In terms of story, Alien: Covenant’s conclusion hinted at all kinds of dark possibilities. We won’t go over them in spoilery detail here – we’ve done that before, if you’re interested in getting into specifics – but Covenant’s conclusion, along with Ridley Scott’s clear enthusiasm for the franchise, left clear indications that at least a couple of sequels were in the pipeline.
Right now, though, there appears to be a black cloud on the horizon: the film’s box-office. While Alien: Covenant received better reviews than its predecessor, 2012’s Prometheus, the latest in a planned string of prequels to 1979’s Alien has made a worryingly steep dive in profits over the past couple of weeks.
You only have to take a quick look at Box Office Mojo‘s statistics to see the problem. On its opening weekend back in May, Alien: Covenant had a decent opening weekend in the US, making just over $36m. That’s lower than Prometheus, which made $51m, but then again, Covenant’s production budget was actually lower than the 2012 movie – $97m versus $130m – so the signs all seemed fairly positive.
The bad news came the weekend after, when its takings dropped by 71 percent – a worryingly precipitous fall for such a heavily-hyped (and relatively well-reviewed) Hollywood movie. So far, Alien: Covenant’s global box office haul amounts to just shy of $175m, which, at almost double its budget, doesn’t sound too bad. But with Prometheus‘ lifetime theatrical gross standing at $403m, Covenant has a lot of work to do before it gets even close to that kind of worldwide take.
Part of the problem, inevitably, was the sheer weight of competition arrayed against Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror. When Alien: Covenant appeared in cinemas on the 19th May, Marvel’s less foreboding genre sequel Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 was still breaking records; to date, it’s turned in a staggering $818m worldwide, making it the third most successful film of the year so far. Couple this with the release of Pirates Of The Caribbean 5 and then Wonder Woman on subsequent weekends, and it becomes clear how quickly Alien: Covenant was drowned out by other, similarly loudly-marketed movies.
While Alien: Covenant isn’t a failure, and still has time to make more money around the world before it heads off for its home disc release, the numbers will no doubt leave executives at Fox wondering about what to do with the franchise. Let’s face it, the presence of the word “Alien” in the title, plus the much-vaunted return of the classic xenomorph, was a decision made in no small part because of fan demand; with those things in place, Covenant should – at least in theory – have made a bigger financial splash than Prometheus, which had less obvious connections to the Alien universe.
That isn’t, of course, how it turned out. With regard to Alien: Covenant‘s performance, it’s worth comparing the film to another film in a long-running franchise – 2015’s Terminator: Genisys. On paper, Genisys had lots going for it, including the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger to one of his signature roles, appearances from geek-friendly actors like Matthew Smith and Emilia Clarke, and the repeated suggestion in trailers and interviews that Genisys was returning to the chase-thriller format of the first two Terminator films, following the post-apocalyptic action of Terminator: Salvation.
In fairness, Terminator: Genisys’ reviews were far more negative than Alien: Covenant’s, yet the parallels are worth examining. Like Genisys, Alien: Covenant was billed as a return to the format (or selling points, you could say) of the first two Alien movies – a simple, space horror plot, rather than the grand philosophical questions of Prometheus, and the return of those slobbering Giger monsters.
More worrying, for those at the helm of the Alien franchise, is how Terminator: Genisys’ disappointing business nipped its plans for a continuing story in the bud. Like Alien: Covenant, Genisys hinted at a sequel, and indeed its producers at Skydance made plain that they planned to make at least two theatrical follow-ups and possibly even a TV spin-off series.
“We know the last line of the third movie,” said producer Dana Goldberg in 2015. “We’re not going to share it, but we know it.”
When Terminator: Genisys left cinemas with a dreary $440m worldwide gross, those plans were quietly put on hold. Co-producer David Ellison may be putting a brave face on the Terminator franchise’s prospects – it has “an incredibly bright future” he told Collider earlier this year – but two years on, and a sequel seems no closer to materialising from the Hollywood ether.
So could the Alien franchise be in a similarly difficult spot? Certainly, the numbers will make for some disappointing reading, even if Covenant isn’t an outright flop. The decent opening weekend, followed by the rapid drop, might suggest that the venerable franchise doesn’t have much impact on audiences beyond its faithful core – and with body horror, gore and cosmic fear being key elements in the series, it’s not as though there’s too much scope for reinvention. Alien Vs Predator, Paul W S Anderson’s PG-13 spin-off from 2004, did decent enough business – better than Covenant, so far, in fact, relative to its budget – yet its reviews were largely damning. With Fox readying The Predator reboot for release next year, it may be thinking about another cross-over, but is no doubt aware that a poorly-performing team-up film can wind up damaging both franchises at the same time.
The deeper question, perhaps, is not just about the Alien series in general, but Ridley Scott’s plans for a string of prequels. The data from Alien: Covenant’s reviews and box office is all there on the web, but how the powers that be at Fox will interpret it remains to be seen. Will they conclude that the Alien franchise as a whole has run its course, or will they decide that audiences are less interested than Ridley Scott in the whole pageant of Engineers, black goo, experiments and Fassbender androids?
If Fox plump for the latter option, then they still have another option open to them: the long-mooted Alien 5, or at least a movie that continues the Alien narrative from Alien: Resurrection onwards rather than prior to the events of the 1979 original. Ridley Scott may be reluctant to let other directors play around with the series he brought about with Alien, but with the film industry being as reliant on financial success as it is, the veteran filmmaker could yet find himself pushed aside.
Even accepting the reality that Alien: Covenant hasn’t soared at the box office, the franchise as a whole still has a valuable market surrounding it – books, videogames, comics and other merchandise. We’d be surprised if Fox didn’t want to keep the film series going in some form, though the results of the past few weeks may leave the studio wondering whether the franchise needs a new direction, a fresh pair of eyes – and maybe a splash of new blood.