"In space, no-one can hear you scream," promised the tagline of Ridley Scott's Alien, luring audiences to theaters in 1979 for a terrifying journey aboard the starship Nostromo. Scott's visual prowess twinned with Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett's sharp script birthed a sci-fi classic and a fresh perspective on genre cinema. James Cameron's Aliens picked up the tale seven years later, switching out Scott's stark, chilling horror for slick action, birthing a classic franchise.
Keen to capitalize on the success of Scott and Cameron's iconic entries, 20th Century Fox continued the franchise with a steady stream of sequels and prequels. But it's these first two films that introduce the face of the franchise: Sigourney Weaver's warrant officer Ellen Ripley. The lasting image of Weaver's beleaguered hero clutching the pulse rifle cemented the Alien movies into history. It's her story against the acid-blooded beasties that carries the main continuity until Scott himself turned back the clock with 2012's quasi-prequel, Prometheus.
The series now includes eight entries in total — including the Alien vs. Predator movies — and has raked in a whopping $1.6 billion dollars at the box office.
But this mash of sequels, prequels, and the splintered Alien vs. Predator timeline all reinventing the mythology have skewered the continuity. This means knowing where to start if you're new to the franchise can be quite a task.
You've got choices when it comes to how to watch the Alien movies. You can either start with Ripley's story or follow the mythology timeline. Luckily, both are chronicled in detail right here. Here's our guide on how to watch the Alien movies in order of production and chronological order.
How to watch the Alien movies in order of release date
Audiences lined up around the block for Alien. Word-of-mouth about a shrieking creature bursting from a man's chest was all it took to set the box office alight. A "haunted house in space" yarn switching out ghosts for an acid-blooded alien, Scott's debut remains a terrifying experience. The crew of a mining spaceship investigate a beacon on an unknown planet and return with a life form that stalks them one by one.
Artist H.R. Giger's creature design remains iconic, never better, a towering beast, glistening with ooze ready to tear apart its prey. Now an emblem of the franchise, it's easy to forget it's never fully revealed in the 1979 original, always hidden in the shadow of the stunning production design. The film's final act, soundtracked to the abrasive wail of the onboard computer's shutdown, remains one of cinema's most tense set pieces thanks to Weaver's star-making performance.
Fresh off The Terminator, James Cameron attacks the sequel with guns blazin'. Gone is the subtle nuance, and quiet, mounting dread of Scott's original, and in its place? A string of jaw-dropping action set pieces. Cameron chose to continue the story of Ellen Ripley some 57 years following the events of Alien. Together with a crew of Marines including Michael Biehn, Jenette Goldstein, and Bill Paxton as the endlessly-quotable Hudson, she returns to the planet that started it all.
Weaver's turn earned her an Academy Award nomination, and scored two effects Oscars. One of the best action movies ever made, packed with heart and glory, its masterful score by James Horner elevates it to classic status.
Alien 3 (1992)
Stuck in development hell with numerous scripts failing to pass studio muster, cameras eventually rolled on the sequel before its shooting script was even finished. No surprise, then, that first-time feature director David Fincher struggled to make the movie he'd envisioned, eventually bailing before the final cut shipped to theaters famously telling The Guardian in 2009: "No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me."
We pick up with Ripley as she crashes onto a prison planet, the beast in tow to decimate gen pop. Flashes of Fincher's later style appear fleetingly, especially in the Assembly Cut, a workprint cobbled together by a producer based on the director's schematics.
Alien Resurrection (1997)
20th Century Fox settled on Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet to helm the fourth outing, set some 200 years after the events of Alien 3. Screenwriter Joss Whedon's first draft involved a cloned version of Newt, but that swiftly changed to reintroduce Weaver's Ripley as the genetically-modified heroine with strands of alien DNA aboard the USM Auriga. Ripley unites with a group of mercenaries with plans to destroy an alien-breeding operation before the ship hits Earth.
With a $70 million budget, Resurrection includes a lengthy underwater set-piece and it introduced A-list Hollywood in the form of Winona Ryder's newbie, Call. While Whedon's sequels outlined a future battle on Earth, they never materialized on screen; instead, those storylines carried on in the Aliens versus Predator versus The Terminator comics.
Alien vs. Predator (2004)
James Cameron and Ridley Scott's plans for a fifth Alien movie were squandered in favor of this big-screen crossover. The Alien vs. Predator story began in the panels of the Dark Horse comics shortly after the success of Aliens.
A hit on the newsstands, the story of the xenomorphs' battle against the Yautja took its time reaching production, eventually shedding the comic storyline for a new tale set in the Antarctic. The result, a relatively bloodless and family-friendly PG-13 movie, failed critically but still raked in $177 million at the box office.
Aliens vs. Predator — Requiem (2007)
Three years after Alien vs. Predator, cameras rolled on Aliens vs. Predator — Requiem. Inspired by Whedon's unmade sequels, the action takes place in small-town America as a Predator ship crashes on Earth containing a new Predator-Alien hybrid intent on repopulating the planet.
While it boasts a fresh slate — the franchise had yet to visit Earth — the movie's lack of visual flair and sci-fi iconography scored most criticism. But perhaps its biggest flaw is the lightning. Half of the movie's action is located in near-total darkness, making it impossible to see the titular beasts brawl.
Scott re-entered the franchise with his long-teased origin story about a group of explorers whose dreams of discovering mankind's beginnings lead them to a faraway planet.
The first of the main series films to not include Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, Prometheus dives back into the timeline to uncover the Xenomorph's inception.
Its A-list cast includes Charlize Theron, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba, Michael Fassbender and Guy Pearce.
Visually stunning, its broad themes of faith and identity are occasionally at odds with its shallow character development, and as a sort-of prequel to Alien it struggles to cut muster. But on its own, it's an arresting piece of cinema, and it was a delight to behold Scott's take on the franchise 33 years since his debut.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Despite Scott's claims following the release of Prometheus that "the beast is cooked", he soon made an about-face.
Audiences were unhappy at the lack of Xenomorphs in the 2012 prequel, which inspired the creature-heavy Alien: Covenant. An undoubted franchise movie, it mashes the sterile veneer of Prometheus with the frenetic beats of Aliens, leaning hard into story specifics and hoisting most of the mythology-explaining on Fassbender's droid double-act as Walter and David. Co-starring Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, this is the bloody, creature-packed film fans craved with tension, dread, and action galore.
How to watch the Alien movies in chronological order
Alien vs. Predator (2004)
The historic rivalry between the two species is explored beneath Antarctica in an ancient ritual whereby juvenile predators earn their stripes by hunting Xenomorphs. A team of explorers, led by Charles Bishop Weyland, discover the pyramid and become trapped in the middle of a battle that ends with a Xenomorph impregnating a predator. Director Paul WS Anderson planned to set it in the Alien continuity by including Lance Henriksen as the head of Weyland Industries.
Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2004)
Picking up immediately where the previous movie ends, a predator ship crash lands on earth carrying alien eggs along with the PredAlien. The small town of Gunnison, Colorado is invaded by creatures and the military intervenes, eventually leveling the town. A colonel hands over a recovered predator weapon, a plasma rifle, to a Mrs. Yutani. This hints at the beginnings of Weyland-Yutani, the conglomerate referred to throughout the Alien franchise as "The Company."
Ridley Scott ignores the Alien vs. Predator lore in favor of establishing Prometheus as the start of the Alien timeline proper. This scrubs the slate clean and takes place 90 years after the Alien vs. Predator films. It follows a team of archaeologists and scientists led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and including android David (Michael Fassbender) who venture to LV-223; a moon believed to contain the secrets to mankind's creators known as The Engineers.
These humanoids left behind ampules of black goo as a mass extinction weapon. In Prometheus, the goo infects a human, leading to the creation of the Trilobite, which face-hugs an Engineer (still with us? Almost there!) and creates the Xenomorph progenitor, the Deacon.
Alien: Covenant (2104)
Set 11 years after the events of Prometheus. The deep-space colony ship Covenant is carrying 2000 slumbering colonists but veers off course when its onboard navigation system unearths an hospitable planet light years closer.
The crew land and soon come to regret their decision after meeting a cloaked stranger with a god complex. Fassbender returns as David and the Covenant's identical android, Walter. This prequel establishes the androids as integral to the Alien's lifecycle, with a host of new Xenomorphs making their franchise debuts as a result of David's genetic tinkering.
Alien factors into the timeline of the franchise 18 years following the events of Alien: Covenant. In 2122, the crew of the mining ship Nostromo is pulled from hypersleep to investigate a beacon on a desolate planet. With the mythology from previous installments in place, the crew's voyage to LV-426 is stacked with fearful expectations. Before long an alien creature is loose on board.
The greed of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation bubbles away, as we know their desire to obtain the acid-blooded killing machine trumps the lives of the Nostromo, a transmission referring to the crew as "expendable."
While we are now in a new stage of the franchise, with no explicit connections to the events of Prometheus or Covenant, it's where we first meet Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. Her hostile relationship with both The Company and the creature it longs to weaponize become the focus of the story.
Following her near-escape in Alien, Ripley's escape pod is located drifting aimlessly through space. She soon learns 57 years have passed and, during that period, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation colonized LV-426, but they've since lost communication with it.
Enter a crew of Colonial Marines who team up with Ripley to revisit the doomed moon. Aliens showcases the brute strength of the Xenomorphs in large numbers and the callous greed of The Company who will try anything to bring the beasts back to Earth for study. Ripley's backstory as a grieving mother reinforces her connection with Newt, an orphan survivor the team discovers in the colony.
Alien 3 (2179)
Once again, Ripley's escape pod crashes. This time she lands on prison planet Fiorina 161 and she's not alone. That's right, the beast is back, and it takes hold of a dog as its first host. It's here the franchise introduces a fresh lifecycle concept, that each Xenomorph borrows traits from its host's DNA.
Ripley encounters the hostility of the penal colony's inhabitants as well as the beast itself. Sigourney Weaver's demand that the movie has no firearms makes the Xenomorph's destruction more creative, with the prisoners wielding fire to lure the beast into a foundry. The final sting comes as Ripley throws herself into molten lead clutching the Alien Queen embryo as it bursts from her chest.
Alien Resurrection (2379)
Death can't stop Ripley from coming back. Alien Resurrection picks up 200 years later as the United Systems Military clone Ripley from DNA in order to extract the alien queen embryo from her chest.
The movie introduces two new beings: Ripley-8, who's infused with strands of alien DNA, and the newborn, a part-human, part-alien creature. All this takes place aboard the research vessel Auriga, where a group of mercenaries led by Winona Ryder's Call unwittingly deliver human cargo for use in breeding aliens.
Ripley-8 escapes, the Xenomorphs escape, and carnage ensues. The movie closes out the continuity with Ripley and the mercs crashing on Earth.
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Gem Seddon is a Seattle-based freelance entertainment writer with bylines at Vulture, Digital Spy, TechRadar, GamesRadar+, Total Film, and Certified Forgotten. Librarian by day, scribbler by night, Gem loves 90-minute movies, time travel romance, single-camera comedy shows, Stephen King, all things queer, all things horror, and queer horror. Alien and Scream are tied as her all-time favorite movie. She won't stop raving about Better Things.