Top image: David Palumbo.
And while it may seem too soon to speculate about the three films interconnecting in any way, it's worth remembering that this is an industry where terms like "megafranchises" and "cinematic universes" are hot buzz words right now. So even if we won't see a direct crossover immediately, I expect Fox is already thinking of how they can pull off some cross-property synergy.
Granted, there's reason to be apprehensive about such an idea. The last two attempts by Fox to merge its two principal horror franchises into one were not exactly triumphs. While both Alien vs. Predator and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem did reasonably well at the box office, they were widely panned by critics and reviled by most fans of both Alien and Predator. "Fans beware," Empire's Dan Jollin wrote in his review for the first AVP film, "your fave two sci-fi franchises have been stripped of all their guile and maturity." When opinions like that count as relatively positive (Jollin gave the film 2 out 5 stars; it scores a 29 on Metacritic) it's not surprising many would be reluctant to broach the subject of bringing the two franchises together again.
But there's a lot of commercial incentive for Fox to do so. Despite the crossover's failure on film, it's done remarkably well in both comics and video games. Even one of the worst of the AVP games—2010's Aliens vs. Predator—sold well and maintains decent customer scores on Metacritic, Amazon, and Steam. And the AVP crossover has long been a major pillar of Dark Horse's Alien and Predator licenses, ever since they first pitched the concept in the early 1990s. And let's not forget that Ridley Scott, the director of Prometheus and presumed director of its sequel, is also lending his aid as the producer of Neil Blomkamp's new Alien film, which makes the already solid links between those two series likely to grow even more entwined.
With that in mind the question is less "can a shared Alien/Predator/Prometheus universe be done?" (it can and it probably will be) and more "can—or, more importantly, will—it be done right?" The answer to that is less obvious but I have faith that it can.
Working Out the Timeline
The first thing Fox has got to do if they're going to bridge the Alien, Predator, and Prometheus franchises is figure out what's going in and what's being left out. As fans of each franchise are probably aware, there is some level of contention as to which films are "really" canon and which ones aren't. Fox should sort this out quickly, because whatever makes it in is going to form the bedrock upon which all future films are built.
That doesn't mean, of course, that new films should be slaves to the earlier ones—far from it—but the fact of the matter is that which films are considered essential will basically set the rules for what any future crossovers want to be.
Starting with the Alien series the major question is whether or not Alien³ and Alien: Resurrection will make it into the new canon. Based on Neil Blomkamp's own comments about his as of yet untitled Alien film, it seems likely they will not, but Fox's X-Men franchise, where every film has been canon (despite numerous continuity issues) suggests that the company might try to salvage both films from the scrap heap. Not only that, but Blomkamp himself said recently that he isn't "trying to undo" either film, which just renders everything all a little more confusing.
Personally, while it's not one of my favorite films I thought Alien³ was okay and I'd be okay with keeping it canon. And while just about no one loves Resurrection, the success of Days of Future Past recently proved that one bad film (like The Last Stand) needn't sink a franchise. That being said, I'm struggling to see how Blomkamp's concept—which involves an aged Ripley (who isn't a clone) and Hicks reuniting to combat Weyland-Yutani's attempts to once more exploit the Aliens—really could work with Alien³, where Ripley and Hicks are both killed, or Resurrection, which takes place a century after Aliens and mentions the Company's obsolescence off-hand. For simplicity's sake, it seems simpler just to scrap both films and work forward from Aliens, which is probably what most fans of the series would prefer anyway.
Moving on to Predator it's pretty obvious the beloved first film, which featured Arnold Schwarzenegger's moralistic commando Dutch's encounter with the deadly Predator, should remain canon. Beyond that though, there is some question. Predator 2, which moved the series from the rain forests of Latin America to the slums of southern California was widely panned and is generally regarded as a disappointing follow up. On the other hand, the film does have its own ardent defenders and is quasi-legendary for introducing the concept that the Predators and Aliens had encountered one another in the past. The movie Predators is generally better regarded and holds a decent score on RottenTomatoes but is somewhat controversial among fans for being more action-heavy and introducing a civil war between different branches of the Predator species.
I don't personally have a dog in this fight. However, it does seem to me that each film is for the most part it's own separate beast, individually distinct from the others and unlikely to largely affect canon one way or the other (with the possible exception of Predators' "Super Predators"). As such, it seems to me Fox might just want to assume all three films are canon and move on from there, which seems to be what Shane Black intends to with the fourth film, which he's described as an "inventive sequel" which will be "expanding and exploring the existing Predator mythology."
Skipping Prometheus (since there's just the one film so far) we're left with the Alien vs. Predator films. On the one hand, the AVP films finally brought the Aliens and Predators together on screen, after a decade of extremely successful crossovers in comics and video games. That, in of itself, scores them some pretty hefty significance. On the other hand, they're pretty universally reviled and the backstory they established for Weyland-Yutani and the Aliens was almost completely scrapped during the production of Prometheus, which gave a new backstory to each. While the AVP concept may have some merit left in it, it's fair to say that few would mourn disposing of the original two films entirely and that would be my recommendation: to start from scratch.
The last thing to consider is the wide world of licensed media. For over two decades now, the Alien and Predator franchises—in particular the former—have enjoyed a long run of successful comics and video game iterations. While there have been some hiccups along the way (most notably the universally panned Aliens: Colonial Marines) there have also been some noteworthy successes, perhaps most notably the original Aliens vs. Predator series by Dark Horse Comics, from which all of the later crossovers have been derived in one way or another. Should those be canon too?
I actually think it's erroneous to say the answer is necessarily one or the other. I've never understood the mindset that requires that expanded universe materials either be canon or non-canon and I was quite comfortable with the level of semi-canon that the Star Wars expanded universe held prior to its reboot by Disney last year: the films were top tier and everything else was secondary but still "canon;" if the films and expanded universe contradicted one another, the films won but otherwise the two existed in more or less peaceful harmony. The idea that all iterations must be equally canon strikes me as something of a logistical nightmare.
And this would be the approach I would take with licensed media for the Alien, Predator, and Prometheus franchises were I in charge. Sure, some of the comics material is pretty outdated now and so are a lot of the video games. Some titles might need to be scrapped. The Dark Horse Comics original rendition of the Engineers/Jockeys, in particular, is mostly obsolete. But there's a lot of money and prestige to be had in successful licensed media, as the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Alien: Isolation most recently proved. In such cases, it probably helps rather than hurts the franchise to endorse third-party narratives.
But they should remain beholden to the films, not the other way around. If Neil Blomkamp has a story he wants to develop about Ripley's daughter that puts in question Isolation's canonicity, that's his prerogative. Likewise, if Ridley Scott wants to do something that contradicts the events of Dark Horse's recent "Fire and Stone" storyline, let him. Stories should never be a slave to canon. The purpose of canon is not to restrict a universe but to expand it and enrich it, to give it more life and verisimilitude. If canon ever becomes a straightjacket, it's not being utilized correctly.
The Multiplicity of Horror
At their core the original Alien, Predator, and Prometheus are horror films. Sure there's a lot else going on there, but if you take out the horror you're losing a lot of what sets the films apart from their competitors. The Aliens, the Predators, and the Engineers aren't just unfriendly extraterrestrials: they're species that put humanity at risk just by existing in the same vicinity. When human characters run into either of the three they should be frightened and, ideally, so should the audience. The franchise is at its very best when it embodies horror that works on both an intellectual and visceral level.
There was a time when I was concerned that the franchise had lost its edge and couldn't be scary anymore after so much overexposure. The creatures in Alien vs. Predator weren't particularly frightening and even some of the scenes from the original films didn't seem to hold up as well on repeated viewings. But the recent game Alien: Isolation, which ramps up the tension at a delicate pace and then unleashes a nigh-unstoppable monster on you when you're already anxious from avoiding human or synthetic enemies, has convinced me the xenomorph can be scary again. And if it the terror of the Alien can be restored, the same holds true for the Predator. All it requires is a careful hand that knows the difference between action and tension, between thrills and chills.
Of course, the nature of the horror at the heart of the Alien, Predator, and Prometheus films is quite different and if Fox wants to take a page from Marvel and build a cinematic universe around the films it would do well to remember another part of Marvel's playbook: each of the Marvel films has its own independent style, while maintaining certain overarching themes and characteristics. Iron Man 3 is a straight-forward action movie: RDJ's Tony Stark would easily fit in with the likes of John McClane, Martin Riggs, or Roger Murtaugh. The Winter Soldier is a 1970s-style political thriller taking its cues from All the President's Men and 3 Days of the Condor. Guardians of the Galaxy is a feel-good space adventure. They're all superhero films and they all share certain elements like snappy dialogue, straightforwardly heroic characters, but they also stand out individually.
Fox should do the same when it comes to its Alien, Predator, and Prometheus films. While each film needs to be scary and/or thrilling, they don't need to approach the subject in exactly the same manner. Indeed, they shouldn't. Each set of films really represents a different kind of horror.
The Alien films are perhaps the simplest to pin down: they're monster films and they're all about how terrifying and deadly the Aliens are. The Alien's the ultimate representation of the boogeyman or the monster under your bed: it will kill you just when you let your guard down and it will do so in a way that leaves you screaming until your last breath. They strike at the primal fear of being devoured by predators that still lives with us, millions of years after we've become apex predators ourselves. Beyond that, they also represent body horror, particularly that dealing with reproduction, and are a horrifying caricature of our society's anxieties about sex and pregnancy. The Aliens don't just eat us: they rape us first.
The Predator series, on the other hand, are slasher films. While the Aliens pursue and kill us because they need to, because it's their nature, the Predators do it because it's fun. Humans aren't food or even reproductive vessels, they're literally game, pursued for the thrill and the challenge of stalking prey that can fight back. And, as in many slasher films, there's a strange appeal to the killer(s): they're frightening and sadistic, sure, but hey, they're clever and have a code of honor. The Predators appeal to the same part of us that is simultaneously terrified by and enchanted by serial killers, that romanticizes characters like Hannibal Lecter and Dexter Morgan while still fearing the stranger in the night.
As for Prometheus? Your first clue should come from that fact that Guillermo del Toro was worried the first film in the series would sabotage his efforts to film an adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness. Prometheus is all about cosmic horror, also known as Lovecraftian horror. It's important to remember that when Prometheus starts, the main characters are fairly optimistic about what they'll find—or in the case of Vickers, disinterestedly pessimistic. No one expects to find a horror house waiting for them and no one expects that Shaw and Holloway's hypothesis about the origins of humanity would turn out to be horribly right. The Engineers created humanity yes, but their intentions are not benevolent and they are not the gods Shaw was looking for. And the mission's attempts to find answers only leads to death and madness. Prometheus, done properly, is Call of Cthulhu with a side of 2001, reminding us that those things which inspire awe are often awful as well.
Alien vs. Predator, should Fox choose to revisit the concept, should be predominantly horrifying in its own, unique manner as well. While the earlier two attempts at the crossover largely focused on the titular monsters carving each other up a better film built on the same idea should examine the human consequences of their conflict more thoroughly. The best of the AVP comics note how catastrophic the war between Aliens and Predators are to the humans who get caught in the middle, incidental bystanders who get swept up in a war that really isn't about them. Really, a good screenwriter could turn the AVP concept into a tense and harrowing parable of the horrors of war and the suffering those who end up as collateral damage inevitably endure. Consider the battle scenes of Children of Men or the horrific violence of the film Fury and add xenomorphs, Predators, or Engineers on top of that and you get an idea of where a film like that could go.
Keep Them Smart
Of course, the films aren't just about scary monsters slaughtering their way through the human characters. An often underrated part of the best movies in the franchises are their subtext and their intellectual ambitions. Alien isn't just a horror show in space; it's a commentary on our anxieties about our own bodies and corporate disregard for the welfare of their own employees. Predator isn't just about an extraterrestrial safari hunter chasing soldiers through a rain forest; it's a parable about the vulnerabilities of hypermasculinity and the nature of violence. Prometheus isn't just about an archaeological dig that uncovers an ancient bioweapons lab; it's a tale of hubris, the nature of humanity, and sowing the seeds of our own destruction.
There's been some question as to whether or not Neil Blomkamp, whose best known film is a political allegory about race and poverty in South Africa, is really the best pick for the Alien series. But while there are reasons to be doubtful about Blomkamp I don't think this is one of them. The Alien films have always (or were at least originally) pretty political. Ron Cobb, one of the chief designers for the first film as well as the inventor of the Weyland-Yutani brand, is best known outside of his work on Alien as a political cartoonist for radical newspapers like the Los Angeles Free Press. And Cameron has long admitted that Aliens was substantially influenced by his thoughts about the Vietnam War. That Blomkamp might bring a political edge to the Alien franchise is nothing out of the ordinary; if anything it's setting the films back on track.
Likewise, while the Predator films in general might seem like they're just dumb action fodder, there's been a number of interesting arguments to suggest they're a little more sophisticated than that. Notably, the first film, Predator, opens like a typical 1980s action movie but gradually shifts into a horror film as Dutch's team is picked off one by one, their bravado and machismo proving poor defenses against the Predator's stealth and cunning. By the end of the film Dutch—who notably eschews some of the cliches of a hardened mercenary in valuing morals over money or survival—is the only one left. The film Predators picks up on these ideas and runs with them, simultaneously introducing questions about the nature of violence and whether the human protagonists are any less savage than the aliens hunting them.
And of course there's Prometheus which, whatever its faults may be could never be accused of being unambitious. Instead of just making a monster movie that set up the events of Alien, Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof aspired to tell a story that simultaneously examined the question of what it is to be human (by making humans as artificial as the androids they disregard), our discomfort with our mortality, and how the search for answers can sometimes yield unpleasant results. On top of that, there's a notable theme running through the film (more obvious in some of the deleted scenes but still present in the theatrical cut) about how the Engineers essentially destroyed themselves by creating bioweapons that even they couldn't control. If anything, Prometheus was almost too ambitious, to the point that its themes may have come at the cost of telling a more straightforward story.
If Fox chooses to revisit Alien vs. Predator they should make those films intelligent as well. Recalling how I said the crossover is, at its core, about a war in which humans are the collateral damage, one fruitful theme might be worth examining how prolonged exposure to trauma and violence affects a person or how they might adapt to survive in a world torn apart by not one but two (or even three) alien species. The crossover might also be an opportunity to examine how fans sometimes romanticize the Predators as the "good guys;" one of the principal story arcs of the AVP comics focused on Machiko Noguchi, the sole survivor of an Alien/Predator battle who ended up turning to the Predators for aid, living with them for a time before coming to realize that human life had no inherent value in their eyes and that their sense of morality would never be hers.
The Alien, Predator, and Prometheus franchises are ripe for exploring themes of violence, humanity, sexuality, political economy, the thin line between savagery and civilization, and more. Let us hope Fox and the filmmakers they entrust the universe with understand that.
Building a Universe
If Fox is going to build a cinematic universe out of the Alien, Predator, and Prometheus properties, one of the things they're going to want to do is establish a common framework around which the films are built. Just as the Marvel films have been built around a number of common threads like the Infinity Stones, SHIELD, and Stark Industries, so would one expect a shared universe consisting of Fox's space horror films to exhibit a few details that are passed around between one film to another, creating a sense that each film is part of a bigger world.
Starting with the basics, when you come right down to it you can sum up the Alien universe in one very simple way that gets across the multitude of its themes and styles: Cthulhu meets Blade Runner.
Like Lovecraft's immortal mythos, the Alien universe deals regularly with extraterrestrial threats to humanity that surpass our attempts to control or understand them, which put us in jeopardy just by existing. For all our aspirations to technological supremacy or mastery of nature, the Alien films (and Prometheus) echo Lovecraft's thesis that humanity is inconsequential and at constant risk of stumbling onto its own destruction. This is a world where our creators have forsaken us, where we're food and reproductive fodder for horrifying parasites, and our level of sophistication is so insignificant that we're pursued for sport by extraterrestrial safari hunters. Humans are still at the bottom of the interstellar food chain, despite all we've accomplished.
And as in Blade Runner (and the cyberpunk genre it helped create) the world we've created for ourselves, the sanctuary that preserves our illusion of safety from a deeply hostile universe, isn't the one we hoped for. The human world is dominated not by philanthropic and democratic utopias like the Federation of Star Trek but by misanthropic, cynical corporations that treat their employees as expendable assets and strip mine planets for precious resources. Space travel, far from being the extravagant adventure of classic space opera is hard, dirty, and dangerous and it takes days at a minimum (weeks more likely, months from time to time) to travel from one star system to another. This is a world that exposes the idea that the Millennium Falcon could jump "halfway across the galaxy" in seconds for the absurdity that it is.
The world of the Alien films isn't exactly a dystopia in the same sense that the worlds of 1984 or The Hunger Games are—there's no world-spanning totalitarian government and evidence seems to suggest that most people's socioeconomic status is roughly comparable to that of our own world—but it's still a world that's half-empty. Humanity's discovered the secret to FTL but space colonies are far flung and remote, dependent on fragile technology for their survival. Artificial intelligence is widespread and commonplace, but shackled by a repressive and suspicious society that regards synthetics as somewhere between citizens and property. We aren't alone in the universe, but the few species we've encountered are inscrutable if not outright hostile.
Of course, not all of the films in the franchise have to take place at precisely the same point in time. The Predator films in particular seem to trend closer towards the present while the Alien films are further forward in the future, with Prometheus taking place near the start of humanity's expansion into interstellar space. That doesn't mean, however, that the films can't connect in one way or another, be it subtly or more explicitly and the necessity of hypersleep for the long travel times between star systems provides one possible means for transplanting characters from one series to the other, should Fox or the films' directors desire it. Additionally, the ageless nature of synthetics was already a minor plot point in Prometheus and might allow characters like the David 8 series of androids to show up widely across the timeline.
As in Marvel's films, the connections Fox establishes should be subtle at first. Perhaps Weyland Corporation can be mentioned offhand in the new Predator film or the ruins of a Predator ship might show up on an Engineer colony in Prometheus 2. The connections between Alien and Prometheus are already fairly explicit but might be made still more explicit in Neil Bomkamp's new film, which (based on his concept art) looks to explore Weyland-Yutani's attempts to exploit the ruins of an ancient Engineer derelict. There's lots of possibilities to explore and expand on, even if the films remain largely independent of one another (which they should be initially).
Later on, if Fox wants to bridge the films more concretely by resurrecting the Alien vs. Predator brand, it should be done with careful consideration and by setting up a scenario that's likely to bring all three series' narrative threads together in some fashion, just as Marvel's The Avengers combined the Tesseract plotline from The First Avenger, Stark's search to find a more efficient energy source, and Loki's exile from Asgard to create a scenario that required the titular heroes to assemble. Bringing the Aliens, Predators, and/or Engineers together shouldn't just be an excuse to watch monsters tear each other apart: give us a reason why all these creatures are coming together.
In the End Though It's All About the Characters
All of the above will count for nothing though if Fox doesn't get one extremely important detail right: the characters.
One of the greatest mistakes of the later Alien and Predator films (as well as Prometheus) is that they were so caught up in showcasing their creepy monsters that they forgot that the primary strength of the first films were the people inhabiting them. If we don't care who lives or dies, if we don't empathize with the film's protagonists, it's not going to really matter how freaky or deadly your monster is: no one's going to be scared and the audience's investment in the action is going to plummet significantly.
Both the original Alien and Predator succeeded in large part because the first third or so of the films was about building up the audience's sympathies for the core group of characters, well before things went south. The early scenes of Alien are slow-paced by modern standards but serve an important role: they showcase the mundanity of working on a Company freighter in the depth of space and establish the crew as a group of relatable everyday Joes and Janes. Likewise, the early scenes of Predator focus extensively on establishing the bonds and camaraderie of Dutch's team. In both cases, the slow character-building of the first act makes the slaughter that follows all the more poignant: we share the pain, loss, and fear the films' protagonists feel as they see their friends and coworkers picked off one by one.
Getting the characters right extends beyond just writing in some scenes of bonding or everyday activity though. It's also about making the characters stand for something. In Alien the Nostromo's crew aren't just a random selection of people who run across an extraterrestrial parasite: they're blue-collar workers who feel shortchanged by the megacorp they're working for and just want to get home safely before they're sent on a random detour. Dutch's team aren't just any soldiers: they're hard-boiled mercenaries built of the same rough archetypes that Arnold Schwarzenegger himself played for years, which makes their subsequent massacre by a more cunning, deadlier kind of warrior all the more surprising and interesting.
On that note, it's important to consider the point of representation in film when casting these films. The original Alien's most notable creation may have been the eponymous xenomorph, but Ripley doesn't trail far behind as one of science fiction's first major female protagonists. Ripley—who was originally written and cast as a male before the movie's producers changed their mind—has since become one of the most important cases of why representation matters, opening up a number of new roles for Sigourney Weaver as well as other actresses and showing that a woman could lead a successful science fiction blockbuster.
Since then, many of the titles in the franchise—including both Prometheus and the first AVP film as well as many of the licensed comics and video games—have wisely focused on a female protagonist, following the trend Alien established. New films in the franchise should continue this tradition, but they shouldn't stop there. How great would it be if the next Alien film not only featured the return of Ripley (and possibly an adult Newt) but a significant character of color? Perhaps even a non-white woman (like the comics' Machiko Noguchi)? Or maybe a gay or trans character?
Such talk may inspire accusations of "pandering" or "PC policing" but it's important to remember that before Alien the idea of a female-led science fiction film would have turned more than a few heads as well. Remember, the Alien and Predator films alike have long been about challenging Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, not embracing them. Establishing a diverse cast of underrepresented heroes would only be following in that tradition, particularly given the fact that the protagonists of the series have historically been the downtrodden and oppressed anyway. After all, to creatures like the Aliens or the Predators, we're all the same anyway.