Few major franchises have the rocky track record that the Alien series does. After two stellar entries, it nosedived into a popular punching bag for how not to make a blockbuster franchise. Although some of the alternate cuts of the movies improved their reception retroactively, none of them has been especially good in the last three decades, especially after Prometheus tried to reimagine what the franchise was really about in the first place.
But they kept on churning these movies out, hoping that whatever the latest was would pull them out of their rut. And although few were qualitatively good, the franchise never quite lost its slant-eyed view of the world: at least putting out movies that were different enough from the conventional standards we had grown to accept from both the science fiction and horror genres.
5) Alien vs Predator — While I can hardly defend it as being a “good” movie in the strictest sense, I’ve always had a soft spot for this crossover slugfest. Taken purely on its own terms, it is a seriously fun bit of disposable entertainment: a quick thrill for a rainy afternoon trapped indoors.
Taken in context, however, this is a far more interesting piece of cinema. It’s far and away one of the better “monster mashes” out there, its only real competition coming from the equally fun Freddy vs Jason (both of which put the recent Batman vs Superman to shame). And despite its suspect canonicity, it makes far more sense as an Alien prequel than Alien‘s actual prequel.
4) Alien 3 — Although attacked as irredeemably bad upon its theatrical release, Alien 3 isn’t nearly as bad as you remember. At least, the 2003 Assembly Cut somehow stitches a watchable movie together from footage initially left on the cutting room floor.
Don’t get me wrong, Alien 3 is not a good movie in any form and no amount of re-editing can fix that. The Assembly Cut is a tremendous undertaking to watch because of its challenging length and questionable story-telling. It does, however, feature more fully realized characters than the franchise has ever had — even in the “good” movies — inventively adds to established Alien lore and gives Ripley the perfect end to her fiercely trying story.
3) Alien: Covenant — It’s official: despite its numerous issues and questionable justification for being made in the first place, Alien: Covenant is the best movie in the franchise since Ripley took on the Queen Xenomorph in 1986. It’s gorgeously rendered, it salvaged the few working parts from Prometheus worth keeping and pretty much brings the franchise back to its first entry.
Sadly, few will likely be fully satisfied by this film. Lore-hounds high on the promises Prometheus made to fully delve into the Engineers, Xenomorphs and life’s big questions won’t get quite as much to delve into as they would have hoped. And with all of the planet exploration and Prometheus connections, fans of the first two films won’t quite get the same, claustrophobic horror movie they would have otherwise wanted. Still, as its own movie, it is worth going to see. Now can we finally lay off all the prequels?
2) Aliens — As with most fans of the franchise, it was a virtual toss-up to decide which of the first two movies is the better entry. And although I ultimately went with “the esoteric, nameless terrors of outer space” over “the ultimate showdown between man and what lies beyond the surly bonds of Heaven,” Aliens is non-the-less the ultimate Alien film: taking the concept of fighting the universe’s apex predator to its natural extreme.
Aliens is ultimately the movie that made Ripley the feminist icon and film hero that she is today. Sure, the first movie showed her as a strong, capable woman who could go toe-to-toe with an acid-blooded demon from space. But in that movie, she acted out of desperation: out of the instinctive need to survive amid a situation she never had full control over. In Aliens, she chooses to come back and face her fears: stand alongside marines, stare down the pressing hoard of Xenomorphs and actually take the offensive against them.
1) Alien — Call me a traditionalist, but I like my singularly unstoppable movie monsters to be just that: singular. Aliens may have taken the series as far as it could conceptually go, but it was the first film that presented the franchise mascot in its purest, most terrifying form.
It’s all in the tagline: “in space, no one can hear you screen.” Although they have each other to rely on, the crew of the Nostromo as isolated from anything or anyone that could conceivably help them. In Alien, there are no marines. There is no backup. There aren’t even any weapons beyond what they can cobble together from the scrap-heap on-board. There’s just them and the monster, locked in mortal combat, desperately struggling to survive.