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Alien nation: will the franchise’s new movie really cut all links to the past?

<span>Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy</span>
Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

It used to be so easy in Hollywood. You made one movie, and then, when a few people liked it, you made a sequel. If a few more people liked it, you made another one, and all of a sudden you had a trilogy for the ages. But then the bigwigs in suits worked out that selling films in sets of three created its own marketing momentum – you could even save money on production costs by filming them at the same time! So they just did that for a while, and all was well in Tinseltown.

But what about when you ran out of story? Not a problem – just release an all-new trilogy set before the original one, about the early years of your core characters, or possibly about their parents. Reverse engineer the storyline – remember when so-and-so was looking at whatshisname funnily in that scene that was never properly explained? Now it has been! – and you had a brand-new reason for cinemagoers to hand over their well-earned dosh.

The problem of course, came about when some of the audience didn’t actually like the new movies as much as the original ones. Where to go next?

It’s an issue the Alien series has now faced for what seems like several millennia, ever since David Fincher had 1992’s Alien 3 wrenched away from him in the edit room by 20th Century Fox. There followed Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s startlingly gruesome but weirdly average Alien: Resurrection in 1997, then the execrable Alien vs Predator films (2004 and 2007), and Ridley Scott’s oddly portentous, if occasionally startling Prometheus in 2012. Finally, Alien: Covenant arrived in 2017 to make us wonder if there really had ever been anything interesting about the slimy, acid-blooded extraterrestrials in the first place, or if the whole thing had just been one of David the android’s digital fever dreams.

Myth making … Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus.
Myth making … Michael Fassbender as David in Prometheus. Photograph: Cinematic/Alamy

So what do you do when a sci-fi franchise has been poor to average for more than 30 years, yet everyone who has ever seen Ridley Scott’s gloomy yet exhilarating Alien (1979) or its all-American, gonad-swinging sequel Aliens (from James Cameron), is somehow still desperate for more? District 9 film-maker Neill Blomkamp clearly had the right idea in 2015, when without any apparent encouragement from Fox he decided he would make his own Alien film set in the wake of Aliens and before it all went wrong for Fincher. His idea was to bring back Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley (who died in Alien 3 but was restored as about a dozen freaky clones in Resurrection) along with Michael Biehn’s Hicks and potentially even Carrie Henn’s Newt.

It didn’t happen, not just because the original stars would all have been a bit ancient, but because Fox put the kibosh on the whole concept. But somebody somewhere at Disney (which bought Fox and the rights to Alien in 2017) was clearly paying attention. For what’s this we hear from a Variety report this week? The new Alien movie, Fede Alvarez’s Romulus, will be neither a sequel nor a prequel, but rather a new film set between Alien and Aliens.

Speaking at the Gotham awards, star Cailee Spaeny told the trade bible: “It’s supposed to slot in between the first movie and the second movie, adding: “They brought the same team from Aliens, the James Cameron film. The same people who built those xenomorphs actually came on and built ours. So getting to see the original design with the original people who have been working on these films for 45-plus years and has been so much of their life has been really incredible.”

How will this work? … Harry Dean Stanton in Alien.
How will this work? … Harry Dean Stanton in Alien. Photograph: Collection Christophel/Alamy

How then, is this going to work? Well, there are 57 years between the events of the two movies, which Ripley spent drifting in space in a state of stasis. What might have happened in the meantime? We’ve also been told that Alvarez’s film will be “unconnected” to previous episodes, though given how many porkies Scott has told over the years about this series – remember when he told us we would never see xenomorphs again? – this could easily just be smoke and mirrors. Surely the Uruguayan director won’t be able to resist planting a few choice blood-stained seeds here and there, given that HR Giger’s hideous hell beasts do seem to have evolved somewhat between the two movies?

Part of me hopes that this is not the case, as Alvarez’s movie deserves the chance to breathe free of the restrictions that damaged so many of its predecessors. But this is a series that has always struggled to escape from the darkling majesty of its glorious early years, and it would hardly be a surprise to see David the android turning up with a wry, taciturn leer to show us just how the xenomorph queen came into being.

The sad thing is, despite everything we went through watching Prometheus and Covenant – despite the fact that it is almost always impossible to recapture the wonder of a long-running saga’s early magnificence once it has entered its dog days – we’d probably all be that much more likely to watch it if he did.