Acceptable Losses: Horror, Death, and Alien 5
Ever since 20th Century Fox has confirmed that Neill Blomkamp will be helming the next Alien movie, fan speculation has run rampant over whether Blomkamp's sequel will either retcon the later half of series--Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection--out of franchise canon or just ignore them. In the pro-retcon corner of the fandom, many have been repeating their biggest complaint with Alien 3 ever since that sequel arrived on the big screen back in 1992: the unexpected deaths of Aliens characters Hicks (Micheal Biehn) and Newt (Carrie Henn), the respective love interest and surrogate daughter of Ripley (Sigourney Weaver).
As a horror fan, I never had a problem with the sudden deaths of these two characters; after all, the Alien franchise started as a horror film and each film in the series has a sizable body count. Thus, I think that the roots of this 23-year-old complaint do not lie so much with the narrative of Alien 3 as they do with the fan expectations that were set up in the previous film Aliens and its adherence to the plot conventions of the action-adventure genre--not the horror genre. Sure, monsters appear frequently in both horror and action-adventure movies, but their impact on the protagonists change drastically between genres. Read on for my analysis of why the Alien series' detour into action-adventure back in 1986 will probably leave the franchise's fan community--and the franchise itself--divided for a long time to come.
Aliens has been hailed by many critics over the years as being a superior sequel, and they frequently mention how Jim Cameron's decision to follow up a horror movie like Alien with an action-adventure sequel was a brilliant and inspired choice. On that basis of that logic, I have wondered: Could someone make a horror sequel to an action-adventure movie and receive just as much acclaim from both critics and fans alike, or are critics and the public simply more accepting and forgiving of the action-adventure genre than they are the horror genre and as such, would movie studios ever allow such a sequel to be made?
I posed this question to a few horror and sci-fi groups I belong to on Facebook. More often than not, the discussion would involve comments about Aliens, its quality as a movie and how it relates to the other films in its series, while others argued that a horror sequel could be made to an action-adventure as long as the sequel's overall production values were good enough. Unfortunately, no one really engaged the topic I was trying to get at: Would larger audiences even tolerate a horror sequel to a popular action-adventure movie?
Fallen soldier: The remains of Hicks in Alien 3.
I'm sure that movie studio executives would be the first to tell you that horror movies as a whole make less money than action-adventure movies; thus, no one would want to produce a horror sequel to an action-adventure original for fear that it would alienate (no pun intended) fans of the first movie. To put it in another way, horror fans are much more likely to see action-adventure movie than action-adventure fans would see a horror movie, so it's safer to invest in the genre that has the broader audience appeal. At best, action-adventure means global summer blockbuster while horror means non-summer cult hit. It should also be said that the action-adventure genre has much less of a social stigma than horror. If you like to see people become injured or die as the result of fisticuffs, gun fire and explosions, you're just an average moviegoer looking for a thrill; however, if you like to see people injured or die as the result of stabbing, burning, biting, crushing, cutting, dismemberment and/or decapitation, something might be seriously wrong with you.
This isn't to say that horror is immune to familiar plot devices and fan expectations but it just seems like when action-adventure and horror cross paths, horror gets the short end of the stick. Action-adventure engages in violence for the purpose of excitement, while most horror engages in violence to scare and shock. Sure, violence in some horror films (usually of the low-budget exploitation variety) is little more than an exercise in empty sadism; yet when horror is at its most effective, violence becomes a means of exploring our fears, our insecurities, and our mortality. Action-adventure heroes aren't meant to examine mortality, except in some perfunctory way that's required by the plot, so blending the genres doesn't equally benefit them. Such blending gives the action-adventure heroes some monsters to fight, but what does horror get out it? Not much, if anything.
Malformed faces of death: The failed Ripley clones in Alien Resurrection.
I think that the tolerance and intolerance for particular kinds of violence, even among devoted horror fans themselves, drives the division between the genres. For example, in geek culture, characters who engage in brazen acts of acceptable violence are frequently considered to be "badass". Yet if those same characters either engage in unacceptable violence or become the victims of unacceptable violence, fans never stop complaining. Given how fans have reacted in their comparisons of Aliens to Alien 3, even the fandom has an uneven appetite for Xenomorph-induced death. The recurring fan outrage I've read over the years has focused squarely on the deaths of Hicks and Newt; even Aliens director Cameron voiced his disdain over such a creative choice ("It's just kind of a slap in the face of the fans who invested in Newt and Hicks and all of those character relationships," he said). Sega's Aliens: Colonial Marines video game went as far as to retcon series continuity so that at least Hicks remains among the living in the Alien universe. On the other hand, Aliens has a very high body count--probably the highest in the series, if you're willing to include the doomed colonists on LV-426--so why would fans be outraged over two more deaths?
I would argue that in Aliens, the on-screen deaths--most of which were Colonial Marines--were carefully and deliberately depicted by Cameron as noble, valiant and (in some cases) redemptive. Even the Marines who die during the first encounter with the Xenomorphs were just doing their job of fighting an enemy, which makes their deaths tragic yet heroic. The only character who dies a coward's death in the sequel is Weyland-Yutani representative Burke (Paul Reiser), in crowd-pleasing, just-desserts sort of way. On the other hand, the deaths of fan-favorite characters like Hicks and Newt in the beginning of Alien 3 appear to be tragic and meaningless, the kind of death that horror specializes in but action-adventure stringently avoids.
To follow the logic of action-adventure, death is supposed to provide purpose (e.g., a quest for revenge and/or justice) and promote macho stoicism, not cause the paralyzing shock, fear and trauma that gives horror its sting. Such an imbalance in genre expectations does put the central plot thread of Aliens--Ripley's emotional recovery after the events of Alien--in a very odd light. Ripley gets a surrogate daughter in Newt and a potential love interest in Hicks by the end of the movie, but how is directly witnessing the deaths of an entire terraforming colony and its military rescue team as the direct result of corporate deception and greed count as an emotional recovery?
Baby back ribs: The maternity ward scene in Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.
In spite of many fans and reviewers heralding Cameron's decision to follow up a horror movie with an action-adventure sequel, Cameron made it a point to not challenge audience expectations about the narrative purpose of certain characters. He could have melted Hicks' head into a puddle of goo when he was spritzed with a Xenomorph's acid blood towards the end of the movie, but he didn't. He could have had a wave of Xenomorphs and facehuggers swarm Ripley the moment she set foot back in the hive to save Newt, but he didn't do that either. Heck, the whole film could have omitted Ripley and the Colonial Marines altogether and just focused on the infestation and downfall of the Hadley's Hope colony, but would critics and audiences have considered that an entertaining thrill ride? Or would they have reacted to it as they did to the dour 1982 version of The Thing, another alien-themed film which flopped so hard during its initial release that it almost killed director John Carpenter's career?
Then again, Cameron has a history of using action-adventure plot devices and set pieces to lighten or conceal the more brutal aspects of his movies, to the point of being quite squeamish. Cameron meticulously included imagery and themes related to the Vietnam War in Aliens as a simplified metaphor about that conflict, yet his metaphor completely avoids that war's most gruesome and horrifying details (e.g., the My Lai Massacre, the lingering effects of Agent Orange, etc.). Terminator 2--his first hit after Aliens--is largely a sanitized version of his first Terminator movie, with frontal nudity, explicit gore and machine gun massacres scrubbed from the story. The police precinct massacre in T1 was shot for shock; the Cyberdyne shoot-out in T2 was played for laughs.
Even Cameron's latest blockbuster Avatar refused to follow certain plot threads to their less audience-friendly outcomes. After all, if the scientists in that movie understood the genetics of the Nav'i race so well that they could build clones that could be controlled by human thought, a bioweapon that could have been developed to wipe out the Nav'i in their entirety and thus removing the need for space mercenaries to mine for Unobtanium. However, morbid subject matter like plague-enabled genocide doesn't draw audiences, so instead we got Vietnam war-like jungle combat scenes with futuristic firepower and giant robots. The box office totals reflect the outcome of that crowd-pleasing creative choice.
I suspect that Blomkamp's Alien 5 movie will aim to be some mixture of action-adventure and horror, but with more of an emphasis on the former than the later. Given his aversion to Alien 3 and Resurrection, he'll probably produce a film with Ripley and Hicks (and maybe Newt) killing lots of Xenomorphs, vanquishing Weyland-Yutani, and riding off into the sunset to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, that's an adrenaline-fueled fairy tale for the guns-and-ammo crowd, not horror.