Old Men, Stuck In Their Franchises

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While promoting The Martian, Ridley Scott has had a healthy amount to say about his plans for future movies set in the Alien universe. The critical consensus for the film – which stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars with only science to help him science his way out of things – is that it’s a return to form for the veteran director, making it the fifth or sixth “return to form” in a 38-year career.

For modern critics making the claim, the cosmetic parallels between The Martian and Prometheus are too easy to ignore. When anyone evokes a return to form, Prometheus is the movie he’s returning from – another space adventure that was equally exciting and questionable, and which ultimately became the biggest disappointment (from an anticipation/response ratio standpoint) of 2012.

And yet, from everything he’s said about his future, that’s the version of outer space he wants to be stuck in. At age 77, if he gets his wish, it seems likely that he’ll finish out his career expanding the boundaries of the very film that launched it.

That’s interesting considering that Scott hasn’t been exploring space for most of his career. With Alien transcending several genres, he had a leg up in proving himself beyond the pigeon-hole and so spent the next four decades making Thelma & Louise, Gladiator, Matchstick Men, and other films that don’t resemble his sci-fi horror trip at all. For how much people salivated over his desire to make a movie with “some of the DNA of Alien,” it’s remarkable how little time he’s spent making science fiction.

Now, not only has he revealed that a follow-up to his promising disappointment will be called Alien: Paradise Lost (a shitty, freshman Lit class title), he’s ensured us that there will four Prometheus movies total (ostensibly all called Alien: Something Something Something) before connecting to his original 1979 chest-bursting film.

That’s a lot of Prometheuses.

On a different planet, James Cameron (the director of Aliens) has made a similar promise: three (or four!) more Avatar movies until he calls it quits to spend his retirement days drinking piña coladas in the Mariana Trench. Maybe he’ll make Battle Angel – his future-set cyborg adventure – at some point as a palate cleanser, but let’s not hold our breath.

20th Century Fox

They are our elder statesmen of cinema, and they’ve publicly announced their desire to trap themselves in these franchises. Obviously there’s a faulty parallel between Prometheus (a minor box office success) and Avatar (the $2.8b juggernaut), but we’ve reached a point in franchise filmmaking where studios care less about how successful a movie was, or even if it was successful at all, allowing all of us the mental capacity to respond to a host of new Prometheuses with, “Well, they’re just crazy enough to do it.”

(In a strange way, Fox has a rare opportunity to win back skeptics who hated Prometheus by scapegoating Damon Lindelof. Most movies don’t have a central figure they can throw under the bus on the way toward a sequel. Even tacitly, by not hiring him, the studio can toss a red meat mea culpa to the cinephile hordes, as if none of the other dozen filmmakers responsible for Prometheus were responsible for it. Again, note that they’re already getting back to name recognition and franchise familiarity by dropping the word Prometheus from Prometheus 2’s title. They aren’t backing away slowly from it – they’re running.)

There’s no real way to psychoanalyze the draw of going back to the well, so I’m not here to judge the move – just to mark the trend. We could easily assume that these are some of the only movies that Scott and Cameron could get easy greenlights for, but we could just as easily assume that they are narrative landscapes that have enthralled their creators who are now eager to leverage the studio addiction to franchises as a means to thoroughly explore the universes they’re responsible for. It could be a mixture, and it could be for a dozen more reasons, too. Regardless of the complicated motivations, involving yourself in that many movies is a matter of serious investment.

It’s also one more signal of how powerful franchises have became. It’s that power which has afforded these veteran filmmakers the rare chance to do what most other directors in their twilight year never got to do. John Ford didn’t spend his last working decade making a new trilogy set in the universe of Stagecoach. Alfred Hitchcock retired before Psycho was beaten into a pulp. What we’re seeing with Scott and Cameron is a thoroughly modern situation, one colored by an unusual mixture of opportunity and incentive to keep plugging away at franchise beasts.

The obvious fan perspective criticism is that it limits these curious storytellers, trading ingenuity for a single sandbox, but maybe these are the playgrounds in which they’ll find innovation and entertainment. Maybe these are exactly the universes Scott and Cameron feel they belong. If so, we’re in no position to wring our hands, only to judge each finished film on its own merits. Maybe, after decrying the limitation, Prometheus 3: Alien: Dante’s Inferno ends up being the best movie of Scott’s career.

That is, if all of these promised films even get made.

Beyond quality, the trend itself is still interesting. A lot of disparate elements had to fall into place to allow this cocktail to exist – you need 1) seasoned filmmakers with access to titles both 2) expansive enough and 3) potentially valuable enough to entice studio backers. As much as the studios cross their fingers, there aren’t that many viable franchises that fit the bill, and there are far fewer storied filmmakers.

We may not get to see this again until Michael Bay announces a three-film Transformers revival in 2039. Maybe sooner if Steven Spielberg really gets motivated to expand the E.T. cinematic universe as his coup de grace in 2025. Shout out to Roland Emmerich wanting (only) two more Independence Days.

That being said, plug your ears when Francis Ford Coppola announces three more Godfather movies before retiring for good.

What fascinates me to no end about this unusual career capstone is that it’s not a lone director choosing to go out immersed in the oxygen of one world, but two at the same time. Two escape pods, aimed in different directions toward similar worlds. Two filmmakers of note, staring into their sunset years, trapped safely inside their franchises.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.