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At the Picture Show: Extended Cut
    by Chris Bellamy

Bring out your dead

From 'Alien' to 'X-Files,' franchises continue to fight the future as they try to rejuvenate tired icons

Out of nostalgia came a wave of enthusiasm over the last few weeks, as the continuation of a beloved but [mostly*] dormant franchise quickly became a reality. Well, to be clear, it began as a lark, morphed into an Internet discussion and then suddenly turned into a reality. And so it was that, 18 years after Alien: Resurrection, the series itself became resurrected with the official confirmation of a forthcoming fifth chapter.

* No, I'm not counting Prometheus or the AvP series.

The story is well known by now - District 9 director Neill Blomkamp posted concept art for a hypothetical Alien film that would bring back not only Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley, but Michael Biehn's Cpl. Hicks - who appeared in Aliens before being killed off in the opening sequence of the franchise's third installment - as well. The artwork made the rounds quickly, followed by Blomkamp revealing that 20th Century Fox was ready to actually greenlight the movie (but that he personally wasn't), followed almost immediately afterward that he had, in the intervening days, apparently become ready after all and that Alien 5 was really happening.

While much of what I've heard (at least from people I read and listen to) has demonstrated a healthy level of skepticism - particularly given Blomkamp's consecutive misfires in Elysium and Chappie - there remains a great deal of enthusiasm as well. For every piece knocking the idea, or Blomkamp in general - or both - there's another that's positively giddy about the prospect of seeing Ripley one more time* on the big screen. Surely some of the excitement, at least, stems from the enduring disappointment of both Alien 3 and Resurrection. Even Weaver herself - who is all but officially on board - has publicly advocated for the new sequel, arguing that the character deserves a "proper sendoff" that the later entries didn't provide.

* Of course, "one more time" is nonsense, as Blomkamp has said he envisioned "at least" one film, and we all know that if it's a hit they'll keep the sequels coming.

What won many fans over was the (short-lived) understanding that Alien 5 would essentially ignore the third and fourth films and simply pick up basically where Aliens left off, presumably set a couple of decades later. (Cue the obligatory Superman Returns reference that every single person online has already made.) Blomkamp intimated as much in his remarks, saying he wanted his movie to be a "genetic sibling" to the first two films and that his would fall in line right afterward. "So it's Alien, Aliens, and then this movie."

He walked back those statements shortly thereafter - insisting he wasn't planning on messing with the continuity of the franchise - but the larger issue, for me at least, is the persistent idea that we need to bring back the character or continue the franchise in the first place. Look, Ellen Ripley is one of my favorite characters ever, and I love those first two films as much as anyone. But the purpose of going back to the well after nearly two decades and two failed sequels eludes me, and seems almost entirely fueled by fan nostalgia rather than any expectation that the next movie will be any good. It's that same nostalgia that brought back our favorite archaeologist for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and John McClane for Live Free or Die Hard and A Good Day to Die Hard.

At a certain point, even a great character or a great franchise needs to either be put to bed or completely re-tooled. Just because a filmmaker with one good movie under his belt has a new idea doesn't necessarily mean it's a good one. Perhaps the most telling thing about it is his insistence that he's going back to the series' roots and making a film with the same DNA as Ridley Scott and James Cameron's iconic early entries. First of all, that sentiment seems to ignore the fact that Alien and Aliens are drastically different movies, stylistically and otherwise. For that matter, the reason why the franchise is such a unique model overall is that each sequel dramatically reinvented the series. Each movie is a left turn. That Blomkamp essentially wants to just go repeat what the films used to be is kind of antithetical to what the franchise represents, and the kind of creative risks it has taken. (I touched on some similar territory in a piece I wrote for Issue 39 last year.) Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection certainly don't work, but both are fascinating failures, and I'll take a fascinating failure over an ordinary success any day.

In his interviews on the subject, Blomkamp's motivation seems to boil down to, "I love those first two movies. I want to make a movie just like them." Just as Bryan Singer's motivation was, "I love those early Superman movies, so I want to make a movie just like them."

There's a lot of that kind of nostalgia these days - that desire to bring back something from the past with the expectation that the same formula will recreate the same magic. Pretty much every canceled TV series with a passionate following is the subject of rumblings from people clamoring to get it back on the air (Save it, Netflix, save it!) or, failing that, get a movie made. Speaking as a Firefly fan, I don't think there will ever be an end to fan calls for the series' return, even after 12 years have passed, and a full decade after Serenity killed off two of the main characters.

And even The X-Files - which is pretty much Exhibit A for what happens when a show hangs on for way too long - is reportedly getting rebooted. And by "rebooted," I mean "brought back with the same characters and the same actors."

It seems odd that we can't simply let things end. And so characters and concepts and whole franchises are getting caught in an endless cycle of reiteration and sameness. Case in point: The new retconned take on the Terminator franchise, which is set for release this summer and is probably the best comparison point for Alien. (Both iconic sci-fi franchises from the same era, largely defined by James Cameron.) Instead of simply rebooting or taking the concept in a new direction, the studio is insisting on making it all part of the same continuing saga - a saga whose qualities dried up years ago. The obvious reason is to keep Schwarzenegger as the selling point (although just how much cache he has with the modern target audience for a sci-fi blockbuster is debatable), and I'm as big a Schwarzenegger fan as anyone. But the fact that they're rewriting the entire narrative of the series is just a cheap and transparent way to remake the original films while pretending they're not. (Kinda like the way the 2011 version of The Thing pretended it was a "prequel" when it was basically just an inferior copy* of the 1982 film.) In fairness, if Terminator: Stupidly Misspelled Subtitle turns out to use its time travel-based retconning in a really interesting way, I'll be happy to eat my words.

* And yes, I realize the 1982 version was a remake as well. But Carpenter's version was not only an improvement on The Thing from Another World but had an entirely different aesthetic.

I understand this type of retconning is common in various forms of storytelling, notably comics and soap operas. But it generally strikes me as pointless. Why do multiple versions of the same story have to coexist in the same thread? Why can't we simply get multiple interpretations of the same characters or the same stories instead of forcing them to fit together? Can you imagine if the Bond movies strained to make sure that all the Bonds existed in the same universe, in the same linear timeline, every time it changed actors?

As we continue to see old characters and series brought back from the dead - apparently Beverly Hills Cop 4 is back in play - I can't help but wonder if and when it will become common practice to continue using actors' images and personas after they're dead. (Cue reference to Ari Folman's The Congress that will be understood by the other nine people who saw The Congress.) Hey, maybe Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow - with its posthumous Laurence Olivier cameo - was more ahead of its time than we realize.

In retrospect, the rebooted Star Trek and its multiple timelines bothers me a little - not necessarily because it didn't work in the movie itself (in fact it worked marvelously), but because it refused to simply cut the cord, and is now the go-to example of how to be "faithful" (groan, eye-roll) while moving in a new direction. The strain to reassure audiences - Look at these new actors and these new filmmakers and this new approach but don't worry it's totally still the same! - has grown tiresome. The recent X-Men movies are another example. Clearly the franchise has moved on, but Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are too popular for the studio to abandon, so it hedges its bets with a rewritten timeline that serves no purpose except to keep the same cast around. (As I wrote in my review of Days of Future Past, the film isn't interested - in the slightest - in time travel as a concept, but only as a device designed to sustain the franchise as it currently is.)

Believe me - I can be part of the problem, too. Fittingly, the same thing happened with the series' prequel, Prometheus, for which I became unreasonably, uncontrollably excited even though I'd been underwhelmed by Ridley Scott for years. No matter my cynicism about the purpose of Blomkamp's new Alien, or whatever form it might take, I'll probably talk myself into it by the time it comes out. Probably. The nostalgic part of my brain will somehow win out. But before I let my lesser wits get the better of me, I can rationally realize that those neverending cycles - those perpetual searches to recreate past greatness by repetition rather than inspiration - are, more often than not, ultimately a disservice. The more things change, the more we try to force them to stay the same.

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