Review: Ridley Scott's 'Alien: Covenant' is a Miscalculated Sci-Fi Misfire
In 1977, director Ridley Scott made his feature debut with The Duelist, which won the Best First Film Award at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film, 1979's Alien, catapulted Sigourney Weaver to stardom and would go on to be considered one of the best sci-fi films of all time. A thriller about an extraterrestrial organism that stalks the crew of a spaceship, Alien launched a mega-franchise of movies, novels, comic books, video games, and collectibles that remains a pop culture mainstay nearly 40 years later. In 2010, Scott decided to return to the universe he helped create with Prometheus, a prequel to Alien that would explore the origins of the franchise's iconic Xenomorph creature, as well as the "space jockey"—the giant, elephantine extraterrestrial that briefly appears in the film as the deceased pilot of a derelict spaceship.
Released in 2012, the film was polarizing to fans and critics alike. Prometheus is a collection of exquisite broad strokes, with stunning imagery and a compelling performance from Michael Fassbender, who plays the android "David." And while it is an ambitious film that asks big, philosophical questions about humanity's origins and the relationship between the creator and the created, it offers little in the way of answers, or logic. Ambiguity isn't a bad thing in filmmaking, but it's frustrating when things are left open to interpretation because the filmmaker doesn't have the answers, or is purposefully withholding them so he or she can stretch out one potentially great story into a series of diminishing returns.
Enter Alien: Covenant, the sixth installment in the Alien franchise, taking place ten years after the events of Prometheus and eighteen years before Alien. Directed by Scott and written by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall) from a story by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Logan), this prequel-sequel attempts to delve deeper into the mythology established in Prometheus while giving fans "what they want" in the form of a traditional Alien narrative, i.e. watching scared shitless space-travel-folk get chased down corridors by monsters. In Scott's words, "They want Aliens, I'll give them fucking Aliens!" Or, to paraphrase Pimp My Ride's Xzibit, "I heard you like Xenomorphs, so we put Xenomorphs in your Xenomorph movie!"
It's 2104, and the Weyland-Yutani colony ship Covenant is bound for a remote planet, Origae-6, with over two thousand colonists and embryos aboard. While en route to the planet, a neutrino burst damages the ship, killing its captain and waking the crew from cryosleep. Among the surviving crew members are Daniels (Katherine Waterston), head of terraforming operations; first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) and his biologist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo); pilots Tennessee (Danny McBride) and Faris (Amy Seimetz); head of security Lope (Demián Bichir) and his husband Hallett (Nathaniel Dean). Joining them is "Walter" (Michael Fassbender again), a different "synthetic" android that maintains the ship and looks after its passengers on their seven-year voyage.
While repairing the ship's energy sails, Tennessee hears a cryptic transmission that sounds like a distress call. The crew tracks the source of the message and Oram, motivated by his faith, charts a new course that will take the Covenant to a potentially habitable planet that is seemingly too good to be true, and is. Upon landing on the hauntingly beautiful world, a member of the crew, Ledward (Benjamin Rigby) comes into contact with deadly spores – the mysterious "black goo" from Prometheus – and becomes ill. When he reaches the craft's Med Bay with the help of Karine, things go horribly wrong. Here we witness the birth of the Neomorph, a new breed of alien with translucent skin that shares more in common with a beluga whale or goblin shark than H.R. Giger's biomechanical design.
Things spiral out of control as the Neomorph rampages through the Lander, destroying everything in its path. Help arrives in the form of a mysterious hooded figure, who leads the survivors into an abandoned city. The unexpected savior turns out to be David from the USCSS Prometheus, who's been stranded on the dead planet after he and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) crashed there a decade ago. In his isolation, the eccentric android has been exploring the creative side of himself–playing music, painting, drawing, and performing bizarre experiments with the Engineers' virulent mutagenic pathogen. Meanwhile, back on the Covenant, Tennessee grows increasingly worried about his wife and plots a rescue mission through the planet's stormy atmosphere to retrieve the crew.
At its best, Alien: Covenant is an uninspired remix of Alien and James Cameron's 1986 sequel, Aliens. Every scene is engineered to remind you of a moment from those two films, and the characters are nothing more than shallow stand-ins for the iconic roles that came before. Take Waterson's Daniels, for example. Clearly, she is to be a Strong Female Lead™ in the vein of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley. Unfortunately, Daniels has even less characterization than Rapace's Shaw in Prometheus. At least that character had something going on. Daniels, on the other hand, spends most of the movie as a passive background character, offering little to the narrative or the audience's emotional connection to it. Suddenly, in the film's groan-inducing third act, she becomes John McClane, swinging from a ship as it spins out of control, fighting a Xenomorph in a scene that apes the finale of Alien and the Power Loader sequence from Aliens, minus all the suspense and excitement. It's empty, ineffective, and feels like pandering.
If you thought the characters in Prometheus were dumb, wait until you witness the idiocy on display here. One character successfully locks a Neomorph in a room only to open the door, slip on a puddle of blood, shoot her gun into the ceiling, and let the creature go. Then, as she chases the monster around the Lander, she shoots directly into the ship's fuel cells and blows herself up as the Neomorph slips out unscathed. Then there's another character who goes down into a creepy cave with the untrustworthy David, who tells him it's "completely safe" to stick his head in a just-opened Facehugger egg. To quote Ripley, "Did IQs just drop sharply while I was away?" It's impossible to care about anyone in this movie. Why root for humanity when characters prove time and time again how unworthy they are of saving? Like a bad slasher movie, at some point you stop caring about the kids and start cheering on the killer because at least they have some personality.
If there's one thing the movie has going for it, it's Fassbender's mesmerizing peformance in a dual role as David and his benevolent successor, Walter. What's frustrating, however, is how the events of Prometheus, and what David's been up to since, are barely touched upon in this film. We are treated to only glimpses of the Engineers' homeworld and what happened between David and Shaw there. Again, everything is left up to interpretation–we're supposed to do all the heavy lifting for the writers because they're too busy rehashing every beat from every other Alien movie ever made. And when Scott and his crew do introduce something new, like a particular revelation about the Xenomorph's origins, it's largely blasphemous. The mystery behind one of cinema's greatest monsters–if not the greatest–is explained away, turning the "perfect organism" into an unscary, uninteresting, computer-generated nothing.
That's a pretty good summary of the movie itself, really. Anything worth exploring further is glanced over in favor of presenting something you've already seen done (better) a dozen times before. The special effects don't help either. While Prometheus used a combination of visual & practical effects to bring the Engineers and their world to life, Alien: Covenant uses millions of pixels to animate the Neomorph and Xenomorph, robbing them of any sense of realism. The thing about Alien and Aliens is that the effects in those movies will stand the test of time – whether it's Giger's creation or Stan Winston's Queen Alien, the creatures feel real because they are in-camera effects; they interact with the actors and their surroundings in real time. Here, the threat never feels real. The only thing these shiny, parasitic organisms look like they've burst out of is a Playstation 4. Even Dariusz Wolski's cinematography–which was also one of Prometheus' strong points–can't imbue this much artifice with soul.
With a poorly conceived story, disposable characters, and a profound resentment for the Xenomorph itself, Alien: Covenant is one of the weakest entries in 20th Century Fox's franchise. Prometheus and Jean-Pierre Jeunet's underwhelming 1997 film, Alien: Resurrection, look like masterpieces in comparison. Technically speaking, it's a better-made movie than the AVP spin-offs, but not by much. There's an argument to be made that Paul W.S. Anderson's Alien vs. Predator has more respect and reverence for the franchise, and a better understanding of why people dig it, than this film, which appears to have been made by focus groups.
Talking to Yahoo! Movies in 2014, Scott said, "The beast is done. Cooked," regarding the possibility of the Xenomorph appearing in a Prometheus sequel. He continued, "There's only so much snarling you can do. I think you've got to come back with something more interesting."
So what happened? Clearly, Scott was pressured to cram as many Ovomorphs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters, and Xenomorphs into his epic sci-fi creation myth as possible. You get the sense watching Covenant that Scott doesn't like the Xenomorph, perhaps because the legacy of Giger's creation overshadows the director's own contributions to the franchise. And that's a shame. It's a shame that Fox and Scott are willing to fuck this franchise and its fans over for a goddamn percentage. But then again, isn't that the story of this series?
In Alien, the real villain is Weyland-Yutani, the corporate entity that sends the crew of the Nostromo to their death. The sequels are about outsiders fighting the company and preventing it from acquiring the hostile organism for its bioweapon division. Prometheus changed the power dynamic by pitting man against its creator. With Alien: Covenant, it's the creator himself, Ridley Scott, against his own creation. As David says, "Sometimes to create, one must first destroy." In undermining Alien with this halfhearted compromise of a movie, it would appear that Scott agrees with the synthetic's sentiments.
Adam's Rating: 2 out of 5
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