Which Is Better: ‘Alien’ or ‘Aliens’? Let’s Settle This Once and For All
A new Alien opens in theaters this Friday; Alien: Covenant is the first movie in the beloved sci-fi franchise since 2012’s Prometheus, and the first with the word “alien” in the title since 2007’s timeless classic Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. Audiences will decide whether Covenant is a worthy sequel (we liked it), but even if they do, the overwhelming odds are they will find it no better than the third best movie in the history of the series. That’s because the first two movies in the series — Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens — are amongst the best sci-fi films ever made.
But which one’s better? It’s a question movie lovers have debated for three decades. Hoping to settle this matter once and for all (or at least get a good article out of the whole thing), ScreenCrush asked staffers and contributors to pick their favorite. The results may not be definitive, but they are clear, with one movie coming out on top. If you disagree, remember: In space, no one can hear you scream. That’s what the comment section is for.
This feels to me like an apples-and-oranges sort of proposition; Ridley Scott's original is a ruthlessly competent horror film featuring a captivating yet unknowable villain, while James Cameron's sequel assumes the form of an action movie, the xenomorphs swarming to Ripley like the grunts of an early video game level. I personally favor Alien — I went into it as a twelve-year-old knowing absolutely nothing, and John Hurt's final scene rendered me speechless — but I wouldn't go so far as to declare it the superior film. I consider the two pretty evenly matched, and a viewer's preference for one over the other speaks more to their taste as a watcher rather than the content or quality of the films themselves.
In my mind, this shouldn’t even be up for debate. Ridley Scott’s classic sci-fi horror thriller is vastly superior. Comparing Alien to Aliens is like comparing a symphony to a sledgehammer; not to suggest that Cameron’s film lacks artistry, but it’s blunt and bombastic where Scott’s film is more elegant and cerebral. Aliens turns Ripley into an action superhero, but in Alien, she’s just a woman who gets s— done. On a ship full of men, she’s the only man for the job. Scott cleverly cast Sigourney Weaver in a role written for a man, a decision that gives the story additional subtext and enriches the film’s psychosexual themes. Those elements permeate everything from H.R. Giger’s grotesque designs to the confrontation with Ash (and his symbolic synthetic fluids) and the xenomorphs’ intimately invasive means of attack. Alien is unnerving and contemplative sci-fi horror that gets under your skin and sticks there. Aliens is a revenge fantasy; it’s what you watch to get back at Ridley Scott for scaring the hell out of you.
On any level that truly matters — writing, direction, production design, and performance — the two movies are practically a push. So why is it that Cameron’s Aliens is the clear winner in my book? Maybe it’s because I owned a dozen Aliens action figures years before my parents allowed me to see the film. Maybe it’s because I cannot use the word ‘mostly’ in a sentence without quietly repeating the word to myself when I’m done talking (mostly). Maybe it’s because when two films are practically tied, we might as well give the one with the bigger cultural footprint a bit of extra credit. People still wait in line at conventions to have their photos taken with Michael Biehn and Lance Henriksen; that’s the power of the Aliens legacy, a tie-breaker that nudges Cameron’s film out in front.
Alien has a lot going for it, but Aliens has more. As much as I love Alien, I always have a more visceral emotional reaction to Aliens, which is not only scary but gives Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley a satisfying character arc as well. Waking up decades after the events of the first film, Ripley agrees to accompany a group of Marines returning to the infested planet LV-426 in order to investigate some missing colonists and deal with a brutal case of PTSD. There, she meets a young girl name Newt and saves her from the xenomorphs. Ripley’s journey is enhanced greatly in the Special Edition of Aliens (widely available on DVD and Blu-ray) which reveals that Ripley had a daughter who grew up and died while she was lost in space. The Special Edition is a little less intense because of its slightly slacker pacing, but it’s otherwise a richer experience, with more time dedicated to both the characters and the ideas surrounding the story (including the Weyland-Yutani corporation’s craven motives, the treatment of the expedition’s android, and the story’s Vietnam War allegory). Also, Aliens has the Power Loader, which is one of the coolest movie gadgets ever. Power Loader forever.
While the rough-and-tumble appeal and humor of Aliens is undeniable, there’s something about Alien that has stuck with me ever since I saw it as a youngster. It’s the perfect self-contained Monster in the House horror flick, made into high art through Sigourney Weaver’s magnetism, Ridley Scott’s tense pacing, and H.R. Giger’s uncomfortably organic set and creature designs. You never find out why the Nostromo’s crew were sent to find the alien, or who wants it, or what they plan to do with it, but the lack of any explanation makes it all the more compelling. I’m the kind of person who loves expanded universes and exploring questions in further installments of a series (yes, it’s true, I enjoyed Prometheus), but the unadulterated, horrific mystery of Alien is what’s made it so unforgettable for almost 40 years. Plus, the cat lives.
Alien and Aliens: Two great films deserving of praise. If this decision was the equivalent of the Spring Fling dance at the end of Mean Girls, I’d break off half the winning tiara for Ridley Scott’s film, a horror/sci-fi masterpiece, and half for James Cameron’s sequel, a follow-up that enriches the brilliance original. But this is not Mean Girls, and when forced to choose, I have to pick Alien. While the sequel has a sedated first half preceding the unrelenting intensity of its final hour, Scott’s film has expert pacing throughout. Then there are the characters; the crew members of the Nostromo feel like real, relatable people, a family unit who form the emotional thread of the film. Those aboard Aliens’ Sulaco are one-dimensional soldier archetypes who you care less for once they die. (No shade, Bill Paxton.) And most important of all: No matter how many xenomorphs you throw into one insane action sequence after the next, a lone monster will always be more terrifying than a dozen.
FINAL SCORE: Alien 4, Aliens 2.