When it first debuted in 1979, Ridley Scott’s Alien was revolutionary. It was a horror movie that crashed through genre boundaries into sci-fi and action, featured a capable female lead, and was every bit as terrifying as its tagline suggested: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” It was soon followed six years later by Aliens, helmed by James Cameron, functioning as a straight sci-fi thriller to complement its moodier predecessor.
Decades later, we’ve paid witness to a strange progression for the franchise. Alien 3 in 1992 was largely disappointed, followed by the even worse Alien: Resurrection, and not one, but two Alien v Predator movies. It was recently resurrected by Scott’s triumphant return, with 2012’s Prometheus. From here, the plans are a little murky. Up next is a sequel to the prequel Prometheus, and then Alien 5 (working title), set to be helmed by Neill Blomkamp. The sum total of all this: A franchise that stands alone in Hollywood for a whole host of reasons.
1. They’re working on either side of the Alien timeline
Most franchises run in a fairly linear fashion: They run the main storyline in order, and then when there’s no more runway, they release a series of prequels to contextualize the arc. The most prominent exception to this is is Star Wars, having began in the middle of its own story, followed by a prequel trilogy, and then wrapping up with a continuation of the first films. What Alien is doing is even stranger than that.
The canon of Alien doesn’t follow the episodic structure of Star Wars for one. Each film follows the same essential plot: Humans stumble upon an alien race that wants to destroy them. Sometimes it’s a single Xenomorph, other times it’s a whole army. But there’s not necessarily a linear thread that runs through every film, past the presence of Ellen Ripley in every film. It makes mapping out a long-term plan difficult, especially with Ridley Scott injecting the Prometheus origin story into the mix, a movie Scott curiously insisted was not a straight prequel. No other franchise that’s lasted this long has functioned in a way this entirely scattered, and yet somehow it soldiers on.
2. The movies in the franchise range from “indisputably great” to “objectively terrible”
Every major film franchise has fluctuations in the quality of each sequel. Usually, the first movie is the pinnacle of quality, and sometimes the second takes the title. Past that, a lot of the time the quality drops off of a cliff in subsequent movies. The progression of Alien though has different. It went from two equally stellar films that both number themselves among the best ever made, to two decidedly bad installments, two ill-advised crossovers, and then a return to form for the not-prequel/prequel Prometheus. There are few franchises that run the gamut this dramatically over such a long period of time. Alien is one of those franchises.
3. Every installment is helmed by a well-known and talented director
Despite the relative disappointment of the third and fourth Alien movies, even the directors for those two have storied careers in Hollywood. Among all four, the list in chronological order: Ridley Scott (Alien), James Cameron (Aliens), David Fincher (Alien 3), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Alien Resurrection). Cameron as we know is the mind behind the original Terminator films, as well as Titanic and Avatar, Fincher was of course responsible for S7ven and Fight Club, and Jeunet directed the French crossover arthouse hit Amelié. Together, we have a dream team of directors that succeeded to varying degrees in bringing the franchise to life.
4. The story is a one-of-a-kind take on sci-fi drama
Most films that have aliens and humans interacting involve some sort of large-scale invasion of our own home planet (or in Avatar‘s case, an invasion of the alien’s planet). In this franchise though, in its simplest form it’s a cage match between humans and monsters that happen to be from space. This format in turn kicked the door wide open for genre-bending not often seen in sci-fi, from the terrifying horror aspects of Alien, to the more action-based Aliens. It’s a story not limited by its own concept, allowing for plenty of experimentation for any creative mind that takes it on.
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