The Low Down on the Alien Franchise
Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction, Prometheus, opens in theaters today. To mark the occasion, I am looking back on one of the most beloved science fictions franchises in movie history.
The original Alien started from humble beginnings. Dan O’Bannon co-wrote the John Carpenter sci-fi comedy Dark Star. Dark Star is a really intelligent sci-fi comedy made on a shoestring budget. It included an alien that was basically a spray painted beach ball.
O’Bannon thought it would be interesting to do a serious take on the subplot of astronauts trapped in space with a real alien. He set about writing a screenplay borrowing from several influences. “I didn’t steal Alien from anybody. I stole it from everybody!” said O’Bannon.
O’Bannon and his co-writer, Ronald Shusett pitched Alien to studios as Jaws in space. They were close to a deal with low-budget mogul Roger Corman, when a friend hooked them up with Brandywine Productions which had ties to 20th Century Fox. After the success of Star Wars, Fox was interested in science fiction again but lacked a lot of sci fi scripts. On this basis, Alien was greenlit.
The studio approached a lot of directors before finally settling on a promising new-comer, Ridley Scott. Scott was interested in playing up the horror elements of Alien. When O’Bannon showed Scott some paintings by H.R. Giger, Scott knew he had found the look of the film.
Alien was released in 1979 with the now-classic tag line, “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Reviews were somewhat mixed. A lot of critics didn’t know what to make of the sci-fi/horror hybrid. But audiences got it and Alien was a commercial hit.
Alien gave us so many indelible images that have seeped into pop culture. Just about every alien depicted on film since 1979 has been inflienced by Giger. There are face huggers and chest bursters. Even a relative throw-away like the “space jockey” still lives in our collective imagination decades later.
Alien (along with Scott’s Blade Runner) created a new set of visuals that would inform every science fiction movie made in the last several decades. Its cultural impact can’t be under-estimated.
This is going to sound crazy, but despite the success of the first film, 20th Century Fox wasn’t interested in an Alien sequel. The movie was a hit. But the studio didn’t feel like it was a big enough hit to merit a sequel. It was a different time and studios were actually wary of making sequels which generally cost more and returned less.
While he was working on the original Terminator, a young James Cameron approached Fox with an idea for an Alien sequel. Filming of Terminator was delayed for a few months so Arnold Schwarzenegger could fulfill his contractual obligation to make a Conan sequel. During the delay, Cameron punched up his Alien script. Fox was impressed. They told Cameron that if The Terminator was a hit, they would be interested in his Alien sequel.
Given the fact that they are still making Alien movies decades later, it seems silly. But the notion of an Alien sequel was a tough sell at the time. The original Alien was a self-contained horror movie. Scott used up every trick in the sci-fi/horror bag. There didn’t seem to be any reason to go back to that well.
The genius of Cameron’s take on Alien was that he changed up the formula. Where Scott’s film had been a psychological thriller which Scott described as a “fun house”, Cameron’s sequel was a take-no-prisoners action movie more along the lines of a roller coaster.
However, Cameron also knew enough to retain enough elements of the original film to make it feel like an Alien movie. The face huggers and chest bursters were still present. Cameron just raised the stakes. Instead of a small crew being slowly hunted by a single alien, Cameron set up space marines vs a planet of aliens.
Seven years after the first film, Aliens took the franchise in a completely new direction, made Cameron an A-list director and Sigourney Weaver an action heroine.
Books could be written about the troubled misfire that was Alien 3. Following the success of Aliens, Brandywine planned to shoot the next two Alien films back-to-back. The plan was to focus on Michael Biehn’s character from Aliens with Sigourney Weaver making a cameo appearance. Obviously, things didn’t work out that way.
The original script went through several re-writes. Eventually, 20th Century Fox president Joe Roth balked at the idea of an Alien movie that didn’t center on Weaver’s Ripley character. He famously declared that Weaver was the franchise. With all due respect to Sigourney Weaver and the iconic Ripley character, I wholeheartedly disagree.
The film went through so many revisions that at one point Fox released a teaser that implied that Alien 3 would take place on earth.
Eventually, they settled on a script that was a hodge podge of bits from previous scripts. It took place on a prison planet and centered on a religious order.
For practical reasons, the popular characters of Newt and Hicks from Aliens were killed off off-screen in the opening scenes of Alien 3. This decision immediately alienated (no pun intended) fans of the franchise who felt it invalidated Ripley’s struggles in Aliens.
Alien and Aliens were both overseen by visionary directors early in their career. The same can be said of Alien 3 which was directed by David Fincher. Fincher is undoubtedly a talented director and I would love to see his take on Alien. However, the studio meddled with the film to an alarming degree. Fincher has disavowed the final film. When given an opportunity to participate in a director’s cut for the DVD release, Fincher was the only Alien director to decline.
Alien 3 was a downer of a movie. It took place on a drab planet populated by bald English actors wearing robes. Most of the cast was indistinguishable from one another. The entire movie leads to the death of the series’ lead character (after opening with the death of a child). Oh, and Ripley shaves her head.
Even so, I think Alien 3 could have been a worthy entry in the franchise had Fox not hacked it up so badly. The lack of Alien action worried the studio, so they cut together a bunch of scenes of the alien hunting the robed prisoners. The result was an extended sequence of darkly lit bald men running through corridor after corridor. The action scenes committed the crime of being boring.
Not surprisingly, Alien 3 was a box office bomb in 1992. The reviews were mostly negative.
Despite the failure of Alien 3, Fox was still interested in the Alien franchise. They approached screenwriter (and future Avengers director) Joss Whedon to write a treatment. The original script centered on the idea of a clone of Newt since Ripley had been killed off in the previous film.
Once again, Fox decided to double down on Ripley who they stubbornly believed was the heart and soul of the Alien series. Whedon had to completely rework his script to accommodate the change in lead characters. Weaver found Whedon’s script (which included a final act on earth) to be interesting enough to agree to reprise the Ripley role one more time.
The first three films in the series all benefitted from the involvement of truly talented directors. The series’ luck ran out with Alien: Resurrection. The fourth Alien film was helmed by a French director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet. This was after Danny Boyle, Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer all declined. Sigh.
What went wrong with Alien Resurrection? Joss Whedon summed it up thusly:
“It wasn’t a question of doing everything differently…it was mostly a matter of doing everything wrong…They did everything wrong that they could possibly do…it wasn’t so much that they’d changed the script; it’s that they just executed it in such a ghastly fashion as to render it almost unwatchable.”
I think that just about sums up Alien 4. Alien Resurrection was the least successful film in the franchise to date.
In the late 80’s, comic book publisher Dark Horse Comics published a story pitting two of its most popular licenced properties against each other. The Alien vs Predator comic book led to several more comics and video games. Rumors circulated for years that an Aliens vs. Predator movie would be made.
In the early 2000’s there was a brief fad of pairing off popular franchises. 2003’s Freddy vs. Jason was a modest hit. A Batman vs. Superman film was in development but thankfully never produced. Aliens vs. Predator seemed like a no-brainer. And boy, was it!
Director (and Milla Jovovich’s husband and chief employer) Paul W.S. Anderson pitched 20th Century Fox on the mash-up. Anderson (who uses not one but two initials in his professional name) built his career on movie adaptations of video games like Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil.
In spite of his two initials, I have found Anderson’s films to be dumb, simple fun. I can turn my brain off just long enough to enjoy Milla Jovovich killing zombies in a torrential downpour and a tank top (preferably in 3-D) for the 90 minute running time of a Resident Evil movie. But that didn’t carry over to the dumb, joyless (and also Jovovichless) Aliens vs. Predator (or AVP its friends like to call it.)
Inspite of terrible reviews, AVP was a pretty big hit at the box office. In fact, it outgrossed all previous Alien and Predator movies. Further proof of my theory that Paul W.S. Anderson has made a pact with Satan.
Given the success of AVP, it’s no surprise that Fox rushed production of a sequel. Feeling emboldened by their ill-gotten gains, the studio decided to go even lower on the director chain by hiring the special effects team of the Brothers Strause to direct.
The sequel was aptly subtitled Requiem as it signaled the death of the mash-up series. Without the Satan-pact of W.S. Anderson, AVP 2 was a major box office disaster.
But Fox wasn’t done with the lucrative Alien franchise. Instead, they lured back original director Ridley Scott for a prequel/reboot. The prequel gradually morphed into Prometheus which has been rather coy about its connection to the original film.
Reviews have been strong. Clips have that signature Ridley Scott look. Hopefully I can get out this weekend and post a full review soon.