By George Ligon (Columnist)
Just a week or so ago, Neill Blomkamp mentioned in an interview for his upcoming film Chappie that he wanted to do a movie set in the Alien Universe. We then got the news that not only has Fox green-lit and fast-tracked this project, but that series star Sigourney Weaver will return to her career-defining role as Ripley. This is fascinating news for many reasons, and reveals much about the state of film today. Below, I have tried to capture just a fraction of the many thoughts the announcement sparked within me.
For starters, this is yet another in a long line of aging stars returning to their most famous movie roles decades after the first film. In 2008, Harrison Ford at the age of 64, returned for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Beyond this reprisal, George Lucas returned as the new story’s writer, Spielberg as its director, and Karen Allen as the character of Marion Ravenwood from 1981‘s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Ford is also going to be in an upcoming sequel to Blade Runner, though in a smaller role. Sylvester Stallone, now 68, has in the past decade made a “final” Rocky movie, (with a new spinoff featuring his original character in a supporting role due out later this year), another Rambo movie with a second “final entry” slated to start production for a 2017 release, and has invented the Expendables franchise, which might more aptly be titled as the on-screen retirement home for geriatric action heroes. Bruce Willis has continued making Die Hard movies, but in my opinion, deserves more criticism than the others on this list because at least they are trying, whereas he just phones it in for the paycheck. Tom Cruise will be back for a Top Gun sequel. At 67, Arnold Schwarzenegger, another Expendables member, is starring in this year’s Terminator: Genysis, and if it proves to be a financial success, will star in that movie’s two sequels as well. Like the other actors on this list, his original role came out in the early ‘80s, as did Conan the Barbarian, yet another role for which the Governator has promised a “final entry” to be released in 2016 or 2017.
This trend is related to but different from some similar trends in Hollywood these days. Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise and earlier turn in Batman Begins has proven that retirement-age actors no longer need to only play the wise elder role, although that is exactly what Ian McKellan has done with the role of Gandalf in the Hobbit trilogy. Neeson and McKellan were never action stars to begin with, but fell into the genre later in life.
While Hollywood’s insistence on milking big franchises for every last dime supports these action star returns, Hollywood’s decision making is based solely on money. Sequels for established properties sell, especially overseas. Prequels and spinoffs and reboots do the same to a slightly lesser degree. But there is something unique about the recent spate of “one last ride” takes on 1980s action properties, not the least of which is the reminder of how many amazing movies the 80s gave us.
Many pop-psy commentators have decried the “one last ride” trend as ‘old men refusing to admit their age’, but I’ve never bought into this idea, and Weaver’s return for Alien 5 shows it’s not just the men looking backwards. For starters, these actors are still more believable action stars than the current slate, which is headlined by Vin Diesel, the Rock, and Jason Statham (who all appear in Furious 7 next month). Of the three only the Rock is truly believable; there is just something indefinably tough missing from action stars today that the old guys still have. At 67, Schwarzenegger works out twice a day and can still bench press more than many professional athletes, and Stallone has become a walking billboard for HGH injections. For the last Indiana Jones movie, Ford did almost all of his own stunts. And in both Unforgiven and then over a decade later in Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood proved that his stare is as menacing as ever. The movie plots themselves may come across as stale and tired, but the older actors have proven that youth and agility don’t always make believable heroes.
Side note: I don’t consider the return of the original trilogy stars for the new Star Wars movie to fit in any of these other categories. Star Wars has long had a life of its own, and the new movie would have been made with or without their participation.
So while the money to return for a last ride may come from Hollywood’s bottom-line obsessed franchise obsession, what separates these movies is the presence of the original star. When rumors hit that Indiana Jones may be rebooted with Chris Pratt in the lead role, that’s a significantly different story than saying that Ford is coming back for a fifth movie.
So why come back, especially when the track record for last rides is so dismal?
I imagine that part of the desire stems from both fans wanting to see what happens next, and also from the actors’ self-same curiosity. In so many ways Harrison Ford will always be Indiana Jones and Hans Solo, Schwarzenegger will always be the Terminator, Stallone will always be Rocky, and Bruce Willis will be John McClane. I suspect that the merging of cultural identities is often what brings the stars back for another sequel. As they reach the end of their own lives and careers, they want to find out how their alter-egos handle the transition as well, perhaps even looking to the character for advice. To a lesser extent, as an audience we do the same.
This is what makes Weaver’s return to Alien and the details of the new movie so fascinating. Blomkamp has stated that his movie will come after Aliens and, although not entirely dismissing the inferior third and fourth entries, will essentially ignore their existence. Both he and Weaver have said they are doing this to provide a fitting finish to Ripley’s story.
I find this statement incredibly troublesome, not least because Alien 3 already provided an appropriate bookend to Ripley’s story arc. What Weaver is returning for is the motivation that I have long suspected the other actors above of having: a need to finish the story explicitly and perfectly. The problem with this is that they have all tried to finish the story at least once before, but those movies were poorly received. It’s so difficult to catch lightning in a bottle, yet that is exactly what these franchises and stars did during a truly golden age of Hollywood. The actors are not looking to just finish the story persay, but to do so in a way that recaptures what sparked the franchise in the first place. They want a critically acclaimed and loved ending to gold-plate their legacy and their character’s legacy. Do we really need to know what happens next? Do we even want to see it? Eventually, all of the fictional characters that we love grow old and die, as do the actors portraying them. This is why the Bond franchise is different, because it recasts and updates the characters every decade or so. A question I ask is if we really want to watch this painful decline into the grave on a big screen, that much more spectacularly scaled. With the veil of mystery fully removed, I think that the characters become too real and the illusion that movie magic depends upon is shattered. I’m not watching Indiana Jones fight the Soviets and valiantly endure a series of punches until he finally triumphs through sheer grit and ingenuity, I’m watching an old Harrison Ford be knocked into the dirt until I want to buy him one of those help-line necklaces because he’s fallen and can’t get up.
Heroes don’t live forever, but legends never die, or so the saying goes. The influential nature of the originals means that the movies and characters will never be forgotten, but not being forgotten is not immortality, and immortality is what these actors are truly after. Ignoring whether this is even possible, this desire has the laudable quality of wanting to go out on top and the sad spectacle of a group of people unable to accept the inevitability of time.
If a studio wants to reboot a franchise or make a spinoff or prequel to make money, that’s the studio’s right. Ultimately the movie industry is a business and studios have to turn a profit. I get that. But actors and directors need to know when to walk away from something before hurting their own brand and the beloved franchises that they helped build. George Lucas should have stepped back from the Star Wars creative process and let someone else make the prequel trilogy. Both the slow-burn horror of Alien and the space action of Aliens will never be forgotten. The movies are timeless and will always survive. They never needed two more entries. I was fine with my last glimpse of Indy being him literally riding off into the sunset with his father and two best friends after finding the Holy Grail, with my last image of the Terminator being the thumbs-up as he is raised into a pool of superheated liquid metal at the end of T2, with Rocky proverbially defeating Communism at the end of Rocky IV, and so on.
Above all else, film is a form of art, and artists can get tired, lose their edge, misplace the pulse of the cultural zeitgeist, or get too lost in their own fame. Joss Whedon has made it clear that he will be done directing Marvel movies after this summer’s Avengers, to protect against losing his way with the series, or the Marvel universe itself. To keep movies fresh, new artists have to be allowed in on existing franchises. Better still, new artists should be given the freedom to create new characters and stories for the next franchises. Jack Black’s brief song at this year’s Oscars (probably the only good part of the overlong show) says it perfectly, and if you missed it look it up. – is there a link??
I hope the new Terminator is good, and the new Alien, and any other upcoming last rides. Barring horrible reviews, I’ll probably even see Terminator: Genysis (but I refuse to admit it’s spelled like that). I will be immensely pleased if they can recapture the old magic and provide a fitting sendoff. But I don’t want to be forty years old and watching a reboot of the Alien and Die Hard franchises. I don’t want a Casablanca remake. Despite my respect for Chris Pratt, I don’t want to see another Indiana Jones movie. It’s been done, and it’s been done well. Now please, move on and make something else.
Make us believe in Hollywood again.