There have only been two great Alien movies. Could Neill Blomkamp's new Alien project be the third?
This week, the internet was abuzz with the news that Neill Blomkamp — director of recent sci-fi fare like District 9 and Elysium, and the very soon to be released Chappie — was moving forward with his Alien project.
Half of the internet was excited that a talented writer-director with sci-fi chops would get his chance to restore the franchise to its former glory, after the insane mess that is the Alien vs. Predator franchise. The other half groaned, citing Prometheus to show that not even Ridley Scott, director of the sublime original, could pull off a worthwhile follow-up. They also pointed out that Elysium kind of sucked.
I'd like to avoid the common hyperbole here; neither Prometheus nor Elysium are the piles of garbage that some would have you think. But even if you do feel that way, Blomkamp has several things going for him that could see the young director take the franchise back to its former heights. And he has a few things working against him, too.
Showing, not telling
Trained as an animator, Blomkamp is a talented visual storyteller, and that's his biggest strength going into Alien 5.
His skills are apparent in both of his released features to date. In District 9, he proved that he could tell a very big sci-fi story with creatures and big-budget effects, without losing sight of what matters — his characters. Lead character Wikus goes through a horrific transformation that's believable and traumatizing.
Blomkamp is a talented visual storyteller
Elysium may not have been as strong as his debut feature, but it was a visually stunning film. It juxtaposed washed-out, depressing urban sprawl (where the have-nots of its society live) with a sort of clean, quirky minimalism on the "Elysium" station, where the posh dwell.
A quick look at his concept sketches for the new film show Blomkamp's unique vision. He has the imagination to pull this off, and the guts to do so with originality.
Take the sketch of an intriguingly helmeted Ripley. Is she part alien now? Or does this suit possibly give her protection against the creatures? This isn't just great concept art, it's a peek at how Blomkamp is thinking about the story itself and the possibilities of this world.
That he has Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in the art is also a good sign, since the actress has expressed interest in the project. Weaver broke ground in 1979 by being a woman survivor in a horror-action setting. An older, wiser Ripley would shatter stereotypes about women in action movies.
Blomkamp is an accomplished world-builder as well.
Here's where things get a little dicey for Blomkamp. Again, we only have two feature films to go on, though Chappie is very close to release. The director has written or co-written all of his feature projects, and the results were drastically better when he had a partner at the helm.
District 9 was co-written with Blomkamp's spouse, Terri Tatchell, and the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award (best adapted screenplay). The script was sci-fi allegory at its finest, a story that spoke directly to apartheid and race relations in South Africa, through the lens of a literal alien story.
Elysium lacks the finesse of the earlier film
Then we have Elysium, which Blomkamp wrote on his own. It's a gorgeous action movie with solid themes, but it's a perfect example of 'on the nose' writing. It's obvious, clunky and lacking in the finesse of his earlier film.
In his Verge review, Bryan Bishop wrote: "In its rush towards sci-fi action spectacle, however, it commits the same mistake as its wealthy space dwellers: forgetting about the human characters that make the whole thing possible in the first place."
Later on, Bishop goes on to say "despite the best efforts of Blomkamp the director, he’s undermined by Blomkamp the writer."
That won't do for an Alien film. One of the reasons Alien works so well, on so many levels, is because its characters feel like real people. People we know and love (and possibly hate) in our own lives — blue-collar working stiffs who just want to do their jobs and go home to their families. Ellen Ripley is sick and tired of dealing with the engineering team's bullshit at the beginning of the movie. Parker doesn't even want to go down to the damned planet where the egg is first encountered. He just wants to go home.
Aliens, while lacking some of Alien's subtlety, never loses its characters in the midst of the spectacle. In our own piece discussing the merits of Alien and Aliens, my colleague Ben Kuchera commented that even the characters with the fewest lines are carefully written and inhabited: "Each actor customized their own weapon and armor, and the many names and sayings are references to real things from their lives. These characters feel comfortable, and lived in."
A care in the world
Both of Blomkamp's features have been sci-fi stories that reflect issues that matter to humans living here, on present-day earth. This is another point in his favor.
Alien touches thematically on the place of women in the workplace, sexual violence, corporate greed and the depressing realities of being born into the working class. Aliens additionally took on the failure of violence and touched (if lightly) on the Vietnam War. All of this is subtle; the films play out like great horror/action and you certainly don't need a critical studies degree to enjoy them. But the ideas are there, quietly adding resonance.
Blomkamp's features reflect issues that matter
District 9 was a study on literal and figurative dehumanization, and it had much to say about apartheid rule in South Africa. Elysium, for its faults, was a strong-willed lobby against class inequality, with robust opinions on immigration and universal health care. Say what you will about Blomkamp, his movies have a point. And so did the great Alien films.
In Hollywood, no one can hear you scream
The Alien franchise needs something special to pull it out of the bottom-of-the-barrel B-movie spiral it's been swirling in with the AVP franchise. Blomkamp can most certainly direct, and he can capably helm an interesting, visually impressive, generally progressive sci-fi film.
But he'll either need some script help — or a proper co-writer — and a damn fine creative team to pull this off. Like Ripley in those white-knuckle last moments of Alien, the franchise needs something of a miracle right now. It needs a smart action movie in the modern era.