The “Alien” Series

The June 8, 2012 U.S. release of the movie Prometheus added another chapter to the sci-fi world originally created by Alien, which premiered over 30 years ago. Prometheus, a prequel to the existing “Alien” franchise, expands on the series’ earlier themes and adds a few of its own to create a jumping off point for the other “Alien” titles. Ridley Scott, for whom Alien was just his second feature film assignment, returned to direct Prometheus, his sophomore outing in the seven-picture series. Having cost $130 million to produce, Prometheus didn’t quite earn that back domestically with a $126 million theatrical release. Internationally, however, it more than doubled its U.S. take for a worldwide gross of over $300 million. The cost of release prints, marketing, and backend deals for talent, of course, greatly reduce the profit margin of a theatrical run. With its DVD bow today, October 9, will those combined returns be enough for the series to get yet another installment? It may be hard to believe now, but Alien almost didn’t get made. The project was turned down by every major studio, including 20th Century Fox, which eventually did produce it. Certainly the earlier success of Star Wars helped get it greenlighted, but unlike that movie’s mix of science fiction and Western genres aimed at kids and young adults, Alien added horror to science fiction for a decidedly adult picture. In fact, 20th Century Fox even insisted that the most unsettling and bloodiest elements of the film be toned down before production rolled. The final result, of course, was hailed by critics and fans alike when it hit theaters in 1979. It also made a star of a young Sigourney Weaver, who despite starring in many hits since, remains most identified with the role of Ellen Ripley. It wasn’t until 1986 that a sequel, Aliens, came out. Writer-director James Cameron took the helm for that film, only his third feature and hot off his surprisingly successful time travel/action pic The Terminator. Unlike the moody, leisurely-paced original, Cameron’s was a slam-bang, edge-of-your-seat, roller coaster ride. For those who claim that sequels never equal or surpass the original, Aliens is a very good counter argument. The third time wasn’t charmed, however, as Alien³ didn’t match the success of its predecessors when it was released in 1992. Alien³ was the first narrative feature by TV commercial/music video director David Fincher. His only previous film was a Rick Springfield rock concert documentary he made several years earlier. The fourth entry in the series, Alien:  Resurrection, released in 1997, didn’t actually help resurrect the franchise.  That film was helmed by French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, who had just two feature film co-directing credits on his resume at the time. Now you may have noticed that I’ve made a point of mentioning what number each film was in the careers of the directors of the “Alien” series.  I did that because it’s pretty amazing that a studio would consistently entrust these fairly high-budget films to the novice directors they hired, especially after the considerable success of the first two installments. What may be even more amazing is the post-“Alien” series success of all four directors, even the latter two. Scott went on to solidify his reputation as a stylist with such films as Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and American Gangster.  Cameron continued to create films of enormous commercial appeal with Terminator 2: Judgment Day, True Lies, Titanic and Avatar. Fincher found success with Se7en, Fight Club, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Finally, Jean-Pierre Jeunet returned to France and fame with Amelie, A Very Long Engagement and Micmacs. For completeness’ sake, I feel I must also mention two other films with “Alien” pedigrees. Those are 2004’s AVP: Alien vs. Predator and 2007’s AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem.  That duo pits the “Alien” monsters against the “Predator” hunters of an entirely different film series. As those movies take place in a different period/setting than the previous titles in the “Alien” saga (and because most “Alien” series fans consider them to be inferior episodes), they are generally, and intentionally, left out of the “Alien” discussion, even to the point of being called non-canonical. The financial success or failure of Prometheus from all revenue sources will determine the future of the “Alien” series, whether this is the first of a new run of films, or just proves a one off. In the meantime, if you’ve never seen the “Alien” movies, or just want another look, check them out at the Des Moines Public Library, where we own DVD copies of all seven titles, now including Prometheus!