Alien to Alien: Covenant – Exploring the series as a whole.
In 1979 the world was introduced to a unique vision from Ridley Scott (The Martian). Alien found immediate success with the fans, the critics, and the box office. Since this film was release there have been five additional films made in the series. (For a list, scroll to the bottom of the post.) These sequels and prequels are a mix of good, bad, and downright terrible aspects. Below are my thoughts on what makes some of them work, while others are clear failures.
I should begin by stating that I am writing this after having viewed the theatrical releases of the movies. There are numerous director’s cuts and extended cuts available for most of the film. I am also intentionally ignoring the films within the Alien vs. Predator series since I don’t believe that they are connected enough to these movies.
When I recently took another look at Alien, I was immediately reminded of just how special that movie is. There is a visual tension thanks to the claustrophobic filming style and set designs. Ridley Scott had a clear vision and did great work with the technology available to him at the time. He also knew how to use the sense of the unknown to add to the horror aspects of the story. The writing has a ton to offer as well. The characters are perfectly written, allowing them to develop over time without unnecessary exposition. Dan O’Bannon’s writing also avoided straying into any of the campy war movie dialogue that often shows up in stories like this. (When I get back home….) The acting is solid, and I can say that this is clearly the best film in the series.
So what did we get from the sequel in 1986? Right away, it’s important to note that James Cameron (Avatar) stepped in to write and direct the film. His vision was clearly different from Scott’s, but he held onto the aspects of the story that made the first one work. While his writing isn’t as solid as O’Bannon’s, this one still has a solid script. James Cameron was clearly more focused on pushing the visuals in the film forward. This one looks great, especially given the technology at the time. The acting also takes a small step back in this one. While Sigourney Weaver and many of the stars do good work, there are also a couple of really awkward performances. Most notably, Bill Paxton becomes an unintentional comic character in this one. It’s bad enough to be distracting at times. Despite these flaws, I would definitely consider this to be the second best of the six films.
Much like great musicians often have bad third albums, this series has a very weak third film. Alien³ brought David Fincher (Gone Girl) to the helm, using a script written by Vincent Ward. Right away this one reveals itself to be a weak story with little commitment to making a run at the dual-genre styling of the first two films. Instead, this feels like a campy imitative horror film. The acting is a collection of mediocre performances (excluding Weaver and Lance Henriksen). The visuals are good, but there’s nothing new or exciting going on. Not surprisingly, most of the people involved with the development and production of this movie have distanced themselves from it. Despite all of the criticism, this is not the worst film in the series. It was a close call though.
Alien: Resurrection… I don’t even know what to say about this one. First, how did they convince Sigourney Weaver to come back to the series? Second, what was Joss Whedon (The Cabin in the Woods) thinking when he wrote the script? Finally, who decided that Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) was the right guy to do a sci-fi horror film? To be honest, there aren’t really any good answers to those questions. The resulting film is a disappointment at every turn. The story is unbalanced and (not surprisingly) filled with holes. Besides Weaver, the only decent performance might be Ron Perlman. This is a bad movie, and fans of the series can skip it without missing anything. This is the 6th place, and worst, film of the series.
In the fifteen years between Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus a lot had changed. The technology available in 2012 for Prometheus made this seem like a promising opportunity. Adding to the optimism was the return of Ridley Scott to the series. Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) and Damon Lindelof (Star Trek: Into Darkness) were tapped to write the script. Their story would serve as the beginning to a series of prequel films with loose connection to the original series. This one looks great. Ridley Scott did a great job in bringing his vision to life in an epic scale. The story doesn’t quite hit the mark though. This isn’t a bad script, but there is a predictability to it that’s disappointing. Next to the visuals, the highlight of this one might be the performances from Michael Fassbender and Noomi Rapace. These two do a great job with dramatically different roles. This one doesn’t have the magic of the first two films, but it succeeds more than it falls short. I would consider this to be the fourth best film in the series.
If you’ve been keeping score; that leaves Alien: Covenant as the third best movie in the series. This one is a direct sequel to Prometheus, released in 2017. Ridley Scott was back to direct, this time using a script written by John Logan (Spectre) and Dante Harper (You’re Gonna Miss Me). This one is a visual masterpiece, further opening up the world of the series for Ridley Scott. The CGI and camera work do wonders in creating the world of the film. While this looks great, there is definitely something missing in the writing. In the first two films there was a lot for the audience to connect to. This one doesn’t have that. Additionally, there are a number of characters that seem unnecessary since they lack any connection to one another. Despite the story issues, there are some great performances. Michael Fassbender and Katherine Waterston do great job giving this one a little extra.
These films are a unique collection of visions from four very different directors. The films seem to range from instant classic (Alien) to unwatchable nonsense (Alien: Resurrection). I would encourage people to see the first two films for sure. After that, I think there’s a smaller audience for the third and fourth movies. The two most recent films are also worth checking out.
I enjoyed seeing all of these films, some for the first time. While the movies don’t always work, this series is truly one of the originators of the sci-fi horror genre. Fans of the mixed genre should make sure to check some or all of these movies out.