Cinematic Universes Are Killing Film as We Know It
In recent mega-franchises like Alien, storytelling takes a backseat to mythology and worldbuilding.
20th Century Fox
In 1979, Alien was just a movie. The plot of the film was as simple as it gets: Space truckers get a distress signal and go check it out; they discover eggs, and one of them opens up and a creature attaches to John Hurt's face; an alien bursts from his chest, grows to be really tall, and starts killing everyone onboard; Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) manages to get off the ship and shoot the alien into space. The End.
Alien is a masterpiece in so many ways, and that's an indisputable fact. Its technical craft is unimpeachable, along with its sharp character work, handling of suspense, and above all mastery of mood. Alien is a slow movie that luxuriates in every moment; it takes seven minutes before the characters in the film wake up and start talking. An early sequence of a spacecraft landing carefully on a planet lasts nearly three minutes. Every shot adds to the reality of its fictional world—a reality soon to be torn apart by horror.
Alien: Covenant, technically the sixth film in the Alien franchise—a prequel to Alien and a sequel to previous prequel Prometheus—is not a masterpiece. The fact that it's not as good as Alien is forgivable, but the fact that it so fundamentally misunderstands why Alien is a good movie is practically unconscionable. Despite its flaws, Prometheus coasted to a small degree on grandeur—but there's no grandeur in Alien: Covenant, only more. More plot, more backstory, more explanations of more things. It's a film that seemingly feels indebted to solve mysteries from both the original Alien film and Prometheus—a film of hackneyed ideas in which the notion of exploring them is indistinguishable from the dubious art of "worldbuilding."
As we've entered the world of cinematic universes—Marvel, DC, Star Wars, Fast and Furious, Universal Monsters, X-Men, and so on—something fundamental has shifted in our conception of what a blockbuster film ought to be. It once was enough for a film to simply suggest a world outside itself, but now the suggestion has been made explicit: Worldbuilding is the name of the game, and mythology is all that matters. Telling a good story no longer applies so long as audiences are bombarded with the fact that they are witnessing the building blocks of a slate of features they'll be paying admission to for the next ten years.
I think back to The Matrix, a film that came out of nowhere and presented an alternate reality with necessary exposition and innovative visual effects. The Wachowskis expertly crafted a story drawn from Joseph Campbell, with mythological and biblical precedents. It expounded upon the nature of the reality presented, but only ever enough to sustain its own story and to hint at bigger things just outside the frame. Then they made The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and all interest in storytelling went right out the window. What had once been just a film for its own sake was now a part of a larger Matrix universe—a cog in a giant machine whose purpose was to replicate and expand upon itself like Agent Smith, until audiences understood every tiny aspect of the world the Wachowskis had dreamed up.
The sad thing is, we were excited for that. We were also disappointed, and how could we not be? The world of The Matrix was intriguing, but it was the storytelling that kept us watching. We should have learned our lesson, but we never did: Over and over again, we drive ourselves to the cineplex to see the latest Marvel offering, imagining that just a little more worldbuilding will produce a film worth the price of admission. Over and over, we convince ourselves of our satisfaction, but how could we be satisfied with empty calories?
This is a problem we've seen infect so many films, from first films in a planned franchise to sequels of unexpected hits. John Wick surprised audiences with slick action sequences and a simple, emotionally driven story; it also hinted at a larger universe involving intricate crime syndicates, hotels with rules, and gold coins that get traded by those in the know. John Wick: Chapter 2 took that universe and blew it up into a wild mythology which consumed the film completely—a bloated sequel with more interest in expanding upon itself than telling a story we had any reason to be invested in.
When James Cameron set out to make Aliens, he took the pieces already in place and designed an action film out of them. Even the unfortunate sequels that followed at least attempted to bring new ideas for how to tell a story using those original building blocks. Alien: Covenant follows a more modern and potentially depressing tradition set by Prometheus, which was less a story and more a series of answers to questions that nobody asked in the first place. This latest film possesses a nearly egregious lack of interest in storytelling, saying nothing worthwhile about the nature of creation in favor of setting up further prequel-sequels.
It doesn't have to be this way. Every Fast and Furious film expands its universe, but they're also able to stand alone as separate, fun adventures. Mad Max: Fury Road was technically a sequel, but it was also one of the simplest, most straightforward and exciting action films of the past 30 years, the worldbuilding in the service of storytelling. But Alien: Covenant exists as an excuse to justify more films until audiences move on to the next franchise. It's exemplary of everything wrong in blockbuster filmmaking today, and it's all our fault. After all, we get what we pay for.
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