This feature originally ran in March of 2015 and is being re-published again for Alien Day.
Welcome to Producer’s Chair, a new mini-column in which Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman offers his own career advice to artists and various figureheads in the film and music industry. In this installment, Roffman teams up with his fellow Colonial Marines Justin Gerber and Dan Caffrey to explain, or rather speculate, on how director Neill Blomkamp can accurately bring back Ellen Ripley and properly follow James Cameron’s Aliens.
Michael Roffman (MR): Earlier this year, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) sent a shockwave through the Internet when he uploaded concept art for a prospective Alien sequel he was conceptualizing. Of course, it wasn’t just any Alien sequel, but a proper follow up to James Cameron’s 1986 blockbuster, Aliens. There was a scarred portrait of Corporal Dwayne Hicks, another one of an older Ellen Ripley, the two of them together in a rather iconic pose, and several other peculiar drawings that included a weird jungle ship a la Elysium and our heroine disguised as a Xenomorph. Two months later, he’s officially directing the production and, yes, it’s a direct sequel to Aliens.
Sorry Episode VII. Game over, man. This takes the whole Queen’s nest of hype.
Now, there’s a lot to discuss, from analyzing the artwork to the endless possibilities of where this might go and what this means for the canon of the Alien franchise. But what’s really worth contemplating is how this all came together — it’s somewhat unprecedented. This sequel will go down as being the first truly fan-sourced blockbuster. After all, if the artwork didn’t make so much of a splash, it’s doubtful Blomkamp would have received the green light so fast. Granted, that’s all speculation, but there’s no denying that the endless parade of support helped the executives over at Fox to say, “Okay, Neill — go ahead and do it.” That’s pretty goddamn remarkable.
Of course, it helps that Blomkamp spent weeks alongside Sigourney Weaver while working on Chappie. And it’s even better that Weaver sounds so damn enthusiastic. “I would love to take Ripley out of sort of orbiting around in space and give a proper finish to what was such an excellent story,” she told Sky Movies last week. That’s fairly high praise given Weaver’s well-documented reluctance to allow just any writer to tackle Ripley. She’s always been very protective of the character — don’t forget, the role nabbed her an Oscar nomination — and having her thumbs up means there must be something special to Blomkamp’s story.
Justin, what are your initial thoughts?
Justin Gerber (JG): “Don’t fuck this up, Blomkamp” and “How?” were my initial thoughts regarding what will apparently be Blomkamp’s fourth full-length feature. I enjoy Alien 3 for what it is, but unfortunately it pales in comparison to the first two. Hicks (Michael Biehn) and Newt (Danielle Edmond) getting killed off before a word of dialogue is uttered derails the movie immediately for some fans. I get it. The Alien saga is ultimately Ripley’s story, but after putting those characters through the wringer in Aliens, it’s hard to cope with killing them off so easily. I would have done things differently, and in true fan fiction form, Blomkamp is going to attempt to do so.
Mike, I like your use of the term “fan-sourcing”, because while thousands, if not millions, of likes, shares, and favorites likely contributed to this movie getting the go-ahead, not one fan has paid a dime. We’re in an age where we can gauge how interested the public is by using a search engine. Writers and directors can now send links to execs with how many likes a pic received on Instagram and say, “See?” They saw, and now we have a reboot of sorts, though more in line with the Halloween series than The Amazing Spider-Man films (remember those?).
I’m happy that we’re getting another Alien movie with Sigourney Weaver, but even more thrilled to see Hicks get the adventure he truly deserved…or will he? A lot can change between a writer’s pipe dreams and what he actually gets on the big screen. Is it possible that Hicks could be written out, or even worse: re-cast? Mike, we’ve had some back-and-forths on potential plot routes they could take to explain away 3 and Resurrection, but I’m curious as to what ol’ Daniel Caffrey has to say about all this.
Dan Caffrey (DC): First off, I just found out yesterday that Blomkamp’s Alien isn’t going to ignore the third and fourth films after all. This actually makes me happy. I get that they pale in comparison to the first two movies, but they’re still unique and somewhat good in their own right. Also, both did some pretty significant things to Ripley’s story. And given that Weaver was heavily involved with both, it seems like a cop-out to pretend they didn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong — it sucks harder than a newborn facehugger that Newt and Hicks get offed so soon in Alien 3, especially when Aliens went to such great, painful lengths to save them. At the same time though, that’s the bed the filmmakers and Weaver made, and she should have to sleep in it.
And by not ignoring Alien: Resurrection, Blomkamp actually gains a plot device that will satisfy the fans: cloning. It’s been established that Ripley was able to be brought back (albeit in a borderline human/Xenomorph hybrid form), so why not Hicks and Newt? I’m sure they’d have to recast the latter, but they could still logically use Michael Biehn as everyone’s favorite Marine if they take advantage of the burn makeup in Blomkamp’s concept art. In fact, to not have Biehn play him would be sacrilege in any good fanboy’s eye. Why and how exactly he’d get brought back is anyone’s guess (maybe he gets used by the Yutani Corporation to manipulate Ripley’s emotions?), but I’m going to predict that Hicks will definitely be back, and Biehn will definitely be playing him. It wouldn’t be too hard to make that happen in a way that made sense.
And what about Ripley? If this is indeed the same Ripley from Resurrection, I’m wondering if her Xenomorph DNA has taken full hold, and that’s why she’s in the transformed state we see in the concept art. Either that, or it’s some kind of Xenomorph costume she’s using to infiltrate their nest, complete with an oxygen mask.
And we haven’t even gotten to the Xenomorphs themselves. Since part of this film looks like it’s going to take place in some type of jungle, I’m hoping we’re going to see all sorts of new wildlife get impregnated. Remember the Aliens action figures? They had all these little comics that came with them and explained the origins of the various Xenomorphs you could buy: the flying alien came from a bat, the one with horns and a battering-ram head came from a bull, etc. There was even one with elongated arms and a hunched over posture that came from a gorilla. Can you imagine that? Seeing a chestburster explode out of a great ape? A chestburster that could swing through the trees like Tarzan? Sign me up.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Do you guys agree with any of the above predictions? What do you think we’ll see from this film visually and narratively, and what else would you like to see?
MR: I’ve put a lot of thought into how they could re-calibrate the series while also keeping the films. The easiest route is to start the film at the end of Alien: Resurrection, when they’re plummeting to Earth if you recall, and maybe cut to a POV shot of the ship going straight into the ground. Then, voila: Ripley wakes up in a cryotube, maybe there’s even weird, sticky fungi all over her, and the music kicks in. (I’d love for them to use James Horner again, especially Gayane’s Adagio from Aram Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet suite, though I do understand the necessity to separate this entity from its “predecessor.”) She wakes up Hicks and Newt and together they see they’re much older.
Here’s the wrench: Newt would be about 36 or 37 years old, right? So, they could conceivably cast another woman and have her play a stunted adult; after all, she’ll still have the mind have a six or seven year old. That might actually make for an intriguing character. Actually, I think the whole aging element really factors into Ripley’s storyline perfectly. She’s spent so much time on this mission, up in space, and although her time has been unfortunate (she lost her daughter, Amanda, to old age!), she always stayed young. This would be almost like the permanent scar: Her life for this. It could also factor into the “dream” of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection, that she’s sacrificed her life for this and still wants a new one.
The cloning could also factor in, though, I feel that would complicate things. Remember, it’s been over 200 years since Alien 3 in Alien: Resurrection, so would it be another few hundred years? Also, what would be the point in cloning her again? To stop another Xenomorph? To ask her a question? Also, if you clone her, it’s difficult to factor in the age element, too. So maybe they go with the dream angle and perhaps they’re actually woken up by Weyland-Yutani, and they’ve been captive for over 30 years on life support? That would be spooky. You know, they’ve always attempted to keep the Xenomorph from the corporation, but what exactly happens when they get one?
Alien: Resurrection tackled those issues somewhat, but this could fully explore it. That would also make sense why the artwork clearly has the space jockey ship in storage and an Alien Queen running around the jungle. And yes, Caffrey, I love the idea of the animal hybrids. I thought Alien 3 did that great with the dog — originally supposed to be an ox! — and I know Blomkamp could deliver a terrifying series of Xenomorphs. He seems to be a scholar of Cronenberg with wild body horror, which explains other pieces of his artwork, such as Ripley’s Xenomorph outfit. Might she be fighting the enemy with the enemy to mirror the power loader battle?
Also, and if I’m ranting shut me down now (I won’t bleed milk, I swear), a few years ago, Fox released an Alien game called Colonial Marines, which actually saw Hicks survive. The way he survived as fucking ridiculous and made zero sense why modern computers would be fooled of his DNA a la Alien 3, but they sold the game as canon. Now, I sincerely doubt Blomkamp will follow this, but it’s worth discussion. Anyone seen that?
JG: I’m expecting Fox to make an announcement any second now decreeing that all video games, comic books, etc., are to be considered non-canon, a la Disney’s Star Wars announcement from a couple years ago. Whatever Blomkamp creates will have to come from his own imagination or, of course, our suggestions in this feature. Listen up, Neill!
I don’t think cloning is the way to go, Dan, if only because of the age issue Mike mentioned. I’m guessing one of four things will occur:
01. Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection happened … in another timeline. Deep space travel, cryosleep, aliens, and cloning have been introduced, so I could see them bringing in some complicated alt-universe component to the series. How they would introduce this and how in-depth they would go with it is something I can’t comprehend. Would they explain it away in a brief monologue delivered to Ripley, Hicks, and Newt? How might this work?
02. Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection happened … and Earth is in ruin. Xenomorphs have taken over, and the only hope for the future is in the past. Time travel has been created, and a team has to go back to save Ripley, Hicks, and Newt to … wait. They’ve still aged. Scratch this.
03. Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection happened … in a dream. Ripley wakes up alongside Hicks and Newt, and though they are in good health, they have all aged during their cryosleep. Wherever they end up, somehow Xenomorphs are about.
04. Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection just plain never happened. Ripley, Hicks, and Newt are a family. Chaos ensues 30 years after Aliens.
Blomkamp’s in a tricky situation to say the least.
DC: Out of all those scenarios, the easiest one is definitely ignoring the latter films, but like I said, it feels a little lazy to me on the filmmakers’ part. I don’t think this would be as much of a sticking point with me had Weaver not been so involved in their making. So I’m sticking to my guns (or pulse rifles!) and saying it’d be a shit move to disregard them.
The dream thing also seems too easy and too Dallas-y, so I’m going to say your first proposal (the alternate timeline one) is the best. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek films did a similar thing rather seamlessly, and it allowed him to both honor the series and films that came before while also moving forward in a way that was progressive and original. Justin, I know you’re not the biggest fan of Into Darkness, but that’s a discussion for another roundtable.
So that’s my vote. Let’s make use of the series’ sci-fi trappings (alt-universes, wormholes, etc.) so we can have our cake and eat it, too. What say you, Mike? I haven’t played the Colonial Marines game, but I have read its synopsis, and there are worse ways to explain how Hicks survived. But if you had to pick from Justin’s suggestions, which one would you go for?
MR: Look, I’ve defended Alien 3 ever since it hit theaters back in ’92. It’s dark, it’s unforgiving, it’s gritty in all the ways an early ’90s blockbuster didn’t want to be. Had it been released today, the film would be considered a tortured masterpiece, and not surprisingly, many fans and critics have retroactively praised it. Basically, Fincher shattered the night light that Cameron installed in Ridley Scott’s brilliantly gloomy monster movie. What’s more, he twisted the scope into something so hopelessly morbid that critics and fans justifiably went apeshit, but that’s also what I love about it. It’s so daring, which is what any Alien film should be. Alien 3 needed to happen. While everyone wanted a sequel to Aliens, that wasn’t what the franchise deserved, and decades later, I think fans can appreciate that direction. And say what you will about Alien: Resurrection, but that was another bold direction; unfortunately, Jean-Pierre Jeunet indulged in a little too much camp for my tastes. Still, the characters in Resurrection run circles around whatever mess of humanity we received in Prometheus, and that’s always been the most vital aspect of this franchise. Hell, even its imitators (ahem, Leviathan, Event Horizon), understood that.
With that in mind, no, I don’t really want to see the two sequels ignored — especially not 3. Caffrey, you brought up a good point that Weaver was heavily involved in both films, and that’s true. The idea of killing off Weaver is something the franchise should never forget. Really, it’s what separates this box office juggernaut from its ’80s peers. That’s why an alternate timeline could work, and I think the best way to accomplish this is by leaving it up to fan interpretation. Considering anything ambiguous needs to be detailed and answered nowadays (see: Blade Runner, The Sopranos), it’s unlikely that will happen. So, dreamy flashbacks, in my mind, would be enough to let audiences know: “This might have happened, this might not have happened, it’s up to you, but we’re acknowledging them.” And I don’t think it’s too much of a cop out; after all, it’s not like Ripley has been averse to dreams previously. Let’s not forget the brilliant dream sequence in Aliens.
My question, then, is what exactly does Blomkamp hope to accomplish? If Ripley’s already sacrificed herself, and she’s already started heading home, what can this sequel offer? What is the true proper send-off to Ellen Ripley, and can she have one without it feeling either a.) regurgitated or b.) cheap?
JG: Fanfic scripts turning into shooting scripts are becoming more and more possible every passing day, due in large part to the fact that today’s filmmakers grew up on the blockbusters of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Fanboy Blomkamp has being given the chance to reconfigure Alien in the same way Fanboy J.J. Abrams was given keys to the Star Wars kingdom. No doubt they’ll both attempt to do something fresh and original, but the hype surrounding both products is unfair, especially Blomkamp’s. I can’t imagine how excited both directors are, but at the same time I can’t imagine how terrified they are deep down. After all, we hear about filmmakers “destroying” childhoods and not so much about any of them “saving” any.
As for Ellen Ripley, no way she gets a “proper send-off” any time soon. As of this posting, Blomkamp may have a long, drawn out story for Ripley, but until Sigourney Weaver has passed from this earthly realm (hopefully not for many years to come, obv), 20th Century Fox can use her as much as Weyland-Yutani uses Ripley. In the case of the studio, Weaver’s mere existence is a way to keep hope out there for fans of the Alien saga.
I wish I could have seen Chappie before I wrote all of this. It would be nice to know the keys to the kingdom of Xenomorphs, facehuggers, Ripleys, and Reisers was being transported to a writer/director with more than one good movie attached to his resume (albeit a great one).
DC: I’m one of the only people who loved Prometheus (you can sling acid at me now), so maybe my taste is a little more lax when it comes to the Alien series, but I have complete faith in Blomkamp. As you said, Justin, District 9 was a flat-out great film — a classic in my mind — and I didn’t hate Elysium or anything. Even more encouraging is that the director himself has recognized how he dropped the ball on that film. I think he’ll be cautious, thoughtful, and self-critical when going into the process for his Alien fever dream. He’s very aware of the pressure riding on this, not to mention the ire he’ll receive from all the fanboys if he fucks it up.
What I’m really excited about is his grit. Elysium, for all its flaws, still felt used, dirty, and thorough in its world-building, something I think is essential to the next step in the Alien franchise. There’s a space-junkiness to those first three films, a roughness, if you will, that I’d like to see brought back into the fold. If nothing else, we can expect his entry to be icky, tough, and thrilling. What about you, Mike? How much faith do you have in Blomkamp from what little we’ve seen of his work so far?
MR: I think Blomkamp will do great. I never understood the criticism for Elysium. It was a solid sci-fi action vehicle that opted for adrenaline over intrigue — sometimes that’s all you need. He’s proven himself as a director with a unique vision, and it’s about time he received the blockbuster he deserves. That’s something he likely would agree with; think of it this way, while he received an Oscar nomination for District 9 (quite a bold accomplishment given the genre), his peers were the ones given the keys to Star Wars (JJ Abrams, Rian Johnson, Gareth Edwards), Jurassic Park (Collin Trevorrow), and Batman/Superman (Zack Snyder). Alien belongs to him now, and it’s more than justified.
Just this morning, IGN posted an interview with Blomkamp, and it’s pretty great. Not only does he confirm that Ridley Scott’s producing his sequel (!) and admit that he was enamored by the retro-futurism of Alien: Isolation, but he also seems quite aware of the consequences that lie ahead. When pressed, his response is totally rational: “…my thing with Alien is that I don’t sit up at night being ‘Oh god, I wonder how I’m going to be able to follow in these great films’ footsteps.’ It’s more like I’m a fan of Alien, I’m a fan of Aliens, and Alien 3 onwards went in a direction I didn’t want. I just get the chance to tell my version of how I think it should have happened. It’s just pure excitement.”
He’s not alone. There isn’t anything in pop culture that I’m more excited about right now.