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The trouble with the Alien: Covenant prologue

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I want more from cinema than callbacks to decades-old science fiction classics

20th Century Fox

A four-minute prologue for Ridley Scott’s next film, Alien: Covenant, hit the web last night, showing off how the film will borrow aesthetically from the original Alien, and ignore its more immediate predecessor, the critically maligned Prometheus. The prologue introduces us to the crew of its titular spaceship, and culminates with a nod to the chestburster scene in Alien.

For memory’s sake, here’s the original sequence:

As my colleague Rich McCormick mentioned last night, there’s other, atmospheric elements that steer this film more to Alien than Prometheus. The ship feels like it’s more in line with the industrial stylings of the Nostromo, the crew is more blue collar and down-to-earth, and the mission is simple: set down on a planet and begin repopulating. As we’ve seen in the trailers, that probably won’t happen.

I can’t say I blame director Ridley Scott from shifting direction away from the decision he made with Prometheus, a prequel to the original Alien. The film, while financially successful, was roundly shellacked by critics and audiences for its uneven story and weird sideways entry into the Alien universe. But while Prometheus is considered a misstep for the franchise, it took the franchise in a creative direction, not relying so heavily on the nostalgia and decisions of a nearly 40-year-old film.

Prometheus was ambitious as it was weird. Set in the same world as Alien, it proposed to tell a story that stood on its own, one that got to the heart of the mysterious “space jockey,” and showed off an advanced civilization seemingly seeding planets with life. Unfortunately, while it contains some of the most beautiful production design and visuals in science fiction cinema, it suffered from the problem of too many cooks in the kitchen — watching it now, you see the fingerprints of several different writers with very different ideas. The story is a mess, with a proto-xenomorph stuck onto the end to connect it gracelessly to the larger world of Alien.

Because the film was poorly received, Alien: Covenant has had a bit of a twisted production. Originally a sequel to Prometheus, simply titled Paradise, it was supposed to steer further away from Alien, according to writer Damon Lindelof. Initially scheduled for release in 2014, the film is only now hitting theaters in May 2017, with plenty of changes that reintroduce the DNA of the original films, to the point where the promotional footage makes this look almost like a reboot of the first Alien.

Sequels and reboots are part of Hollywood’s bread and butter: there’s no getting away from that. There are plenty of good sequels out there, sure, but the industry rarely rewards departures that allow writers or directors to innovate. High-profile exits from projects such as Edgar Wright’s departure from Ant-Man and Ben Affleck leaving The Batman are a good example of this. Directors and writers bail when they are unable to reconcile their creative vision with one that’s laid down by the marketing departments of major film studios.

How far creatives break from the style established by a franchise is a gamble. Compare the differing reactions between Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. While Phantom Menace had numerous issues with story and acting, it was an enormous experiment from George Lucas, who had found that going out on a limb worked for the original trilogy in 1977. The Force Awakens, on the other hand, was received extremely well by fans, because its filmmakers made the decision to largely replicate what had worked in the past. Rogue One did much the same thing, putting together what is essentially a darker and edgier version of A New Hope mashed up with the battle scenes from Return of the Jedi.

Similarly, franchises like Star Trek and The Terminator repurpose their source material. This doesn’t always work: just look at the reaction to Kahn’s presence in Star Trek Into Darkness. But these films routinely do fairly well at the box office by playing it safe. Even original properties aren’t immune to this habit. This isn’t to say that these films are bad — far from that. I love that we’re going back to the Star Wars universe over and over again, or launched into space on the Enterprise. These franchises are enduring for decades in part because of their familiarity. But I don’t want them to be the only things that delight me in the movie theater.

A couple of years ago, I began buying up older science fiction classics: Silent Running, Outland, Tron, 2010, and other films from this sort of golden age of science fiction cinema. There are many gems, not to mention a ton of duds, but what has stuck with me is the willingness to take risks. The stories that are wild and unpredictable and irreverent — they don’t feel like anything else.

And for those reasons, many of these films influenced the current crop of self-replicating sci-fi. Every so often we still gets sci-fi like this. Sometimes it flops or flounders (Jupiter Ascending, In Time, or Elysium) but when it works, it’s magical. Films such as District 9, Ex Machina, Gravity, Her, Moon, and others have had a huge impact on genre films, helping to launch careers of writers and directors, and have inspired movie-goers and likely some future filmmakers as well.

But it feels like these stories and these ideas are losing out to the much larger Hollywood machine. Small, brilliant indie sci-fi filmmakers earn attention, only to have their directors turn over to take part in a multi-billion dollar franchise. And so there are fewer of those films in the middle, because they’re riskier and harder to pin to an audience. They require confident creators and a decent budget. At that point, a studio rather sees a sequel with a superhero.

This is the opportunity that the major franchises miss out on: to lead their audiences to new ground. The pleasure of Prometheus was how it tried to have it both ways. Ridley Scott used the Alien brand to produce something new and strange.

But Alien: Covenant looks like a return to the studio formula. It will likely be hailed for going back to its roots, but by making that argument, I can’t help but feel that all that we’re doing is cheering on a storyteller for playing it safe.