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The Alien movie saga finally explained

Deep in space, millions of miles from Earth, the Alien series explores not only new worlds, but the development of one of the most deadly creatures that has ever existed. From the mind of artist H.R. Giger comes the Xenomorph — a steampunk hybrid alien creature with a metallic appearance, razor teeth, and acid for blood — to terrorize a series of humans as it eats its way across the universe. The Xenomorph has many nemeses, its most formidable being Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), who battles the monster over the course of several hundred years. But as explored in the Alien prequels, the creature's story is far more involved than simply "space monster versus humans." 

With films directed by cinema legends Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, this sci-fi/horror series often transcended the pulp status afforded most entries in the genre. In particular, the early films Alien and Aliens are such masterworks that their influence on pop culture is difficult to overstate. The Alien franchise has made an indelible mark on film history and future — but with prequels and sequels expanding the original story over a span of several decades, it can be hard to untangle what's really going on here. What's the Alien movie saga really about? Let's explore. 

Origin stories: Prometheus

The Alien movie story begins with the events depicted in Ridley Scott's prequel Prometheus when a protohuman on Earth drinks a deadly poison that kills him, and dissolves his body into strands of human DNA that is then dosed into the water supply. Several million years later, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) believes she has found a map and an invitation to the planet where these protohumans originated. She calls them Engineers, and she believes they want to meet their "children." Shaw and a scientific crew are hired by the Weyland Corporation to find the Engineers on Planet LV223, and after a great deal of trouble, they arrive. But the Engineers are all dead. Their spacecraft is filled with jars of toxic black goo corresponding to egg-like sacs lining the ship that begin to open after signs of life appear. 

Yes, Dr. Shaw finds her Engineers, a lifelong passion bordering on obsession. But what she didn't expect to find was that the Engineers had set a course to Earth with the intention of wiping out the human race they had created. The Engineers never had their chance as they were wiped out by an ever-evolving Neomorph — the predecessor to the Xenomorph seen later in the series. Megalomaniacal android David (Michael Fassbender) decides to take up the Engineers' mantle and infect the human crew. After chaos, destruction, and an encounter with a revived Engineer who proves his hostility toward humans, David and Dr. Shaw escape to the Engineers' home. Shaw's new obsession is understanding why the Engineers planned to kill all the humans.

Alien: Covenant

Dr. Shaw never actually makes it to the Engineers' home planet, which she and David have been calling Paradise. Instead, David murders her and drops the black goo on the thriving planet. He cultivates Xenomorph eggs, and sends out a welcoming signal to try and attract new lifeforms to what is now his planet. 

The Covenant is a colonizer craft set out for one of the few remaining known habitable planets in the universe, Origae-6, along with an entire ecosystem on board. The Covenant crew is awakened from hypersleep years early; due to protocol, they divert from their course to check out the signal coming from the unnamed planet. 

What they don't know is that David has been engineering life himself, and has created a new form of the Xenomorph — "a perfect organism" — that he can finally test on human subjects. With the crew on board the Covenant is Walter (also played by Fassbender), the newest model android, who senses his counterpart is up to no good. When David finds out Covenant has an entire colony of hundreds of humans, it's a battle to stop David before he commandeers the ship for his own purposes. When he does, we start to realize why the Engineers wanted to destroy their human creation: Like their ancestors, humans also decided to play god and created synthetic life in their own image. David's god complex mirrors his creator Weyland's (Guy Pearce), and now David has created a monster.

Alien

As Alien begins, it's been 16 years since we left David and the spaceship Covenant. A salvaging team on the ship Nostromo answers a distress call on planet LV-426, even though they aren't equipped for a rescue mission. A hair second too late, Ellen Ripley figures out the distress call is actually a warning, but one of her crew, Kane (John Hurt), has already been infected by a Xenomorph facehugger. Breaking quarantine protocols, Kane is allowed back on board, where the alien hatches and wreaks bloody havoc. Ash (Ian Holm), a crew member who's secretly an android, receives a communique from people at the Company, who want him to bring the creature back alive no matter the human cost. Disobeying orders, Ripley and her crew hunt the monster and eventually kill it. Ripley and the cat Jones are the only survivors who end this portion of the Alien saga tucked safely in hypersleep, waiting to be found by another ship.

Aliens

Ripley drifts in hypersleep for 57 years before she's awakened and ends up on the military vessel Sulaco — but unfortunately, the Sulaco is under instruction to return to LV-426, where Hadley's Hope, a human colony, has suddenly stopped responding to all communication. Ripley is in severe post-traumatic stress, which turns into grief when she finds out her daughter died on Earth while she was in hypersleep. Worse still, the Sulaco crew won't take her claims about the alien monster with acid for blood seriously enough to stop the mission. 

On LV-426, the Sulaco crew and Ripley find the Engineers' crashed spacecraft from Prometheus, as well as newly evolved Xenomorph eggs. The eggs have already hatched and used the entire colony as incubators, with the exception of one survivor, a young girl named Newt (Carrie Henn). Newt is the same age Ripley's daughter was when she first left Earth, so Ripley is immediately protective of her. Once the Sulaco's military crew realize the Xenomorph threat is as horrific as Ripley insisted, they try to escape. But as in Alien, once again corporate and military greed leads to sabotage — this time from Burke (Paul Reiser), who's determined to preserve a Xenomorph specimen. He and the creature are both defeated, and Ripley survives, joined by Newt, Jones the cat, Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), and the torso of android Bishop (Lance Henrikson). 

Alien 3

Shortly after Ripley enters hypersleep on the Sulaco, a fire breaks out on board — killing everyone but Ripley and shooting her pod into space. It lands on penal colony Fiorina 461, where the Sulaco shuttle also crashes. But Ripley isn't the sole survivor: A Xenomorph also made it, and had impregnated Ripley before ejecting her onto Fiorina 461. 

The penal colony has essentially been abandoned by the people who created it, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, until they find out there's a live Xenomorph on board and that Ripley is carrying an alien fetus in her chest. Because it is a prison planet run by convicts — the ultimate inmates running the asylum — there are no weapons to fight the monster other than a steel forge that hasn't been used in decades. Ripley and the prisoners still finally manage to kill the loose Xenomorph, again at huge human cost. 

When Weyland-Yutani emissaries arrive, they're headed by Michael Bishop (Lance Henrikson), the human template for the android Bishop. But she knows better than to trust company men by now, and throws herself into a pit of molten steel so nobody can try to weaponize the alien monster within her. Ripley had already sacrificed so much in fighting this creature; here, she gives up the last thing she has left.

Alien: Resurrection

Because humans can't seem to leave well enough alone when it comes to universe-destroying acid-blooded creatures, Alien: Resurrection continues the story 200 years later, when the United Systems Military is still trying to recreate a functioning Xenomorph aboard the USS Auriga. Using Ripley's melded human and alien DNA recovered from Fiorina 461, new crops of military scientists tinker with her code to clone the Xenomorph. They've engineered a hybrid version of Ripley who has green nails, acid blood, and vague memories from the original Ripley who died centuries before. The scientists have also finally created a working Xenomorph, but like Ripley, it's not the same creature it once was. It's worlds smarter and understands English. 

A salvage team from the ship Betty boards the Auriga with human cargo that will be used to create more monsters for military might. A new android, Call (Winona Ryder), is on her own mission to kill the hybrid Ripley before she can give the military the queen that was gestating in her chest. She fails. 

Ripley attempts to kill the queen before she gives birth, but is also too late. However, the queen doesn't give birth to eggs as past queens have. Instead, it gives birth to a fully formed alien with many of Ripley's features. The huge baby alien kills the queen, thinking Ripley is its actual mother, and Ripley is forced to kill her "baby" while the Betty crashes on Earth. Ripley finally makes it back to her home planet — sort of. "I'm a stranger here myself," Hybrid Ripley says in the director's cut of Alien: Resurrection, which would have been an excellent place to continue her story.

Ripley: Space's ultimate 'final girl'

Among stellar horror movie company like Sydney Prescott (Neve Campbell) in Scream and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Halloween, Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley is one of the most memorable survivors put to screen. She strikes a perfect balance between strength and vulnerability, as well as professionalism and competence. Even though she is constantly disbelieved at first when she discusses the reality of the Xenomorph, she refuses to be gaslighted and graciously accepts apologies when she proves to be correct. It's amazing to watch Ripley's monologues about the Xenomorph threat distill down to just four chilling words by Alien: Resurrection. "She'll breed. You'll die." 

The director's cut of Aliens reveals that Ripley's daughter died while she was floating in hypersleep for decades, and this piece of information becomes key to Ripley's character. It explains why she's so protective of the women in her orbit going forward, especially young girls. Even by the time she's Hybrid Ripley in Resurrection, she still has a fierce maternal side, shown in the way she shields the android Call as well as a continued deep distrust of the "company men." When Hybrid Ripley has an alien baby who imprints on her, she's horrified and disgusted by the monster, but at the same time feels their connection and weeps openly when she has to kill it. 

Along with the extensive Alien world-building came some stellar three-dimensional character development for Ripley, a rare feat for women in creature feature sci-fi horror movies. 

Meow is the time to discuss Jones the Cat

Between the events of Alien and Aliens, the only survivors of the Xenomorph attack are Ripley and Jones the Cat. Jones belonged to Brett (Harry Dean Stanton), one of the mechanical engineers on the Nostromo, and Ripley almost died trying to save Jones, who was an excellent first alert system since he'd tried to warn multiple people about the presence of the alien on board the Nostromo. Much like with Ripley, nobody listened to the cat's alerts at first. But on board the escape pod after Ripley thinks she's killed all the aliens, it's thanks to Jones' hiss that she's alerted to the Xenomorph that stole on board. Those extra few moments allow her to quietly suit up and kill the final creature. 

By the time Jones and Ripley wake up aboard the Sulaco in Aliens, Jones has become Ripley's emotional support animal of sorts. Ripley is having horrible night terrors, and the only comfort she can find is with the tabby cat, the only other creature who has seen the monsters. Jones, the luckiest cat in the universe, survives longer than every other human character except Ripley. 

Alien's indictment of greed

You'd think that when one of the deadliest and virulent creatures to ever exist surfaces, the logical thing to do would be to exterminate it, especially if it has the power to destroy every planet it touches. But because of corporate (and later corporate-military) greed,, opportunistic humans attempt to capitalize financially off the creature at the expense of other humans with less powerful positions. The arrogance of man we see throughout Alien is a scathing indictment of an obsession with violence and killing. There are few women in much of the Alien saga, but it's the women who ultimately fight against these deadly obsessions. 

Was greed one of the human foibles that led the Engineers to want to eliminate us? It's Peter Weyland's greedy obsession for immortality that drives him to create the android David, who eventually surpasses his maker and ends up creating the Xenomorph as we know it from Alien and beyond. Did the Engineers know or come to suspect that human behavior would be the the universe's eventual destruction? All signs point to yes.

Evolution of an alien monster

Long before the Alien prequels introduced the Neomorph, the creature evolved over the course of each original film. In Alien it is a hulking, coiled creature that takes its time exposing itself to humans before killing them. Decades later, by Aliens, its body is faster and more streamlined, the better to chase people through crawlspaces. We also learn in Aliens that the creature can swim and breathe underwater. By Alien 3 it is ungodly fast and strong, highlighted by David Fincher's excellent digital camerawork. By Alien: Resurrection the Xenomorph is a hybrid that can understand English and displays all the other horrifying and phenomenal physical feats it was able to perform previously, but times ten.  

While the evolution of the Neomorph in the Alien prequels is confusing at first, by Alien: Covenant we learn David is the "father" of the Xenomorph as we know it from Alien and beyond. The black ooze cultivated by the Engineers was a biological weapon with the ability to mutate its host, hence why we see several different versions of the monster over the course of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant

The Xenomorph is a perfect killing machine, and one of the sad lessons never learned by humans was to leave the thing alone. It cannot be tamed. It can only be killed, and even that proves an almost impossible feat for hundreds of years. Even though Hybrid Ripley appears to kill the last of the Xenomorphs, who knows whether they have persisted on another planet out in the universe, waiting for a meatsack to arrive and play host.

The evolution of artificial intelligence in Alien

While even the earliest Alien movies take place in the future, they still reflect technological developments from the days and ages of each film when it was made. David and Walter are different models of clone androids in Prometheus and Covenant, designed by Peter Weyland for different means to different ends. David was a special creation, made to match Weyland's great intelligence and one day surpass it. Walter was created to be a faithful companion to its human counterpart. A protector and source of support. 

But by the time we get to Alien, the android Ash is nowhere near as sophisticated as either David or Walter, presumably because these droids ended up being dangerously advanced. But Ash was also a danger to humans, especially once he got his marching orders to bring the Xenomorph back alive. By Aliens, android Bishop is a portrait of empathy, where we can see shades of earlier Walter. In Resurrection, the android Call is more human than human, and hates the trap of her internal circuitry rather than flesh. 

As each iteration of the android character develops, it is fascinating to note the ongoing heightening of empathy in each droid, with the exception of Ash. In the Alien vision of the future, android technology mirrors human emotional development. Compare this to The Terminator, where AI tech in the future is devoid of humanity and emotion altogether. Alien had a far more hopeful vision of where human technology would lead in the future, especially when faced with an existential threat like the Xenomorph. 

Alien's predictions of climate change and war on Earth

In Alien: Resurrection, mercenary Johnno (Ron Perlman) is profanely disappointed when he learns the emergency destination of the USS Auriga. So much of the Alien story is based on humans terraforming faraway planets because the Earth was either becoming or already was uninhabitable. Thanks to climate change and war, the privileged few humans who could escape our planet did, and with apparent gusto. It didn't seem to bother them that they would spend decades of their lives in hypersleep to get to these planets and start rebuilding.Without these humans looking for new places to colonize, the Xenomorph would never have found its perfect host to propagate its own species. 

However, between Alien: Covenant and Alien are 16 unknown years, at least until the third Prometheus installment comes out. Alien and beyond have only hinted at various devastations taking place on Earth. Will the new addition to the timeline provide more information on what's really going on back on Earth?

Also, the Alien story begins with Prometheus in 2091, and Alien: Resurrection concludes the saga in 2379. When hybrid Ripley and the android Call arrive back on Earth in 2379, it looks pristine and fresh. Did those 288 years of limited human involvement on the planet help it heal? It's a question future Alien films will hopefully explore.