When the crew of the Nostromo touched down on the stormy moon LV-426 in 1979’s Alien, they had no idea of the horrors they were about to encounter. Nor, for that matter, did audiences. When crewmember Kane (John Hurt) was dragged back to the ship with a parasitic organism attached to his face, the birth scene that followed, as a screeching infant Alien burst from his chest, was one of the most shocking in 1970s cinema.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Alien was essentially a slasher movie in space – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s raw terror was an influence – but the quality of its writing, acting, and stark direction elevated it above the ranks of B-movie schlock, and turned survivor Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) into a sci-fi icon.
Alien’s success all but ensured more horrors would follow – and over 40 years later, the series’ timeline is a complicated one. Some plot threads reach right back to the creation of life on our planet. Other threads, meanwhile, have been left tantalisingly dangling. Here’s how the timeline looks in chronological order.
What order should I watch the Alien movies in?
- Alien: Covenant
- Alien 3
- Alien: Resurrection
Prometheus – circa 4 billion BC to 2089 AD
Although released in 2012, Prometheus takes place decades before the events of Alien. The prequel not only delves into the origins of the Xenomorph, but also the creature once dubbed the Space Jockey – that gigantic, biomechanical entity briefly glimpsed aboard a horseshoe-shaped craft in Alien. These giants are Engineers – hairless, humanoid beings that appear to travel from planet to planet, creating new life. When Prometheus begins, we see a cloaked Engineer drink from a bowl of black goo in what appears to be a religious ceremony. This act of self-sacrifice, it’s implied, resulted in all life on Earth: in short, there’s a bit of Engineer DNA in all of us, and vice versa.
Fast-forward a few billion years, and a team of explorers led by Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) follow an ancient star map to LV-223 – a moon they believe to be the Engineers’ home, but may actually be a military base. Here, the black goo we saw at the start of Prometheus is revealed to be as deadly as it is life-giving – one by one, the crew succumbs to the substance’s effects in one form or another. At the end of the movie, a kind of proto-alien emerges from an Engineer. An amalgam of human and Engineer DNA, the creature – The Deacon – is a distant ancestor of the vicious Xenomorph the crew of the Nostromo will later meet in the middle of Alien.
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By returning to the Alien universe, director Ridley Scott attempted to expand his canvas beyond the original film’s haunted house in space. Prometheus deals with such lofty themes as faith, the origins of life, and creators destroyed by their own creations. The catalyst for Prometheus’ events is the butler-like android, David, (Michael Fassbender), who quietly studies the Engineers – and manipulates his human companions into becoming unwitting guinea pigs in his black goo experiments.
Ridley Scott’s prequels therefore establish a life-cycle not unlike the Alien’s: Engineers created humans. Humans created artificially-intelligent androids. One of those androids would ultimately create the Alien, and perhaps even wipe out the Engineer race as a whole.
Prometheus ends with Shaw and a severely damaged David leaving LV-223 in one of the Engineers’ Juggernaut craft. Shaw aims to find the Engineers’ home planet; David has a much darker agenda, as the next film reveals…
Alien: Covenant – 2104 AD
Perhaps at the insistence of 20th Century Fox, the Alien is back in the title and once again stalking prey in Ridley Scott’s 2017 follow-up. Yet another doomed ship full of neurotic humans lands on a distant planet, only to be eviscerated by toothsome monsters. Again, Fassbender’s David emerges as the anti-hero – here, on a now uninhabited world known as Planet 4, he’s morphed into a full-on mad scientist, like Dr Frankenstein. Between the events of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, he’s been experimenting on the body of the luckless Elizabeth Shaw – and in the process, managed to engineer a horrifying creature very close to the one seen in 1979’s Alien.
The Engineers are now, it seems, extinct – wiped out by their own goo thanks to David. The evil android also manages to turn the tables on the human cast once again. By the end of the movie, he’s taken control of the titular Covenant ship and set a course for a habitable planet, Origae-6, with a cargo hold full of human and alien embryos in the deep freeze. It’s a cliffhanger, alright, and backs up Scott’s stated desire to make at least one or two more prequels that would connect this timeline’s events with those of the original Alien.
Alien – 2122 AD
Alien: Covenant’s middling box-office may have put those sequel plans on hold, but it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine how it could all tie in with the events of Alien: at some point, a Juggernaut carrying Xenomorph eggs crash lands on the planet LV-426, waiting to be discovered by the crew of the Nostromo. The Weyland-Yutani corporation, perhaps scanning for alien signals, already knows there’s something valuable out there and so put a corporate spy aboard the Nostromo. That spy is Ash, the artificial human played to chilly perfection by Ian Holm, whose job is to get an Alien specimen back to Weyland-Yutani on Earth.
Ultimately, it’s standoffish Lieutenant Ripley (Weaver, on iconic form) who emerges from the ensemble as Alien’s protagonist. Where the rest of the crew are done in by their human frailties or sheer bad luck, Ripley remains cool, shrewd, and fortunate enough to come through her close encounter with the Alien. Like Jones, the ship’s cat, she’s a survivor.
Aliens – 2179 AD
Director James Cameron took over for the 1986 sequel, and was smart enough to switch genres from slasher to action. But Aliens also develops the theme of corporate greed that served as a background note in the previous movie: Weyland-Yutani still wants the Xenomorph for its own nefarious purposes, and has sent a terraforming mission to LV-426 (now called Acheron) with the secret agenda of finding the crashed Juggernaut and the alien eggs lurking inside.
This, it turns out, is precisely what happens (we see the Juggernaut’s discovery in the Special Edition, released in 1991), and pretty much the entire colony is wiped out by Xenomorphs. Ripley, fished out of space after 57 years in hypersleep, is tasked with joining a detachment of Colonial Marines on a mission to LV-426 in order to find out what happened; corporate suit Burke (Paul Reiser) insists they’re there to wipe out the Xenomorphs, but we all know the real purpose: to retrieve one of the creatures for Weyland-Yutani.
Still, the events of Aliens help give Ripley closure. It’s here she turns from traumatised survivor to victorious heroine, having faced the literal mother of all aliens (the hulking Queen) and beaten her in mortal combat. Ripley’s reward? A love interest in softly-spoken marine Dwayne Hicks (Michael Biehn) and a surrogate daughter in young survivor, Newt (Carrie Henn).
Alien 3 – 2179 AD
Cruelly, Alien 3 takes away everything Ripley gained in Aliens. Directed by David Fincher, Alien 3 is essentially a coda to Aliens: Ripley crash-lands on the prison planet Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a collision that kills her makeshift family in the process. Hicks and Newt are gone, and faithful android Bishop (Lance Henriksen) is damaged beyond repair.
Ripley is depicted here as a battle-fatigued warrior, chased to the end of the universe by her nemesis, and now carrying an unborn Queen inside her. Death is inescapable; all Ripley can do is face the end with dignity and courage – and prevent Weyland-Yutani from getting its hands on the deadly alien. Alien 3 is a downbeat film with an apocalyptic air of finality to it – though, of course, the franchise’s profitability meant it was never going to be put to rest here.
Alien: Resurrection – 2379 AD
If Alien 3 was a coda to Aliens, then Resurrection, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, is a blackly comic postscript. Ripley’s back from the dead, but not quite: she’s a genetically-engineered hybrid with Xenomorph blood running through her veins, dubbed Ripley 8. Weyland-Yutani has finally gotten its hands on the creature it wanted all along, and is now busy running experiments on a space-going lab, the USM Auriga. One visit from a shipful of space pirates later, and the Xenomorphs take over the asylum; Resurrection ends with another toothsome abomination sucked out into space, and with Ripley 8 heading back to Earth – a conclusion that either gives the character closure, or hints at yet more Alien-related chaos to come.
Roads not travelled
Resurrection didn’t get a direct sequel, so we’ll never know what happened to the cloned Ripley after that film’s events. Not that there weren’t attempts to continue Ripley’s story on film: around 2015, director Neill Blomkamp planned to make his own sequel to Aliens, which would have rendered the events of Alien 3 and Resurrection non-canon, and given Ripley a very different direction – the film would have teamed her up with Hicks for another stand-up fight against the Xenomorph.
Unfortunately Fox cancelled that project, favouring Ridley Scott’s tinkering with the Alien timeline, which left some dangling threads of its own. In Prometheus, it was revealed the Engineers were planning to use their patented goo to destroy life on Earth. But why? What happened to David after the events of Alien: Covenant? Who crashed the Juggernaut on LV-426? Was it David, an Engineer, or someone else entirely?
With franchise rights now at Disney, there’s reportedly an Alien television series in the works, with Legion creator Noah Hawley at the helm. Whether it chooses to continue the threads Ridley Scott left untied or goes in a completely different direction, it’s clear that the Alien timeline isn’t finished just yet.
If you’re wondering where the spin-offs Alien Vs Predator and Aliens V Predator: Requiem have gotten to, well, their events took place in their own timeline. According to those movies, the Xenomorphs already exist in the 21st century: AvP tells us that the creatures were first discovered in Antarctica by Charles Bishop Weyland (Lance Henriksen), and that Predators had been fighting Aliens for thousands of years – perhaps even longer. In this timeline, there’s no way that David could have created the Alien around the year 2122 – unless he also invented a time machine, that is…