4. “Alien3” (1992)
Forever destined to be the most controversial of the “Alien” films — a dubious distinction that it earned long before it even hit theaters — David Fincher’s directorial debut is a grimy, industrial, vision of hell that couldn’t more obviously be a product of the early 1990s if the entire thing were scored to the “Macarena.” Set on a penal colony planet and shot like a feature-length Nine Inch Nails video, “Alien 3” makes it palpably clear that Ripley will never be able to make it home in one piece. Her dream of simply getting back to Earth with a crazy story to tell… that’s not going to happen. Watching Ripley slowly realize that fact results in some of the franchise’s most gripping storytelling, regardless of which cut of this film you happen to watch. Sigourney Weaver has never been better.
And that’s a good thing, because the special effects have never been worse. The result of a (truly) visionary director making his first feature in the pre-“Jurassic Park” era of CGI, “Alien 3” is a hot mess of awkward digital animation, overambitious puppeteering, and the kind of sloppy composite work that Fincher would never tolerate again. Sill, the experience clearly proved formative for the young Fincher, who survived this studio nightmare and emerged from it with the kind of perseverance that would make Ripley proud.
3. “Alien: Covenant” (2017)
Picking up where “Prometheus” left off, “Alien: Covenant” does an improbably good job of pointing Ridley Scott’s prequel trilogy in the right direction. A beguiling summer blockbuster that borrows elements from just about every other “Alien” movie there has ever been, the franchise’s most recent installment is like a chronological tour of everything the series has tried to do since Scott first started it. Beginning with the lost-in-space vibes of the original before transitioning to mercenary machismo, a metal wasteland, hybrid creatures, and existential questions about our place in the cosmos (before ultimately looping back around for a lazy coda that riffs on the original film), “Covenant” never quite finds the right mechanics for its compelling creation myth, but Scott sure has a lot of fun trying.
And while the Noah’s Ark symbolism is almost as disposable to “Covenant” as Shaw’s religious upbringing was to “Prometheus,” the most fascinating thing about this film is still how fearlessly it builds atop the Biblical bedrock of its foundation. Accurately identifying David as the dark, imperfectly coded soul of this new saga, “Covenant” doubles down on the most brilliant male performance any blockbuster has seen since Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” inviting Michael Fassbender to serve as both sides of a probing conversation about the fundamental nature of life in the universe. If anything, the dueling Fassbenders are so rich with existential terror that they reduce the Xenomorphs to an obnoxious afterthought, rendering one of cinema’s most iconic monsters second fiddle in their own movie. Here’s hoping the inevitable sequel will share this film’s ability to recognize the strengths of its predecessor (which means that Katherine Waterston needs to come back, too).
2. “Aliens” (1986)
No, “Aliens” is not a perfect movie. I know it feels like a perfect movie, and flows like a perfect movie, and that it manages to run for more than 150 minutes while still boasting the rewatchability of an incredible Vine, but none of that matters once you notice Paul Reiser’s blazer. Seriously, James Cameron created an entire planet for “Avatar,” and he couldn’t be bothered to imagine that — in the 150 years between 1986 and 21whatever — the only advance in the fashion world would be that corporate weasels are wearing jackets with stiffer collars? Embarrassing. A real genius like George Lucas would have gone back and digitally inserted some CG patterns or something by now. What a disgrace.
Anyway, that atrocity not withstanding, “Aliens” is obviously one of the greatest action movies ever made. Brimming with a sense of scale that few other filmmakers are capable of generating, Cameron’s steroidal sequel brilliantly illustrated that this franchise was every bit as adaptable as the monster it put on the marquee. An iconic spectacle that supplants the haunted horror of the previous film with a sense of overwhelming danger, “Aliens” unfolds like a PTSD flashback of the nightmare that Ripley improbably survived the first time around. It’s swollen with ingenious set pieces, littered with iconic moments, and proof that Cameron is a more gifted director of actors than people tend to give him credit for — from Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn to Jenette Goldstein and the incomparable Bill Paxton, everyone on screen instantly forges an unforgettable character. It’s as fun to watch them fire at Xenomorphs as it would be to grab a drink with them at LV-426’s finest bar.
1. “Alien” (1979)
Studio movies today have way too much story (and that most definitely includes both “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant”). There are like four things that happen in “Alien” — it runs two full hours and it’s one of the best films of all time. Some blue-collar space workers detect a strange transmission from an unknown planetoid, and their ship’s A.I. decides to wake them from hyper-sleep in order to investigate, because the ship’s A.I is definitely on their side (after all, Mother knows best). The crew investigates, John Hurt gets a stomach ache, and a woman named Ripley is the only one who manages to find the cure. But oh, how Ridley Scott fills in the parts between the plot points, milking Dan O’Bannon’s immaculately sparse screenplay for every drop of sinister goodness.
As richly atmospheric as its medium allows, “Alien” is a slasher that’s absolutely drenched in mystery; every nook and cranny of the Nostromo is black enough to hide a Xenomorph, but the film is so effective because it makes you as curious about the darkness as you are cowered by it. The genius of “Alien” isn’t just that it introduced moviegoers to the perfect killing machine, but that — in doing so — it preyed upon our own vulnerabilities, both individually and as a species. And it did so well enough for Ridley Scott to pick up that thread several decades down the line.