Ridley Scott brought one of cinema's most iconic creatures to life in 1979 with Alien. As much a classic now as it was groundbreaking then. It's not a stretch to say it single-handedly invented the sci-fi/horror (I've taken to affectionately dubbing it "Sci-Horror") genre, and if you don't agree with that- surely you can agree that it helped the genre carve out a name for itself. From the design, to the atmosphere, to the creature itself, and the iconic protagonist... like it or not, Alien was bound for sequel territory.
The problem there was that sequels usually ape the original. When I say "ape" I mean that they usually introduce new strange concepts or they alter something from the original in a horribly displeasing way. Then in 1986 came along James Cameron's Aliens. Which blew everyone away with how it expanded on the original with respect and an ever-increasing sense of danger and gravitas. Aliens was just as influential to the genre, proving that sequels can be just as amazing as their predecessor. Cameron did a lot of things to the franchise that changed it forever. With the introduction of the Queen Alien, the dome-less Warrior Aliens, the term "xenomorph: (I believe it originated in this movie, it could've been in a book or something beforehand. Not sure) and he brought back Lt.Ellen Ripley who had already become the irreplaceable face of the Alien saga... for better or worse.
(Despite the fact it's my favorite movie of all time, I do believe the problem with the Alien franchise started with Aliens, but to explain why, I must first zip through the rest.)
It certainly felt like 'worse' for fans when Alien 3 slashed it's way into the franchise. Unceremoniously killing off two much loved characters from it's critically acclaimed predecessor was probably not the best thing to lead with. However there was a method to this madness, one which fans are slowly discovering. Alien 3 was actually- believe it or not -a step in the right direction. I do prefer the Assembly Cut (found exclusively on the Alien 3 blu ray) over the theatrical cut. I think it's just a better movie. However, what Alien 3 does right, remains the same regardless of which cut you watch. Rather than trying to out-do it's predecessor, it makes a noble effort to return to the creeping, Lovecraftian, horror of the original. As opposed to the combat nature of the second.
This will always be a tough movie to watch for anyone who was emotionally invested in Aliens. Though look at the movie itself, really do. Ellen Ripley is a tragic character. She is no longer just a protagonist, she's the face of this franchise, and it's not an adventure franchise. She loses the people she loves, constantly. It's her curse, so to speak. In that sense, Alien 3 fits like a glove. Furthermore, it drastically reduces the scale from hundreds of creatures- to one. Which shows that even singular- this cinematic icon of terror... hasn't lost his edge. The movie excels at horror, and is largely overlooked in the franchise, often referred to as the first 'bad one'. This is terribly unfortunate, and it's worth another look.
Then comes the first truly 'bad one'. Witness the resurrection! Taglines and trailers promised something new, yet familiar. It was the mid-nineties, and everything was taking advantage of new special effects and progress in the movie industry. Alien Resurrection was definitely on that bandwagon, because the only impressive thing about it... was the special (and practical) effects. Ironically enough, it was more like witnessing a downfall. I still argue that the first hour or so of this movie is solid. Largely unlikable, but solid film-making nonetheless. However, it quickly alienates fans (no pun intended, I swear) by turning Ripley into a bitch. There's no way around it. Her personality is so far removed from the strong surviving heroine we're used to- she's become a thoroughly spiteful bitch. She has the warmth of one of the aliens. That could be because she's part alien now...
...yeah. That's just one of many mistakes this movie makes, most of which begin rearing it's head later on.
Resurrection had a perverseness about it, and an awkward sense of humor, which made the movie borderline comical at some points. Big no no. Stripped clean of any actual horror, we have a run of the mill run-and-gun creature flick. Unfortunately, there are some really cool scenes in this movie. Which make it hard to completely hate- but not that hard. Alas, Resurrection succeeding only in condemning the franchise until it's rebirth in 2004 in the mediocre AVP. Which I'm not going to talk about actually. I'm going to skip ahead to Prometheus, which will tie into Aliens about where the franchise truly went off the rails.
I ask you, why do we need answers? When you find out how a magician does his tricks, are they still as mind blowing and magical? You become a skeptic to the notion of magic- and you'll never look at that trick the same way again. I make a similar case for horror. Especially the brand of Lovecraftian horror found in Alien. A massive part of the tension and dread is in not knowing. The fear of the unknown. Does this creature kill to eat? ...or does it kill because it likes it? We don't know, and there is a certain amount of raw horror in not knowing. So why then did Prometheus seem like a good idea to people? All your questions will be answered! Yay! Lets... completely strip the franchise clean of any mystery it had left, and scrub away the little bits of horror and dignity it was clinging onto.... cause... that's gonna be great.
I gotta say, I was actually excited. A modern sci-horror blockbuster as a prequel to Alien, helmed by Ridley Scott himself? How could this go wrong? Many many ways it seemed. In the (fantastic) trailer, the line "we were wrong, we were so wrong..." is heard just before everything goes crazy. ...huh. Fitting isn't it? Prometheus not only fails to answer the right questions, it needlessly apes parts of the Alien mythos that should have been left alone. The space jockey? The massive enigmatic skeleton creature in Alien? Yeah, that's not a thing anymore. Prometheus "explains" to us, that was actually just a space suit and not a really cool creature skeleton afterall. THANKS.
That however is only one minor gripe among a plethora of much more serious ones. I could write a whole article about how the very notion of an origin movie for the Alien franchise is the worst idea for it. Ever. Yet, I'm trying to get to the 'future' portion of this article so let me wrap up this section. Aliens ruined the franchise by introducing the Queen Alien. There I said it. It revealed a piece of the Alien's biological cycle that should've been kept a mystery in order to preserve the horror. Granted, I also feel it was inevitable. This is what sequels do. Yet... the more you find out about this creature, the less scary it is. No longer was it scary in concept, it had become an animal. It's motivations, life cycle, purpose, everything... it was all clear. That sense of mystery? That dread of not knowing? Gone. It's effectiveness as a creature on screen was relegated to a hoard mentality. One of these things can't be scary in this situation. As an audience, we've studied it. We know.
Which is why Alien 3 is kinda brilliant. It reinvigorated the horror angle, without aping the creature into something stupid.
The more you know about something... the less scary it is.
The creature is now scary only on a visceral level. It's nightmarish quality is gone. They've been abused through the franchise without respect, culminating in their awful treatment onscreen in AVP:R. Horror's greatest cinematic sci-fi monster reduced to this? No thank you. A sequel could've been made, another setting, different characters- completely disconnected to Alien. You could've had a franchise about people's encounters with this deadly beast, spoken about in hushed tones, and rumored about in spaceport legend. Instead... we got, what we got. Can you honestly tell me you still find the Alien itself scary? Even after it's been relegated to the cheap seats for a monster vs. monster slugfest?
Prometheus did nothing to help, and possibly exacerbated the problem. The one thing it left us with is a blank slate, and a big stage. Thus... bringing me to how this franchise can redeem itself.
1. Introduce more questions than answers
By generating more mystery, you can answer old questions and set up a whole new generation of horror and suspense without leeching off the old. Even the xenomorph could be scary again if you reintroduced it properly. There is potential left in this franchise, potential to be scary again. This is evident in the last act of Prometheus. It deserves a better movie though to propel this potential into actual reality. We need mystery, we need suspense. Put the lovecraftian/gigerish elements back into the franchise.
2. Keep the female protagonist
The one thing I love about Prometheus, which keeps me coming back to it- is Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). The franchise's great new hope as far as protagonists go. She's not a carbon copy of Ripley, but her performance resonates with me, and reminds me of everything I loved about Ripley. Her drive, her will to survive, her sense of duty, and new to this character- her beliefs and sense of wonder. She's a much more wide-eyed character, and one who's definitely a stargazer. A fitting character for this franchise to continue on with. I want to see more of her.
Also, a female protagonist has always been a mainstay in movies like this (most likely popularized by Weaver's role as Ripley) for many reasons I don't feel qualified to explain or even hazard a few guesses- but there is something about the female vulnerability that makes them even stronger protagonists than men. It's something I'm not ready to see part from this franchise.
3. Get new writers
Damon Lindelof has never done anything that's been great. The best thing in his writing credits is an episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and who knows? That could've been one of the episodes nobody even liked. Prometheus was badly written, Lost was a headache, the Star Trek movies' biggest weakness is their writing. GET HIM OFF THIS FRANCHISE. For the love of god, he excels only at plot holes, unlikable supporting characters, and moments of sheer stupidity. Not to mention general confusion. He's also kind of a jerk to fans. Google it.
4. Consult the comics!
I know I said this too about the Predator franchise, but it may be even truer here. The Aliens comics had angles to the mythos that the movies have never even come near exploring, and it's a crying shame. The comics have been creative and adventurous in the franchise, while retaining the horror and respect necessary to create stories worth to follow up to Alien and Aliens. Granted, not ALL the comics are golden. Some just suck. But hey, discretion people! Take the good concepts, leave the bad. Work on it!
5. Keep the R rating!
I don't think the franchise is in danger of another PG-13 (AVP. I shudder.) but one can never be too sure. The chestburster scene in Alien is beyond iconic, from it's sheer shock value, to the phallic symbolism film nerds would love to dig into. (Not to mention those facehuggers... those weren't suggestive looking at all... right?) The Alien is an R rated creature, blood and death is part of it's effectiveness. It's not exploitative, it's by design. A bloody, tragic, and beautiful design.
If the filmmakers could heed these tips, that'd be great.
Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about-
Maybe I'm just a fan with too many opinions and a large soapbox-
This is Joseph Sheldahl, a surviving fan of the Alien franchise.(with hope for the future...)