It’s been over 40 years since the release of Alien—but it feels like the hype never died down. After the original film scored over $100 million at the box office (on a budget of just $11 million), the sequel Aliens came out seven years later and made even more money. And six years after that Alien³ made even more money—and so on. From Alien: Resurrection to Prometheus to Alien: Covenant, every movie in the Alien franchise has been crazy successful.
And the success has only grown as the series has reached the worldwide market. Not only did Prometheus score a franchise-best $400 million at the global box office, but 20th Century Fox celebrated the 40-year anniversary of Alien with a 4K edition. And soon the entire series will be released on a 4K box set. Plus, the series has become more accessible than ever thanks to streaming, as currently you can find five of the films (seven if you include the Alien vs Predator spin-offs) on Hulu.
Here’s the best part: the Alien franchise is growing—which isn’t a surprise in the current age of cinematic world building. A brand new film is coming from the mind of horror prodigy Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead). And FX greenlit a TV series from Fargo and Legion creator Noah Hawley that is set to premiere in 2023.
But before you jump into this horror sci-fi saga, here’s the thing about the Alien movies. The order they were released in…isn’t the order in which the story plays out. Some of the movies that were released after the original Alien movie are actually prequels. Which begs the question: how do you watch the Alien movies in order? Also: where will the new projects fit into the storyline? Also: are the Alien vs. Predator movies part of the Alien canon?
In this article, we’ll break it all down for you. Here’s how you should watch the Alien movies if you’d like to watch the story play out from beginning to end.
Warning: If you have not watched the entire series, spoilers lie ahead.
How to watch the Alien movies in order
1. Prometheus (2012)
Prometheus was released in 2012—thirty-three years after the original Alien’s theatrical release. The story of Prometheus takes place in the year 2089—also 33 years before the events that take place in Alien (see what they did there?). Prometheus establishes how the Xenomorphs (aka the “Aliens”) came to terrorize Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) and ultimately threaten rest of the human race.
The film follows a spacecraft called the Prometheus, which is on a mission to travel across several galaxies to find the Engineers—a race of people that scientists Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) believe could be the forerunners of humanity.
Prometheus introduces the character David (Michael Fassbender), an android developed by billionaire Peter Weyland—CEO of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which, as we will learn throughout the series, has ulterior motives and seeks to profit from the Xenomorhps. David, who knows many ancient languages, is to make contact with the Engineers to ask questions about humanity and its existence. While David is designed to serve humans, he begins to develop his own feelings and personality.
In several ways, Prometheus and the following franchise film Alien: Covenant are separate from the rest of the Alien movies. David, who becomes the linking character between movies, has his own story that feels detached from Ripley’s battle with the Xenomorphs. David aims to breed the Xenomorph creatures and establish dominance over the human race that designed him.
But as a prequel, Prometheus is tied to the original Alien movie in a couple of key ways. The Prometheus ship travels to the Zeta2 Reticuli system—the same area of space where the planetoid from Alien is found. This is where Ripley and her crew find the Engineers’ ship from Prometheus. They also discover the body of an Engineer.
2. Alien: Covenant (2017)
At the end of Prometheus, Shaw and David depart from planet LV-223 in search of the Engineers’ original colony. But we don’t find out about how that mission went until the colonization ship Covenant, which is carrying 2,000 colonists, receives a transmission from Shaw 11 years later—this is where Alien: Covenant picks up the story.
The members of Covenant decide to land on the planet from which they received the transmission. Little do they know that Shaw is actually dead, and that David is waiting for them. David has developed even more personality over the past 11 years and seeks to take advantage of the humans that landed on the planet.
As far as I can tell, there is no outright connection between Alien: Covenant and the rest of the Alien movies. At the end of Covenant, David makes his way onto the ship and begins his plan to breed Xenomorphs. The entire colony of 2,000 people is seemingly at his mercy. The movie ends with David walking alone on the Covenant as the ship continues its journey to the planet Origae-6. This appears to be a new storyline that doesn’t really connect with Ripley’s Alien films. So for David’s story to continue, a new film or TV series would need to pick up where Alien: Covenant left off.
3. Alien (1979)
Twenty-two years after the events of Alien: Covenant, the first franchise film Alien takes place. The film follows the cargo ship Nostromo, which is carrying seven crew members in stasis—which includes the main character of the Alien series moving forward, Ellen Ripley.
On the way back to Earth from a cargo mission, the crew’s sleep is interrupted when the Nostromo detects a transmission from a nearby moon. This is where Ripley and her team discover the Engineers’ ship from Prometheus. For years on this planet, the Xenomorph creatures have been breeding in their eggs. Kane (John Hurt) becomes a host for a “facehugger” version of the aliens and brings the Xenomorph onto the Nostromo, where it will hunt down and kill every crew member except Ripley.
As we learn in the movie, Nostromo didn’t arrive on the Xenomorph’s planet by accident. The Weyland Corporation, which is funding the trip and paying the crew members, arranged for the Nostromo to intercept the transmission and make the landing. The corporation secretly placed an android named Ash (Ian Holm) on the ship to ensure the Xenomorph boarded the ship. Ripley eventually learns that the crew is expendable, and that transporting the Xenomorph creature back to Earth is a top priority.
Thus, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation becomes the true link between the prequels and the rest of the Alien films. While David goes off on his own mission, he was ultimately the first development of the corporation in its quest to study and profit from this mysterious and superior alien race. And moving forward, we will watch Ripley as she battles with the corporation in her own storyline.
4. Aliens (1986)
After the events of Alien, Ripley enters hypersleep for 57 years. When she wakes up, she recounts everything that happened to her and her crew. But nobody believes her at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, which has begun to colonize the planetoid from the first Alien movie.
Soon, however, contact with the colony is lost. Ripley is then persuaded to join a squad of marines to investigate the situation, which is how the events of James Cameron’s Aliens (the first franchise film not directed by Ridley Scott) take place.
The squad infiltrates the planetoid, only to discover that all of the colonists have been wiped out after being directed by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation to secure the Engineers’ ship we saw in Prometheus. Just like what happened to Kane in Alien, the colonists were infested by the Xenomorphs. So now instead of battling one alien creature, there are dozens of Xenomorphs that this squad of marines must battle.
Only a handful make it out alive, including Ripley and a little girl named Newt. They depart on the military ship USS Sulaco.
5. Alien 3 (1992)
Immediately following the events of Aliens, the Sulaco ship catches fire and its occupants are forced to eject. Ripley and the other survivors then crash-land on planet Fiorina “Fury” 161 for Alien 3 (directed by David Fincher). Unfortunately, everybody else on board is killed.
Here, a prison is home to dozens of men at a correctional facility. It just so happens that each of the male inmates is infected with a genetic mutation that makes them have antisocial behavior—creating for some very intense tension with the new female member of their population.
Little does Ripley know that a facehugger has sneaked onto her escape pod, infiltrated the prison, and infected someone’s pet dog. She then rallies everybody on board to help her kill the alien. Before long, however, she discovers: she is host to an embryo of the “Alien Queen.” And because of the Xenomorph growing inside of her, the aliens will not harm her.
Eventually, representatives from the Weyland-Yutani Corporation arrive. They tell Ripley they can remove the Alien Queen embryo from Ripley and save her. But she knows better based on her history with the corporation. Thus, she decides to kill both herself and the embryo by jumping into a furnace.
6. Alien: Resurrection (1997)
We now jump way forward in time—by 200 years, in fact. Alien: Resurrection (directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet) starts with a group of scientists aboard the USM Auriga that have created a clone of Ripley, designation Ripley 8. The Xenomorph queen’s DNA has been combined with Ripley’s so that an embryo grows inside Ripley 8. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation has seemingly nothing to do with these proceedings.
Meanwhile, a group of mercenaries hijacks a ship carrying a group of human hosts for a Xenomorph cloning project that’s taking place on the Auriga. They rename the ship from Almayer’s Folly to Betty. Once they arrive, they partner with Ripley 8 to disrupt the cloning operations and destroy Auriga.
As Ripley 8 and the Betty crew battle their way through the hoard of aliens, they eventually encounter the Alien Queen. Having developed a uterus as a result of its genetic contamination with Ripley 8, it gives birth to a human-Xenomorph hybrid. Because the hybrid recognizes Ripley as its mother, it destroys the Alien Queen. Eventually, Ripley is forced to kill the hybrid as she escapes with the Betty team on their ship.
Are the Alien vs. Predator movies part of the Alien canon?
If we were going to list each Alien movie in chronological order, then Alien vs. Predator (released in 2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007)—both of which take place nearly 100 years before the events of Prometheus—would technically be the first two movies in the franchise. But…this is is where we get into sketchy territory, because: are the Alien vs. Predator movies part of the Alien canon?
This is a tough question. And as you scour the internet, you’ll find lots of different opinions and answers.
Originally, director Paul W.S. Anderson wanted to keep continuity with the four Alien movies that had been released up to that point. He casted Lance Henriksen to reprise his role as the android Bishop. And he set the movie on the remote Norwegian Antarctic island of Bouvet, which kept the aliens hidden from most of human existence—including Ripley. If the aliens were unleashed in an urban environment, they would have been written and known about.
Anderson even wrote the Weyland-Yutani Corporation into the storyline, seemingly bridging the gap between Alien and the Alien vs. Predator series. Requiem closes with a scene where Ms. Yutani receives a salvaged plasma pistol that will lead to the advancements we see in the Alien films.
However, Ridley Scott always had different plans for the Alien story. Before Alien vs. Predator was greenlit by 20th Century Fox, he was working on a fifth Alien film with James Cameron. He wanted to “go back to where the alien creatures were first found and explain how they were created.” This, as you can see, eventually became Prometheus. Scott claims to have never even watched either of the Alien vs. Predator films.
James Cameron was visibly upset about Fox’s decision to pursue the spin-offs, as the Alien vs. Predator movies would “kill the validity of the franchise. Thus, he gave up working on the project. “To me,” Cameron said of the situation, “that was Frankenstein Meets Werewolf. It was Universal just taking their assets and starting to play them off against each other.”
So it’s tough to say whether the Alien vs. Predator movies are truly part of the series. I, personally, bow to Ridley Scott, as he originally created the Alien franchise. Both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant contradict aspects of the Alien vs. Predator movies, so for this list I chose to leave them out of the chronological order.
How will the new movie and TV series fit into the Alien storyline?
As I stated in the beginning, the Alien franchise isn’t over. In fact, it’s picking up major steam amid Hollywood’s obsession with cinematic franchises. So how will the upcoming movie and TV show be part of the Alien storyline?
Fede Álvarez pitched an idea for an Alien movie to Ridley Scott, who loved it. And now Scott is an executive producer of the film, which is slated to premiere on Hulu. While this seemingly asserts that the movie will be part of the Alien canon, Álvarez said that the currently untitled film will not be related to any of the existing stories or characters of the Alien franchise.
Beyond that, we know nothing about the movie. So it remains to be seen how the project will fit into the overall storyline.
Then there’s the TV series from Noah Hawley that is set to premiere on FX in 2023. Unlike the film, we have a lot more details about this project.
The Alien TV show also will not feature any previous characters from the Alien franchise. John Landgraf, the chief of FX, went as far to say that Hawley will “bring something new that represents both an extension and reinvention of a franchise at the same time,” and that there will be “some big surprises in store for the audience.”
The other thing we know is that the series will take place on Earth. Which would make it a prequel that doesn’t take place in space…just like the Alien vs. Predator movies that may or may not be part of the Alien canon. Thus, there will probably be an argument over whether the TV series is part of the grander storyline.