Somewhere in the last decade, Ridley Scott became a franchise guy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but Scott has brought his newfound passion for sequels to bear on the series that made him a star: Alien, a franchise that hasn’t produced a good movie since 1986.
Since the first four Alien flicks stretched the timeline started by the first film to nearly 300 years, Scott opted to go the prequel route with 2012’s Prometheus, establishing a new past for the series that will continue with this year’s Alien: Covenant. Both films follow the same basic horror concept of Alien: well-meaning crew happens upon alien craft, finds a scary organism and deals with the ensuing horror. The goal seems to be establishing an origin story and underlying mythology for the title creature. That’s a dubious idea on its own merits. Do you really want to know where the shark from Jaws came from, for instance? The big question now is just how far Scott is willing to take his prequel series.
The latest issue of Empire reveals that Sott is hoping to make at least two more Alien prequels. Apparently the eventual plan is to link up with the original film. That’s where we run into trouble. Even beyond the problem of messing with a self-containted gem like Alien, Scott is apparently considering bringing back a young version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, using digital effects to de-age her.
“You could do that,” Scott said.
Now, it’s important to stress the word could there. Scott is certainly not treating this as something that will definitely happen. It’s also important to stress that, as long as Weaver gives her permission or even her participation, Scott can happily go through with the idea.
That said: Please don’t do this. Please, please do not do this.
Digital de-aging can work. It worked for Captin America: Civil War. That final Princess Leia shot in Rogue One got huge applause in theaters. By the time Scott reaches the end of his prequel saga, it’s quite possible that the technology available could give us a flawless version of young Ripley. That’s not the issue. Even if you only give a fleeting glance of Ripley in the prequels, you establish a connection between her and what came before that first film.
Alien works best when both the characters and the audience are going in blind.
Even if you don’t tie Ripley to the plot of the prequels and just show her going about her daily life, you’re creating a sense of importance there that changes Alien in a way that annihilates the premise of the film. Somene somewhere is going to watch that prequel first, then understand instinctively that there’s something special about Ripley when they see Alien. Even setting the new viewer aside, though, the entire point of Alien is that everything about that film is made to feel ordinary, until it isn’t.
The crew we encounter in Alien are just a bunch of average people doing a job. They work on a freighter, not an exploration vessel or a colonization project. They’re glorified truckers. Everything changes when a facehugger jumps up out of an egg and introduces pure horror into their lives. The opening scenes of Alien are supposed to be mundane, for both the characters and the audience. Introducing Ripley before that changes the structure. Sure, you could just watch Alien and ignore anything the prequels say. But any Star Wars fan will tell you that ignoring the prequels only gets you so far.
The mundane experiences that open Alien are made all the more potent in the context of Ripley’s overall arc. There’s a reason she’s adored by sci-fi fans the world over. In a more conventional 1979 sci-fi drama, she wouldn’t have been the hero. It would have been the dutiful Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) and curious woman like Ripley would’ve either been killed midway through the film or rescued by a man in the final act. Ripley instead emerges as the most resourceful person in the film. That journey works, in part, because the film does not offer her special treatment until she begins to step into the spotlight. Ripley desn’t ever want to be a hero. She wants to do her job and get home but there’s an alien monster in the way, so she becomes a hero to save herself. Her arc is simple and functional. In other words, perfect.
Tampering with events prior to Alien is fine. The xenomorph is a mysterious beast that begs all kinds of questions and there may be some interesting answers there. Tampering with Ripley pre-Alien is a misguided attempt to get a little bit of “Hey, remember this?!” nostalgia value, at the expense of the film that got us here.
Is this too much hand-wringing over a single quote? Maybe, but we already dragged Ripley through an undignified film experience once. It was called Alien: Resurrection.