What makes a movie franchise a franchise and not just a collection of similar films? Commonalities.
Sometimes it’s just a character by himself that makes it a franchise (Tarzan). At other times a common theme (Final Destination). Sometimes films of a franchise will share a common style if they are all made by the same filmmakers (Jason Bourne), or expand on a singular story (Star Wars). For others, it’s a gimmick or hook (Home Alone), or a premise (Planet of the Apes).
The Alien franchise doesn’t necessarily fit into any of these categories; although it has featured all of these traits at one time or another. It started in 1979 with the release of Alien, a sequel came seven years later in Aliens, it becoming a trilogy with 1992’s Alien 3, and a quadrilogy in 1997 with Alien: Resurrection. The franchise then became host to two crossover films, with 2004’s Alien vs. Predator, and 2007’s Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. Lately, the franchise has been brought back to life with a prequel, 2012’s Prometheus, to be followed by this month’s Alien: Covenant.
For the first 4 films, the franchise had a common character to be based around, Ellen Ripley. That changed with the crossover films, which continued the franchise by utilizing its most original element, the frightening xenomorph (and the space jockey/engineer). With the prequels, we have a commonality in filmmaker with Ridley Scott returning to the helm after directing the first film. In addition to this patchwork of commonalities among the various Alien films, there are actually many other common traits. These traits are featured in all of the films of this franchise and help to give it a consistent feel despite the varied approaches and perspectives along the way. In this manner, the Alien franchise is impressively unique. Despite consisting of films made by many different filmmakers in 5 different decades, and with plots all over the board, it manages a consistency and devotion to original concept. Below is an overview of some of the strongest commonalities among the films of the Alien franchise.
**SPOILER ALERT!** (No spoilers for Alien: Covenant though)
The True Identity Reveal or Betrayal
The most consistent and identifiable commonality among all of the Alien films (apart from, you know, the xenomorphs) is a plot twist revolving around a truth being exposed, most often via a character revealing their true identity. Typically this truth has ties to a government entity or government-like entity (such as the powerful Weyland-Yutani corporation that appears to rule Earth in the future) and this twist results in the betrayal of the main protagonist(s).
In Alien, it’s Ash, the Nostromo’s science officer who is revealed to actually be a robot. His purpose on the ship was to make sure that the alien lifeform was brought back to Earth for research – this mission being driven by Weyland-Yutani. In Aliens there’s a play on Ash’s reveal in the first movie by Ripley finding out that there’s another robot on her mission to return to LV-426, Bishop. But instead of being a champion for the preservation of the alien, Bishop helps save Ripley. Similarly, it turns out that Burks sent colonists to the planet, fully aware of the aliens living there in order to infect the colonists. This would make the aliens easier to transport back to Earth to become biological weapons for the corporation. In turn, Alien 3 plays off of Bishop’s appearance in Aliens. Here, the actual human Bishop, the person the robot version is modeled after, is sent to Fury 161 by Weyland-Yutani to help convince Ripley to give them her alien “child”. Finally, in Alien: Resurrection, it is Call who is revealed to be a rogue robot towards the end of the film, escaping from servitude and hiding amongst the crew of the Betty.
In Alien vs. Predator, Lance Henrickson was cast to bring a common element to the film with the Alien franchise. Henrickson plays Charles Bishop Weyland, a rich industrialist who discovers the pyramid under Antarctica. During the course of the film, it is revealed that he has a terminal illness and is part of the team only because he wants to find alien technology in order to set up his company for success in the future and secure his own legacy. In Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem, the military tells the citizens of Gunnison that they are bringing in air support to rescue them, yet at the end of the film it’s not a rescue, but an airstrike to kill everything in an attempt to stop the alien threat (and capture the Predator’s technology by Ms. Yutani). In Prometheus, there are no robot reveals like in the original alien films. Walter is the robot on board and his allegiances are pretty clear from the beginning, even though he does betray his human crew mates. Instead, Prometheus reveals that the elderly founder of Wayland Corp., Peter Weyland, is onboard in a secret compartment. The reason he is onboard is that he is old and dying, and wanted to “meet his makers” to see if they could potentially help him live on. It’s also revealed that the company representative that is in charge of the mission, Meredith Vickers, is actually Peter’s daughter – suggesting that the company agreed to fund the expedition for selfish reasons rather than purely exploratory/scientific ones.
Climactic Explosions and False Endings
All of the alien movies go out with a bang, a really big bang. Each of the films features a climax that builds up towards a certain fiery conclusion, only to reveal that said event is not actually the end of the action (each has a false ending).
In the original four films, the false ending is followed by a 1 vs. 1 showdown where the alien/monster is blasted out into space. In Alien, Ripley sets the self-destruct of the Nostromo. She flees into an escape shuttle, avoiding the blast. Just when she thinks everything is safe, the xenomorph reveals that it had been hiding in the shuttle along with Ripley. To get rid of it, she has no choice but to blast it out into space. In Aliens, the power supply of the colony is damaged and it ultimately results in a thermonuclear explosion. While Ripley, Hicks, Bishop, and Newt escape, they reach the Sulaco to find out that the queen alien had stowed in their shuttle and ridden up with them. Ripley uses the power lifter to get the queen into the airlock and blast it into space. In Alien 3, Ripley and the inmates try to trap the alien in the foundry, killing it with molten metal. Although the sequence doesn’t go as planned, they do manage to cover the alien in molten metal (the fiery false ending), but it survives. Ripley triggers the fire suppression sprinklers, cooling the liquid metal covering the alien, which shatters it. In an homage to the blasting the creatures out into space in the previous films, Alien 3 has Ripley herself leap into the furnace to kill the alien queen inside her. In Alien: Resurrection, the Auriga is programmed to return to Earth when problems occur. However, the ship doesn’t slow down and crashes into the planet. While Ripley #8 and the surviving crew of the Betty escape the crash, the Newborn alien follows them onto the Betty. #8 uses her acid blood to burn through a window, opening the cargo hold to the vacuum of space, and sucking the Newborn out piece by piece.
In AvP, the Predators built a self-destruction device into the pyramid incase it was ever needed. Once things get out of control, the Predators trigger the device in an effort to contain the Xenomorph menace. However, an Alien Queen survives, with which Alexa and Scar take care of by attaching it to a water tower and then pushing it into the ocean. In AvP: Requiem, the fiery climax is a nuclear bomb unleashed on the town to end the alien infestation. The main characters escape on a helicopter, which crashes due to the explosion. There isn’t a “reprise” showdown after the climactic explosion of this movie – instead the showdown is before the explosion, a hand-to-hand brawl between the predalien and the surviving predator. In Prometheus, the fiery climax happens when the titular ship crashes into the Engineer’s ship in order to prevent it from heading to Earth to destroy humanity. The Engineer survives, coming after Shaw. Shaw manages to lure the Engineer to a lifepod where the creature she gave “birth” to has grown significantly. Similarly to Ripley blasting the last xenomorph into space, Shaw opens the doors of the lifepod, releasing the creature onto the Engineer.
The Dinner Scene
They say it’s good to have a family meal because it is an opportunity to talk. The same is true in the Alien films. All of them feature an important scene with all of the main characters eating around a table. These sequences are often used to introduce the characters, and for the audience to better understand the relationships of the group, because most of the time these scenes take place towards the beginning of the film.
In Alien there are a couple dinner scenes, none more famous than the chestburster scene. However, it’s an earlier scene that creates a template that the rest of the films follow. After the crew is woken up from hypersleep in the first scene, they meet up to eat around a large table. At the table we hear their conversations, we see their personalities a little bit. It’s also an opportunity to size each of them up to try and figure out which of them will last the longest against the alien menace towards which they are headed. In Aliens, there is a similar scene after the marines awaken from hypersleep aboard the Sulaco. Here, they meet in the mess hall. They joke with each other, clearly confident in their abilities – something that upsets Ripley. Another thing that upsets her is Bishop. He partakes in five finger fillet, but accidentally cuts himself, revealing that he is an android to Ripley’s dismay.
Alien 3 has a cafeteria scene after Ripley is recovered. There’s a threatening tone to this moment, which is something new in the franchise because for once the terror is not coming from the alien. Instead, Ripley is an unwelcome arrival – surrounded by harsh criminals who have not seen a woman in a very long time. In Alien: Resurrection, there is a dinner scene where Ripley 8 begins to regain memory of past events. In this scene, we learn about what the scientists are trying to accomplish, and Ripley warns them that it is a bad idea. In Prometheus, there is a dinner scene after the crew wakes up from their 2-year hypersleep. As they interact for the first time, it’s also the first sign that all the interests of the expedition aren’t purely scientific.
James Bond has his Walther PPK (and later Walther P99). King Arthur had Excalibur, Thor has Mjolner, Logolas his Bow and Arrows, Star Wars has the Lightsaber, and Indiana Jones his whip. It is the flamethrower that belongs to the Alien franchise. The flamethrower is the perfect weapon for these films. For one, there is often a lot of organic matter that needs to be destroyed, and a flamethrower is an easy way to do that. Also, the xenomorphs themselves are extremely difficult to kill – with acid blood and all – so the flamethrower makes quick work of them.
In Alien, the flamethrower (torch) is first used to coerce the xenomorph onboard the Nostromo through the air ducts in an attempt to trap it and blast it out into space (Air ducts are also an important trait across the franchise). In Aliens, Ripley uses the flamethrower to torch the Xenomorph queen’s den and all of the eggs. In Alien 3 there are no weapons, but fire is an important tool that the inmates use to fend off the xenomorph and a tool that they ultimately use to try and kill it. In Alien: Resurrection, #8 uses the flamethrower to torch the remains of the previous Ripley clones which didn’t quite make it. In his death scene, Charles Bishop attempts to hold off a xenomorph with a flamethrower in Aliens vs. Predators. In Prometheus, Vickers uses a flamethrower to kill Holloway after he has been infected.
What other common traits from the Alien films come to mind?