Anghus Houvouras on why more franchises should embrace the Alien model…
First off, let’s go ahead and address the giant-sized Space Jockey in the room: When referring to ‘The Alien model’, I’m taking about the original four films. I’m not talking about the ridiculous Alien vs. Predator duology or the beautifully rancid idiocy of Prometheus and the poison fruits that eventually will fall from it.
I wrote a column last week about the most banal and overused metaphor to describe the second film in a franchise in a little hate letter called “Does every second movie have to be Empire Strikes Back” [read it here]. A good conversation ensued and someone brought up an example of one of the best second franchise films ever produced: James Cameron’s masterpiece Aliens.
It got me thinking: Why don’t more franchises embrace the Alien model. A model that saw the story and the genre wildly deviate from film to film. A series that took risks and wasn’t afraid to make drastic changes to try to tell a different story in each subsequent chapter. Now, the Alien model is far from perfect. To imply that there was a set course at the advent of this science fiction saga would be patently false. To even imply structure or a blueprint sounds insane. Some of the things it did right could be considered a happy accident (Alien 3) while places where it went wrong were the product of indescribable and baffling choices (Alien: Resurrection). However, I believe one could argue that the first four Alien films mark the most diverse series of franchise blockbusters ever conceived and executed in the modern era.
Alien is a masterpiece. One of the most influential and entertaining pieces of terror ever created. The kind of movie that still produces scares in subsequent screenings. Aliens took the franchise into a frantic new direction. More Xenomorphs, more action, and more energy. Aliens was something of a radical departure because it took a known property and moved thematically away from what made the first successful. Alien was a claustrophobic, tense thriller. Aliens turned our favorite killing machine into a brutal army of killing machines. Audiences were still scared silly, but it was a different kind of scare. So many franchises get bigger but they don’t get better. Adding more to blockbusters often leads them feeling overstuffed and bloated. However, Aliens was able to buck the trend.
Alien 3 is a sore point for a lot of people. Another radical departure from the previous film. A movie maligned by not only fans, but by director David Fincher. After the all out insanity and energy of Aliens, Alien 3 delved into mortal melancholy. There are those who will never forgive the studio for killing off Hicks and Newt after everything they suffered through to survive the second film. It’s a choice so bold it practically smacks fans in the face.
Were you hoping for a happy ending? Alien 3 ends that hope in the first five minutes of the film. Everyone’s dead but Ripley. She’s stuck on a prison planet with none of the awesome pulse rifles and weapons of the all-action Aliens and has to deal with the sobering reality that a Xenomorph is growing inside of her. The movie ends with Ripley’s sacrifice nose diving into some molten lead. It is the ultimate bummer ending. Ripley spends two movies crawling over corridors of broken glass and for her final act they decide to douse her in lemon juice, hot sauce, and salt. Can you think of a character with a more depressing arc than Ellen Ripley? All the horrors she experiences, all the tragedy that befalls her, and in the end she takes her own life in one final act of sacrifice?
Then, after the river of shit that was her life, she’s resurrected for one last swim through the toilet bowl.
Alien: Resurrection is another imperfect installment. A film built on a foundation of flawed logic and wild leaps to get Ripley back into intergalactic xenomorphy survival mode. It’s one of those inoffensive pieces of cheesy sci-fi action that would have felt less offensive had it not carried the Alien moniker. Still, the movie has its supporters. There are even those who say Resurrection is superior to Alien 3. I think everyone can agree that the third and fourth Alien films are not in the same league as the first two.
Still, as a franchise the Alien series is something special. If for no other reason than each subsequent installment was allowed to be its own unique movie. How many franchises have ever achieved that degree of creative freedom? And while 50% of the quadrology is far from perfect, I’d still rather sit through the imperfect, strikingly diverse Alien films than some generic pile of overproduced garbage like The Hobbit films.
It’d be nice if more franchises were as risky as the Alien quadrolgy. We might end up with some more original blockbusters.