Canon Will Eat Itself: Alien and Other Modern Icons

Canon Will Eat Itself - Neil Blomkamp's Alien Concept ArtDistrict 9 director Neil Blomkamp kicked up a fuss yesterday when it was reported that his upcoming Alien sequel would break continuity from the last two films of the franchise, Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection. Blomkamp has since stepped back from that assertion – “I’m not trying to undo Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection, I just want it to be connected to Alien 1 and 2.” – but the low-key positive reaction to the news was instructive. For the most part, people responded optimistically or just plain didn’t care about the prospect of jettisoning Fincher’s and Jeunet’s contributions out the airlock.

The muted reaction to this canon recalibration is arguably explained by the fact that this isn’t especially unique when it comes to film franchises. Fans of superhero movies, in particular, are accustomed to a string of reboots and remakes that abandon established history (much like the increasingly convoluted comic books that inspired them): the reinterpretations of Batman, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four on the horizon have been largely greeted with enthusiasm. Even if we exclude old-fashioned reboots, there are examples like Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns – which followed Superman II as though the second and third sequels never happened – and X-Men: Days of Future Past (also from Singer), which ignores X-Men Origins: Wolverine even as it ties itself into knots retconning the events of universally derided X-Men: The Last Stand.

But it’s not just Bryan Singer and superheroes throwing off the shackles of continuity. The decade-spanning James Bond franchise has shown a limited interest in consistency, especially when switching actors (understandably, audiences are generally pretty forgiving of ‘inconsistencies’ when the characters are clearly played by different guys). Horror franchise Halloween mostly pretended that the Michael-Myers-less Halloween III didn’t happen, while Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later scrubbed the subsequent sequels as well. Nightmare on Elm Street pulled a similar trick with its “gay camp classic” first sequel, though the Friday the 13th films demonstrate a surprising fidelity to their forebears. Most sequels of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre draw on Tobe Hooper’s original and forget the others (even, sadly, ignoring the hilariously terrible one starring Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger). Sometimes there’s an in-universe excuse for the scrubbing of unpopular sequels: J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek and later Terminator films have the narrative luxury of time travel to explain away any apparent inconsistencies.

Alien vs PredatorEven the Alien franchise itself has already demonstrated that it’s quite comfortable ignoring apparently canonical texts. When Alien’s director Ridley Scott returned to the universe he created with Prometheus, he casually steamrolled the events of the barely-remembered Alien vs Predator films – along with a plethora of spin-off games, novels and action figures – and no-one particularly gave a crap then, either. In fact, it’s increasingly rare to find a film franchise that maintains any semblance of a canon after more than a couple sequels, with the exceptions generally explained by powerful auteurs with a strong control over what is and isn’t canon – see: George Lucas and J.K. Rowling – with the occasionally inexplicable exception (I have no idea how the Fast and the Furious films got to be so intricately interconnected, for example).

So given the preponderance of obsessively invested fandoms across the Internet nowadays, why is this kind of flagrant disregard for continuity so readily accepted? It’s partly explained by the simple fact that people don’t tend to hold a lot of loyalty for bad films. Neither Alien3 nor Alien: Resurrection are truly terrible films – the latter, in particular, has some astounding auteurist flare amidst a muddled narrative – but they’re regarded with ambivalence or undisguised antipathy by fans. The popular, financially successful films don’t tend to be so easily dismissed.

From a creative perspective, it makes a lot of sense too. Limitations generally breed creativity, but I’m not convinced that adage holds true when applied to respecting eight hours of specific lore (and especially not a long list of supplementary materials). Often the decisions made in previous iterations are intended for finality – Alien: Resurrection, in particular, is stymied by its need to overcome the climactic events of Alien3; ignoring them altogether might have helped it overcome its problems. It’s also more inviting for audiences, who aren’t expected to have a detailed knowledge of a few decades worth of films in order to understand the latest blockbuster (digression: I wonder when Marvel’s films start discarding – or at least de-emphasising – bits of canon in order to keep the films accessible to teenagers who were infants when Iron Man came out in 2008).

My personal theory, however, is that this rejection reflects a wider cultural trend towards icons. I’d hardly be the first to note that modern-day superheroes are the equivalent of Greek myths, their stories retold again and again with the slightest modifications and modernisations that retain their core, the key elements that resonate with the public. After a certain degree of cultural saturation, characters like Superman and Batman – or Michael Myers – transcend the films and comics they’ve appeared in. They become icons, and it’s these icons that future interpretations draw on, rather than the texts themselves. Is it any wonder we keep seeing different iterations of a teenage boy getting bit by a radioactive spider and discovering new powers, including the ability to expect a sticky white substance? These stories become myths because they tie into something deeper and truer than the specifics of the story, reverberating with religion (Superman), justice (Batman) or the awkward rite of passage that is puberty (Spider-Man).

Canon Will Eat Itself - Superman ReturnsIs the positive response to the suggestion of Blomkamp’s reshuffle of the Alien canon indicative of the xenomorph ascending to the position of modern icon? In my opinion: most definitely. There’s all kinds of layers of meaning inherent in the Alien franchise – H.R. Giger’s visceral, sexual design, simultaneously evoking the phallic and the vaginal; a reflection on motherhood and loss; the monstrosity that is a self-interested, militarised mega-corporation – but whatever metaphoric meaning you want to find in the films, they’re fundamentally about the inevitability of death. Yes, the xenomorph is sexual, primal, fundamental. But I feared Alien long before I’d ever seen the film – I feared it from the trailers that preceded ancient VHS tapes, the cartoons that would casually parody it, that unforgettable tagline. I feared the idea of an unstoppable, unseen creature that could destroy me mercilessly, a creature whose form was uncertain as its motives. I feared death.

Unlike Ridley Scott – who ruined what could have been another perfectly good sci-fi-slasher film by delving into backstory – hopefully Blomkamp will understand that the core of Alien myth has nothing to do with trying to piece out the specifics of the xenomorph’s life cycle or creating hideous human-xenomorph hybrids. I don’t care about the story being continued, but I am interested in another interpretation of a resonant symbol of modern [pop] culture (though I suspect any chance of Blomkamp zagging into an entirely different genre – as James Cameron did with the first sequel – are unfounded. Let’s not hold our breath for Aliens! The Musical). Wherever it came from, Alien remains unstoppable.

5 thoughts on “Canon Will Eat Itself: Alien and Other Modern Icons

  1. Great article, Dave, full of insight. “They become icons, and it’s these icons that future interpretations draw on, rather than the texts themselves.” I think you nailed it right here.

  2. This was a great read, thanks! I agree with your points, especially about movie icons being a new kind of mythology, reshaped into different stories, that was really interesting. Also, ‘I feared Alien long before I’d ever seen the film – I feared it from the trailers that preceded ancient VHS tapes, the cartoons that would casually parody it, that unforgettable tagline’ really gave me flashbacks to my childhood! I was always aware of the Alien creature years before I saw the movie. When I was about 20, I watched Alien with this girl who hadn’t seen it before. She asked if the alien was like a little green man with a gun, and I couldn’t comprehend how someone could have got to 20 without knowing what the alien looked like, without having ever seen the film. It’s impact on pop culture was huge.

    On the retconing, I’m a little uncomfortable with the reshuffling we get these days, as it almost feels too easy and feels like cheating. The new Terminator is probably the worst example of this I can think of. It’s a remake…and a reboot, but in the same time-line as the original? It just seems to be trying to please everyone. I just wonder where the line will be drawn, as by taking bits of the continuity that appeal to you and rewriting the rest as you please, doesn’t it make the whole continuity worthless? With something like Bond, I get it and it works, but with something like Xmen it feels clumsy and forced.

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