We’re a week out from the release of “Alien: Covenant”, the latest, but most certainly not final, chapter in the “Alien” film franchise. This is the sixth film in the series, but if you’ve not seen them all, you might be confused about where “Covenant” falls in the order of the films. If so, then this short guide is for you.
Below, you’ll find very brief summaries for all of the films except for “Covenant”, which I’ve not seen yet. I’ve listed the movies in the order of the series chronology, beginning with “Prometheus” in 2094 and ending with “Alien Resurrection” in 2434. I’ve also taken the extra step of listing the year each film came out, along with my own personal take as a major “Alien” fanboy on whether you should watch or skip that particular installment in the series. (A note: I didn’t include the “Alien vs. Predator” films, as I don’t think they’re canonical. Feel free to tell me otherwise in the comments section.)
Warning: spoilers ahead for all films except “Covenant”.
2094: “Prometheus” (2012)
Director: Ridley Scott
Earth scientists studying ancient petroglyphs discover what appears to be directions to the home world of an alien race that may or may not have created humanity. An expedition to the world is funded by industrialist Andrew Weyland, whose company will become a major presence in the rest of the series. Upon arrival, the expedition members learn that the world is, in fact, a seemingly abandoned military base. Further, humanity’s possible creators — or “Engineers” — are, in fact, extremely hostile and may have made the xenomorphs (the aliens of the series) to destroy humankind. All of the crew dies, with the exception of one human, Elizabeth Shaw, and a quasi-traitorous synthetic (android) named “David”. The movie ends with them piloting one of the Engineers’ crafts to what is supposed to be their home world.
Watch or Skip: Watching “Prometheus” is an exercise in frustration. There’s a good movie somewhere in this mess, but it never can decide what it wants to be: an ambitious origin film for the “Alien” franchise, or just a schlocky monster movie. It’s a beautiful looking movie, too, which makes its failure to live up to its potential even more aggravating. I’m on the wall on this one. I say watch it, but mostly because “Alien: Covenant” is more or less a direct sequel.
2104: “Alien: Covenant” (2017)
Director: Ridley Scott
Another expedition sets out for what seems to be a pristine colony world. It’s not. We’ll learn more on May 18.
Watch or Skip: I’m avoided spoilers for the film, so I’ve not read any of the advance reviews. Despite my feelings about “Prometheus”, I’m going to give this one a chance. I can hardly skip an “Alien” film, and “The Martian” left me cautiously optimistic about Scott. You’d better not disappoint me, Ridley.
2124 AD: “Alien” (1979)
Director: Ridley Scott
The Prometheus expedition has been swept under the rug, presumably forgotten by everyone but Andrew Weyland’s company, now known as Weyland-Yutani.
The crew of the Nostromo, a Weyland-Yutani corporate cargo ship, is diverted by the company to respond to a distress signal emanating from LV-426, a desolate moon 36 light years from Earth. Venturing on to the surface, they discover that the signal is coming from an alien ship — the same kind seen in “Prometheus”.
Inside the ship, the hapless truckers stumble upon the remains of a long-dead engineer and a payload of alien eggs. A crew member is attacked by a facehugger, impregnated, and taken back to the ship. Days later, an immature xenomorph chestburster erupts from his chest and escapes into the dark confines of the ship. It grows to adulthood and kills off the crew members one by one — all except for Ellen Ripley, who, after being attacked by a murderous synthetic named Ash, learns that the mission to LV-426 was planned the whole time.
Ripley sets the Nostromo to self destruct and flees in a shuttle, not realizing that the creature is on board with her. After expelling it into outer space, she sets the shuttle’s coordinates and settles into its hypersleep.
Watch or Skip: Watch this one even if you don’t watch any of the other movies, including “Alien: Covenant”. It’s a great movie on its own — a true classic.
2183 AD: “Aliens” (1986)
Director: James Cameron
The Nostromo is missing in action following the events of “Alien”.
Ripley’s shuttle is discovered by a team of salvagers operating in the outer rim. Awakening in a hospital, she discovers that Weyland-Yutani doesn’t believe her story and plans on holding her responsible for the loss of the Nostromo and its crew. Their skepticism is seemingly abandoned after they lose contact with Hadley’s Hope: a colony on the moon of Acheron — also known as LV-426.
Ripley is strong-armed into riding shotgun with a strike force of Colonial Marines tasked with reestablishing contact with the colony. Upon arrival, they learn that the colonists came into contact with the same ship discovered by Ripley and crew in 2124. Now Hadley’s Hope is in infested with xenomorphs, and of course, Weyland-Yutani wants a specimen.
The strike force is overwhelmed despite their best efforts, leaving only Ripley, an injured marine, most of a loyal synthetic named Bishop, and the colony’s sole survivor, a young girl named Newt, alive. After a battle with a giant alien queen, Ripley and her fellow survivors board a shuttle and slip once more into hypersleep.
Watch or Skip: Watch this one if the idea of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers battling xenomorphs appeals to you. Hint: It should. This movie is a blast, and it looks like “Alien: Covenant” is going to at least partially play in the same sandbox.
2184 AD: “Alien 3” (1992)
Director: David Fincher
A fire aboard the shuttle causes it to crash onto prison planet Fury 161. Ripley is the only one to survive the crash, only to learn from a momentarily resurrected Bishop that she was impregnated with a stowaway face hugger while in hypersleep. Unbeknownst to her, another facehugger managed to live through the crash, and now there’s an adult xenomorph stalking the prison.
Knowing she has only days to live, Ripley helps the inmates to find and defeat the creature. The movie ends with Ripley diving into a pool of molten metal, killing herself and preventing Weyland-Yutani’s bioweapon division from claiming the creature for research.
Watch or Skip: There’s no reason to watch this movie. It’s not terrible, but it isn’t very good, and it doesn’t really add anything to the series.
2434 AD: “Alien: Resurrection” (1997)
Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Bioweapon scientists aboard a remote space station have somehow acquired genetic material from Ripley that survived the events of “Alien 3”. The material contains both xenomorph and human DNA. The scientists manage to create xenomorphs out of it, as well as a resurrected, fully grown, half-alien Ripley. Naturally, the xenomorphs escape and all hell breaks loose. The movie ends with Xeno-Ripley and a synthetic named Call on an escape shuttle bound for Earth.
Watch or Skip: Skip with extreme prejudice. I know it’s hard to believe that a film scripted by Joss Whedon and directed by Jeunet could be awful, but this one is.
- If you want to be prepared for “Alien: Covenant”, watch “Alien” and “Prometheus”. Everything else is optional.
- If you want to be very well prepared for “Alien: Covenant”, watch those films, plus “Aliens”.
- If you want to be extremely prepared for “Alien: Covenant”, you can watch all of the above, along with “Alien 3”. If you’re a glutton for punishment, you can toss in “Alien: Resurrection”, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Bonus preparation: Read the graphic novel Prometheus: Fire and Stone to learn what happened to the crew that went looking for the Prometheus expedition. I don’t think it’s canonical, but it is a cross-over book that ties in with the Aliens and Predator comic lines, and might lead you to other fun stuff to read.