Before you ask, no, it’s not just a list of the other ‘Alien’ movies.
There are plenty of movies you need to watch before you see Alien: Covenant. Five other installments of the Alien franchise precede it, for instance, and even though it is one of the prequels, like most prequels it’s meant to be seen with a familiarity of the chronologically subsequent parts. In addition to the feature, there are also a couple short prologues released online that you should probably see beforehand, especially if you don’t want to be too confused by James Franco’s barely there involvement.
As for movies you need to watch afterward, I’ve got eight recommendations. These titles, which include other sci-fi works, a documentary feature, and a short film, are all better and earlier works that have similar or relevant themes.
Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932)
Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s story of the same name, this Universal horror classic stars Bela Lugosi, fresh off his iconic appearance in Dracula, as a mad scientist killing women in 19th century Paris. Why? Because he’s set on proving the evolutionary connection between apes and humans, and in order to do this he has to find a woman whom he can inject ape blood into so that she can then mate with the ape. When not experimenting on women, whom he discards in the river if they’re not compatible, he exhibits his ape, named Erik, in a circus.
In Alien: Covenant, David (Michael Fassbender) is like the Lugosi character, Dr. Mirakle, in that he similarly uses innocent humans as guinea pigs and potential hosts for evolutionary science (never mind that the movie takes place prior to Darwin’s theories). Mirakle and David also both use creatures to do their bidding for them. By this account, the Xenomorphs of the Alien franchise come off as more innocent, as well. David is the true villain of the entire series, having created “perfect organisms” that then are just following their nature.
Forbidden Planet (1956)
You’re probably familiar with Robby the Robot, one of the most famous fictional automatons of all time, but have you seen the movie he comes from? Have you encountered Leslie Nielsen the serious movie star, long before he was Leslie Nielsen the spoof legend? Have you heard Bebe and Louis Barron’s groundbreaking electronic music score?
If not, you need to check out this retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” in space, in which Walter Pidgeon leads as a sci-fi version of Prospero, Anne Francis plays the daughter, and Robby is a mechanical Caliban.
Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius can also be likened to David in Alien: Covenant (though the latter character makes reference to a different shipwreck tale: “Robinson Crusoe”). Both movies involve a seemingly perfect planet where it turns out an ancient alien race went extinct all at once. And now a strange man (and an intelligent robot, though in Covenant those are one and the same) inhabits their ruins while a creature of his device kills a newly arrived ship’s crew, who are there investigating a previous failed mission.
As much as many parallels can be made, however, Forbidden Planet and the Alien movies are very different in style and tone.
The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)
One of the great speculative sci-fi documentaries, and the second to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, this creepy nature film looks closely at the lives of insects while a fictional host discusses the eventual extinction of the human race. Whether it’s a nuclear war or pollution of the environment, either way, because of man’s intellect, emotionality, and individualism, we’ll someday be gone and the bugs will prevail, just as they had for millions of years before we existed. They will, according to “Dr. Hellstrom” (Lawrence Pressman) continue to “work together to create the elusive utopia — the perfect society.”
It’s too bad The Hellstrom Chronicle doesn’t feature any of the parasitic wasps that inspired the Xenomorph’s traits in Alien, including the idea of newborns bursting out through their hosts’ bodies (watch a clip from National Geographic documentary In the Womb: Extreme Animals). Still, there is a connection between The Hellstrom Chronicle and Alien: Covenant as far as the evolutionary belief that insects — and insectoid monsters — are a perfect organism. Also, the documentary has one of the greatest opening lines ever: “The Earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape.”
The One (2001)
Who doesn’t love seeing an actor fight himself in a sequence where he or she plays twins, clones, two robots of similar model, etc.? Even the awful 1989 Sinbad and the Seven Seas is fun when Lou Ferrigno battles Lou Ferrigno. And haters of Superman III tend to at least like the Superman vs. Superman part.
As the technology improves, these fights grow more seamlessly satisfying, with Michael Fassbender’s android vs. android bit looking so miraculously done that you forget you’re watching an effect. Previously, the Tom Cruise vs. Tom Cruise fight in Oblivion had the distinction of most accomplished example of the “Mirror Match” trope.
Yet the most enjoyable example is Jet Li vs. Jet Li in this 16-year-old sci-fi martial arts movie. Kind of like a mash of Highlander and Timecop, The One is about a guy who tries to kill all the parallel dimension versions of himself, because he gains greater power from each one of his alternate selfs he kills. Of course, he eventually lands on one Jet Li that he can’t easily dispose of, and finally they fight it out mano-a-identical-mano. Like the one in
Of course, he eventually lands on one Jet Li that he can’t easily dispose of, and finally they fight it out mano-a-identical-mano. Like the one in Alien: Covenant, you have to sit through a fairly bad movie to get to the good stuff, but at least The One isn’t trying to seem so serious and its Mirror Match is a lot more entertaining because it’s Jet Li. And Jet Li.
The Thing (2011)
As far as unnecessary prequels with mostly repeated plots go, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s same-named lead-in to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic is surprisingly pretty decent. This one delivers more of a certain origin for the alien creature and isn’t entirely consistent with its nature, but the movie is very well-directed, offering enough new thrills alongside the familiar setting, premise and paranoia themes. And they actually used some practical effects! The way this The Thing links up with the earlier The Thing is handled is so much more satisfying than any other prequel’s attempt, too.
Carpenter’s The Thing is a remake of the 1951 Howard Hawks movie The Thing from Another World, which also influenced Alien, so the connection between the franchises isn’t difficult to see. Van Heijningen’s take more closely aligns with the Alien movies, however, in having a woman protagonist, and it fits even more specifically with Alien: Covenant by the new movie having a sequence where we can’t tell if a certain character is good or evil. David’s impersonation of Walter isn’t the same as The Thing impersonating various characters, leading to great distrust among an entire ensemble, but for a moment it’s pretty close.
Alien: Covenant starts off with wonder and majestic discovery as its spaceships arrives at a seemingly utopian new world for human inhabitation. Maybe a little too stormy, but otherwise potential paradise. And then the Alien plots kick in and everything turns to Hell. Cut it off at the sign of a second act, and you’ve got a nice little short film involving optimism for exploration and colonization of distant planets. Minus that issue with the ship that causes the deaths of a crew member and some of the other hibernating passengers, that is.
For an actual short film with hope for the future of human space travel, there’s Erik Wernquist’s conceptual documentary that in under four minutes showcases some of the beautiful and awesome places we could go.
Using digital recreations or real photographs of places just within our solar system, combined with ideas of authors such as Arthur C. Clarke and narration from the late Carl Sagan (from his “Pale Blue Dot” audio book), the film ponders the next steps for our wandering species. Hopefully with no Xenomorphs or other threats at other ends of those paths.
Watch the short below, and if you want something similarly speculative in a much bigger format, also check out the IMAX space documentaries Destiny in Space and Journey to Space, both of which incorporate special effects of imagining the imminent cosmic trips of tomorrow.
Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
Another prequel that really works is Mike Flanagan’s backtracking follow-up to a 2014 experiment in feature-length product placement. As bad as Ouija is, Ouija: Origin of Evil is good, enough to make you forget you’re kind of watching an ad for a board game. And you don’t have to watch the original to enjoy it, nor is it annoyingly redundant if you have seen the original, even though it is the sort of prequel that unnecessarily depicts a story already told through exposition. Flanagan’s origin of Doris Zander isn’t out to explain her with more plot detail, instead offering a character-driven family drama about grief that turns to paranormal horror.
Ouija: Origin of Evil is a rare example of a great prequel; in fact it’s one that’s much better than the movie it links to. These days, TV series like Better Call Saul and Fargo are showing how prequels can be brilliant when focused on character over filling in story threads. Otherwise, as Flanagan’s movie affirms, the horror genre tends to be the place to find decent movie prequels, whether they’re interested in presenting characters’ origins or appearing to have little connection until a final scene reveals the movie to be set before another in its series. That’s why it’s so disappointing that the Alien prequels aren’t better, seeing as the first installment is a horror movie.
Passengers: Fan Cut (2016/?)
There’s no denying Passengers is a deeply flawed movie. The once highly anticipated union of Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence (plus Michael Sheen) was one of the most disappointing movies of last year. On the one hand, its third act is the banalest, contrived spaceship story denouement that could have been affixed to an otherwise compelling sci-fi situation drama with a morally questionable lead. Then, of course, there’s the problem with that morally questionable lead and whether it’s a bigger issue, in its outdated sexist scenario of him getting away with his rapey offenses than the movie acknowledges. But there is sort of a great movie in there somewhere.
In a recent video essay, the YouTube user known as Nerdwriter (aka Evan Puschak) explained how Passengers could have been and maybe still can be fixed by rearranging its scenes so it’s not so chronological. Open with the moment Pratt and Lawrence meet and then later reveal Pratt’s character as a bad guy who did a bad thing by waking Lawrence’s character and basically forcing himself onto her and her into a relationship with him without her consent. Then change the ending so he dies and maybe, for a kicker of a conclusion, she eventually does exactly what he did. This “fan cut,” as we’ll call it, isn’t entirely doable with the material available but you can come close and just imagine the rest.
The fixed version of Passengers is, in theory, the would-be best movie about interstellar colonization imaginable. It deals with the prospects and dilemmas of delivering a massive payload of new world settlers across space in a thought-provoking way. You could envision it as a prequel to Aliens if you like. As for Alien: Covenant, what a terrible colonization mission movie that is when you consider the logic of the crew. Should a crew of that sort of trip even be made up of couples where one would risk thousands of other lives to save his or her spouse? Actually that drama, as poorly as it plays out, might have been an interesting story on its own without the Alien stuff getting in the way. Now we need another movie “fix.”