Someone needs to talk to Ridley Scott. They need to tell him he’s George Lucas-ing, before it’s too late.
Don’t get me wrong. The British director has given us genre fans some great gifts over the years. Blade Runner alone would have been enough, but 1979’s Alien forever changed science fiction. The horror flick explored the notion that there was more to space than shiny starships and Roddenberryesque utopias. Space was also hostile, dark, grimy, and potentially full of slime-dripping creatures whose only goal was infestation.
Given the indelible mark Scott made on scifi and horror with Alien, you’d think it would be a good thing that he’s planned an entire series of films explaining how and why the dreaded, acid-blooded xenomorphs came to be. So far we’ve already gotten 2012’s divisive Prometheus and this year’s Alien: Covenant—already out for home release, faster than a chestburster’s gestation time. But in trying to walk us through the steps of the titular Alien’s genesis, Scott is making the same mistake George Lucas did when he decided to tackle the Star Wars prequels.
[Some spoilers for the Alien prequels through Covenant]
Just in terms of pure story, there’s plenty to criticize in Scott’s two attempts to explain the origins of the xenomorphs. Prometheus—which initially wasn’t supposed to be related to Alien at all—features so-called scientists who inexplicably stick their faces too close to unknown creatures and some internal confusion about whether the plot’s supposed to be a horror story or a parable about Space Jesus. Alien: Covenant likewise portrays a group of terraformers who apparently forget all their training as the body count rises. And by the time we finally get to the appearance of our beloved xenomorph in the third act, the film doesn’t really know what to do with the monster. The monster has no surprises left to exploit—a slew of sequels and spinoffs have already shown us every trick in the book—and so the creature’s chronological debut ends up being a letdown.
But that’s not the main trouble. If they were standalone movies, both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant would have been, well, fine. I’d rather have a flawed attempt at original science fiction than completely safe comic book movies where you know the superhero isn’t in any real peril because their appearances have already been scheduled through the next ten years’ worth of films. The issue stems from the fact that the Alien prequels are exactly that—they’re attempting to build up to something we already know and love, and fizzling out every time.
Part of the problem is that the collaborative spirit that made the first Alien so great is gone. Ridley Scott directed the movie, sure, but so much of what made that first foray great came from story writers Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett mixing concepts and tropes from all over the place into something new, not least of all H.R. Giger’s terrifying creature designs. It was a group effort. But with all that in place, Scott is steering the franchise on his own, trying to give us something fans never really asked for.
Comedian Patton Oswalt already covered this in relation to the Star Wars prequels. “I don’t care where the stuff I love comes from. I just love the stuff I love.” We might as well call that Oswalt’s Dictum. We don’t want to see proto-Vader pod racing; we want him clad in black and swinging a red lightsaber. Translated to the Alien universe, trying to understand the connection between the inscrutable engineers, black goo, and piles of hapless explorers feels kind of pointless while we’re waiting for the Alien itself to show up, made all the worse by the fact that the prequels don’t really know what to do with the xenomorph once it finally wakes up from its nap inside Billy Crudup. The alien, treated with real depth and mystery in the original film, is now just a silver-toothed bugbear, with no tricks left to pull.
The Alien prequels don’t add anything to the elements that have endeared the 1979 classic or 1986’s shoot-‘em-up sequel to several generations of fans. They don’t help us understand the xenomorph better; they don’t make the monster scarier or otherwise change our perspective on the original film or the continuing plight of Ellen Ripley. The films are just a slow and bloody plod towards what we already know, with one or two or three or umpteen movies spaced out between Prometheus and when we meet the crew of the Nostromo.
In fact, the protracted backstory ends up cheapening the xenomorph. The strength of the first film was that no one—including the cast, in some cases—knew what the creature was going to do, or what it wanted. And even if Ripley and her crewmates possessed the knowledge we’re getting through the prequels, it wouldn’t have made any difference: the tension and terror of Alien lay in watching people facing something completely hostile and unknown. Horror comes from being thrust, helpless, into those situations. The Alien prequels can only subtract from that essential fear and dread.
Plus, there are other stories to tell. Creative Assembly’s game Alien: Isolation, which follows Ellen Ripley’s daughter Amanda, was a frightening and worthy successor to the first film. The Dark Horse Comics ALIENS series has given us some solid stories as well, like Aliens: Defiance and Aliens: Dead Orbit. And director Neill Blomkamp, who made his own mark on the scifi landscape with District 9, got everyone all hot and bothered with his own idea for a direct sequel to Aliens, but the project was shelved because Scott doesn’t want to let the xenomorph off leash just yet. There’s an entire universe of stories to explore, just waiting to burst forth. In other words, it’s about time to let the xenomorph move on to its next life stage instead of endlessly retreading the past.
Brian Switek is the author of My Beloved Brontosaurus (out in paperback from Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux) and Written in Stone. He also writes the Scientific American blog Laelaps.