Every ‘Alien’ Movie Ranked from Worst to Best
Note: Collider’s Halloween horror month continues this week with a look at horror’s most iconic, enduring franchises. So far, we’ve looked at the Halloween movies ranked, Nightmare on Elm Street movies, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre Movies, and today we’re looking back on the Alien franchise. Stay tuned throughout the week for more on horror’s biggest hits and get ready for a monster mash next week!
There’s something you should know before you read this list. I love Alien movies. Love them. Even the “bad” ones. Which makes ranking them a little tough. Sure, there are a few that are no question. My top spot and my last spot are unequivocal, subject only to the unlikely chance that an extraordinarily bad or downright extraordinary Alien film knocks them from their spots. But the middle ground gets tricky as someone who genuinely takes delights in all things Xenomorph and who cherishes the way in which the Alien franchise has been allowed to unfold in weird, unpredictable directions.
Ridley Scott‘s 1979 Alien, the Dan O’Bannon scripted classic that launched it all, is an impeccable, refined masterwork of tension that redefined what a sci-fi horror could be. Likewise, James Cameron broke and reforged the mold of sci-fi action with Aliens, creating a template filmmakers are still riffing on to this day. Since then, from David Fincher‘s unfairly maligned Alien 3 and Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s wild ride Alien: Resurrection, through the less inspired Alien vs. Predator days, and Scott’s unconventional return to the franchise thirty years later, the Alien films have always evolved with unpredictable and adventurous ambition, even in the face of infamous studio interference. Rarely has a franchise ever been so utterly strange, throwing one curve ball after the next.
But ranking is the order of the hour, so I’ve put together a list of all eight Alien movies to date, ranked from worst to best. Or as I like to think of it when it comes to Alien movies, least awesome to most awesome. Check out the list below.
Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)
No small thanks to the heritage of Godzilla, there’s a long history of titanic monster mashups that traditionally make for fun B-movie thrills and cheeky self-awareness. Alien vs. Predator: Requiem is not one of those films. Even Freddy vs. Jason operates on an understanding of what fans of either franchise want to see from their favorite horror villains, but Requiem never quite grasps what makes either the Alien or the Predator so special.
The follow-up to Alien vs. Predator, Reqium was directed by VFX pros the Brothers Strausse after Paul W.S. Anderson went off to helm Death Race 2000. The film picks up directly after AvP, where we find the Predator ship has crashed in the forests of Gunnison, Colorado, unleashing the PredAlien hybrid and a legion of Facehuggers on the unsuspecting town. Filmed in a pervasive wash of dull, dreary darkness that prevents the filmmakers from ever showing off the monster action (or more likely, masking a lack of said action), Requiem treats its titular foes as little more than back drop, reducing the iconic cinematic creatures to replaceable cogs in a script that feels distinctly second hand, pulled from the beats of better B-movies past. They attack en masse, so utterly interchangeable they could be faceless zombies in a hoard, and the deadly beasties spend the next 90 minutes summarily battling each other and picking off a series of forgettable characters.
There are flourishes to the film that tease the promise of a better B-Movie. The PredAlien is a fun concept, though never as delightful as the AvP stinger that introduced it. And the film has a bizarre mean-spiritedness in its selection of victims, targeting those who are usually off limits, from a father-son duo to the pregnant woman that births a litter of Aliens. That giddy savagery could have been played for yucks or genuine terror in a film with more careful control of its tone, but in the end, they’re fleeting moments with no lasting impact, which makes it feel more tasteless than irreverent. Requiem comes close to the Hard R delights of grindhouse creature features, but with a weak script, unsightly cinematography, and nothing new to say about the genre, the thrill quickly tapers out into an onslaught of senseless gore and unfulfilled potential.
Alien vs. Predator (2004)
Alien vs. Predator is pure product, but at least it’s made by a filmmaker who knows what he’s selling. As directed by Paul W.s. Anderson (and one would imagine, conceived by the studio), AvP was designed to deliver on the promise of watching cinemas biggest, most badass extraterrestrials go to battle, and that it does. Unfortunately, it does very little else.
Lance Henrickson returns to the fold as Michael Bishop Weyland in a move that causes some head-spinning continuity questions if you consider AvP canon, which is almost impossible at this point (how could Aliens be on earth in ancient pyramid if they were created by David? Don’t you dare say time travel!) Weyland assembles a team of experts, headed up by Sanaa Lathan, Raoul Bova, and Ewen Bremner, to explore an ancient pyramid hidden below the ice of the antarctic. Things quickly go to hell when the pyramid turns out to be a Predator training ground where the intergalactic hunters earn their literal stripes (etched into their faces with Alien blood) by hunting Xenomorphs.
In his first post-Resident Evil film, Anderson brings a similar mechanical style to the setup, as each new chamber and unlocked door leads to a fresh hell, tinted in the tradition of the Alien and Predator legacies, the team wandering into and triggering new traps along the way. Thanks to the onus of a PG-13 rating, it’s all filmed as a flat, blasé action beat, lacking the style and subtext of the best Alien films and the visceral thrills of the Predator heritage. Nearly 15 years since its release, AvP also draws a deeper shade of cynicism during a rewatch. It’s an early adopter of the sort of IP-mining that plagues the modern cineplex, and we’ve seen that too often for too long now not to recognize the signs of a franchise cash-grab that throws nostalgia in the blender and serves up whatever mushy mess comes out.
That said, while AvP is unequivocally one of the weakest films in the franchise, it’s not without its delights. The money shot battles between the beasts are clearly shot and well-lit (unlike those of their predecessor) and the effects are beautifully done by ADI, leaving behind the painted VFX of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection in favor of a healthy dose of practical work and updated hybrid tech that still looks pretty fantastic. But ultimately the film feels like it was designed for a lowest common denominator test audience and even in the better of AvP‘s B-movie moments, it never becomes more than crass product with uninspired packaging.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
And so we leave behind the dreary days of the Alien/Predator mash-ups and get into the proper Alien canon with the baffling, boisterous clusterfuck that is Alien: Resurrection. This is a movie that sounds fantastic on paper. Directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet from a script by Joss Whedon, with cinematography by Darius Khondji, starring Ron Perlman, peak 90s era Winona Ryder, and featuring the return of Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley. What’s not to love?
Well, the film was troubled from the start. In a well-documented string of creative tumult, the studio had no idea where to take the franchise after Alien 3 starkly redirected the tone and killed off the heroine. They recruited a long, long list of writers and filmmakers to crack the project, before ultimately settling on Whedon and Jeunet as their storytellers. Even after the creative team was brought on board, the film continued to shift and evolve drastically. As you might expect, the result is pretty much a big ol’ mess of an awkward, unformed film that barely feels at home in the Alien franchise.
But there’s a weirdness and wildness to Resurrection that keeps it from being a complete disaster. Wedon’s script is something of a precursor to Firefly, as he would later admit in interviews, following a rag-tag gang of oddball mercenaries who come up against an unfathomable force — ie, Aliens. But not just your average Xenomorphs (always gotta be bigger and badder in a sequel). Resurrection returns Ripley to the fold after her Alien 3 sacrifice by cloning her at the hands of the company, who of course want dat Alien for experimentation. Experiment they do, and we wind up with a superhuman, genetically altered Ripley, her DNA crossed with the Xenomorph, and series of ever-stranger Alien mutations leading up to the Newborn, a confounding creation and singular looking Alien creature that is too weird, too far removed from the Giger aesthetic, and far too sympathetic to cohesive with the Alien mold.
Here’s the thing though, I’m a firm believer that all four of the original Alien movies are a joy. Taken on its own, Alien: Resurrection is a flagrantly bizarre and unwieldy film that stamps out a singular place for itself in the realm of sci-fi. That place may not feel particularly at home in the Alien franchise, but it’s certainly a compelling, unpredictable and dynamic place to end up. Weaver clearly relishes in her character’s newfound power, leaning into her abilities and owning the court like Michael Jordan, and the film is constantly willing to get weird with it, staying true to the concept of genetic engineering, even when it gets downright bizarre and uncharacteristic for the franchise. Alien: Resurrection may not be good, but it sure is interesting, and well worth the ride. It definitely could have had a lot less Alien groping though.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Alien: Covenant is a real humdinger of a divisive film. Critics are not only split on the simple matter of whether it’s a good movie or not, nobody can seem to align on which parts are great and which are disappointing. Further, the film can’t even decide what movie it wants to be.
So as you might expect, I have some cognitive dissonance when it comes to Covenant. On one hand, it’s the kind of Alien movie I’ve been waiting decades to see, filmed in the luxuriantly gorgeous stylings of Ridley Scott. On the other, it’s a mess; a slapdash hybrid of the philosophical creation myth Scott so clearly wants to explore and the tacked-on return to horror fans demanded after Prometheus. All credit to Scott for listening to his fans (especially considering I’m one of the ones who craved more horror), but the result is two halves of different films that don’t quite fit each other where the beginnings of a simple, character-driven horror film are ultimately eclipsed by Scott’s grandiose pondering.
Covenant follows the continued narrative of Michael Fassbender‘s David, the dangerously maladjusted android from Prometheus who’s obsessed with the perfect creation, and the crew of the Covenant, a mass-scale colonization ship drawn to a seemingly perfect planet by a mysterious beacon. As is the Alien tradition, they touch down on a planet containing a hellscape of nightmarish extraterrestrial slaughter. That’s where they meet David, who only further complicates things and sadly steers the franchise that makes both David and especially the Xenomorphs less interesting through over-explaining.
Covenant carries the seeds of two excellent films, though it never converges into one. One delves into a story of madness and loneliness, told through David’s megalomanic conviction in destruction and creation. The other, and the one I desperately wish we could have seen, is a much more simple story about a team of intimate colleagues and friends who are torn apart by an ungodly terror. So basically, Alien. And it’s understandable that Scott wouldn’t want to make the same film twice. But by trying to tape an Alien exterior on a Prometheus sequel, he makes a film that can’t quite satisfy either demand. That said, I still really enjoy the film and I suspect my love for it will only grow with time. The flourishes and technique on display are stunning and the characters aboard the Covenant, led by Katherine Waterson‘s Ripley-esque Daniels, are fascinating until their aborted by stupidity. It’s not a perfect Alien movie, but it’s damn good to see one again. For a more in-depth analysis, you can check out my full review.
The first time I saw Prometheus, I loathed it. I remember walking back to the car in stunned silence, trying to process how mad I was at the flagrant, disrespectful stupidity of the characters and the seemingly flippant nod to the DNA of Alien. In the years since, I’ve softened on the film considerably and while I still struggle with the rampant lack of common sense among the human characters, the staggering beauty of Ridley Scott’s frame-worthy imagery and the compelling, if underresolved, mythology of the Engineers has taken root and grown into an appreciation that may be on the cusp of turning into love. And there’s one thing was never in question, Michael Fassbender‘s David is exquisite.
The film follows a team of explorers, scientists and company men aboard the Prometheus, a spaceship that sets out to explore the galaxy in search of Engineers, an alien race that may have created our own. With the resources of the Weyland Co., and apparently a darkly prophetic and on-the-nose literacy when it comes to naming their ship, the team is shepherded on their journey by the android David, an early model with a flourish of humanity that sends him spiraling down a path of sociopathic experimentation in the name of perfection and creation. He’s an instant classic sci-fi character, acted with verve, precision, and perverse pleasure by Fassbender, and his arc is the throughline of Prometheus that makes the film worth loving even in spite of its dimwitted human characters.
The Prometheus crew follows a series of ancient charts to a far-flung planet where they find, not the answers they seek from their creators, but an Alien ghost town where the Engineers were seemingly destroyed by their own creation. Naturally, things go SNAFU in a hurry, but not before the team makes a series of startlingly dumbass decisions, including taking off their helmets during their first on-the-ground excursion on the basis of jack and shit, and trying to pet a creature that very clearly looks like a deadly (and pissed off) alien snake monster. It’s hard to root for them but fortunately, David constantly keeps things interesting, forcing the story to veer left in favor of more predictable turns.
It’s not quite a proper Alien movie, Covenant undeniably delivers more in that regard, and we’re still waiting to see if the mythology will ultimately have a satisfying payoff. However, what Prometheus has that Covenant lacks is a cohesive commitment to creative vision. Prometheus may not be the Alien prequel fans wanted, but it was definitely the movie Scott wanted to make. The cosmos of Prometheus is a cold, unforgiving universe seeping in dread where there are no answers to the meaning of being, only callous creators undone by their own inventions. It’s a ballsy, philosophical tangent born out of the original Alien mythos, and while it’s thoroughly frustrating, it’s one of the most singular and stunning original big budget sci-fi pictures in recent memory.
Alien 3 (1992)
Boo his, I know I know, but I’m one of those people who’s come around to the belief that David Fincher‘s Alien entry gets an unfairly bad rap. Alien 3 is one of the most fearlessly conceived blockbuster sequels of all time, and while its themes were ultimately slaughtered in a theatrical cut that prompted Fincher to disown the film, it’s still a fascinating and innovative spin on the Alien mythology.
Alien 3 makes a statement of intent from the start, killing off Newt and Hicks in the opening scenes (a move that James Cameron called “dumb” and “a slap in the face”) and transplanting Ripley to a desolate prison planet where she squares off against her extraterrestrial foe once again amongst a society of religious male convicts who haven’t seen a woman in years, and don’t take too kindly to it. It’s a stark, startling change from James Cameron‘s ultimate crowd-pleasing sequel. It’s bleak and bristly, and a gutsy show that this Alien is going to do something new and different. And it does, not without its faults, but always with a throughline of compelling character drama that ensures the brutal kills have impact and resonance.
The film was famously a nightmare from the get-go. Like Resurrection after it, Alien 3 saw a revolving door of creative talent that tried to crack the project before Fincher rode in off a stellar resume of commercials and music videos to make his feature debut. After that, the film was subject to infamous studio interference, script rewrites, and reshoots (Ralph Brown’s account of playing the ill-fated “85” is essential reading for any enthusiast). Even so, Fincher managed to form a fascinating redirection of the franchise out of the ashes, bringing Ripley to her darkest moment yet and fundamentally flipping the core concept of the previous films by making her untouchable (the company wants her alive so the prisoners can’t kill her, and she’s hosting a Chestburster so the Alien won’t killer her). That both empowers Ripley and makes her more of a victim than ever, and Sigourney Weaver gives arguably her best performance in the franchise as she navigates the tricky terrain.
Ultimately, that attention to detail in the characters is what Alien 3 work in spite of its prickly nature and controversial character deaths. Take away your feelings about Newt and Hick (which is nigh impossible, I know), and Alien 3 stands alone as a fascinating Alien film that completely rewrites the rules of what a high concept blockbuster horror sequel could be. Especially in light of the 2003 assembly cut that restored, at least partially, Fincher’s original vision for the film, filling out the characters and casting the film in a light that transforms it from a nihilistic downer to a much more complicated film about faith and sacrifice. That narrative is played not only through Ripley, but through one of the most fabulously acted and scripted cast of supporting characters in the Alien franchise including Charles Dance as a guilt-ridden doctor stuck on the forsaken planet and Charles S. Dutton as Dillon, a self-confessed rapist and murderer of women whose faith makes him into an unlikely hero.
Alien 3 is a flawed film that is sadly marred even further by some egregious CGI. Even the Assembly Cut can’t live up to the triumphant perfection of the first two Alien installments, but it is also a fascinating, bold filmmaking with arguably the last cast of intelligent characters we would see in the franchise. In keeping, they’re given a weighty, character-driven story to back the Alien action, keeping the film firmly rooted in genre the horror genre with a flourish of infernal dread.
While I love all Alien films, the first two are on another level. There’s plently of debate as to whether Aliens or Alien is the best of the franchise, and both sides have their points. They’re both extraordinary films and entirely different cinematic beasts. Both stunning, both terrifying, both essential. Ultimately, it’s a matter of preference. What’s certain is that Aliens is an action sci-fi masterpiece. Coming off the success of The Terminator, James Cameron stepped into the director chair for the 1986 sequel that took the bones of Ridley Scott’s wonderfully minimalist 1979 original and fleshed them out into bigger, action-oriented nightmare without ever losing the distinct tone and texture of the world Scott built.
The film picks up with Ripley, decades after she shot off of the Nostromo in cryosleep. When she awakes in the future, her family is dead, her life is gone and she’s dealing with an understandable amount of PTSD. Which is no doubt why she decides to accept a mission on behalf of Weyland-Yutani to travel back into space to investigate a colony settled on the very same moon from Alien, which has suddenly gone dark. With nothing left for her on Earth, Ripley opts instead to face her fears, embarking on one of the most thrilling and consummately entertaining cinematic adventures of all time.
As screenwriter, Cameron expands fluidly and cleverly on Alien‘s mythology, answering questions from the first film and furthering the gritty, working class world of terrors. Not to mention some laugh-out-loud, endlessly quotable dialogue. As a director, he’s a master of the set-piece and he’s at the top of his game in Aliens, introducing a military element and transitioning easily between spine-tingling moments of tension and explosive 80s action. Cameron also has a proven knack for fantastic female action heroes, and he honors the intelligence, athleticism and work ethic of the woman we met in the first film, helping to cement her legacy as a cinematic icon.
He also surrounds Ripley with a cast of supporting players that rise above the meathead military trope they seem defiantly carved out of. Bill Paxton‘s Private Hudson, Jeanette Goldstein‘s Private Vasquez, and of course, Michael Biehn‘s Corporal Hicks have proved the most enduring, but each member of the unit is a fleshed-out character you’re happy to spend time with. Then there’s Paul Reiser as the cagey company man, Lance Henrickson who is extraordinary as the synthetic Bishop, and Carrie Henn as the young colony survivor Newt, all of whom take on unexpected and pivotal roles in Ripley’s journey. That attention to character, if not in depth, is certainly charismatic and gives Aliens a much-needed humanity and humor that keeps the film grounded through the torrents of pulse blasts and carnage. On that note, the effects are truly exemplary, a masterful blend of VFX and primarily practical work that implemented miniatures, puppeteering, stop motion, and every other took at the team’s disposal to capture as much camera as possible.
You put it all together and Aliens is such an unfairly good sequel, still one of the all-time bests to this day, it’s no wonder the films that followed seem dim in comparison.
Simply put, Alien is not only the best Alien film, it’s one of the best films of all time. Impeccable, precise, and pulsing with biological and cosmic dread, Ridley Scott‘s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror is an example of what can be achieved when a talented filmmaker treats genre with the same artistry and integrity as a character drama.
In Alien, that drama is deliciously straightforward and primal. The film follows a group of space truckers responding to a distress call where they find a deadly extraterrestrial specimen that picks them off one-by-one, continually evolving into new, more terrifying forms. At the heart of that creature feature is pure human drama and carnal horror. The cast is superb, a formidable ensemble that including Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Tom Skerrit, Yaphet Koto, and Sigourney Weaver, the woman who would become the face of the franchise for decades to come.
Even if she never returned for a sequel, Weaver would have earned her status as a genre legend on the back of this performance alone, revolutionizing depictions of the female hero, especially in horror, with the help of a script that left her as the so-called “final girl” not because of purity or moralized goodness, but because she was the most intelligent, adaptable, and capable of survival. Weaver is extraordinary as the ultimate survivor, a woman you would follow into battle anywhere, and who you eagerly follow on screen as she guides us through the horror show funhouse.
Like its titular creation, Alien evolves and shifts with the fluidity of nightmare logic, but never loses its sense of reality. As the characters move from one set-piece to the next, they also move through a metamorphosis of light and texture that gives each new step in the journey a refined, distinct feel. For much of the film, Scott keeps normality within arm’s reach, always just around the corner, almost coming into focus before the next blinding moment of horror redefines the rules again. It all comes alive in the form of H.R. Giger‘s monstrous creations, walking Freudian nightmares of hypersexual imagery and unnatural biomechanical design. The sequences grow increasingly horrific, and Scott uses every implement and character at his disposal to shock and unnerves the audience until the film culminates in a frantic, piercing tenor, like a screaming tea kettle pitched at a full boil.