The genius of the “Alien” franchise — and the temptation to continue it ad infinitum — is that each of its installments has been so markedly different. From the ominously sparse thriller that first introduced the world to the Xenomorphs, to the steroidal orgy of muscles and machine guns and alien mucus that James Cameron fashioned out of its sequel, to the fascinatingly garbled industrial sludge of “Alien 3,” and so on… this series has proven to be as endlessly adaptable as the extraterrestrial monster that inspired its title.
So, when people complain that “Alien: Covenant” isn’t an “Alien” movie, it’s hard to know what they mean. Apart from strong women, two-mouthed nightmares, and the dark promise of outer space, there isn’t much that runs through this series and ties it together as a stylistically coherent whole. On the contrary, the saga is defined by its flair for change, by its willingness to evolve in order to reflect the tastes of the day. First, it riffed on “Star Wars.” Then “Rambo.” Now, in its current iteration, it reflects our current fascination with mythology, as well as our collective uncertainty about the future of the human race.
Some mutations of the “Alien” franchise have been more successful than others, but they all have something to offer. Well, most of them have something to offer. …Well, at least three of them have something to offer.
Here are all eight installments of the “Alien” series, ranked from worst to best.
8. “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem” (2007)
The tagline for “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” was famously: “Whoever wins, we lose.” But it wasn’t until this war crime of a sequel that the franchise really made good on the threat. And, to be clear, audience didn’t just lose when they went to see the hilariously titled “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,” they got massacred. Directed by The Brothers Strause (lol) and only a “movie” by the dictionary definition of the word, “Requiem” is such under-lit garbage that it often feels less like an action-horror film than it does the world’s loudest podcast (remember, this was made before Bret Easton Ellis started his show).
Of course, not being able to see anything on screen was as much of a blessing as it was a course, because this was the movie that introduced the world to the garbage hybrid “Predalien,” which stalked the poor townspeople of Gunnison, Colorado. Yes, after decades of threatening to unleash the Xenomorphs on Earth’s civilian population, the franchise finally went for it in the most bastardized way possible. Both unwatchably stupid and also brash enough to end with a half-assed origin story for the second name in Weyland Yutani (a misfire that Ridley Scott’s prequel trilogy is well on its way towards retconning), “Requiem” is an unmitigated disaster. Xenomorphs coming to Colorado would be bad, but this movie playing in Colorado multiplexes was even worse.
7. “AVP: Alien vs. Predator” (2004)
Hindsight being 20/20, maybe hiring Paul W.S. Anderson to marry two classic franchises wasn’t the best idea that 20th Century Fox has ever had, but it certainly wasn’t the worst (“A ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot directed by the guy who made ‘Chronicle?’ What could go wrong!”). Often misdiagnosed as one of Hollywood’s biggest hacks, Anderson can be a visionary eccentric when left to his own devices, and some of his more unmoored “Resident Evil” films border on the sublime. Here, however, here, he was saddled with the unenviable task of melding two classic franchises in a way that wouldn’t harm the IP of either, and he responded to the challenge with a subterranean thriller that’s kinda deft nearly as often as it’s completely daft. Nearly.
The first half of the film traffics in the same kind of ominous wonder and awestruck discovery that carried so much of the original “Alien” — the idea of finding a pyramid buried 2,000 feet below an Antarctic island is plenty compelling, and the movie is at its best when it poses its victims on the surface and has them peer down into the darkness of the funnel they’ve drilled. But, uh, the quality of the film sinks pretty severely as the story goes below sea level. The biggest problem here, and the hardest to solve, is that the Predators simply aren’t as interesting as the Aliens. On one side, you have H.R. Giger’s soulless killing machines, hatched directly from our most hellish nightmares. On the other side, you have moody teenagers with very big guns (and very bad skin) who have essentially come to Earth for their intergalactic Bar Mitzvahs. It’s not much of a fair fight, and Anderson never finds a way to make these space nemeses as interesting as the shapeshifting arena in which they’re fighting each other, but God bless Sanaa Lathan for stoically playing scenes where she’s forced to become friends with a Predator. There’s a moment where they almost high-five, and she pulls it off. That’s acting.
6. “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)
You have to give “Delicatessen” director Jean-Pierre Jeunet some credit — for better or worse, “Alien: Resurrection” feels like a Jean-Pierre Jeunet movie. At least, it feels like one of the grimy eccentricities he made before softening up and striking it rich with “Amélie.” Nearly as action-driven as “Aliens,” but notably stranger at every turn, “Resurrection” might be remembered for its zaniness (I mean, Brad Dourif is in it), but for something so half-baked it’s actually a rather crucial addition to the franchise.
For one thing, it brings the Xenomorphs’ adaptability to its logical conclusion; Ripley provides the missing link between human and alien, her pregnancy re-contextualizing the chest-bursting imagery as an expression of birth rather than death. For another, it completes the series’ prolonged round trip back to Earth. Joss Whedon’s seriously compromised screenplay doesn’t spark with his usual wit, but the saga’s first “female” android (a pixie-haired Winona Ryder!) is a nice complement to Ripley’s complicated femininity. And while “Resurrection” doesn’t stick the landing in any sense of the word, it does have a scene where Dominique Pinon — playing a quadriplegic space mechanic — shoots at Xenomorphs while being carried by Ron Perlman in a reverse Babybjörn. So there’s that.
5. “Prometheus” (2012)
Majestic and maddening in equal measure, “Prometheus” finds Ridley Scott taking the most circuitous possible route back to the franchise he first brought to the screen. Hardly the straightforward “Alien” prequel that fans may have wanted, “Prometheus” could have simply told the Space Jockey’s story (the Space Jockey wakes up, the Space Jockey kisses his wife goodbye, the Space Jockey goes to work on his ill-fated last day on the job…), but Scott and his dueling screenwriters instead opted for a slightly more ambitious route, resulting in a sci-fi epic that reimagines all of human history before its opening credits.
A blockbuster creation myth that peers into humanity’s uncertain future by retconning its past, the film clumsily combines the basic trajectory of an “Alien” movie — people fly a bit too close to the sun, land on a planet they never should have found, and then die all the deaths — with the existential inquisitiveness of “The Leftovers.” It’s the first movie of a new trilogy that didn’t know where it was going, and, in keeping with the spirit of its greater franchise, let its ultimate destination be determined by throwing a hundred options at the story and seeing which survived the fans’ reaction. The result is a visually astonishing mish-mash of ideas that range from the interesting (Michael Fassbender as a Peter O’Toole-inspired android with ulterior motives!) to the inane (everything that leads to the moment where Charlize Theron says “FATHER”), an uneven prequel that’s place in the “Alien” saga won’t be fully understood until whatever comes after “Alien: Covenant.”
The list continues on the next page.