Anghus Houvouras on whether the Alien franchise is exhausted…
Is the reason almost every Alien movie since the original has been, at best, a mixed bag because the premise has been exhausted?
I thought about this the other day as I watched a slew of Alien: Covenant reviews pour in. Like Prometheus, it seems to be getting the kind of safe critical treatment a veteran filmmaker like Sir Ridley Scott has supposedly earned. Currently Alien: Covenant is at 76% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Prometheus ended up at 72%). Those 75% ranges on Rotten Tomatoes are quite telling, especially when it comes to established, well-renowned talent. Last year Steven Spielberg’s gigantic boring THUD The BFG ended up at 75%. Most of Spielberg’s sub-par output end up in the mid 70’s: War Horse 75%, War of the Worlds = 75%, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull = 77%, The Adventures of Tintin = 75%. The mid-seventies for a veteran director is the critical mass equivalent of sub-par, able to convince a solid quarter of the critics swimming in the slop over at Rotten Tomatoes that even their most pedestrian efforts are worth a solid twenty point bump.
But I’m not here to once again devalue the already tarnished brand of the modern film critic, nor am I here to cast aspersions towards the great Ridley Scott who has more talent in his left testicle than I do in my entire lower torso. I have become intrigued by the idea that every premise eventually loses cohesion. Much like repeatedly cloning DNA, you can only make so many copies before your sample becomes unsustainable.
Alien is a horrifying classic. James Cameron took the basic lore of the original and made a terrifying action packed sequel. From there the quality of each subsequent Alien related film varies greatly. I happen to love Alien 3. It’s a brutally dark story that almost feels like a middle finger to fans of the first two films, which is probably why I like it so much. How many franchises are willing to start the new installment by killing off 75% of the survivors of the predecessor in the first forty-eight seconds? Balls. Pure balls.
There isn’t another Alien movie worth discussing. Mostly because the internet’s exhaustive hate for Prometheus is so well documented it feels pointless. Prometheus is not a good movie. It’s terrible in a way that makes every positive review feel baffling. Like Mugatu “I feel like I’m on crazy pills” baffling. I feel about Prometheus the same way I feel about Scientology: Both involve aliens, both will cause you to lose money on a negative experience, and it confuses me when seemingly intelligent people sing its praises.
Is it possible that the Alien films have simply exhausted the basic premise? And that diving into the origins of the species simply hasn’t provided enough creative coal to keep this franchise chugging along? I’d say so. Part of what makes Alien so terrifying is the stark minimalism and the limited economy of the original. ‘Less is More’ applies to original Alien so much so that it could be used to teach a master class in this particular skill set. Claustrophobia is so deeply woven into the fiber of the film. Something that James Cameron latched onto with deadly precision in the sequel. Even David Fincher’s much maligned third film did an amazing job of selling the terror of enclosed spaces and giving our protagonists nowhere to run. By the time we get to the fourth film’s spaceship setup the entire concept felt increasingly redundant. A copy of a copy of a copy with only Cameron’s installment feeling like it delivered something new to the equation.
The premise of the Alien movies revolves around a seemingly unstoppable killing machine and the brutal, ever dwindling hope for survival by a cast that is normally whittled down to nothing. How many films can that premise sustain? Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox took the most predictable path possible with these prequels: Examine the backstory and learn just how these killing machines came to be. And the end result are audiences who seem somewhat ambivalent about their origins. Personally, I never once thought ‘where did these horrible killing machines come from?’, because I was more interested in having the half-gallon of concession stand Coca Cola scared out of me. Alien: Covenant is the black-goo covered fuck-baby of Prometheus and Alien. But it does little to help push the premise anywhere new.
In this franchise dependent cinematic landscape, the idea of just letting a franchise die feels naive. Every single one will be milked until the teets have run dry, and they’ll still try to milk it for a few more sequels before giving up. Maybe the premise behind Alien is only good enough for two good movies and every subsequent attempt will struggle to be anything other than average.