What Went Wrong with the Alien Franchise

As the release of the upcoming video game Alien: Isolation creeps slowly closer, I find myself loving everything the developers say about the project: they want to stay true to the original Alien film (in my opinion, still the best) and focus on horror over action, period detail over fancy sci-fi wizardry. A recent dev diary even detailed how they were running the video game footage through mangled VHS tapes to make it more authentic.

I’m pretty sure the results will be right up my alley. Even if something preposterous happens and the game turns out not very good, I applaud the team for their perfect intentions.

Like nearly all the video games ever made based in the Alien universe, a lot has been lost along the way since 1979. Recently, I read a great post on Tor.com about the difference between the original Die Hard and most current superhero / Hollywood tentpole blockbuster action-fests. Basically, the point boils down to the difference between fairy tales and myths. In myths, your hero is special, ordained with gifts other mere mortals do not have. In fairy tales, the characters are ordinary, and their fates are often grimmer. As I grow increasingly impatient with the onslaught of “the One”-style stories, I’ve come to realize that my sensibilities — and the reason I like the horror genre above all others — is that I find fairy tales far more compelling.

As the writer states: “… Myths are badass. Fairy tales are hard core.”

Which brings me back to my favorite film of all time: Ridley Scott’s original Alien film. Since the rise of the franchise, it’s become as much the myth of Ellen Ripley as it has been a series of encounters with Xenomorphs. And that’s exactly where it went wrong.

In the first film (if you can forget the arc of the sequels) you might notice a curious thing: for all intents and purposes, Tom Skerritt’s Captain Dallas is the protagonist of the movie. Ripley becomes the main character only as the others die off, but it’s in no way obvious that it’s her movie in the beginning. Dallas talks to Mother first. Dallas has the final say in key decisions while he’s around to do so. Ripley, the science officer, has her authority questioned by nearly every single character. She’s not “the One”; she’s just the one who lives.

Even in James Cameron’s excellent, world-and-myhos-expanding sequel, she was not without significant vulnerabilities. She most certainly was not a badass soldier; she did her best to contribute and earn the respect of the crew, where and how she could. It’s this vulnerability that makes her so compelling in the first two films, and it’s this vulnerability that she in rather literal terms loses from the third film on.

It all hinges on that moment in Alien 3 when the alien snarls right next to her face … and backs away. That’s the moment when Ripley ceases to be an average person in a series of horrible situations that require everything she has to survive and becomes a queen. She becomes “the One” — the one human with a vaguely mystical connection to the alien. In a lot of ways, the aliens respond to her as Hannibal Lecter responds to Clarice Starling, in seeming suggestion that she alone “gets it” and “is worthy” … of whatever.

Which is only born out further by her Jesus Christ-style resurrection in … oh yeah: Alien: Resurrection. First the Christ pose as she falls into the fire in Alien 3, next the rise from the darkness in Resurrection. And that’s where the franchise died. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, really, when Prometheus proved a full-on religious revenge story about some overgrown zealots beating humanity in the face for murdering their Space Jesus two thousand years ago. Only thing worse than making Ripley a mythic figure was making everyone on Earth a mythic figure, directly tied to the Engineers and the creation of the alien itself.

Ridley Scott has said that when he made Alien, it was in part a response to the glossiness of a lot of sci-fi he’d been watching at the time. He wanted the crew to feel like “truckers in space.” Bravo. It felt like it. It felt like these were people no one — not even their employer — truly gave two shits about. They weren’t as interesting or as important as the thing they’d found that was killing them off. Their lives were cheap.

No one on the Nostromo was “the One.” No one was even in the running.

And man did that ever make that film work!

Somehow, Prometheus made the alien seem entirely too close to home. All the great atmosphere created by the silence of the Nostromo in the beginning of Alien, the foreign quality to everything they encountered, and the sheer sense of isolation — all of that was forgotten by the closing credits of Prometheus, as the myths squashed the last remnants of the franchise’s fairy tale origins.

So color me heartened by the title of Alien: Isolation. I’m looking forward to agonizing over the vulnerability of the protagonist.

I’m looking forward to returning again to the roots of a story that started with average people, in overwhelmingly terrible situations.

I’m looking forward to another fairy tale.

2 comments
  1. suzanne154 said:

    Ah, you’ve touched on something close to my heart, the Aliens Franchise. I agree with everything you said but there is a viable conclusion to the 4 movies that fills in the plot holes and gives the fans what they want. Its a script I wrote called A5:Transfection. Too bad the players are now senior citizens and it costs $75 mil to make a film these days. But the video game trailer does look cool.

  2. Kristopher Kelly said:

    Thanks for the comment, Suzanne. I certainly wish you all the luck in the world with your script.

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