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ALIEN: COVENANT & The Problem With Prequels

The original Alien left many questions unanswered, which upcoming prequels will address. But do we even need those questions answered?

ALIEN: COVENANT & The Problem With Prequels

This May will see the release of Alien: Covenant, the second film in Ridley Scott’s ongoing Alien prequel series. The second trailer for the prequel hit the web last month and featured a group of people embarking on a colonizing mission to a planet they believe to be a paradise, only this time they’re couples! The trailer also showed off its impressive cast with the likes of Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender and Danny McBride (for some reason), while also giving us multiple looks at the titular creatures – which incidentally doesn’t look scary when it’s crawling onto a spaceship in broad daylight.

The trailer, while looking visually impressive, feels overly familiar: a group of people land on a seemingly benign planet only to find out that the planet isn’t so much a paradise, rather a hellish plain filled with hostile creatures. It’s exactly the same as Prometheus, only this time the film boasts actually showing the xenomorph and that we’ll get closer to answering the question the prequel series was set up for in the first place: how/why were the xenomorphs created?

But, does that question even need answering? Ridley Scott thinks so, as he is confident he could make another six of these prequel films; with the script for the next one having already been written and its title announced.

“Did IQ’s just drop sharply while I was away?”

Ridley Scott’s original Alien was a film that was rich with ambiguity; who or what is the Space Jockey? What happened to it? Where does the xenomorph come from? What is its purpose? These questions have rattled fans for years, with people coming up with insane fan theories that seemingly have no end. When it was announced that Ridley Scott was developing a new Alien film, people went mad with excitement. Finally we would see the franchise return to its blood-soaked roots after the disastrous Alien vs Predator franchise.

ALIEN: COVENANT & The Problem With Prequels

Alien: Covenant (2017) – source: 20th Century Fox

After seemly years of delay, it was finally announced that the film would be entitled “Prometheus” and would serve as a prequel to the original Alien film. Fan excitement went through the roof, people believed they would finally get the answers to the burning questions they had ever since the crew of the Nostromo stepped foot into the derelict space craft. The trailers heightened fan excitement even more, with the original siren of the Nostromo used as the trailers music, creating a sense of nostalgia among fans. Seemly nothing could go wrong. Then the film was released.

Upon release Prometheus was received fairly positively among film critics, holding a 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. But many fans were left underwhelmed by the films lack of answers to the questions it posed, and a feeling that some of the answers they provided were not as interesting as they had hoped. This is one of the main problems with prequels: audiences are ultimately going to be underwhelmed as what they imagined in their head is never going to be matched on screen.

You can never please everyone and you can never live up to fan expectations. Prometheus is a perfect example of this. Many people were disappointed that the Space Jockey turned out to be a large bald humanoid figure that looked like an inflated balloon. Similarly, many people were disappointed with the deacon’s design, as it looked more akin to a shark than a xenomorph. It’s a never-ending cycle of disappointment.

ALIEN: COVENANT & The Problem With Prequels

Prometheus (2012) – source: 20th Century Fox

Prometheus and Alien: Covenant both attempt to answer the question of the origin of the xenomorph, but does this need an answer? The original Alien is an effective horror film because the xenomorph seems to have no purpose, its origin is left purposefully open so the audience can fill it in themselves. The ambiguity is part of its success. Answering these questions in prequel films only lessens the impact of the original. When Kane looks up at the Space Jockey in awe and says: “what is that thing?” We all collectively sigh and say: “a big bald bodybuilder”.

One of Prometheus’s biggest problems is that it tries to run a theme of creation through the series, as the Engineers who created us also happened to create the xenomorphs. This feels extremely out of place as the original Alien was never about creation. All Scott has done is over complicate what was a simple horror film in his attempts to underpin the whole series with some philosophical, pseudo-religious meaning.

Making the known, unknown

Prequels have to take what the audience already knows and turn it into something new and mysterious. Horror film prequels struggle the most with this: how do you take something that people have seen numerous times before and make it scary again? The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning is a film that was tasked with making the backstory to Leatherface, a character we’ve seen numerous times before, scary.

What the filmmakers failed to realize is that what made Leatherface scary in the first place was the ambiguity surrounding the Hewitt family and the seemingly illogical way in which they act, showing their origin completely undermined all of this.

ALIEN: COVENANT & The Problem With Prequels

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) – source: New Line Cinema

Alien: Covenant is faced with the same problem: how can you make the xenomorph scary again? We’ve seen the xenomorph in six films now, not yet counting Alien: Covenant. All that can be done with the creature has been done; seeing it again isn’t scary any more, it’s tiring. As one of the Covenant’s crew puts their face over a xenomorph egg we don’t feel any level of suspense as we know what’s going to happen, we’ve been here before.

It’s not all bad

Prequels aren’t all bad though. A great example of a prequel that works is Matthew Vaughn’s excellent X-Men: First Class. First Class explores the relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr before they were Professor X and Magneto. This is the primary reason this film works as it’s not attempting to answer questions, rather explore a relationship that was a highlight in the original films.

Sure, the overall narrative of First Class is predictable, as we know what happens to the majority of the characters on-screen, but it’s the films attention to the relationship dynamic between the two old friends that makes the film work. Its groovy 1960’s setting and Cuban Missile Crisis set-piece are also big helps. Another one of First Classes strengths is that it never feels like it’s relying too hard on its subsequent films, it’s just telling its own interesting story. Future prequels should take notes from First Class.

Before we get to our First Classes we have to wade through cesspools of rubbish like X-Men Origins: Wolverine or the headbangingly annoying The Thing prequel. Good prequels are few and far between.

Some stories are better left untold

Despite there occasionally being a prequel that actually works, the majority of them tend to be underwhelming and disappointing; too busy being stuck in the past trying to tell stories that don’t need told. Despite all the problems prequels have to contend with, producers are still more eager than ever to get them made and we have the box-office to thank! With Prometheus making $403 million worldwide and Phantom Menace grossing over $1.027 billion worldwide, audiences are more than happy to see the origins of their favorite franchise.

So, with Alien: Covenant just around the corner, and Scott planning enough Alien films to last until we’re all dead, it doesn’t look like the prequel machine is stopping anytime soon. One hopes that Covenant bombs so Scott doesn’t end up telling the story of how the crew of the Nostromo bought Jonesy.

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Dylan is a English Literature & Film undergrad and film critic. He loves all genres of film but has a particular love for science fiction and horror.

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