Alien: Romulus—Please, Please Be Good!

Image Courtesy of 20th Century Pictures

No other franchise can decently claim to run such a broad quality spectrum as the loosely defined Alien saga. Some franchises defy convention and improve with every entry: Mad Max and Toy Story I would argue as two examples. But Alien has very much walked the traditional path of diminishing returns, beginning with what I could make a decent case as the best horror film ever made, and ending with the at best disposably dim-witted Alien: Covenant. Never mind undermining the gravitas of the original, that movie somehow managed to undermine the gravitas of Prometheus, which was already dumber than a bag of hammers. That its best and worst entries (if we don’t count the …vs. Predator spin-offs) were both directed by the same man is a strong argument for an injection of new corrosive blood into the franchise. Maybe Alien: Romulus, with a new trailer dropping this week, will do just that.

Let’s be conservative and estimate that at least half of the biggest horror movies of the last 10 years have been retooled older franchises given a fresh new cast and aesthetic if not necessarily any fresh new ideas. Perhaps the most typical is the David Gordon Green model: scour the sequels from the canon, bring back any surviving cast members who are still under contract or disappointed with their pensions, add some callbacks and a vague sheen of post-#metoo pop feminism, lean heavier on the gore and print some money. It worked for a while but with such little innovation, it’s gotten stale.

You know what hasn’t gotten stale? Evil Dead, Fede Alvarez’s 2013 remake of the legendary low-budget classic, easily remains the benchmark for modern horror reboots, and its formula is one studios would do well to take notes on: take the skeletal trappings of the original and rebuild the film from the ground up, no legacy nonsense, just credible, well-developed characters, a fresh allegorical approach, and most importantly, make it an absolute white-knuckle roller-coaster of blood and dismemberment. Last spring’s Evil Dead Rise, though not as good, followed suit and still managed to uphold the Evil Dead name, and although Fede Alvarez has had some ups and downs, some people have very strong feelings about Don’t Breathe, his ability to deliver nail-biting tension and skin-crawling violence are beyond skepticism. If I were picking someone to make another Alien movie, he’d be near the top of my list. Sure a more high-brow filmmaker like a Julia Ducournau or a Steve McQueen (I don’t know…I’d like to see him make a horror movie) could probably do something really special with it, but if you want a safe pair of hands, I think Alvarez would be the one, and if this slick, action packed first teaser is anything to go by, we seem to be in them. 

Alien: Romulus seems to be taking its cue from Alien: Isolation as much as anything else. As that did, it has taken evident care to studiously recreate the production design of the 1979 original, albeit with a clear mechanical polish and pace that’s decidedly contemporary. There’s no mention of characters or plot. We see a ship arrive at a darkened and possibly derelict space station (it doesn’t look like Sevastopol but it could be), some slow backwards crawls through some uncomfortably dark and deserted corridors with spine-tingling scuttling noises and heavy breathing, and finally pulling back to reveal a cryo-pod caked in blood. Then all hell breaks loose with face-huggers flying through the air. We definitely seem to be looking at a more action-heavy experience than the original or Isolation, and speaking of video games, there’s heavy Dead Space vibes throughout with the derelict spacecraft and the chaotic, gristly medicinal aesthetic to the violence. There’s explosions and a shot of a tentacle being pulled from a human’s esophagus by what looks like a full grown xenomorph, potentially suggesting that there will yet again be a change in xenomorph behavior in this one? In the first two movies, they were abducting humans to become incubators for their young but after Alien3 they just seemed to like killing people for the thrill of it, a big factor in the dumbing-down of the franchise. A return to the terrifying evolutionary logic of the first two movies would be welcomed, as would a clean break from the bio-weapon nonsense the prequel movies were peddling. The title, Alien: Romulus suggests a twin thing going on, maybe there’s two Xenomorphs this time, each one with a distinct look and “personality” perhaps? That could be a fresh tack for the series. 

Cailee Spaeny as Rain Carradine in 'Alien: Romulus.'.
Cailee Spaeny as Rain Carradine in Alien: Romulus. Photo: courtesy 20th Century Studios.

As far as story goes, there’s not a tonne to go on in the trailer, but after so many movies about corporate greed and indifference to human life, I think it’s time for an Alien movie with a fresh perspective. It’s no less timely or relevant a theme today, but Weyland-Yutani being the real monsters would be a lackluster theme unless heavily redressed. It seems like an ensemble movie again, with six cast members announced, all relatively small names like David Jonsson of Rye Lane, and Isabela Merced of Madame Web and Instant Family, but with a woman (rising star of Priscilla Cailee Spaeny) still top billed, I’m hopeful that Alvarez can rework his final girl magic: Evil Dead‘s detoxing addict Mia is one of my favorite horror protagonists, in an everything you need, nothing you don’t sort of way.

The Alien movies have long had a rape-allegory potential that’s been largely unmined since the original, and Alvarez has past form in this territory with both Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe, though some understandably felt he took it too far with the latter. With the sequel, Cameron went in hard on the maternal protectiveness, with the good mom fending off the bad mom and Prometheus started down an interesting reproductive rights angle, resulting in by far its best and most frightening scene where Dr Shaw cuts the monster out of her belly herself. Sadly this was betrayed in the grossest way by the sequel, you’d think the reception to Alien3 would’ve warned them against killing off beloved characters in between films, but Covenant seemed devoted to recreating all the worst mistakes of the previous sequels. Let’s hope Alvarez has access correctly labelled his “Dos” and “Don’ts” this time. 

Whatever Alien: Romulus happens to be about, whether there’s one Xenomorph or two or twenty, the teaser and small cast-list of rising stars, free from distracting big names, promises a film focused on grit and tension, above lofty themes and grandstanding spectacle. Not that spectacle seems to be lacking, the cinematography by Gretel & Hansel director of photography shows an atmospheric handling of light, making dark spaces feel very dark while still being legible, and veteran composer Benjamin Wallfisch of The Invisible Man and Blade Runner 2049 is another good sign. As much as its solid, stripped back story, what made Evil Dead work was that it was just so damn well made, it gripped you right away and never let go. If Alvarez can just work that magic again, then we might have the best Alien movie since 1986 on the way.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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