When it comes to film franchises, the noble Roman numeral used to be all you needed to denote a follow-up to a popular film. The advent of Marvel’s “universe” of shared films, which are all set in the same world while advancing their own stories, made things a little more complicated, although its movies generally stick to being sequential. But there’s nothing more confusing than the constantly changing Alien franchise, which boasts normal sequels, crossover prequels, and most recently Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, best described as a “spiritual prequel.” And, now, the newly announced Prometheus sequel, which is titled called Alien: Paradise Lost.
No flow chart or infographic could help untangle this mess. When Prometheus was originally announced, it was pitched as a prequel to Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece Alien, coming from the same director and answering the question of just how those scary eggs ended up on a remote planet in the first place. By the time Prometheus was released in 2012 to mixed reviews, it was downgraded to simply “sharing DNA” with the Alien franchise, and indeed its plot couldn’t logically match up with Scott’s original film to make it a real prequel. Perhaps Scott has realized that was an error and is now trying to rectify it by making another film that actually does count as part of the Alien series. But his reasoning is a little bit more vague.
“Actually, it’s going to be called Alien: Paradise Lost, so Prometheus 2 isn’t what it’s really going to be,” he told the film site Hey U Guys. “You know the poem? I doubt you’ve ever been through it, have you? The poem’s a book, Paradise Lost! It sounds intellectual, but there’s a similarity to it, and that’s where it stops.”
Let’s leave aside Scott’s amusing literary snobbishness for a second. Here’s the current state of the Alien movies. There are four directly linked films, all starring Sigourney Weaver: Alien (1979), Aliens (1986), Alien 3 (1992), and Alien: Resurrection (1997). There are two quasi-prequels that saw the titular aliens battling the Predator monsters from another franchise, Alien vs. Predator (2004) and Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem (2007). Then there’s Prometheus, neither fish nor fowl. Now, we have Alien: Paradise Lost in the works, but there’s also Alien 5, a planned direct sequel starring Weaver from director Neill Blomkamp. As Austin Powers might say, “Oh no, I’ve gone cross-eyed.”
Ridley Scott can and does make whichever movies he wishes, so his plans for a new Alien movie may well win out. But what this illustrates more than anything else is the toxic power of a recognizable franchise name. The Alien movies haven’t been big earners in years—Prometheus’s domestic haul of $125 million in 2012 was the highest gross in the history of the series, and that barely matched the film’s budget. But the name is still well-regarded, the original films still beloved, and the central characters (Weaver’s Ripley and the titular monster) are instantly familiar. In simpler times, that’d be enough to greenlight a sequel, but now it can inspire multiple projects in the hopes that at least one will perform the desired reboot, creating a new series with stars locked into contracts that can earn big bucks for years to come.
Sometimes it works: Look at the Star Trek franchise, or Daniel Craig’s casting as James Bond. Other times, bad reviews and poor word of mouth can doom a reboot, as recently evidenced by Fantastic Four. But whatever the situation, releasing competing sequels with similar titles that exist in entirely different timelines is probably not the way to go. With Alien, no matter how beloved that scaly monster in the middle, something’s gotta give.