Ranking the Alien movie franchise

On May 18th, Ridley Scott’s sequel to Prometheus lands in theatres around the UK. To celebrate, we thought we’d take a look back at the best and worst that the franchise has had to offer so far.

Going back to where it all began, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien remains one of the true sci-fi horror greats, and perhaps the most influential movie that’s ever been created in the genre. It’s the film that spawned a long-running franchise of novels, comic books, video games and toys, not to mention a fleet of follow up movies – not all of them good.

Arguably, only James Cameron’s follow-up in 1986 is worthy of being put in the same category of excellence and the debate goes on as to which is the best – a matter settled by personal preference perhaps. But where does that leave the other five films within the franchise?

Of course, any type of ranking is always down to personal taste and no one opinion is correct. But if we had to rank the Alien franchise films from worst to best, here’s how we’d do it…

  1. Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem (2007)

A sequel of sorts to 2004’s film of the same name (minus the Requiem), the responsibility of AVP Requiem was given to special effects kings the Strauss Brothers. Bad choice.

A crashed Predator ship carrying a new hybrid Alien (the one that burst out of the chest of the Predator protagonist in the previous film) lands in a small town along with some delightful facehugger eggs. Among the first hosts/victims are a little boy and his father, a little girl and some pregnant women in a hospital. Tasteful.

Moments like these are a dime a dozen in AVP Requiem and although some deliver brief moments of originality, most are sickening in the wrong kind of way. All this film really succeeds in doing is upping the blood and gore, without developing or progressing the AVP universe in any meaningful way.

The worst thing though is that the majority of the film is draped in darkness, making much of the movie unwatchable. There are certain scenes that could have delivered some sense of visual spectacle were it not for the terrible cinematography and lighting. This is disappointing given the two special effects ‘gurus’ at the helm. For that, Requiem finds itself at the bottom of the pile.

  1. Alien Vs Predator (2004)

Surprise, surprise, AVP is the next worst Alien movie on the list, although, it does arguably have its moments.

For one, AVP at least accomplishes the feat of pitting two of cinema’s most legendary creatures together in one movie. And for a while, the thought of that epic battle is quite exciting. It’s unfortunate then that the promise is greater than the delivery.

Written and directed by Paul WS Anderson, a man who brought us such classics as Death Race, Death Race 2, Death Race Inferno, and a bunch of Resident Evil movies no one asked for, AVP ties back to one of the more successful iterations of the franchise by bringing in Charles Weyland (a returning Lance Henriksen) who is the model for the android Bishop some 150 years in the future during the Aliens time period.

Weyland leads a team of scientists and military types to Antarctica to find an ancient pyramid beneath the ice, which (unbeknownst to them) is the location of an ancient battle arena. When the hapless humans enter, they set off a chain of events that awakens a slumbering Alien beast (a Xenomorth Queen) who proceeds to lay a conveyor belt of eggs. And not the fun Easter kind…

The movie may have been okay if the rating hadn’t been a 12A, which – completely opposite to Requiem – was devoid of any real scares or moments of gore. A few subtle touches of blood and guts could have really helped this one. But credit where credit is due, Anderson at least creates some fairly stunning set pieces for his modest budget of $60m.

The pivotal clash between Predator and Aliens almost works, but the lack of development among the human characters, even the titular Ripley stand-in Woods (Sanaa Lathan) becomes empty cannon fodder with no depth or personality.

Overall, if there had to be an AVP film, then Anderson’s film could have been worse. With that said, it doesn’t live long in the memory either.

  1. Alien 3 (1992)

Despite entering production almost immediately after Aliens, fans of the series had to wait another six years before seeing the next tale in Ripley’s tragic space opera.

In that time, the real Newt had sprouted into a spotty teenager and given the whole ageless in cryosleep conundrum (and her now unrecognisable appearance), the creators of Alien 3 decided that the best way to proceed was to kill off her off. And since they were killing off Newt, they decided to kill of Hicks too – Ripley’s potential love interest from Aliens, one of the single worst decisions in the whole franchise.

This is made worse in light of the original screenplay that was written by cyber punk author William Gibson. In this version, Hicks would have been the lead character, discovering Weyland-Yutani Corp’s plans to develop an Alien army and teaming up with survivors (in a space-station shopping mall) to take down a new (even bigger) infestation of Xeno’s while Ripley awoke from a coma. If you’ve seen Alien 3, you’ll know that this version sounds a lot more fun!

In the actual Alien 3, Hicks is killed by a piece of debris and Newt is impregnated by a hybrid Xenomorth – our new foe. Ripley crashes onto an ice planet and home to an all-male prison, where inhabitants are slowly picked off one by one by a lone (slightly more menacing) Xeno.

Although Alien 3 added some great characters, namely Charles Dance (albeit briefly), Pete Postlethwaite and Charles S Dutton, the film spends too much time contemplating big themes such as religion, mortality and – bizarrely – motherhood. After the high intensity action of Aliens, the lone Xeno formula from the original Alien felt like a step back so ultimately disappointed. But arguably, it did bring Weaver’s finest performance in the role.

Although Alien 3 is still very watchable, it is by no means a good movie. And while many would argue it’s better than Alien: Resurrection, for me, knowing that there was a much better version in the form of William Gibson’s screenplay out there just leaves a bitter taste in the mouth in the same way as Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull. It’s also fair to say that Alien 3 was the start of a downward spiral in terms of the quality of the franchise, which is why it deserves to be low on the list.

  1. Alien: Resurrection (1997)

Alien: Resurrection is a strange sort of alien movie. An ambitious (if slightly confused) script by Joss Whedon and direction from Jean-Pierre Jeunet (the man responsible for Amelie), it was perhaps always going to be a slightly different type of Alien film. In a sense, this is its greatest defence and through its often very comical undertones, it is an entertaining watch. But again, while it works as a singular entity, Resurrection is not a great Alien film.

Having been killed off at the end of Alien 3, Whedon had to come up with a clever way to bring back Ripley. And so, Sigourney Weaver returns as a clone, infused with the blood of a Xenomorth Queen. Hmm, how could this possibly go wrong?

Weaver becomes a much more predatory version of Ripley for this fourth installment and she plays it well, adding to the general sense of originality. The intensity she brings when discovering a room full of failed Ripley-clones is definitely one of the film’s highlights and a particularly harrowing sequence that lives long in the memory. Finding a way to bring her back, no matter how gimmicky and unbelievable (just 200 years after falling back first into a furnace) was definitely a good call.

There are some really good moments of horror in Resurrection, but these are mixed with a lot of absurd moments of hilarity. Like Ripley, who is torn between human and Xeno, the film seems to have a bit of an identity crisis. Is it a horror movie? Or is it a comedy? Whatever the answer is, at least Resurrection tried to do something different and it also succeeded in bringing the Jerry Bruckheimer action back – two things which I’d argue make it better than Alien 3.

With some cool characters played by some stellar actors, including Ron Perlman, Winona Ryder and a kooky Brad Dourif, the film definitely measures up from an entertainment perspective. It just doesn’t feel like an Alien movie, and strangely, this is both its greatest strength and its greatest problem.

  1. Prometheus (2012)

For whatever reason, Ridley Scott returned after a 30-year hiatus from the Alien franchise in 2012 to make a prequel (Prometheus) to his 1979 classic. His reason for doing so (he claims) was to answer the question of how and why the space ship (and jockey) discovered by the crew of the Nostromo came to rest on LV-426.

In principle, the idea of delving deeper into the lore of the Alien universe sounded promising. The issue with Prometheus is that it poses more questions than it provides answers, and in a way, this makes the film quite frustrating. Cinemagoers are sold on the idea that they will learn about the origins of the Xenomorth, but the climax of the movie is just confusing and (I hate to say it) a bit pointless too.

Prometheus starts with a bald (human-looking) alien, drinking some funny looking black liquid at the peak of a giant waterfall. Could have picked a better place to get drunk! After a long sip, the figure starts to disintegrate and falls over the top, the idea being that he has sacrificed himself to give birth to humanity. What a nice chap.

Several millennia later, a crew of geologists discover a cave that provide clues on where this ancient race came from and, led by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation (again), those same scientists – along with some military types, naturally – fly into space to find them.

Unfortunately for our crew, Earth’s makers seem not to feel any sense of love for their creation and when they come face-to-face with one, everything goes horribly wrong. The destruction that follows gives life to some of the film’s finest cinematic moments, which are the biggest strength of Prometheus, it having some of the best visual effects of 2012 which still hold up five years on.

The biggest weakness of Prometheus, however, is in its own exploration of the origins of 1979’s Alien. As much as I loved the idea of finding out how the Xenomorths were created, Prometheus doesn’t actually contain anything that could be considered revelatory and the appearance of the Xeno lookalike at the end feels cheap and confusing. Given that this isn’t actually LV-426, nothing that happens in the film serves any purpose to the franchise at all (it seems to me anyway). Still, for its stunning visuals and amazing special effects, Prometheus is at least enjoyable as a standalone sci-fi caper. And this prequel series still does give hope that greater revelations are still to be made. Who knows, perhaps Prometheus will make more sense after Alien Covenant. Let’s hope so.

  1. Aliens (1986)

James Cameron wasn’t widely known until he sat in the director’s chair for Aliens. It must have seemed a fairly unenviable task given how groundbreaking Ridley Scott’s Alien had been, but Cameron had a firm plan and that plan was to take the original formula and turn it up to 11.

Aliens is without question one of the greatest sequels ever made and honestly, it’s difficult to compare it to Alien because it is such a different movie. At the beginning of the film, a still floating-in-space Ripley is rescued by a ship and taken to a space station inhabited by a colony of humans. Over the coming weeks/months, Ripley is plagued by nightmares of her experience from the first film. On top of this, she is forced to come to terms with the loss of her daughter (who passed away from old age given the time lost in cryosleep).

With nothing to live for, Ripley finds herself being coerced into returning to LV-426, which, during her years adrift in space, has been colonised by a hapless and helpless group of humans. Ripley (having had a very unique close-up experience with the lovely Xenomorphs) is hired as a kind of advisor and accompanies a team of gung-ho Marines who give the film a solid injection of humour and awesomeness.

It’s not long before the over-confident marines meet their Xeno foes, and it doesn’t go quite as well as they expect. Isolated and thoroughly outnumbered, Ripley (alongside a few surviving marines) is once again thrown unwillingly into the action. This time though, she is motivated by her duty to protect a small girl (Newt – who they find hiding at the colony) a maternal instinct that makes her a serious badass, especially when Newt is kidnapped by one of the Xenomorths and Ripley bravely goes down to the alien hive.

Lance Henrikson gives a standout performance as Bishop, an android that both Ripley and audience are never too sure if they can trust given Ash’s betrayal from Alien. Michael Beihn and the late, great Bill Paxton as Hicks and Hudson (respectively) are also fantastic in their roles, the latter providing some of the most memorable quotes in movie history. “Game over man!” I’d be remiss not to mention James Horner’s excellent score too, which is haunting and energized, inspired from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane and expertly mixed with motifs from Jerry Goldsmith’s original soundtrack.

Aliens set the bar so high that it has been impossible for any movie to better it. It is partly responsible for every other movie in the franchise being a disappointment, which is high praise indeed. It could be better than Alien, depending on your persuasion. But like as in the Highlander, there can only be one.

  1. Alien (1979)

Yes, Aliens is an incredible movie and in a lot of ways, it is superior to Alien. But ultimately, Cameron’s vision would never have been realised without Ridley Scott’s original, which remains as incredibly tense and deeply terrifying as (presumably) it was to audiences in 1979.

The film is so skillful in its delivery of horror that you find yourself watching on the edge of your seat for its duration. From Jerry Goldsmith’s spine-chilling score to the close quarters horror sequences and terror-inducing monster, every element is designed to make the ride as uncomfortable as possible, and it is done expertly. In fact, all these tiny pieces fit so well together that you forget about the minimal plot and dialogue. Alien simply didn’t need them.

The characters too are another major strength. Unlike Prometheus, the crew of the Nostromo are normal people working the graveyard shift – down on life and not really questioning the meaning of it all. They are the perfect normal fit for the supernatural events that are unfolding around them, and as a viewer, you sense the genuine terror they are feeling – particularly in John Hurt’s infamous chest bursting scene, which remains one of the greatest reveals in any Hollywood blockbuster.

The original Alien introduced one of if not the greatest movie monsters ever created, and for years, Hollywood writers have battled to find new ways to bring this beast to life. Unlike those writers, who are challenged with finding more complicated ways of telling the same story, Alien’s strength is within its very simple plot. Crew lands on alien planet. Crew finds alien vessel and alien life. Alien life hunts and kills crew. Audience defecates in own pants with fear. Simple.

Alien is the most influential sci-fi horror movie ever made. It set the bar for sci-fi horror. Its set designs, cinematography and horror sequences have laid the foundation for countless directors over the last 30 years. For that, it could only ever be the original Alien that took the top spot in this list.

Disagree with the list? Have your say in the comments below…

  • Daniel Withey

    I spotted a mistake. You included a film called Prometheus. I’m pretty sure that film never ever ever ever ever evre evrerver happened. It didn’t happen.

  • Matt Clemens

    You’re right. That didn’t happen. In fact, I’ve forgotten writing that section already…