There’s a certain pointlessness in ranking the films of the Alien franchise. After all, everyone already knows which are the best and which are the worst. But it’s in the middle that things get interesting. Alien3 and Resurrection have their supporters and detractors, and Prometheus’ place on the list is still a subject of heated debate. With that in mind, and with Alien: Covenant in cinemas, here are my rankings of the Alien films.
- Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem
What a load of rubbish. The sequel to AVP was never going to be a classic, but did anyone really expect it to be this atrocious? Exhausted B movie tropes meet artless gore as Aliens and a Predator invade a small American town because of reasons. The Brothers Strause bring only the most perfunctory of Alien knowledge to the film: we have facehuggers, chest burstings and acidic blood, but otherwise the xenomorphs act like your garden variety Syfy channel movie monster. There’s an Alien/Predator hybrid (again, reasons), but it’s just a xenomorph with a different face. But the real kicker is that AVPR commits the worst sin imaginable: it just isn’t any fun. Violent, loud and nonsensical, but not at all fun.
- AVP: Alien vs. Predator
This is marginally better than its sequel, but only by virtue of its surprisingly robust production values. Paul W. S. Anderson knows how to wring the most out of a modest budget. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know how to wring the most out of a script. Erich von Däniken hovers over the story like a spiritual advisor, as a mysterious and alien pyramid is discovered under the Antarctic ice. The pyramid turns out to be an ancient hunting ground, where Predators would pit their skills against specially bred xenomorphs. The fights between Aliens and Predators are terribly edited, appearing more like montages of poorly-lit body parts. There’s your stereotypical “strong female character”, but like the other characters, she’s lost amid the muddle of pseudo-mythology, studio-tamed violence and hackneyed plotting. Not even Lance Henriksen can save this one; just remind of us better times.
Some would disagree, but there are several reasons to rank Alien3 (or Alien Cubed as I like to call it) as the worst of the mainline Alien films. It is unrelentingly grim, without the fleshy sexual dread of the original. The Alien itself feels like a step backwards from those of its predecessors. And studio interference at every level meant that the themes of religion and gender politics were left to moulder in the background. In fact, the real reason to rank Cubed so low is because of what could have been. Before David Fincher, Australian filmmaker Vincent Ward was attached to direct, and his pitch involved a wooden planet populated by monks who see the xenomorph as God’s punishment for a woman’s invasion of their spiritual sanctuary. You can check out the plot outline and concept art online; they’re really quite astonishing. If only…
- Alien: Resurrection
As with Cubed, there are valid reasons to place Resurrection lower on the list; but Cubed can be such a gloomy chore that Resurrection almost wins by default. That said, there is a lot to like about the fourth Alien film. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (he of Delicatessen fame) brings his signature twisted quirkiness to bear: right from that opening shot of a xenomorph’s mouth turning out to be a tiny bug in a spaceship cockpit, we know we’re in for something different. The film wisely eschews the played-out horror of Alien and Cubed and instead settles into the amorphous action/adventure genre, and the cast has fun with it, especially Brad Dourif and Ron Perlman. The Newborn is something of a misstep (is it scary? Is it comical? Both?), but hey, I never said Resurrection was perfect. Just better than Cubed.
My inner fanboy wants to stick Prometheus dead last, out of spite, because it committed the heinous crime of being a bit disappointing. But that would be unfair, inner fanboy. First of all, this was Ridley Scott’s much awaited return to science fiction, and such it is the best the franchise has looked since Aliens. However, the actual Alien elements of Prometheus feel tacked on. The story goes that, during production Scott became more interested in the ancillary details, the ancient astronauts seeding life on earth and the “meeting your maker” stuff. And it is these elements that elevate Prometheus above Cubed and Resurrection. There is an almost Lovecraftian feel to film, a sense of a civilisation so far in advance of our own as to be incomprehensible. The friezes on the walls of the spaceship put one in mind of At the Mountains of Madness. Had Scott ditched the prequel pretext and made the standalone piece he clearly wanted to, this could have been a sci-fi classic.
And so here we are. The genuinely, unreservedly good stuff. Aliens may be the best sequel ever made. It treats the original, not like a rival to be bettered, but rather like the first chapter in a much larger story. The genre shift, from small, contained sci-fi horror to bombastic sci-fi action, ensures that any comparisons are purely a matter of personal taste. That is, as long as Aliens is a great film in and of itself. And by Batman, is it ever. James Cameron has stated that he intended Aliens to be a slog, for the audience to feel as exhausted as the embattled Colonial Marines. And, especially if you’re watching the 154 minute Special Edition, it really is a slog, in the best possible way. Once the action starts, it goes on and on and on, unrelenting, with the only quiet period being interrupted by an inconsiderate facehugger. And our reward for slogging through this? One of cinema’s most iconic showdowns, as the cargo-loader faces of against the Alien Queen in a special effects tour de force. Does it get any better than this? Well…
Needless to say, the positions of Alien and Aliens are purely subjective. Do you prefer claustrophobic horror or relentless action? For me, the smaller, finely tuned film wins out. Alien gains points for being the first, for introducing us to the xenomorph, facehuggers, chestbursters, et al. But Alien is also a masterclass in world building. The opening shots of the Nostromo’s interior give us a real sense of this tactile, lived-in future, a continuation of Star Wars’ departure from the clean sci-fi of 2001 and its imitators. The crew were designed as “truckers in space”, and we hear them arguing about bonuses and working conditions rather than spouting exposition. Once the Alien emerges, Ridley Scott displays a Hitchcockian grasp of suspense. For the most part, the Alien skulks about on the periphery of the film; we get only fleeting glimpses of it, more sensing it in the crews’ mounting terror. The Alien itself is a perversely sexual entity: a phallic, penetrative predator which plays on our most primal fears. Where Aliens was exciting and adrenaline-fuelled, the overarching feelings in Alien are discomfort and disquietude. Its successors (most notably Cubed) have tried, but no other Alien film has recaptured the all-pervasive sense of dread that makes the original the high watermark of sci-fi horror.
And there you have it: the Alien films ranked from worst to best. Feel free to loudly disagree in the comments.