Alien: Covenant is a decent film about android consciousness and ancient secrets wherein Michael Fassbender proves he can play an excellent android. But it has one big problem: In order to earn the “Alien” name, director Ridley Scott was forced to rehash a lot of moments from his 1979 sci-fi classic. Nobody needs this. Not really. Not even Scott, who seems much more interested in making connections to his 2012 prequel Prometheus than in filming another slobbering xenomorph. The result is a movie where the biggest money shots feel largely obligatory—just killers and filler, nothing more.
Behold another summer of sequels, reboots, and do-overs. Besides Alien, we’re getting more Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, Spider-Man, Cars, Despicable Me, Planet of the Apes, and even Annabelle. Plus a reworking of the classic Mummy franchise, an adaptation of the TV show Baywatch, and a long-awaited Wonder Woman film. Even documentaries are getting follow-ups now. For proof, look no further than the (perhaps unfortunately titled) An Inconvenient Sequel.
During the 2017 blockbuster season you’re going to hear a lot about “franchise fatigue,” the dreaded phenomenon where too many movies rely on familiar brand names, and audiences lose interest. After last summer’s especially weak Independence Day, Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles results, it’s easy to imagine this year’s reboot glut being as exhausting as the last. But if audiences lose interest again, it won’t be because these movies are in franchises—it’ll be because they’re boring.
It’s definitely true that, thanks to an overcrowded marketplace, having a name-brand movie doesn’t guarantee success the way it once did. You can’t crank out a Power Rangers movie, or a Fantastic Four movie, and just expect people to queue up around the block. The same is increasingly true when it comes to the power of movie stars, who are often franchises unto themselves. As Variety noted in January, the days of Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt guaranteeing a hit are over, and movies like Passengers can still underperform in their opening weekends despite the presence of crowd-pleasers Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence.
But when people talk about franchise fatigue, what they’re really complaining about is studios reiterating the same material, looking for a sure thing. Fans will always want to return to beloved realms—and studios will always want to sell tickets to take them there—but when the latest sequel/reboot/whatever is just a cover version of the movies that came before, it loses its allure. And, as any stage magician will tell you, you can’t surprise people with the same trick twice.
Fans will always want to return to beloved realms—and studios will always want to sell tickets to take them there—but when the latest sequel/reboot/whatever is just a cover version of the movies that came before, it loses its allure.
And it’s these attempts to return to the same cinematic well that lead to so many movies that induce drowsiness the second you hear about them, especially with follow-ups to films that were only passably interesting the first time. Sequels to Clash of the Titans, Alice in Wonderland, and Snow White and the Huntsman sounded like they should be direct-to-DVD titles from the start—ones that come in boxes containing helpful drinking-game instructions.
Meanwhile, series like the Terminator franchise just get run into the ground, their once-compelling ideas mucked up by increasingly convoluted storylines. Paramount has apparently decided not to make another Terminator after a gazillion films, including Terminator Salvation, Terminator Genisys, Terminator Extreem, Terminator Velocity, Termin8r: Tokyo Download and Final Terminator, and that decision seems wise. The entire run probably could’ve ended after Terminator 2: Judgement Day in 1991, but after it got rebooted in 2003 with Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines and again in 2009 with Terminator Salvation the franchise started spiraling, incorporating too-good-for-this British actors (Helena Bonham-Carter and Matt Smith) forced to deliver incomprehensible speeches in the final reel. (Seriously. Making someone explain the plot of Terminator Salvation should be considered a war crime.)
But that doesn’t mean franchise fatigue is real, just that audiences get bored easily. Plenty of franchise movies are going strong. A lot of people felt like Star Wars: The Force Awakens was practically a carbon copy of A New Hope, but the main characters were fresh and compelling, and it provided a necessary evolution of the the story of Han Solo and Leia Organa. Marvel has managed to release two or three movies per year without reaching a saturation point, even though there are many similarities between the studio’s films. And just when it seemed the X-Men series had mutated itself into irrelevance, the one-two punch of Deadpool and Logan proved audiences could still get down with gifted heroes. People don’t burn out on a franchise simply because it has a lot of iterations; they burn out on it because it has a lot of repetitive, unoriginal ones.
People don’t burn out on a franchise simply because it has a lot of iterations; they burn out on it because it has a lot of repetitive, unoriginal ones.
Which brings us back to Alien: Covenant. At this point, you know a movie with Alien in the title will feature a facehugger hugging a face at some point as surely as you know a chestburster is going to pop a chest. So any film that features those things has three choices: 1) Play on the audience’s awareness that they’re coming, build up the dread, and then trust that a slimy creature smothering victims and forcing something down their throats will freak people out. 2) Treat these things as just another deathtrap, the way Alien v. Predator has folks shooting at facehuggers left and right. 3) Make chestbursting a foregone conclusion, a gift to fans that they just have to endure, which seems to be how Ridley Scott sees it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Old tricks can be made new again if their creators are willing to spend more time investing them with intrigue, which is why Casino Royale and Batman Begins both dwell on the little details that make Batman Batman, or James Bond James Bond. Take Bond’s famous predilection for vodka martinis, shaken not stirred—in Casino, he gives incredibly detailed instructions on how to make his famous “Vesper Martini,” but he’s only putting on this elaborate performance to get inside the head of Le Chiffre, whom he’s playing cards against. Later, after losing, he doesn’t give a damn if his martini is shaken or stirred. Result: Bond’s famous drink order is no longer just a random catchphrase.
Most successful franchises can also stay relevant by leaning on their unique blend of genres. Alien is a horror movie on a spaceship, to which Aliens adds space marines. Terminator is a time-travel franchise that throws in AI and the apocalypse. Star Wars is a sword-and-sorcery space opera, set in the Wild West, featuring samurai and World War II action. Of those, the ones that have stayed the most relevant are often the ones that have gone back to their source code: the genres they were borrowing from when they first began. Or they’ve at least spent some time thinking about why swordfighting and space battles had such power to begin with, and where that comes from. They’ve maybe even used that awareness of their roots to tell a new, interesting story.
People aren’t tired of franchise movies. That’s why Spider-Man: Homecoming will make enough money to actually turn Manhattan into a giant spider. But far too many franchises overstay their welcomes or are so obviously just going through the motions. There’s nothing sadder than watching a relationship falter because one side stopped trying, and the bond between movie juggernaut and its audience is the kind that needs constant tending to keep the romance alive.
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