There have been a lot of great sci-fi and fantasy franchises over the years. Star Wars. Star Trek. Planet of the Apes. Terminator. Mad Max. They’re all great because of the universes they build. The characters that cross over, the themes they explore, the commentary applied to society—it’s all elevated by the fantastical elements of the genre. It’s even better when those franchises bleed between decades and new ideas are introduced. The thematic depth of an adventurous and well-executed sci-fi franchise can reach heights like no other.
And I haven’t even mentioned what might be my favorite sci-fi franchise: Alien. Early in my cinephile days, Ridley Scott’s original Alien movie was one of the only sci-fi franchise films I had watched. I had seen Solaris and Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Dark Star before I had ever seen Star Wars or Terminator. As a newbie who wanted to digest all of the arty sci-fi options available, Alien stood as one of the movies I just had to watch.
In the years since, my relationship to the Alien franchise has been up and down. I’ve never stopped loving the first film. But I’ve gone in and out of loving and disliking (and sometimes outright hating) just about all of the other films. And today, my ranking of the franchise is completely different than it was five years ago.
Recently I rewatched the six movies that, according to Scott, are definitively part of the Alien canon. And I’d like to now rank each and every one of those movies—from worst to best. Per usual, my movie opinions will probably upset people. I tend to adore what others hate and find flaws in the movies people love—a contrarian by nature, I know. But that’s the way it goes with me.
So anyway: here it is: my personal ranking of the Alien franchise.
Note: I will update this list whenever I get around to watching the Alien vs. Predator movies.
Note #2: Needless to say, there will be spoilers in this article.
7. Alien Resurrection
This is the only Alien film that I would say is legitimately bad. While I have some problems with the execution with Alien 3, the thematic foundation for the film is very sound. But Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s approach just feels so un-Alien in a way that depletes the film of the signature profundity that usually surrounds the franchise.
Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and even David Fincher were able to stylistically reflect the “monster mother” figure back onto Ripley and her struggles to find agency and freedom. But Jeunet’s aesthetic feels more indulgent than it feels critical. He never really probes the ideas of patriarchal structures or bodily abuse or female incarceration that typically allow the franchise to serve as commentary on the human condition in our modern world. In the end, it just feels like Amelie in space. Which sounds cool on paper…and then you watch it.
In the end, it just doesn’t have the power, the energy, the bite of the other Alien films. The characters are cartoonish and broad where they should be emotional and defined. The villains are absurd as opposed to perilous, and the heroes feel like kids thrust into a dangerous situation (a far cry from the drama and intimacy we experience with the military crew in Aliens). And Ripley’s fantastic send-off in Alien 3 feels like it’s been reduced to a cash-grab opportunity in Resurrection as it doesn’t stretch her emotional storyline to new boundaries. It’s all just a bit too off-kilter to work as a franchise film.
6. Alien 3
While I don’t think Alien 3 is necessarily a bad movie, it definitely feels like a misfire. Director David Fincher himself would probably agree, as the conception of this movie (the script went through several re-writes) and the post-production (the studio took over the editing duties) were both a bit of a mess. While there are glimpses of Fincher’s signature style, it never feels cohesive or realized. Instead, it often feels like it’s simply going through the motions so the studio can have a third Alien movie.
Which is too bad. Because the inherent thematic heft of the film was heavy from the movie’s mere conception. Ripley lands her ship at a male prison where all the inmates suffer from a genetic predisposition for antisocial behavior—yeah, Ripley’s been here before. The amount of testosterone and male ego that floods this franchise is palpable (think of Bill Paxton in Aliens). Plus it’s not like Ripley has never felt helpless or confined by her environment—the monster that strips her of instrumentality and the capitalist system that produced the greedy Weyland-Yutani Corporation have made sure of that.
It’s strange when a movie works implicitly on a thematic level…but then also never really explores those themes with any real substance or gravity. There are plenty of great moments, like when the Alien snarls inches away from Ripley’s face, or when Ripley makes her fire-pit dive at the end of the movie. But those moments also feel like missed opportunities, as they should have more power and weight and drama and feel like they’re part of a bigger whole. It’s a classic example of how important style is to crafting an aesthetic. Luckily, Fincher would correct this flaw as he went forward in his career.
This ranking might shock some people and discount my opinion. Because if we were putting together some sort of “objective” list, then of course Aliens would be at #2. It’s a legendary film that was incredibly influential in the action genre.
But for whatever reason, I’ve never been able to get into Aliens like everyone else. It’s purely subjective. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a strong film. I enjoy watching it. I love that it feels so different from the original Alien. And James Cameron has such a signature style that’s entertaining to watch. But in the end, that’s mostly what it feels like: fairly light on substance, and almost eye-rollingly heavy on entertainment.
This is more of a subject take, as Cameron’s flair is undoubtedly and inarguably crafted to perfection. But I just don’t love Cameron’s particular style of production as much as other people. Never have. I’m not a gigantic fan of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (although the first Terminator is incredible) or True Lies or Titanic or Avatar. I can appreciate aspects of them all, but in my opinion the “James Cameron Show” always seems to get in the way of the stuff I find to be more interesting. And for a 137-minute film like Aliens, it becomes a bit tedious.
It feels weird saying all of this, because I think Aliens is a quality film. I’ve seen it many times and always have fun. Bill Paxton is one of the greatest actors ever and absolutely owns this movie as Private Hudson. Lance Henriksen becomes a legendary component of the franchise as Bishop. And Jennette Goldstein is my hero as Private Vasquez. But anytime the movie becomes emotional? Like the moments with Ripley and Newt? It all feels a bit too on-the-nose and surface-level for me to become fully invested and moved.
4. Alien: Covenant
I guess I have to defend this ranking. Because most people would put Aliens, which has a 4.1 rating on Letterboxd, ahead of Covenant, which currently stands with an inferior 2.9 rating. But I also think the things of which people are critical in Alien: Covenant—like the wacky plot and the questionable decisions made by characters—are much, much less important to me than the thematic exploration at hand. And Covenant’s script allows for some incredible philosophy and character introspection that Cameron seems to have no time for in a film like Aliens.
People get annoyed by the characters’ idiotic choices in Covenant. But I actually think that’s part of the message. Covenant is all about the fallibility of human beings and the resulting vulnerability from such failings. The characters are trying to find meaning and profundity in the face of perfection (in the form of David) and destruction (in the form of aliens). The sheer indomitable force that greets the space crew quickly reorients them as ordinary and helpless. Instead of running away from danger, the Freudian core of the film forces them to land on this unknown planet, to trust David, to battle the aliens. They are, for whatever reason, innately drawn to their own doom.
It’s such a perfect follow-up to Prometheus, which introduces David as the ultimate antagonist to mankind—a profound embodiment of ironic betrayal. Human beings created artificial life to help us achieve superiority, but then David graduated from our simple understanding of the universe, of life itself, and pursued a new path we were incapable of imagining. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation wanted to control the aliens, but David simply wanted to harness their power. The humans wanted to become masters, but David wanted to become God. And we’re too busy trying to make sense of our surroundings to understand just how dangerous someone like David—how dangerous the idea of David—can be. The entire philosophical core of Covenant is no different than what we see in Alien. It’s just that Ridley Scott went much bigger and more definitive with the prequels.
3. Alien vs. Predator
I’m not one bit ashamed about this ranking. Because Alien vs. Predator is freaking awesome and a truly thought-provoking addition to the Alien storyline. The franchise is most fascinating for its deconstruction of the modern female identity.
Ripley is a fantastic heroine we can root for—somebody who’s rebelling against the system, fighting a major corporation that has a stranglehold over society, battling to retain agency over her own body. Her ultimate opponent is a parasitic symbol of that fight: an alien creature that’s looking to tear the human race from the inside out. This monstrous creation is a female that’s hoping to produce other aliens that will do the same. Thus, the alien becomes a demonized emblem of women—an emblem to be controlled and mutated by society. In turn, the alien becomes Ripley’s utmost enemy: the fight against this alien is a fight against horrifying notions regarding femininity.
So how the heck does Alien vs. Predator fit into…any of this? Because of the Predator part. In fact, adding that element makes Anderson’s film one of the most profound entries into the Alien canon.
Think about it. The Predator series is in many ways the opposite of the Alien franchise: the former explores toxic masculinity, while the second explores society’s patriarchal fight to retain control of the feminine figure. But…you can also see how those two storylines would go hand in hand. One thing leads to another. Which makes these franchises a natural fit.
And boy does Anderson deliver. From the get-go, I was quickly reminded of the auteur director’s eye-catching aesthetic. His movies feel like video games—most notably Resident Evil: Retribution, which might be the most underrated film of the past decade—but not in an annoying rigid way. His movies float with that video game form; they become transcendent experiences that feel unlike anything else in cinema. Of course you can not enjoy that aesthetic—but to deny its otherness almost seems perverse. The man is bringing unique insight to storylines that consistently deal with the deterioration of societal values and (subsequently) the destruction of civilization.
Which is what makes Alien vs. Predator so awesome. Anderson’s approach works so well because it finds the humanity behind the hyper-masculine figure that’s looking to extinguish the nasty sentiments associated with the alien creature. In the original Predator, the Predator constantly challenged (and constantly conquered) the male ego, ripping Dutch and his crew apart without much effort. The Predator isn’t just some enemy—it’s representative of what price such toxic masculinity can cost society. The Predator isn’t necessarily a figure to be conquered, but instead overcome and controlled. The alien, however, is representative of our often blockheaded, Neanderthalic society’s stance on women—and that must go. So if an awesome female hero needs to team up with a big masculine Predator to do that? So be it. I’ll watch that kind of entertainment any day of the week.
I know, I know: Alien isn’t #1. And you can be mad about that all you want. But believe me when I say: I absolutely love Alien. It deserves to be mounted as the classic it’s become. It’s unlike any other sci-fi movie ever made, any horror movie ever made. It’s untouchably directed and exquisitely acted. It constructs the thematic infrastructure of the franchise so perfectly that it’s hard to imagine any other movie in its place.
While I love Prometheus more (for reasons I’ll explain soon), it’s hard to argue that Alien isn’t the most technically sound film of the series. And that’s largely why it deserves to be at the top of any Alien franchise ranking. The quiet horror that engulfs the spaceship; the incredible special effects that make you curl up; the characters, their plights, the betrayal and panic and revulsion they feel—it’s honestly moving to watch unfold. On top of it all, the silent killer at the heart of the film feels so much bigger and more menacing than any serial killer that preceded or followed in the horror canon. Just about everything is composed to perfection.
Perhaps the best part of Alien is just how sophisticated it feels. If I was going to knock the prequels for anything, it would be their confrontational nature. Their themes and ideas are candidly laid out so we’re never lost. But in Alien, it almost feels like the point is to be lost. We are encompassed by the same horror that swamps Ripley and her crewmates. Ripley’s story is all about regaining control over her life—and what more dreadful way to begin that journey than with a mother figure that poses as her extreme opposite, her unstoppable adversary. Such an approach also allows for the prequels to expertly lay the philosophical foundation of the franchise before an alien ever reaches Ripley.
Speaking of which…
Some context is probably necessary here. Especially if you don’t know me. If you do know my reputation, then perhaps me putting Prometheus at #1 isn’t that surprising. I’m a huge fan of silly movies like Showgirls and Magic Mike XXL and Flash Gordon that have been outcasted by society. I have an unshakable and deep-seated desire to defend the indefensible, to find meaning in the films that others consider to be trivial and empty. And no other movie in this franchise better fits that mold than Prometheus—a movie I remember just about everybody hating when it was released.
Much like Showgirls, however, time has been kind to Prometheus. As the years pass, the philosophy of Prometheus seems to reveal itself more and more. What was once seen as an absurd introduction to a storied franchise seemed to find its footing in the movie zeitgeist at some point. People were annoyed by the same plot devices and character tropes that flooded Alien: Covenant. But the thematic elements—which, I have to reiterate, are way more important than the boring plot stuff—are all in place in Prometheus. The bodily abuse experienced by Elizabeth recalls Ripley’s story from Alien 3; the man-made machine that resulted from capitalism and had no concern for human life is reminiscent of Alien; the constant search for meaning in the face of our unknowable origins makes you think of Aliens.
David has the most incredible introduction. He’s watching the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence puts out a match with his bare hands. Then another man tries it and hurts himself and asks, “What’s the trick then?” To which Lawrence responds, “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.” Lawrence feels bigger and better in that moment, ready to take on the unconquerable challenges of life. But by the end, even Lawrence is reduced to a mere man. He has no control over the outcome of the war. At some point, he couldn’t climb any higher. His greatest flaw, it turns out, is that he was a man—a problem David does not have.
Upon reflection, Prometheus fits perfectly into the Alien franchise and serves as a great precursor to Ripley’s story. The chaos of life can be traced back to our inherent desire to be in control of it. We want to know where we came from and become masters of our own space—but that’s not how the universe works. This vast continuum that surrounds us for lightyears in every direction is so much bigger than our selves, more impressive than anything we as human beings could ever consider to be remotely accomplished or thought-provoking. And it makes us feel small and insignificant and out of control. All of those foundational elements set up in Prometheus and Covenant—and it makes David every bit as terrifying as the aliens trying to kill us all.