The Alien saga, franchise cinema, and why it may be time to stop linking everything up

Alien: Covenant which isn't Alien: Romulus
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Franchises such as the Alien and Terminator sagas are trying to find new paths in the cinematic universe-driven world – and perhaps it’s time to let go of trying to get everything to connect.

Over the weekend, a fresh interview with Ridley Scott popped up over at Forbes, that’s reignited conversations surrounding the Alien universe of films. The story to this point is that we’ve had two stone-cold classics – Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens – and a variable mix of further movies.

Fincher’s Alien 3 would have been surely much better had it been allowed to be Fincher’s Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection  – from Jean-Pierre Jenuet – had moments, but not too many. The AvP movies aren’t that fondly thought of. And then, more to the point for this article, are the two most recent prequels.

Prometheus and Alien: Covenant both brought Ridley Scott back to the franchise that he co-created. The first was actively billed as the Alien prequel, and then – as if he’d been chatting to James Cameron about how many Avatar films were in the works – Scott announced during the lead up to Covenant that there were ideas for several films now, leading up the series joining up narratively with the first Alien.

Going as spoiler-light as possible, it’s pretty well known that Alien: Covenant left the story of Michael Fassbender’s David hanging somewhat, and the expectation was that Scott would be soon up and running making Alien: Awakening to resolve the threads it left behind. This too would have gone closer to the original movie, not least dealing with the ship that crashed on LV426, and where all those eggs on it came from.

But two events got in the way.

The first was the release of Alien: Covenant.

I’m not a massive fan of Prometheus really, although I maintain that the first half hour is exceptional. Still, there was backlash against it, and Covenant oftentimes feels like it’s trying to course correct that movie. Prometheus feels far more like a narrative risk and a lot more its own film that an Alien sequel or prequel. It felt like an attempt to break free of the non-cinematic universe franchise boundaries: that directive that everything had to conform within narrative tramlines. Yet whilst the box office for it was good, the fan reaction was vocal and not as positive. It felt as though the makers of Covenant had read every internet comment about Prometheus when decided what direction to follow next.

As such, we then got a film that tried to both be its own thing, and also an Alien movie. To move the story towards joining up with the other films as well.

The second event was, of course, Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, which is already casting a long shadow over the story of blockbuster cinema of the past few years. Disney will look to Fox’s best-performing franchises for the few new cinema films it’ll allow the renamed 20th Century Studios to make, and that means that Alien is likely to at least be a conversation, even if there’s been no sign of a new film for the last year or two.

Still, Scott’s words over the weekend have suggested there’s an olive branch of sorts for the films, with the suggestion that he’s developing another movie after all. Furthermore, from what Scott says, it’s a film that’ll – appreciating he’s said this before – look to chart its own course a little more. “We went down a route to try and reinvent the wheel with Prometheus and Covenant”, he argued. “Whether or not we go directly back to that is doubtful because Prometheus woke it up very well. But you know, you’re asking fundamental questions like ‘has the Alien himself, the facehugger, the chestburster, have they all run out of steam? Do you have to rethink the whole bloody thing and simply use the word to franchise?’ That’s always the fundamental question”.

And it’s a question that the two most recent films wrestled with.

Furthermore, there are parallel questions in other franchises too, where studios are trying to recapture what made original films so special, whilst expanding them out into a series that modern audiences will buy into. The main way they’re trying to do this is by holding the originals close, and then by trying to loop the narrative of the new films into that of the old. Often tying themselves up in knots as they do so.

Bluntly, what they’re being caught up in trying to balance reverence to what went before, with the required demands of a modern studio blockbuster.

It’s not hard to imagine that if James Cameron had been given the keys to Aliens in the current environment, the scrutiny of its production would be microscopic and the pressure from the studio – appreciating it wasn’t the calmest production anyway – would be sizeable. To the point where it’s hard to imagine Cameron would have been able to follow his own path as much as he did.

What’s interesting about Aliens too is that Cameron took only the ingredients he needed from the original film, and was then willing to add an awful lot more. That there wasn’t a need for flashbacks, or a few Easter eggs for fans, or a sting or setup to try and sell the next film. He made his film.

Talking of Cameron, inevitably, just look at the last two attempts to get a Terminator franchise off the ground. Both Terminator: Genisys and Terminator: Dark Fate wrapped themselves up in knots trying to service the narrative line of the first two films, and in doing so ultimately satisfied neither the die hards nor the newcomers.

Yet there’s surely, in the expanse of the Terminator world, so much room for more stories. For something other than a variant of a Terminator that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger being involved in the protection or otherwise of someone in the present day. That stories can be told in that world that don’t link in the slightest to the other films.

As much as cinema is dominated by cinematic universes and the drive to create them, what I can’t help but feel is they offer a more interesting sandbox. That stories can exist in the same ‘universe’, but they don’t have to interlink, they don’t have to have the same individual arcs to confirm to, they don’t need someone from the other films to pop by and say hello.

What we’ve seen too is that once a studio has a comfort blanket of a ‘universe’ of sorts, it has more flexibility to take a risk. Joker cost as little as $55m for the negative (depending on which source you believe), and is pretty much independent as things stand within the pantheon of DC films. Imagine, then, instead of Ridley Scott and his team looking for more ways to explain parts of the original Alien, that a similar, more guerrilla approach was taken to the Alien saga. Perhaps even the Jason Blum approach. Much smaller budgets, far more willing to take risks, and less on the line.

In the universe of Alien, there are so, so many more stories out there other than how a bunch of eggs ended up on a crashed spaceship. Instead of looking for films that seek to answer questions that nobody ever asked – the proposed Die Hard prequel that explains how John McClane became a cop being a good example – just head off somewhere else. This Tweet pretty much is bang on…

There are so many other paths to explore. Where else do xenomorphs exist? What other worlds have they infected? Is there something the xenomorphs themselves are in fear of? What other contacts have they had around the universe? Again, Prometheus to its credit seemed to take some different ideas, but then lost confidence. Whilst I get the frustration that the ‘David’ story looks unlikely to be completed, at least on film, I do fully get where Ridley Scott is coming from with his most recent comments in steering away from the safety net of the franchise.

After all, the beauty of the original Alien is that it found a small, relatable and human story in the midst of the terror, a crew of humans bitching about work and suddenly being thrown into the unknown. There was no franchise planning. There was no strive to link it to anything else. It had to work on its own terms.

In much the same way that Bumblebee found an unexplored area of the Transformers world, and that Star Trek movies used to routinely do too, take that different path. It’s a constant battle for long-running series that were previously content to go with straight sequels and spin-offs, now trying to exist in the cinematic universe era, and struggling to find their place.

My thought: don’t try. Keep the budgets down, make a good film, if there’s a genuine narrative reason to revisit those characters and that storyline, go for another. Else, look elsewhere in the universe of the story, and try something new.

You’ll still get your boxset at the end of it all. It just might be packed with more interesting, better and more successful films.


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