The Alien franchise needs to get back to basic with a single Xenomorph as a real threat.
The first Alien movie was released in 1979 and has only gotten bigger and weirder since then. Aliens, the second movie in the franchise, began with a ridiculously bold pitch to 20th Century Fox executives and established a template: the stakes will get higher, the science will get weirder, and there will be more and different Xenomorphs. However, we will make a bold claim: the Alien franchise needs to calm down and cut back big time on the number of Xenomorphs that it stuffs into a project.
That is counterintuitive, given that the presence of Xenomorphs (which is to say the acid-blooded, double-jawed extraterrestrial creatures of the title) is the very reason for the existence of the Alien franchise. However, much like anything else, familiarity breeds contempt and the sheer number of Xenomorphs that we have now seen has reduced them from terrifying starbeasts into just another generic alien to be defeated. While the seemingly endless army of spiny, black-shelled adversaries that Ellen Ripley and a pack of Colonial Marines was horrifying at the time, we have simply seen it too many times now.
The Alien franchise needs to bring things back to basics. The 1979 Ridley Scott Alien dealt with a single Xenomorph infesting a commercial space freighter named the Nostromo, leaving a terrified crew of blue-collar (but in space!) workers to try to deal with an unimaginably perfect killing machine. In many ways, Alien is not so much a science fiction film as it is a slasher movie with sci-fi elements, in which an unwitting group of regular people has to deal with a seemingly unstoppable adversary in a dark, scary haunted house of a spaceship.
Aliens changed that, not initially for the worse. At the time, it was a brilliant decision by director/screenwriter James Cameron to shift gears from “science fiction horror movie” to “science fiction action movie,” and if there is one thing that the man who made Avatar knows how to do, it is to escalate stakes. But by changing the focus from a single alien creature to many, which could be easily dispatched by Colonial Marine firepower if not for their numbers, the franchise diminished the power of a single Xenomorph.
Since then, the Alien movies have tended to focus more on the threat of Xenomorphs as a species than as a single beast. David Fincher’s studio-hampered Alien 3 had only a single alien (birthed from either a dog or an ox, depending on the cut), but was obsessed by the idea of the Alien Queen embryo in Ellen Ripley. Alien Resurrection went back to the well of having a bunch of Xenomorphs attacking, but now with a bunch of twisted Ripley clones and a bizarre French funhouse aesthetic that did not really suit the material.
Alien Vs. Predator, Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem, Alien: Covenant: all of the subsequent films essentially took the same plot tactic of having an overwhelming amount of Xenomorphs attack the protagonists, making it seem like a single Xenomorph is not a significant threat (unless it’s a Queen). Only the oddity known as 2012’s Prometheus did not have multiple Xenomorphs, though it had multiple different alien threats and was stressed by director Ridley Scott to not precisely be “one of those” movie. The nature of these sequels (and prequels and mid-quels) can be summed up with the pithy phrase “diminishing returns.”
The next movie needs to take a page from their simpatico Predator series and reduce things to their simplest form: terrified people struggling to survive against an unstoppable alien force. The recent Prey showed that stripping the premise of an extraterrestrial hunter down to basics can be successful. In the same way, Alien needs to realize that re-establishing a single Xenomorph as an unthinking, relentless monster with biology utterly unlike ours is scarier than a whole army of them.
There are a number Alien projects currently in production (as there always seem to be), including an FX series from Fargo creator Noah Hawley and a series from original mastermind Ridley Scott. There is even a prequel series set on the same planetoid as Aliens in development for Hulu, but it is unclear whether the franchise will ever realize the terror of the series is not that there is a bunch of them. It is that it is an Alien.