions perfectly as a work of space horror. Its attention to detail is flawless, its story uncluttered, its horror unrelenting. Where subsequent films were forced to elucidate as they expanded the Alien universe, Alien remains enshrouded in mystery – and in its mystery lies its power.
As Ash glibly admits towards the film’s end, “I admire its purity…”