VHS Revival questions the importance of franchise continuity
1992 was the year of my greatest existential crisis.
This crisis was not brought about by such trivial concerns as mortality, the nature of evil, or humanity’s place in the universe. No, the source of my angst was far more pressing. It was Alien 3.
Let me elaborate. James Cameron’s Aliens was, and still is, my favorite movie. The film is very important to me for both personal and artistic reasons. The ending left me feeling as warm and hopeful as little Newt tucked into her hypersleep cocoon. After such a satisfying conclusion, how could I resist another chance to see Ripley (and Newt!) face off against a new xenomorph menace?
I eagerly caught Alien 3 on opening night full of promise, but left the theater utterly destroyed. In the space of its opening sequence, Alien 3 rendered everything Ripley fought so hard for null and void. If that wasn’t bad enough, it had the temerity to end with Ripley swan diving into a vat of molten lead. Sure, she was brought back in the next sequel, but nothing shy of revealing it was all a hypersleep nightmare could have mended my broken heart.
The worst insult, however, was when I realized, deep down, that Alien 3 was a pretty good movie. David Fincher’s talent was undeniable (even in the hacked up theatrical cut), Charles S. Dutton was wonderful, and Sigourney Weaver totally rocked the cue ball look. Still, how could I ever reconcile my admiration for the film with the wounds it had so deeply inflicted? I roamed the Earth for years in search of answers, leading me to deconstruct the nature of the movie franchise itself.
Movie franchises have been a paradox from the very beginning. Theaters had been playing short matinee serials since the silent era, but the concept of a continuing series of features didn’t catch on until the 1960s with book to film adventures of James Bond. Once that success was replicated with the Pink Panther films and the Planet of the Apes saga, there was no going back. As is common with burgeoning cultural phenomenon, the rules of the franchise game were made up as it went along. As long as they carried over at least one character and the original’s basic premise (exotic spies, bumbling inspectors, damn dirty apes), they were in business. Story telling styles evolved series by series.
Take two of the biggies, James Bond and Star Wars. The Bond series has never given a shaken martini about continuity; the story arc is a cornucopia of contradictions. The lead actor changes every few movies, yet the incidental cast, like Lois Maxwell’s Moneypenny, remained the same for decades. An even better example is Bond’s arch nemesis Blofeld. From Russia With Love introduces the maniacal mastermind of Spectre in the shadows, plotting to snare the superspy in an embarrassing scandal (nefarious schemes were so quaint back then). You Only Live Twice brings him out of the shadows to personally match wits and trade insults with Bond. Then, in the sixth film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Blofeld and Bond have somehow never met before. That movie wasn’t a prequel or a reboot, it was just another Bond film. The producers simply didn’t care about continuity, and for the most part, neither did the audience.
The Star Wars franchise is on the opposite side of the curve. The original trilogy paved the way for large scale cinematic stories told in several directly connected episodes. Here, continuity was paramount: dead guys stayed dead (force ghosts aside), smugglers stayed frozen in carbonite, and the Death Star remained blown up. Until it was rebuilt, blown up again, and reconfigured into a planet (seriously, with all the money the Empire spent on those things, they probably could have just bought the galaxy outright). Major events in one movie always had consequences in the next, and continuity was so important in Lucas’ franchise that it practically redefined the term Canon. Timelines are set in stone, and all characters and events must conform to be officially included.
It is with the term Canon where we run into problems. With the rise of easily obtainable media and a wealth of internet resources dedicated to the most minute movie detail, obsessive film nerds (ahem, guilty) can map out every aspect of a series frame by frame. The smallest misstep in a sequel will be called out and ridiculed. Directors who try something fresh or divergent may easily end up vilified for their hubris
Even the wild west of franchises, the horror sequel, is not immune to this nitpicking. Classically, horror has a strange relationship with the franchise. Horror sequels in the 1980s single-handedly elevated the commercial viability of the unkillable super franchise. From Friday the 13th to A Nightmare on Elm Street to Children of the Corn, horror sequels were as ubiquitous as Swatches. They also, to a large extent, ignored everything that happened in previous instalments. Freddy Kruger died at the end of every single ‘Elm Street’ chapter, only to be resurrected with the feeblest explanation for the next go around. Some series, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, pulled a complete do over with each sequel, while Exorcist III just pretends Exorcist II never happened (as do the rest of us).
With these movies, there is no point trying to explain or connect anything. Chaos—and quick scripts—ruled the day. Horror could not resist the power of canon forever, though. All the Paranormal Activity films weave a single, multigenerational—and deadly dull—history. The outrageously contrived hoops that Saw must jump through for the sake of continuity are more entertaining than the insane traps. Civilization has encroached into the wilds.
For years, the increasing canonization of franchises has left in me a tricky spot. On the one hand, I love the expansive depth and attention to story a tightly controlled series can offer. One the other, I adore directors who are brave enough to jump the rails and forge their own path. For a long while I agonized over the dichotomy, until one day, while trying to rationalize how Land of the Dead could be in the same world as Day of the Dead, it hit me: you shouldn’t have to follow the rules, you shouldn’t have to break them, you should be able to make up your own.
No one can tell you how to watch a movie, or how much you should enjoy it. Every movie is personal. There is nothing stopping you from cherry picking which films from a franchise you chose to connect. Hell, figure out how to connect a few unrelated movies and create your own franchise! As long as it makes sense to you, anything goes. Franchise your way and enjoy the serenity.
Which brings me back to Alien 3. In my mind, the events begun in Alien are concluded in Aliens when Ripley and Newt get back to Earth safe and sound. I don’t ignore the third movie, or pretend it doesn’t exist. I just consider it a “what if” sequel. It doesn’t invalidate what came before, it just speculates on how things might have turned out under a different set of circumstances. I can enjoy it fully without the baggage of heartless continuity. This technique even allows me to enjoy its “WTF if” sequel, Alien Resurrection, and by the time Prometheus came out, I just rolled with it like Charlize Theron. I only count the first two movies as directly connected, the others are interesting off-shoots messing around in the same universe.
I do ignore the Alien vs. Predator movies, though. I may follow my own rules, but I still have standards.