The Alien saga continues this week with the release of Alien: Covenant, the sixth true Alien film and the third from director Ridley Scott. That means it’s as good a time as any to revisit the best thing to happen to sci-fi horror since Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Here are your essential rankings of the five previous Alien films (not counting Alien vs. Predator or Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, which you can rest assured would have been ranked second-to-last and last, respectively), as determined by The Portalist’s resident Alien expert (me).
Let me know how wrong I am in the comments below—or share your thoughts on where Alien: Covenant fits on this list!
Alien 3 (1992)
We begin with one of the central questions that any set of Alien movie rankings must answer: does Alien 3 suck, or what? To the chorus of voices chiming in on this most controversial Alien movie, I add a lukewarm take. Alien 3 kind of sucks, but not totally.
Look, scripts are important, and Alien 3 has a kind of bad one. It doesn’t offer a satisfactory reason for Ripley to not spill the beans about the whole “there might be an alien here” thing. It introduces about one and a half interesting characters and then kills off the best one early on. It brutally disposes of characters from Aliens, which was a much better movie. There’s even an ill-advised attempted rape scene in which Ripley ends up needing to be rescued. Not ideal.
But directing is important, too, and David Fincher (in his feature film debut) does a solid job of putting lipstick on this pig. The movie is beautifully shot. It teases out a new subgenre for the series, continuing the work Cameron did with Aliens: if Alien was suspense-horror and Aliens was action-horror, Alien 3 is something of a slasher/gross-out take on the franchise. Alien 3 is a big step down from its predecessors and is a bit rude with the legacy of its immediate forebear, but it has plenty of redeeming qualities.
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Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Alien: Resurrection feels the most blockbuster-y of any of the Alien movies. It concocts a way to bring a dead franchise back to life, and it delivers some truly absurd action (there’s a dude who shoots things by bouncing bullets and grenades off of the ceiling, and he does this more than once). It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime movie like Alien or Aliens, but it’s competent and fun.
Alien: Resurrection is what Alien movies feel like when they’re just-for-fun movies, regular old sci-fi fare. It’s as gory as Alien 3, but quite a bit less grim. It’s less a work of art and more of a typical horror movie, but don’t overthink it: make some popcorn and enjoy. Alien: Resurrection is still a must-watch for fans of the series.
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Ridley Scott’s first Alien movie since Alien itself is kind of not an Alien movie at all, and not just because it’s the only film in the series without “Alien” in the name. It’s an ambitious prequel that massively expands the Alien universe, providing a bit of backstory to the series’ titular monsters and to the unfortunate oversized blue guy that they find dead in the first movie. Prometheus is a flawed movie – it lacks the structure and pacing that make Scott’s first Alien movie so compelling–but it’s gorgeous, ambitious, and fascinating. It’s more a puzzle piece than standalone film, but that makes it the perfect movie for die-hard fans to watch–and re-watch–carefully.
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Thank you for scrolling down here to see if I ranked Alien or Aliens higher. I’d like to encourage you to scroll back up and read the rest of the article, too. I worked hard on it!
But, yes, I’m putting Aliens in second place. It hurts to push either of the first two Alien movies down the podium, but tough jobs like this are why I get paid the big bucks.
Aliens fans, I’m sorry. But please accept this paragraph of lavish praise for your favorite Alien movie. Aliens is a masterpiece. James Cameron’s film is one of the great sequels of all time, and it fearlessly takes the franchise in a new direction. Aliens bulks up the cast and arms them with cool guns, and then it blasts its way through two and a quarter hours of nearly non-stop action. The special effects were brilliant for their time and best the original’s easily. Aliens is one of two Alien movies that is essentially flawless.
Do you have a moment to talk about Alien? I would like to talk about Alien, which is the best Alien movie and one of the single best science fiction movies ever made.
Alien is pitch-perfect, a movie of such unified style that your emotions can’t help but move at its suggestion. It’s practically flawless from start to finish: the film opens with an understated and eerie title sequence and builds with a growing sense of dread to a panicked final act.
Alien is atmospheric and it is stylish. It is impeccably structured and immaculately paced. All three acts are here, along with clever twists, interesting characters, and memorable set pieces. And, of course, this is the movie that introduces the monster itself: the parasitic, acid-blooded supervillain so terrifying that they’re still making movies about it nearly 40 years later.
This is a film best viewed in its entirety, a movie that works in subtle ways as well as obvious ones. Don’t watch it on TNT or AMC between commercials for laundry detergent–rent it or buy it and turn out the lights. In a franchise that has featured superstar directors, clever scripts, and great actors, this is the unmistakable high-water mark.
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Featured still from "Alien 3" via 20th Century Fox