The Ultimate Guide to the ‘Alien’ Film Franchise

"The Ultimate Guide to the Alien Film Franchise" written in green letters above the posters for each of the 6 main films: Alien, Aliens, Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Prometheus, Alien: Covenant

The Ultimate Guide to the Alien Film Franchise

The Alien franchise has been part of my life forever.  The second film, Aliens, was the number one film at the box office the day I was born.  My aunt was also obsessed with them and talked about them frequently as far back as I remember.  When I got old enough to watch scary films, the franchise was one of the first I tried just to see what all the fuss was about.

This was in the era before streaming, mind you.  I had to haul myself over to Blockbuster for each and every one.  But I did it.  My fearless tween self made it through all four scary monster movies and survived to tell the tale.  If I had a few nightmares, that was my own business.

After Alien: Resurrection, I sort of lost focus on the franchise.  With the rise of the MCU, expansion of Star Wars, and a flurry of incredible genre television, my attention was simply elsewhere.  It’s been over 20 years since I’ve really looked at what’s going on over at the Alien IP.  But when the Alien: Romulus trailer hit the Internet, it all came flooding back.

Oh hell yes.  That’s what I’m talking about.  This trailer is crafted specifically for people like me.  It tickled the part of my brain that fell in love with the series originally and sucked me back in faster than I can say Xenomorph.

But the problem is… I’d missed a few.  So I had to remedy that and catch up.  And now you all get to enjoy the fruits of my labor with this Ultimate Guide to the Alien Franchise.

How to Use This Guide

First, I’ll be primarily focusing on the six main Alien films that have come out and the upcoming Romulus.  I’ll include information about the crossovers with the Predator franchise, as well as information about additional material, like comics and video games, afterward.  There’s also an upcoming television show, but not much is known about that yet, so it’s hard to include much detail this far in advance.

Ripley from the original Alien film holding Jones, an orange cat.
Courtesy 20th Century Studios

Secondly, the release order and the order of the films is quite different than the chronology.  The films in the guide here are listed in release order, but if you’d like to watch them in timeline order, it would be as follows:

2093 | Prometheus
2104 | Alien: Covenant
2122 | Alien
2143 | Alien: Romulus (Upcoming Film)

2179 | Aliens
2179 | Alien 3
2381 | Alien: Resurrection

The various print media and video games take place in and around those, and the upcoming show supposedly takes place before Prometheus. I will include an even more detailed outline at the end of this article for full context.  But for now, let’s talk about the films!

The Setting

The main film franchise currently spans from 2093 to 2381.  Many of them feature a lot of iconic elements that build the world that this story is set in, some of which we see evolve as time moves forward.

In this fictional future, space travel takes an incredibly long time, so characters have to be put into a frozen stasis as they traverse the galaxy.  These journeys can take months or years.  This is a fairly realistic take on space travel, all things considered, and I can see this being technology that we could potentially develop in the future.  Perhaps not… in just 70 years.  That’s a little bit early, I think.  But at some point, maybe.

Robots (sometimes called ‘synthetics’) are an important part of the canon as well.  Like many science fiction franchises – Battlestar Galactica comes to mind – the robots were created by humans, and treated incredibly poorly.  The robots we get to know in the films take this with varying degrees of grace.  Some seem to be relatively at peace while others are bitter and angry at humanity, or even disgusted with themselves.

And, also like Battlestar Galactica, they evolve.  The robots in 2093 are not like the robots of 2381.  They all have some weird milky substance instead of blood, however, which acts as a sort of tell for some of the ones who wanted to blend in with humanity throughout the series.  Once they get injured and bleed, their cover is exposed.

A Franchise-Wide TRIGGER WARNING

The concepts of pregnancy, birth, death, and the ongoing cyclical life cycle are central to the films.  These are often explored in violent ways, including graphic body horror and forced pregnancies of alien creatures. 

The Alien queen - a huge black alien with long spider-like legs
The Queen. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

The main aliens in the film, the Xenomorphs, reproduce via a Queen, who lays eggs.  These eggs then produce the Facehuggers, which latch onto the face of a living being and forcibly implant a baby Xenomorph inside it.  This involves latching onto the being’s face (hence ‘Facehugger’) and forcing it down their throat.  This baby Xenomorph then grows and bursts out of its host, killing it in the process.

This is also explicitly analogous to rape.  Interspecies rape, at that.  So trigger warning for that for basically every single film in this franchise.  It’s a core element of the premise of the franchise.  Avoid these films if this could trigger anything.

The Alien Film Franchise

Alien (1979)
Timeline Year: 2122
Timeline Order: 3rd

A man in a space suit looking at an open egg, The opening is more like flaps than a cracked egg.
Kane, the first victim of a Facehugger, and a hatching egg. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

The original Alien film is known as one of the most influential science fiction and horror films of all time.  It’s truly a masterpiece in every sense of the word. From it’s stylized slow introduction and title reveal, to the music, to the practical effects that generally hold up over forty years later (Ash’s prop head notwithstanding… it’s truly the only bad prop in the whole film).   The movie won an Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, in fact.  It’s beautifully crafted.

The film follows the crew of the towing ship Nostromo, which is returning to Earth with a refinery processing 20 million tons of ore.  Its seven crew members are in stasis for the journey, which is implied to be a multi-year endeavor.  However, the ship’s AI, ‘Mother,’ detects a mysterious signal and wakes the crew up from their stasis seven months ahead of schedule.  According to protocol, they must investigate this signal even if they’re just a towing vessel.

They track the signal to a moon called LV-426, where they find a derelict alien ship with what is presumed to be its pilot dead in his chair.  The pilot has a hole in his chest, as though something had exploded out of it.  They continue to investigate, find some eggs, the infamous Facehuggers make an entrance, and all hell breaks loose.  You know how it goes from here.  Death.  Destruction.  Jump scares.  Artful horror that is better than you’d expect it to be!  A film that went down in history as one of the best, and deserves every bit of praise.

Sigourney Weaver plays the iconic Ellen Ripley, but she’s not framed as the protagonist for most of this film.  She is, however, incredibly badass.  She was so badass that she was able to throw her weight around for the next few films and make a lot of demands before signing onto the following projects.  There’s no doubt that she was the heartbeat of the series.  It would not have succeeded without her in those first four films.

Aliens (1986)
Timeline Year: 2179
Timeline Order: 5th

A little girl with messy hair, Newt, in water with an Alien coming up behind her, tail in the air.
Newt and a Xenomorph. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

After Ripley’s daring escape from the Nostromo, she ends up drifting into space while in stasis for over 50 years.  When she’s finally found, the Weyland-Yutani corporation, which was responsible for much of the horror in the first film, wants to recruit her and send her back on a mission to LV-426.  She isn’t exactly thrilled with this idea, but reluctantly accepts.  

While she was drifting in space, humans had the bright idea to terraform LV-426.  And they lost contact with the colony.  You can see where this is going.  Yep, the damn aliens got them.  But there was a survivor! A little girl named Newt escaped the aliens’ grasp by hiding in the walls.  Ripley and the crew find the child and work to get themselves and her off the moon.

Ripley and Newt develop a mother-daughter bond that really holds the whole film together.  It’s the driving force of the third act and shows a side of Ripley that we didn’t get to see in the first film. She’s motherly, but it doesn’t at all cost her any of her badassery as so many stories tend to do.  A lot of writers seem to think motherly figures can’t be flamethrower-wielding badasses, but Ripley proves that they can do just that.  And do it spectacularly.

This is one of those rare situations where the sequel to the original film is as good as the original.  Some might say it’s even better, though I’m aware I’m wading into treacherous territory with that statement.  Unfortunately, that level of awesome didn’t hold as the next two films are considered the weakest of the franchise.  Despite that, you should watch them anyway.

Alien 3 (1992)
Timeline Year: 2179
Timeline Order: 6th

By far the weakest of the franchise, Alien 3 takes place very shortly after Aliens.  Unfortunately, it undoes a lot of the important developments that occurred in the prior film.  The reason why this film turned out to be what many consider hot garbage is because it was very much a studio controlled story.  It had tons of quickly written rewrites and not much solid artistic input.  That means we ended up with a nearly incoherent mish-mash of ideas and a team of characters that never quite gelled together like the ones in the previous films.

A bald Ripley with an alien breathing right on her face
Bald Ripley and the Xenomorph. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

The plot of this mess is as follows: Ripley crash lands on a prison planet, which in some scripts was actually some sort of religious colony. Elements of that remained in the final script, but don’t make a lot of sense.  They’re sort of like a cult.  A cult of prisoners.  The prisoner-cult takes her in, but it’s clear they aren’t very accepting of a woman in their ranks.  To say they’re unfriendly would be putting it mildly.

Ah, but there’s a twist!  A Facehugger also survived the crash, and it breaks out, infects an animal, and then you know the drill from here.  Death. Destruction.  Jump scares.  And, this time, a fair bit of dismay at the jumbled mess of story we’re given. 

The bright spot of the film, however, is that Sigourney Weaver looks excellent with a shaved head.  She looks excellent in everything, though.  But it really is A Look.  We also get the iconic moment of the Xenomorph right up in her face as she recoils away, which is one of the most memed scenes from the entire franchise. 

Whatever else happened here, Ripley was awesome so we got that at least.  Watch it to appreciate Sigourney Weaver and it won’t be a total waste of time.  But also, if you want to understand the story in Resurrection, you need to watch this regardless.  The plot will not make sense otherwise.  While Aliens 3 undid much of Aliens, Resurrection respects its predecessor and writes a smooth continuation of the plot.  

Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Timeline Year: 2381
Timeline Order: 7th

Ripley is resurrected over two hundreds years after the events of the previous film.  So this isn’t really Ripley.  It’s a clone, which is fused with the DNA of the Queen she was carrying in Aliens 3.  She’s got long dark nails, super killer eyeliner, and acidic blood (just like the aliens).  The way she moves as a human-Xenomorph hybrid is almost surreal.  And, just like I said for the previous film, it’s worth it just to watch her be awesome if nothing else.

If that wasn’t enough Pretty Goth Woman for you, this film also features Winona Ryder as Call, a woman on a mission to eliminate the alien experiments being conducted by the Weyland-Yutani corporation.  That includes killing Ripley.  Ripley was resurrected for more of Weyland-Yutani’s evil corporate shenanigans. Amazing that after so many terrible incidents and hundreds of years, they still don’t know that they shouldn’t mess with Xenomorphs!  That’s corporate greed for you.

Goth Ripley holding Call's face and looking at her super closely and sort of scarily
The Ripley clone and Call. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

Call and Ripley end up working together, however.  And, people ship it.  They ship the hell out of it.  And I’m totally here for that.  The film came out in the late 90’s right at the cusp of Internet fandom, so its presence isn’t big, but Google still picks it up despite it’s weird algorithm funkiness.  You know a ship is strong if it can still have a presence despite being from before the height of Internet fandom.

Then the film plays out much the same as the others do.  Death.  Destruction. Jump scares. Etc.  You know how these films roll by now.

In my opinion, this film isn’t as bad as Alien 3, but it doesn’t bring enough new content to the table for it to have much meaning.  At this point, we know the Weyland-Yutani corporation is up to bad stuff.  We know there are experiments happening and space is colonized with humans. This has been chugging along steadily for over three hundred years since the chronological first film (which is the next in release order). 

The only real development worth noting in my opinion is the evolution of the robots.  They’re quite different philosophically in 2381.  They’re more human than we’ve ever seen them, and their opinions on what they are and their relationship to humanity has moved in an interesting direction.  The concept isn’t explored as much as it could have been, though.  Thankfully the prequel films explore the robot concepts much more in depth.  They give us what this film only hinted at, and a whole lot more.

Prometheus (2012)
Timeline Year: 2093
Timeline Order: 1st

An Engineer, which is a pale, bald creature in a strange silver space suit and black eyes
An Engineer Courtesy 20th Century Studios

The tone of Prometheus and its sequel are incredibly different than the first four films.  While its predecessors were focused largely on mixing science fiction with horror, these take a decidedly philosophical and spiritual approach.  Despite its tone shift, I think it’s an incredibly good addition to the series.  Alien is iconic, but there is a lot of room to explore other concepts within the universe they’ve created and I appreciate that they tried.  Its audience rating is just behind the first two films, and ahead of the last two, which feels like an appropriate place to put it in regards to quality.  It’s perhaps not as iconic as the first two, but it’s not a disaster either.

The film follows a group of scientists sponsored by the Weyland-Yutani corporation (at this point just known as the Weyland corporation) as they search for the mysterious Engineers, who they believe hold the answers to humanity’s existence.  The team is following a star map, which had been found at numerous ancient sites spanning thousands of years over multiple continents.  They basically see this as an invitation to meet the Engineers and go exploring the universe to find the meaning of life.  Or to ‘meet their makers,’ as they so aptly phrase it.

David, a blond man played by Michael Fassbender, standing in the middle of glowing markings floating in the air holding a glowing orb.
David Courtesy 20th Century Studios

The stand-out character of these two films is David, one of the earliest robots ever made. David is played by the Michael Fassbender, who brings an incredible amount of depth to the character.  He was created by the founder of the Weyland corporation, Peter Weyland.  While the humans are seeking their own makers, David is living and serving his, which creates a fair amount of resentment and friction. 

These films also have heavy religious elements that weren’t very present in the previous films (weird prison-cult notwithstanding).  One of the main characters, Doctor Shaw, wears a prominent cross around her neck and is unshakable in her faith.  They are, after all, seeking those that gave them life. It’s a concept that spans both religion and science fiction, which makes me once again think of Battlestar Galactica and how it played with these themes.  I personally enjoy the blending of these elements, but your mileage may vary.

Alien: Covenant (2017)
Timeline Year: 2104
Timeline Order: 2nd

David and Walter, both played by Fassbender. They are identical. One is playing a flute as the other holds it.
David teaching Walter how to play the flute. Courtesy 20th Century Studios

At the end of Prometheus, David and Shaw left to find the Engineers’ home world.  Shaw felt she deserved answers after going through so much and David follows her.  We learn that they found the planet (or something related to them at least), but things did not go as planned.  But honestly, when do they ever do in this franchise? It’s all just unplanned alien shenanigans, and this is no different in that regard.

But the main focus of the film starts elsewhere.  A colonization ship called the Covenant, which is en route to a planet called Origae-6, picks up Shaw’s transmission.  The captain decides this new planet may be better suited for colonization than Origae-6 and chooses to make a detour to assess the situation.  The planet is filled with dead humanoid creatures and a mysterious spore that infects people much like the Facehuggers.  So, like, obviously that was a terrible decision.  They should have just stuck to the plan, honestly.  

Michael Fassbender plays two robots in this one.  One of them, named Walter, was with the crew headed to Origae-6, while the other is David.  An incredibly broken David who has been through eleven years of psychological stress and clear physical neglect.  While David has evolved psychologically and expresses some clear trauma responses, Walter is restrained and obedient to humans.  It’s an enormous contrast.  

As someone who is inexplicably drawn to broken and tragic characters, it’s not at all surprising that David has become one of my favorites.  Fair warning – he can be pretty damn brutal, and some (most) might say evil – but that’s never stopped me from loving a character.  He joins my long list of messy, dramatic, problematic favs. This is probably my favorite role I’ve ever seen Fassbender play.

Alien: Romulus
Timeline Year: 2142
Timeline Order: 4th

This yet-to-be-released film will take place during the period that Ripley is drifting in space between Alien and Aliens.  The summary for it is pretty vague so far:

While scavenging the deep ends of a derelict space station, a group of young space colonizers come face to face with the most terrifying life form in the universe.

Yep, that’s all we have.  Based on the trailer it looks more like the jump-scare style of the original films and less like the philosophical prequels, but who knows really.  I love both types of Alien films, but for those who didn’t like the tone shift, this should be a huge relief.  I suspect there will at least be references to Prometheus and Covenant, though.  Perhaps it won’t explore the philosophical themes as thoroughly, but all of that’s part of the canon now.

Alien vs Predator Films

This crossover is not canon to the Alien franchise.  They take place in 2004, long before the Xenomorphs were ever created in the Alien canon.  That said, if your preference is for the monster side of things, they could be fairly fun monster flicks.  You’ve got two monster franchises.  They smash together.  The monsters fight. These films are very much what they say on the tin.

However, if you’re more into the Predator side of things, they are canon over there.  I haven’t seen those films, however, so I can’t help you there!  I’ve heard Prey is spectacular though, and I really should watch it.  But this article is about Alien, not Predator, so let’s get back to our own canon, yeah?

Complete Timeline: Movies, Short Films, Video Games & Print

There are a few novels, comics, video games, and short films that are optional for understanding the overall story.  They add to it – especially the short films in and around Prometheus and Covenant – but they aren’t required viewing.  For example, I certainly won’t be playing the video games personally as they would scare the hell out of me.  Despite my praise for this series, I am, in fact, terrible with jump scares!  And I don’t have any trouble understanding the rest of the series.  So pick and choose the medium you like and just enjoy the added world-building. The short films are particularly interesting and easy to find online.

  • 2023   
    Short Film | 
    The Peter Weyland Files: TED Conference, 2023
  • 2079   
    Short Film |
      The Peter Weyland Files: Happy Birthday, David
  • 2089   
    Short Film | 
    The Peter Weyland Files: Quiet Eye, Elizabeth Shaw
  • 2091   
    Short Film |
      The Peter Weyland Files: ‘Prometheus’ Transmission
  • 2093   
    Movie |
      Prometheus
  • 2094   
    Short Film |
      Alien: Covenant – Prologue: The Crossing
  • Pre-2103
    Short Film |  Alien: Covenant – Meet Walter
  • 2103   
    Novel |
      Alien: Covenant – Origin
    Short Film|  Alien: Covenant – Phobos
  • 2104  
    Short Film |  Alien: Covenant – Prologue: Last Supper
    Movie |  Alien: Covenant
    Short Film |  Alien: Covenant –  Advent
  • 2117
    Short Film |  Alien: Covenant – David’s Lab: Last Signs of Life
  • 2122
    Movie |  Alien
  • Unknown, Likely Post 2122
    Short Film |
    Alien: Alone
    Short Film | Alien: Containment
    Short Film | Alien: Harvest
    Short Film | Alien: Night Shift
    Short Film | Alien: Ore
    Short Film | Alien: Specimen
  • 2137
    Comic |  Alien: Isolation
    Video Game |  Alien: Isolation
  • 2138
    Comic |  Alien: Defiance
  • 2040
    Comic |  Alien: Resistance
  • 2159
    Novel |  Alien: Out of the Shadows
  • 2179
    Novel |  Alien: River of Pain
    Movie |  Aliens
    Novel |   Alien: The Cold Forge
    Movie | Aliens 3
  • 2200
    Comic |  Alien: Bloodlines
  • 2202
    Video Game |  Aliens: Fireteam Elite
  • 2295
    Comic |  Aliens: Dead Orbit
  • 2381
    Movie |
      Alien: Resurrection 
  • 2497
    Novel |  Alien: Sea of Sorrows

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.


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