The issue of narrative inconsistencies isn’t the only nuance worth considering here. Despite its small scale relative to other installments in the series, the original Alien was sufficiently imaginative to inspire four decades of derivative works. Can the same be said of Alien: Covenant? Is the latest film even the least bit meaningful stripped of the context created by the aforementioned four decades of derivative works? What exactly is a sequel to a prequel, anyway?
We’ve been down this road before. Remember 1999, when critics wondered aloud why the technology in George Lucas’ prequel Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace seemed so much more advanced than the tech in Lucas’ original Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), which takes place decades after the events of Phantom Menace? For all of his invaluable contributions to popular culture, Lucas was a pioneer in not leaving well enough alone.
Consider the implications of Tom Holland’s debut appearance as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the Marvel Studios threequel Captain America: Civil War (2016). Notwithstanding a dreadful late-’70s TV series, Marvel’s beloved web-slinger made his live-action debut in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002), which was followed by two sequels. All were released by Sony Pictures, which licensed Spider-Man rights from Marvel Comics.
Soon after Raimi’s trilogy concluded, Marvel Studios opened for business, using Iron Man (2008) to introduce the interconnected Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), each feature film or TV episode from which is a chapter in a continuing saga. Yet because Sony held the Spider-Man rights, Raimi’s films were disconnected from the MCU. So, too, were the dual installments, released in 2012 and 2014, of Sony’s hastily rebooted Spider-Man series starring Andrew Garfield. Complex negotiations birthed a deal allowing Marvel to oversee the third modern cinematic iteration of Spidey, with Holland assuming the role in Civil War before making his solo debut in this summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (the title of which has a geek-friendly double meaning, reflecting both the high-school milieu of the story and the absorption of Peter Parker into the MCU).
Business as usual, right?
For perspective, remember that since the 1960s, whenever there’s been a changing of the guard in the James Bond franchise, the continuity of the series, such as it is, has carried forward. With the possible exception of current Bond Daniel Craig, the implication was that Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore and George Lazenby all shared muscle memory with the guy who made Bond famous in Dr. No (1962), the inimitable Sean Connery. There also used to be a quaint notion of letting time pass before rebooting a franchise. Eight years elapsed between the conclusion of the series that kicked off with Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and the launch of Nolan’s trilogy. As demonstrated by both examples, the idea was to respect the cultural memories viewers formed by embracing pop-culture myths.
It’s different now. Nineteen years after the Christopher Reeve-starring Superman movie series of the ’70s and ’80s ended, Bryan Singer made the reverential Superman Returns (2006). Singer’s take didn’t click with audiences, so DC unplugged the franchise and plugged it back in just seven years later with Man of Steel. Yet whereas DC left Batman alone between movies, Superman had a TV show, Smallville, on the air during the years before and after Singer’s picture, so audiences never had a chance to long for the character’s return.
And here’s where it gets really confusing.
Man of Steel introduced the DC Extended Universe (DECU), a brazen attempt at replicating the MCU. So far, Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad (also 2016), and Wonder Woman comprise the DCEU. Unlike the MCU, which envelops shows on ABC and Netflix, this multiverse doesn’t extend to the small screen. The super-speedster on the CW’s The Flash is not the same character who appears in Justice League. Nor is TV’s Superman, played by Tyler Hoechlin on the CW’s Supergirl, the same as the big-screen Man of Steel, played by Henry Cavill. Because, you see, DC’s TV shows comprise the “Arrowverse,” named after flagship series Arrow. As a result, we have two live-action versions of the Flash and Superman existing simultaneously, and fans are expected to remember which one belongs to which continuity.
This reflects the other big distinction between then and now: the breadth of continuity from one franchise movie to the next. Back in the day, M and Moneypenny and S.P.E.C.T.R.E. recurred in 007 pictures, but that was about it. Excepting weekly serials, classic continuing movie series—Charlie Chan, Frankenstein, Hopalong Cassidy, Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan—kept things simple. “Number One Son,” “Me Tarzan, you Jane”—got it, moving on. Viewers weren’t expected to memorize flowcharts.
Intricate connectivity, parallel versions of the same characters, reboots and “retcons” (nerdspeak for “retroactive continuity”) . . . Rather than being an isolated example, the conundrums bedeviling the Alien franchise are indicative of a trend.
Sense and Sensibility
Some might say, and not without justification, that modern myths thrive on complexity. J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings novels include maps of his imagined realm, Middle-Earth. The Star Wars universe is full of rabbit holes inviting true believers to investigate. How old is Yoda? What exactly was the Kessel Run? Who fought whom in the Clone Wars?
Comic books, from which so many of our modern cinematic myths are extrapolated, have taken overcomplicated storytelling to absurd extremes for decades. In fact, the “Big Two” publishers regularly acknowledge when their interconnected worlds have become quagmires.
The first such course correction occurred in 1985, when DC released the premiere issue of Crisis on Infinite Earths, a miniseries designed to streamline parallel continuities. As the title suggests, there was an Earth-1 (populated by heroes in contemporary stories), an Earth-2 (featuring earlier versions of many of the same characters), and so on. Marvel pulled a similar maneuver a decade later, canceling titles including Fantastic Four, then on issue No. 416, and starting fresh with premiere issues of “Volume Two.” Ditching decades of continuity enraged fans, some of whom had been collecting key Marvel books since their 1960s debuts, so “Volume Three” arrived a year later as part of the “Heroes Return” marketing campaign, and for several years titles including Fantastic Four bore dual issue numbers on each cover, as with the 2001 Fantastic Four release identified as both No. 500 and No. 71.
Ask a geek to explain it to you sometime.
The point is that the target audience for fantasy entertainment plainly includes many people who are willing to track interconnected stories, no matter how granular the detail. But embedded within that acknowledgement is the notion that the very same consumers expect cohesive internal logic. Or, to put it in less clinical terms, good storytelling. Comic books, however, are a niche business. So, too, are hard sci-fi novels and multivolume sword-and-sorcery fantasy tales. That said, niche-audience sensibilities sometimes enter the mainstream. It’s likely that prolonged exposure to Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and the MCU has changed the way moviegoers and TV audiences, especially millennials, consume story. To some degree, what might have seemed impossibly convoluted a generation ago may seem commonplace now.
Yet even if audience sensibilities have evolved, the onus is still on storytellers to play fair, spinning yarns that make sense.