Forty years ago, director Ridley Scott brought Alien to the big screen – a film which still terrifies, entertains and fascinates audiences worldwide to this day. It became legendary, spawning one of the most iconic and successful film franchises in history. But while the original film’s anniversary was celebrated in spectacular fashion, it’s impossible to ignore the franchise’s rocky history.
From Oscar nominations and box office gold to disowned film disasters and awkward crossovers, almost as much has gone wrong with it as has gone right. When the franchise’s biggest fans start begging Ridley Scott to stop making Alien films, especially at a time when the original film is being so heavily celebrated, that’s quite an indication that there’s a real problem.
But where did it all go wrong? And can the franchise be saved, even with another film in the works?
Looking back on it, the success of the original Alien film is an unlikely tale. Originally pitched as “Jaws in space” and with little studio support initially, the original Alien is a tense science fiction horror story that benefitted from the sci-fi boom created by Star Wars. In the film, the deep space vessel Nostromo’s crew unknowingly brings an alien aboard after investigating a transmission from a nearby moon. Crewmember Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) learns that the transmission is a warning, but it’s too late – and before long the crew are killed by the adaptive xenomorph.
With its claustrophobic setting, terrifying alien design by H.R. Giger, impressive effects, strong performances from the cast, sweeping musical score and atmospheric directing, it was an overwhelming success both critically and commercially. It spawned sequels and prequels, books, comic books, computer games and crossovers, launching one of the biggest film franchises of all time.
However, one of the most notable issues with the series over the years has been the identity crisis it regularly suffers from. While Ridley Scott’s Alien was a horror film that succeeded by building tension and rarely showed the monster, the first sequel – James Cameron’s Aliens – switched up the formula drastically.
In a move that was revolutionary for the time, Aliens did something original and was an action-packed survival horror film instead of being a copy of the first. It was a bold move but one that made perfect sense; the design of the xenomorph, originally shocking, was no longer powerful enough to instil terror in an audience who had become familiar with it. Instead, the new level of fear in Aliens was of a planetary colony infested by hundreds of xenomorphs, overwhelming through sheer force of numbers.
Released nine years after Alien, James Cameron’s sequel was a success in its own right… arguably achieving even greater acclaim than the original. Shaking the established curse of sequels being inferior to the originals, Aliens is often listed as one of the greatest films of all time in its own right. It worked for fans and critics, albeit on a completely different level than the original. Crucially, neither of the first two films detracts from the other. Despite a clear difference in storytelling style and overall vision, they fit together seamlessly.
However, while Aliens was a worthy successor to Alien, it also altered the course of the series – resulting in a split as to what genre any future films should follow. Should Alien films be slow-burn psychological horror movies, or gung-ho action-based survival horror films? What kind of Alien films did the filmmakers, studios and fans want to see?
The underwhelming Alien 3 attempted to return the series to its more traditional claustrophobic horror roots… or at least it tried to, during the times when it was filmed with an actual script. A massively troubled and chaotic production behind the scenes, the film began with Ripley’s fellow survivors from Aliens – Corporal Hicks and Newt – being unceremoniously killed. Many fans considered this a cheap betrayal of the “happy” ending of the previous film almost immediately, and the film went downhill from there. Their deaths leave Ripley to battle the xenomorph while trapped in an off-world penal colony populated only by male prisoners. The film received a lukewarm reception from fans and critics alike, while the film’s director David Fincher notoriously disowned it – blaming deadlines and studio interference for the film’s failure.
The fourth film in the series, Alien Resurrection, switched the style back to a more action-oriented scenario. This time around, a human/alien hybrid clone of Ripley teamed with a group of mercenaries; together, they attempt to destroy a hive of xenomorphs aboard a scientific/military spaceship before it crash-lands on Earth. The film was considered an improvement over the lacklustre Alien 3. However, despite creative visual flair from director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, a talented cast and an intriguing concept for the “new” Ripley, it lagged far behind the first two films. Joss Whedon’s script for Resurrection was criticised, while Whedon himself was unhappy with the execution of it claiming that it had been filmed “in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable”.
With seemingly no clear direction for the franchise, the sequels began to look like uninspired retreads even to the most dedicated fans.
Enter the Predator. 1990’s Predator 2 – a sequel to 1987’s sci-fi action film – had featured an alien xenomorph skeleton in one scene, displayed in a Predator’s trophy case. From the moment it was shown on screen, fans had been clamouring for a crossover of the two iconic sci-fi characters and debated which one was the universe’s true alien champion. While games and comic books were happy to oblige, telling tales of the Alien and Predator interacting, it wasn’t until 2004 when the films crossed over on the big screen.
Despite mostly negative reviews and a weak, uninspired story, Alien vs. Predator achieved box office success and picked up a cult following from fans of both alien killers. The film managed to utilise elements from both franchises with a surprising amount of accuracy. Yet, to the disappointment of many, the film was given a PG-13 rating in the US… a clear indication of how diluted both franchises had become over the years.
The Alien franchise, one that had started out by being clearly set in the realms of adult horror, had practically become family-friendly. An Alien vs. Predator sequel followed, which was widely panned by fans and critics alike and signalled the end of their on-screen antics for the time being. Beyond that, even with the Alien franchise’s struggles over the years, there was still significant interest in the xenomorph’s return – primarily from original Alien director Ridley Scott and Aliens director James Cameron. Ultimately it would be Ridley Scott who returned, with a prequel called Prometheus.
Prometheus touched on elements of the original Alien film, although it was made absolutely clear from the non-Alien standalone title that this prequel was only linked to the franchise and wouldn’t directly feature the classic xenomorphs. A slow-moving sci-fi drama, Prometheus achieved a level of box office and critical praise but was generally considered a disappointment. The film was generally criticised for being dull and pointlessly pretentious at times, while long-time Alien fans were disappointed that the film failed to take advantage of the opportunity to show more of the xenomorphs.
Following Prometheus five years later came Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant, a sequel-to-the-prequel which continued the slow-burn style of the former. Continuing the journey of antagonist David8 – a character whose popularity amongst fans has started to rival even that of Ripley – the film delivered far more xenomorphs than Prometheus and attempted to link the prequels more closely to the original film. More popular with fans than Prometheus, the pace of the film and predictability of the script still left fans feeling disappointed once again.
Despite the prequels being able to keep the Alien franchise itself ticking over, they’ve continued to add to the confusion as to what exactly the franchise is – and should be.
The difference in tone and storytelling over the years has been mirrored in the franchise’s other areas: the computer games have ranged from survival horror to outright shoot-‘em-ups, identifying the franchise as action-based; the comic books have ranged from outright horror to action and adventure stories, and the xenomorphs have crossed over with the likes of Judge Dredd, Green Lantern, Batman and Superman. Good news for fans and proof of the xenomorph’s status in popular culture, but it also makes their credibility as slow-burn, intelligent sci-fi horror icons harder to take seriously.
Unlike other franchises which have suffered through excessive over-exposure – the latest to suffer this fate being Star Wars, now forced to dial back on how many films they flood the market with after Solo’s failure – the Alien series hasn’t done that. Eight films in 40 years is hardly flooding the market; more so, two of those were crossovers and one technically didn’t feature them in any significant way. Instead, the failures of the Alien franchise have been a lack of any consistent vision… and, at times, a genuine lack of quality. Alien has been its own worst enemy, far more so than Ripley.
But… can it survive? Absolutely.
In celebrating its 40th anniversary, the original film received a cinema re-release – while Ridley Scott announced that he was on board for yet another sequel. The response to that news may have been welcomed by some, who are keen to see the xenomorphs return once more, but it also drew criticism. While he may have created a classic in the original film, his others have been disappointing. But there’s hope, and like the xenomorphs themselves the key to survival may be to adapt.
It’s interesting to note that, alongside the anniversary, six new short anthology films debuted online – all inspired by the original sci-fi horror classic. First released at conventions, the shorts appeared weekly from IGN on YouTube and have been incredibly well-received by fans. Meanwhile, Alien’s popularity is so widespread that a stage production of it was recently performed as a school play at North Bergen High School in New Jersey. The play gained international attention and widespread acclaim, including the admiration of directors James Cameron and Ridley Scott, as well as original Ripley actress Sigourney Weaver.
While they’re proof of the undeniable impact that the Alien franchise, and in particular the first film, has had on popular culture, they’re also proof that there are fans out there who are willing to continue upholding the legacy. Whatever the fate of the next film in the series, the franchise, in general, will survive and continue because it’s respected and admired by so many – some of whom are willing to take the reins. And who knows? Perhaps, at some point, they’ll even figure out exactly what kind of franchise it is that they’re getting their hands on…