Alien, 21st Century Fox and How to Milk a Franchise to Death

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to sing the praises of the original Alien. I’ll keep it as short as possible: Alien is both one of the best sci-fi movies of all time, and one of the best horror movies of all time. It is fantastically designed, wonderfully directed and exquisitely acted. It is nothing short of a masterpiece. If I were to simply gush about all the ways in which Alien is good, we could be here until next week. Instead, I’m going to talk about how awful the sequels were.

Ridley Scott, the director of Alien, has expressed his opinion on the direction the series took – in an interview shortly before Prometheus, he expressed his dismay at seeing the films “disevolve” (presumably “devolve”?) after he lost any sort of creative control over them.

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I find it odd that nobody seems to notice that this is a chicken’s egg and not anything like the actual alien egg

His attitude towards the franchise appears to be one of a powerless, irritated onlooker. After Alien, Ridley Scott had no plans for a sequel. Unbeknownst to him, James Cameron had other ideas. Cameron approached 20th Century Fox with a screenplay for Alien 2, who agreed to fund it as long as Cameron’s upcoming movie was a success. Fortunately, this is James Cameron we’re talking about – the man has carved a path through box-office history like no other – the upcoming movie in question was Terminator, and it brought home $78m at the box office, which even Fox couldn’t deny was a pretty good return on a 7m budget.

Cameron went ahead with his sequel, now called Aliens rather than Alien 2. It’s unclear as to whether Ridley Scott had any say in this at all, but most of the evidence suggests that he had absolutely nothing to do with it – something he was not best pleased about. In his own words, he was “really pissed off, frankly.” Scott talks about this incident as being formative for the way he approached movie-making with big studios from then on – leading to him “reading contracts like a lawyer.” It also appears to be part of the motivation behind the creation of Prometheus – a desire to return to the franchise, lay claim to it once again and to do things right, this time around.

While general critical consensus appears to be that Aliens is a worthy sequel to the original, I think it’s utterly terrible. As a standalone film, it is a perfectly good action movie with the odd jump-scare and some interesting aesthetics. As a sequel to Alien, it is rubbish. Everything interesting about the world was already there (most obviously the android and alien design) and the additions James Cameron made were either easy extensions of existing ideas (fleshing out Weyland Yutani to be bigger, sleazier and scarier) or hideously unoriginal (a ragtag group of interplanetary marines.)

All the characters in Aliens get what I have become to think of as “the James Cameron treatment” – they’re essentially butchered into stereotypes. Ripley in the first film was a highly vulnerable, utterly human warrant officer on the interplanetary equivalent of a lorry, who demonstrated incredible strength and intelligence when thrown into a terrifying situation. Then comes Aliens… oh, fuck it, let’s be blunt: Ripley in Aliens was an utterly boring angry female action hero. Where original Ripley was quietly resilient, but able to speak her mind and stand her ground, new Ripley is constantly shouting and angry. I don’t know how this happened, but somewhere between the creation of Terminator and Terminator 2, James Cameron came to the conclusion that “strong female character” means “a woman who shouts and pulls faces a lot.”

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No. You are not the Ripley I know and love. Go away.

Ripley’s not the only casualty of Cameron’s approach to characters. Hilariously, to remind us that Ripley isn’t really a boring female action hero, Cameron wrote in Vasquez, an even more shouty, angry woman with a gun.

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PLEASE GO AWAY AND TAKE YOUR ACTION MOVIE TROPES WITH YOU

The point I’m trying to make is that the characters of Alien felt like a bunch of real people in an extraordinary situation. The characters of Aliens feel like a bunch of stereotypical movie characters in a movie situation. I feel like this is the fundamental problem at the heart of Aliens. This is not, of course, to say that it is actually a bad movie. The action scenes are well directed, the acting is good enough, the overarching sense of corporate abuse of power is well handled, and it’s generally enjoyable. To somewhat repeat myself: Aliens is not a bad movie, it is simply a bad Alien movie.

Unfortunately, Aliens turned out to be simply the tip of the iceberg. The franchise was no longer a successful, niche sci-fi-horror creation: it was now one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest cash cows. As a result, Fox decided that they couldn’t possibly leave the running of it to the film-makers. The script for Alien 3 went through something like six re-writes by separate authors, including one absolutely bizarre story involving Ripley arriving on a satellite made entirely of wood and populated by luddite monks. Eventually a script was completed, and a director was selected: the young David Fincher, who would go on to direct some really really good movies. 

This was David Fincher’s feature film debut, and as a result, Fox assumed they knew better than him, and should therefore essentially attempt to control his direction completely. The situation infuriated Fincher, who, in a later interview, recalled:

“if you can’t say, ‘I made Jaws, trust me,’ why should they trust you? One time, (producer) David Giler, incredibly aggressive and pissed off on a conference call with Fox, said, ‘Why are you listening to him for, he’s a shoe salesman!’ [referring to Fincher’s previous role as Nike commercial director]”

For anyone interested in the production, or simply in Fincher’s first experiences as a director, I would recommend this article.

Alien 3 turned out to be exactly as awful as one would imagine. Fortunately for Fox, and unfortunately for anyone who actually enjoys films, it eventually broke even in worldwide box office takings, so yet another sequel was spawned: Alien: Resurrection.

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After a little while, Resurrection starts getting really rather silly

I don’t hate Alien: Resurrection. In fact, it might actually be my favorite Alien sequel. We’re now so far from the original that it’s basically a distant memory. The film is written by Joss Whedon, and directed by Jean Paul Jeunet (i.e. the guy who directed Amelie. Yup, you read that right. Amelie.) It’s no longer even trying to be like Alien – it’s just a dumb action movie with a few HR Giger designs, and for that I can give it some credit. James Cameron turning up and thinking he can make Alien more exciting by adding bigger action scenes and more guns is outright offensive. Whedon and Jeunet being told to make another sequel in Fox’s franchise, and just doing what the hell they wanted is not offensive, it’s just a good example of how shitty the big distribution companies can be.

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At this point the series is basically dead.

The less said about the Alien vs Predator movies the better. These creations are absolutely diabolical. The only thing that can really be said in their favor is that Alien Vs Predator: Requiem was enough of a flop to convince Fox that they really had messed up the franchise royally, and it was probably this sentiment that led to the re-acquisition of Ridley Scott as the director of Prometheus, the 2012 pseudo-prequel.

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I have deliberated long and hard over this and have come to the conclusion that Noomi Rapace is one hell of an actress

Prometheus has a lot of flaws, but it’s infinitely better than anything else the series has produced beyond the first film. Noomi Rapace is practically the perfect successor to Ripley; she’s got that Ripley mixture of vulnerability and strength down to an absolute tee – in fact, she’s probably a better Ripley than Ripley, barring the original film. The cast has that “real people in an extraordinary situation” feeling that has been lacking since the first film, and the new alien designs are almost as creepy as Giger’s stuff was. Overall, it’s not Alien, but it’s basically the next best thing.

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This set was pretty freakin’ great.

I have found that for the sake of my sanity and enjoyment, the best route is to simply consider the Alien franchise to contain only two films: Alien and Prometheus. There are a bunch of action flicks using the same setting and characters that were made between the two, but for me, they’re not truly part of the series.So, in the end, who’s to blame? The most obvious target would be 20th Century Fox, with their relentless insistence on churning out sequel-after-sequel so long as the films were breaking even. For me, though, there’s another culprit – James Cameron. Without his script for a sequel, Alien may well have remained utterly untouched, a standalone masterpiece sitting alongside Ridley Scott’s many other standalone masterpieces. God dammit James, you ruined everything.

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Thanks a bunch, King of the World.

Harry Robertson, Film writer at Seroword

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2 Comments

  1. Keep Alien and Prometheus. The rest can be thrown out. Not that those films of the franchise don’t have a few interesting moments, but they really don’t follow Alien.
    And don’t get me started on the evils of James Cameron…

  2. Wow. I feel like I have so much to say in rebuttal to your diatribe about “Aliens” being a somehow bad or inferior sequel in relation to how it compares to the original. It’s always been in my opinion (and the opinion of many others) that the second “Alien” film is arguably as good as the first. When people ask me, as a student of film, what the best Science Fiction films of all time are. To me I could argue to the death that “2001: A Space Odyssey” is the best, followed by Scott’s “Alien” and his follow up “Blade Runner”. Beyond that my obvious #4 choice would be James Cameron’s “Aliens”, which in the humble opinion of this writer, is arguably the second best sequel of all time next to Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather II”. And to categorize it as somehow being something “less than a master work” is one of the most uncredible, unvalidated, and fallacious remarks that I’ve maybe every heard in the cinematic history of discussing film. And I could write a college level thesis on this and as to why I highly differ in opinion. But I’ll save that for my more concrete, analytical response to your comments. But what I will say straight off the bat is that you are arguably WAY off the mark in your reading into the original compared to its predecessor.

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