On May 25th, 1979, Alien was released in the United States. In the almost 40 years following its release, Ridley Scott’s landmark horror film has inspired sequels, prequels, crossovers, and countless imitators. It is the rare example of a film that loses none of its potency with subsequent viewings. To celebrate its anniversary, for this edition of The Chopping Block, I rank the Alien prequels and sequels from the least to the best. For the sake of brevity, I have opted to ignore the terrible crossover films.
Alien: Covenant was supposed to correct everything wrong with Prometheus. Franchise fans knew Covenant was going to be the ‘sliver bullet’ because they even put the ‘Alien’ back in the title all but assuring this was truly an Alien prequel. And half of Covenant is an Alien-prequel, and a pretty good one, too. The action and scares are gut-wrenching at times. The neomorph bursting out of Benjamin Rigby’s back was a brutal update on Alien’s most famous moment.
Unfortunately, half of Covenant is also a Prometheus sequel that wants to go in a different direction.
Unfortunately, half of Covenant is also a Prometheus sequel that wants to go in a different direction. Ridley Scott seemed more invested in his android, David, than the Xenomorph itself. He clearly had themes and questions from Prometheus he still wanted to explore. The result is a disjointed film that grinds to a thudding halt whenever those Prometheus elements pop up.
Prometheus is a beautiful film to look at. Directory Ridley Scott has arguably never exhibited more mastery over the visual elements of film-making than he has with Prometheus. For a summer blockbuster and prequel, Scott was also extremely ambitious in the story’s scope and themes. Few summer tent-pole releases can claim to have wrestled with ideas as complex as the ones raised in Prometheus. Yet in spite of its ambition, Prometheus doesn’t work as a true Alien film or prequel. Audiences wanted an Alien prequel; Scott clearly wanted to do something else. There’s also the myriad of plot holes and lapses in logic that drag the film down. Why didn’t Charlize Theron’s character just run to the side?
Alien: Resurrection should have been a much better film. With a screenplay from uber-geek Joss Whedon, the fourth film in the franchise boasts a remarkably simple but effective premise that should have lent itself to a satisfying balance of action and horror. In addition to the return of Sigourney Weaver, Resurrection has a stacked supporting cast playing an eclectic band of characters worthy of inclusion in an Alien film.
Yet somehow it all went horribly wrong. Much of the blame should probably be laid at the feet of director of Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Despite some directorial experience with science fiction and darker subject matter (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children), Jeunet seemed unable to settle on an appropriate tone in Resurrection. Some moments of Resurrection – such as Dan Hedaya’s very broad performance – feel out of place in the franchise. Other aspects of Resurrection register as just plain odd, particularly Ripley’s encounter with the xenomorph queen and the hybrid xenomorph. It’s still a watchable film, with the underwater chase sequence standing out, but it’s not a particularly good Alien film.
Alien fans are likely very familiar with the production problems that plagued Alien 3 behind the scenes. Director David Fincher infamously disavowed the sequel. And there are certainly a lot of things wrong with Alien 3. It pulls the rug out from under Aliens’ emotionally satisfying conclusion before the opening credits have even finished. The computer-generated Alien effects were suspect back in 1992. Too many of the supporting characters are indistinguishable from one another.
…Alien 3 dials things back and puts atmospheric horror, dark visuals, and mood back to the forefront.
Nonetheless, I would argue there’s still much to like about Alien 3. Rather than attempting to outdo James Cameron’s frenetic action-sequel, Alien 3 dials things back and puts atmospheric horror, dark visuals, and mood back to the forefront. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as always, and Charles S. Dutton and Charles Dance turn in memorable supporting performances. Most importantly, Alien 3 offers what should have been an emotionally satisfying closure to Ripley’s character arc with her final sacrifice.
How does one choose between Alien and Aliens? At the end of the day, it’s a matter of personal preference. Ridley Scott’s Alien remains a classic of horror film-making. Some critics have pointed out that Alien is largely a slasher film set in space, which discounts so much of what makes it a great horror film. Based on a story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett, Alien carved out a mythology that has not only led to several sequels over decades but influenced countless sci-fi/horror films. H.R. Giger’s xenomorph and set design remains among the most innovative creature effects in film history. And that original appearance of the “chestburster” sets the bar for horror film jump scares. Alien was one of several horror films in the 1970’s that proved that the genre could and should be taken seriously.
Aliens is the perfect film. Period. It is the rare case of the sequel to a classic film improving upon the original. James Cameron doesn’t just recycle the same formula from Ridley Scott’s space chiller, but rather broadens the concept’s mythology while taking it into different genre territory. Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is given a much fuller, compelling character arc. Her supporting cast is full of memorable characters portrayed by familiar faces. Cameron masterfully balances full-throttle actions sequences with the original’s horror tone all against the backdrop of James Horner’s epic score. To this day, the practical special effects used to create the Queen xenomorph are unparalleled. Aliens is one of the definitive films from the 1980’s.