Friday, August 6, 2021

The problem with telling "Alien" stories

Fox has announced that they're going to produce a TV series set in the "Alien" universe done by the creator of Fargo. Esteemed colleague Matt Zoller Seitz already laid out his predictions for the series: 

1 It's an anthology telling stories in seasons 
2 Jumps through the franchise timeline a la Fargo 
3 Weyland-Yutani is the connecting thread a la gang wars in Fargo 
4 Established characters cameo as younger/older versions of themselves

I don't know how much this was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, but an interview with series creator Noah Hawley confirmed a lot of this. It's about class warfare, it shows us the big-whigs at Weyland-Yutani, no Ripley, and he wants to break the formula of people being trapped somewhere. 

Now, the latter part is decisive. Because with "Aliens", there's a big problem: the best "Alien"-stories are those where the hapless protagonists do not know what awaits them, because at its heart, this is a horror franchise. However, how often can you pull this off? At some point, knowledge about the existence of these beasts HAS to seep out, right? 

The classic "Alien"-trilogy was set close enough to each other and with the necessary precautions that you could buy it, but at the end of Alien III, the very last Alien DNA gets incinerated. Like, this is as much a "yeah, we're done with this franchise" as you can get. It's like Douglas Adams blowing up every conceivable version of Earth to communicate that, no, this time the saga is really over. 

Of course, the nature of popular IPs requires that you come back to them, and that's where you get rapidly diminishing returns. This holds true for the Hitchhiker's Guide through the Galaxy as well as for "Alien". "Alien IV" was already seriously going off the rails and left the franchise dead in the water for almost a decade. The less said about the "Alien vs. Predator" movies, the better. 

It was only when Ridley Scott himself returned to do "Prometheus" that there was a chance at getting it another shot, and despite "Prometheus" being a prequel, it relied heavily on the characters doing the most stupid shit imaginable in order got get the plot going. 

If we talk about novels and graphic novels set in the "Alien"-Universe, we get a lot of remakes of the original two movies, basically, without much rhyme or rhythm. The most succesful attempt at recreating "Alien" was the video game "Alien: Isolation", which in essence remade Scott's first movie but padded its run time to about nine hours. This meant that you got not one Alien, but several, not one malfunctioning Android, but several, and a story that really should basically be the final nail in the coffin of no one knowing these things exist. 

How many times do you want to rely on greedy people pretending they can monetize these aliens? How many times do people need to find out they have acid for blood? 

The only thing that leaves me cautiously optimistic about Hawley's attempt - aside from the fact that he did "Fargo", of course - is that he deliberately says he wants to do something else, something bigger. How much is left then of what makes "Alien" interesting, on the other hand, is left to be seen.


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