The paradigmatic sci-fi horror. Introduced an iconic cinematic heroine, and a perfect cinematic monster. Yet Weyland Industries (later renamed Weyland-Yutani) is the real villain.
Again paradigmatic, this time for sci-fi action; many imitators, no equals. James Cameron’s shameless populism is politically ambiguous; the ultimate villain is still an evil mega-corporation, treating grunts as disposable pawns to acquire bio-weapons; yet there’s also an arguable subtext of post-Nam, “no man left behind”, “nuke the entire site from orbit” Reaganesque revanchism (Cameronu had written the similarly-themed Rambo II not long beforehand). Technically flawless, in any case.
Alien 3 (1992)
Visually and conceptually bold, yet tonally leaden, lacking genuine scares. Some of the darker moves are also crudely manipulative; casually kills beloved characters Newt and Hicks in the opening credits, shortly before a rape-threat against Ripley. Good cast representing “a bunch of lifers who found god at the ass-end of space”, with Charles S Dutton making a particularly strong impression as the black preacher.
Alien Resurrection (1997)
Underrated. An inventive, funny script by Joss Whedon. Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s direction is odd; he has no knack for action or horror, but he has a knack for Gothic surrealism which makes for some brilliant sequences. Ripley’s destruction of the other clones is gold.
Ridley Scott hasn’t made a truly great film since Thelma and Louise, and this is probably his worst. Nice design and cinematography, but a pretentious and nonsensical script with no sense of humour, no self-awareness and no subtlety.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Ridley Scott’s message to the audience: “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.” Oh, we do Ridley, we do. Snark aside, this is a huge improvement on Prometheus (not saying much). At its best while sticking to horror convention, with bodies piling up rapidly. At its worst when philosophising about Creation, a la Prometheus. Shut the fuck up, David(s)!
Summary rankings: Alien/Aliens(tie) > Alien Resurrection > Alien: Covenant > Alien 3 > Prometheus
Conclusion: Uneven, but my favourite sci-fi movie franchise, with each film offering something distinct.