The odd duality of the Alien franchise

Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the entire Alien franchise, including films and video games.

Perhaps Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien wasn’t supposed to spawn a decades-long franchise. It was a great standalone horror film, but even as the credits rolled there was a sense that its Xenomorph – the titular alien – was a one-trick pony.

A while ago we discussed one of the problems Star Trek has had with the Borg. In short, even the most intimidating villain can end up feeling tame once we’ve seen our heroes defeat them over and over and over again, and certainly by the latter part of Voyager’s run the Borg had fallen into that trap. The Daleks in Doctor Who have likewise lost almost all of their intimidating factor. For the Alien franchise this is compounded by the Xenomorphs being the only real adversary – and the focal point of the franchise’s films and video games.

The Alien franchise only really has one kind of alien.

Speaking of video games, it was the recently-launched Aliens: Fireteam Elite that prompted this article and this consideration of the peculiar duality of the Alien franchise. Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a co-op game that sees players team up to take the fight to the Xenomorphs, killing the titular aliens by the dozens. It’s very much an action-shooter game, and the cannon fodder getting in the way of players’ guns are the Xenomorphs.

Contrast this to the single Xenomorph that Ripley encountered in Alien, or even the Xenomorph that provided the jump-scares in 2014’s Alien: Isolation video game. A single alien is all it takes in those titles; one Xenomorph is a significant adversary for a whole crew of humans. Some entries in the franchise go down this route, making the Xenomorphs out to be almost invincible, unstoppable killing machines. Other entries portray them as weaker, more easily-defeated creatures that are often little more than a bump in the road for our heroes on the path to victory.

The new video game Aliens: Fireteam Elite prompted this article.

This is the duality of the Alien franchise; a franchise that perhaps doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. On the one hand we have the horror vibe of the original film, followed up in titles like Alien: Isolation. These horror-style Alien films and games bring with them a single Xenomorph at a time – or at most a small group – and shows how utterly unprepared and incapable humans are of defeating them in combat. On the other hand we have action-oriented entries in the series – kicking off with Aliens and epitomised by titles like Fireteam Elite – where multiple Xenomorphs can be seemingly easy to defeat.

Many sci-fi properties can manage this kind of dual tone. There are moments in Star Wars, Star Trek, and others which fit both the action or horror moulds at different points, but the key difference is that those franchises aren’t trying to use the same alien race in both cases. Some alien adversaries can be all-conquering, unstoppable foes – like the aforementioned Borg or Daleks. Others can be cannon fodder that are easily dispatched – like Stormtroopers.

Doctor Who’s Daleks have been worn out as a threatening adversary by too many stories and too many defeats.

Imagine a Star Wars film or video game where a single Stormtrooper was painted as a terrifying villain. It would work on some level, perhaps, depending on how well the story had been set up and who the protagonist was. But it’d be difficult to pull off successfully because of how we’ve come to see Stormtroopers over past iterations of the franchise – as easily-killed cannon fodder.

As Star Trek and Doctor Who began to wear out the Borg and the Daleks respectively, the fear factor these once-mighty aliens inspired started to evaporate. At the back of our minds we felt that it was only a matter of time until our heroes prevailed – because they’d done so on so many past occasions. Like with Stormtroopers in the analogy above, we stopped fearing what had come to be seen as cannon fodder.

Stormtroopers have never felt particularly threatening in the Star Wars franchise due to the role they play.

And that’s where the Alien franchise is today, at least in some respects. Every action-heavy entry in the franchise diminishes the threat and fear factor of the Xenomorphs. That doesn’t mean that making another horror title in the franchise will become impossible, because good scripts and clever writing can go a long way to carrying a film. But it does mean that the Xenomorphs themselves feel less intimidating with every outing, and will eventually reach a point where they feel played out.

I’ve recently argued that Doctor Who should probably go back on hiatus. Sixteen years have passed since its 2005 revival, and the show has pretty much run its course. The Alien franchise is a little different, because it releases fewer instalments further apart, but eventually it will reach that point if care isn’t taken to remain in control of the kinds of stories it wants to tell.

The Xenomorph Queen in Aliens.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite didn’t need to be a game with the Alien franchise license. It could’ve swapped out the Xenomorph textures for generic aliens or monsters, or it could’ve swapped them out for Borg drones and slapped a Star Trek label on. Nothing about the game looks or feels particularly “Alien” except for, well, the aliens. The story, such as it is, wouldn’t have to make many changes if the Alien license weren’t used. And under those circumstances, I have to question why it was released and why the Alien franchise continues to confuse its messaging.

Though Prometheus has made a creditable attempt to expand the lore and mythos of the Alien franchise, the Xenomorphs remain its principle alien monster. Unlike Star Trek or Doctor Who, which are able to draw on many different aliens, monsters, and settings, Alien really just has the Xenomorphs to offer. This means that the danger the franchise is in from the cheapening and diminishing of its only real foe is all the more significant.

Too many games like Aliens: Fireteam Elite will change the way audiences perceive the Xenomorphs – and make it harder to tell scary stories involving them.

Alien doesn’t work without the Xenomorphs any more than The Creature from the Black Lagoon would work without the creature from, y’know, the black lagoon. Alien doesn’t have to always use the same horror tone for its films and video games, but the move to an action-focused story naturally requires a more disposable cast of adversaries. With only one alien around, the Xenomorphs are dropped into that role; a role which, I would argue, does not really suit them nor fit with many of their depictions in the franchise.

Video games like Doom and films like Men in Black show how much fun it can be to have an action-heavy title that cuts down swathes of monsters or aliens. That concept works well in both forms of media, and audiences lap it up. But I guess it feels fundamentally different to what Alien offered in 1979, and even though its sequel Aliens in 1986 had already begun the process of transforming the franchise into something more action-oriented, that feeling persists.

1986’s Aliens had already started to transform the franchise – and the Xenomorphs.

Perhaps if the Alien franchise had stuck firmly to action after 1986 we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But in films and in video games, the franchise continues to try to do both action and horror. It almost seems as though every other title will come out with an alternate theme and tone; horror one time, action the next. This leaves the Xenomorphs in an odd situation. Their original appearance in Alien is still frightening, but every subsequent appearance in action titles, where they’re far more easily dispatched, has turned them into something less terrifying. There’s no longer a sense that Xenomorphs are truly unstoppable.

How will this play into the upcoming Alien television series? I’m not sure. But if you ask me, the people in charge of the Alien franchise need to very carefully consider their next moves. The style and tone of upcoming titles is incredibly important to get right – and once settled, it’s important to stay consistent. Right now it feels like there are two kinds of Xenomorph: the terrifyingly unstoppable ones seen in Alien, and the cannon fodder of games like Fireteam Elite. The danger is that the cannon fodder perception will creep into productions that want to have a horror vibe, and that could absolutely ruin them.

The Alien franchise – including all properties mentioned above – is the copyright of 20th Century Studios and The Walt Disney Company. Some promotional artwork courtesy of the aforementioned companies. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.