How the Alien saga went from trilogy to franchise

Ever since its unlikely resurrection in the late ’90s, the sci-fi horror series has continued to evolve.

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Ethan Vestby

The arrival of the sixth Alien movie brings with it the question of just how the Xenomorph saga has come so far, if still seemingly chugging along still due to goodwill from the first two instalments. In another world, the series ended with its third entry, a controversial, if appropriate send-off to its heroine, Ellen Ripley. Instead, gradually divorcing itself from that character, the series began to muddle, possibly even finding itself again.

Needing a shot in the arm following the grim, much-derided Alien 3, 1997’s Alien: Resurrection came at a point where star power was still of equal importance to brand recognition, thus the film had to find a way to figure Sigourney Weaver into the equation. The solution was to introduce the conceit of cloning, an appropriate science-fiction trope to employ given the meddling of the series’ true villain, the Weyland/Yutani corporation.

The resulting nü-Ripley, boasting super strength, salty language, leather attire, a psychic-link to the Xenomorph and yes, mad skills on the basketball court, may seem like a Poochie-esque mark of desperation, but a game Weaver mostly sells it. She’s certainly assisted by the unlikely pairing of director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and writer Joss Whedon, maximalists of different mediums, who create a tone so thoroughly ridiculous it becomes infectious.

Read our Alien: Covenant review

Yet at the same time, the gesture of having to somehow merge the iconic human character with the creature comes off as representational of a kind of franchise identity crisis. Feeling like the reboot that was supposed to jumpstart a new Ripley trilogy, Resurrection’s financial underperformance seemed to put the kibosh on any chance of that. With the IP languishing for seven years, there came no choice but to fulfil two long-held promises teased well before the fourth film. These being the Xenomorph skull first glimpsed at the end of Predator 2 as well as in a 1991 teaser for Alien 3 which boasted the tagline “On Earth… everyone can hear you scream”, a promise that went unfulfilled due to the project’s hellish development stage.

Originally the material of an endless number of comic books and video games, the concept of pairing the two franchises (which came only a year after the similarly long-promised monster mash, Freddy vs Jason) seemed like the death knell for any modicum of respectability for the series. Yet it should be said that despite the general antipathy surrounding it, AVP: Alien vs Predator has aged surprisingly well, if maybe simply for its lack of pretension. Essentially an excuse for writer/director Paul WS Anderson’s chief interests – pyramids, holograms and symmetrical compositions – at its best the film resembles the geometric B-movies of Edgar G Ulmer.

The additions to the mythology come off as something akin to the Ancient Aliens television show, and lend to some of its most delirious pulp images – say, a computer generated horde of Xenomorphs crawling up an ancient Aztec pyramid. Though with the film fully in fan-fiction territory, Anderson’s geeky tendencies seemed to stray far from the icky, sexual implications of Scott’s original, nor the motherhood text that seemed to define its sequels.

Though if there’s one instance of Anderson’s juvenile enthusiasm not paying off, the cliffhanger ending of the birth of the hybrid creature simply referred to as the Predalien, something that had certainly been on the lips of every American for three years, wasn’t realised until the undoubtable series nadir, 2007’s Alien vs Predator: Requiem. For if another instalment were to happen, it had to justify itself as the supposed R-rated corrective to the previous film’s watered down violence for the summer blockbuster crowd.

Helmed by visual effects gurus The Brothers Strause – the only directors to make an Alien film that never received any kind of auteurist appraisal of any kind – the film is agreeably mean-spirited if utterly joyless. It is one of the murkiest looking films this writer has ever seen, with almost every set-piece indiscernible due to almost comically dark cinematography. It gets to the point where it’s not even able to deliver on the gaudiness of the Predalien, being that the film’s lighting often seems as if a deliberate choice to hide poor design work.

There seemed even more of a lack of imagination in locating the film in a small American town, and thus apparently becoming the truest realisation of the “On Earth” promise. The choice seems to oddly normalise the two monsters by putting them in the horror film terrain of suburban slashers Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers. It’s as if the series came full circle with the films the original was seen as the antithesis of.

If the two AvP films were the logical conclusion of milking the property, Ridley Scott’s return to the series in 2012, Prometheus, came almost like a Christopher Nolan Batman plea for franchise respectability, even going as far as to shun the Alien brand in the title. The self-importance seemed even more defined by positioning itself as more than a monster movie by beginning on a visual reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film similarly treading the birth of mankind, and eventually that of the Xenomorph.

Seeming like the makers were embarrassed by the series trajectory, to the point that Prometheus “retconned” the mythology of AVP, this grander scope and more serious tone didn’t necessarily grant the film a free pass, chiefly in it becoming somewhat of an easy target due to the involvement of infamous television writer Damon Lindelof. All the fans still upset over the finale of Lost from two years previous seemed easy to jump on some of the film’s storytelling choices, be it a deliberately vague cold-open that didn’t quite give the audience details as to why a 12-foot tall albino alien seemingly terraformed the planet Earth and deliberately killed itself.

While Scott’s folly may have been in attempting to elevate a franchise predominantly built on scares, it must be said for a director who was always more a proficient craftsman able to give off the image of legitimacy through portent and gloss rather than an actual thinker, Prometheus is actually one of Scott’s strongest films. This derives from that it at least revolves around a powerful idea that simultaneously left so many audience members unsatisfied; that there’s no concrete answers to life’s mysteries yet the search for more makes it worth living. A not particularly deep yet compellingly bittersweet notion smuggled into a science-fiction horror film. That being said, with the inevitability of even more sequels on the way, it will be curious to see whether the franchise can maintain the strength of that idea.

Published 6 May 2017

Tags: David Fincher James Cameron Ridley Scott Sigourney Weaver

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