Alien: Covenant ***1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Guy Pearce
Written by: Jack Paglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper
Directed by: Ridley Scott
At the risk of embarrassing myself, I must come clean. I’ve spent the better part of my last 25 years of movie free time discussing, enjoying, occasionally hating, and pondering in wonderment the Alien franchise. Sad as that may sound, I’m drawn to the franchise like a moth to a flame, in spite of multiple flaws and continuity errors. For example, worrying about silly things like traveling light years in a mere decade, or how a xenomorph’s life cycle can take mere minutes to grow full size will only leave you grasping for answers if you see Alien: Covenant. Or, if you love this nonsense like I do, they become excuses. I do love the ‘Alien’ franchise, but sometimes in unhealthy ways. Unhealthy in that I love the potential sometimes more than the results, the mythology more than the meat (so to speak).
If I’m honest with myself, I know this is not a very good film. It changes tone multiple times, is far too horror-familiar considering how bold its’ predecessor tried to be, and barely attempts to answer said predecessor’s questions. Alien: Covenant teaches a master course in potential, at once reaching the apex of cinematography and gore, but then demanding its’ audience to forgive periodic lapses in pace, plot, and logic. Do I love this film? Yeah, I kind of do, but in an unhealthy way. Just like how at the soul of Alien: Covenant lies a story of unhealthy relationships, mirroring my own with the franchise. Gods and mortals. Corporations and employees. Women and men. Creators and offspring. And, like a great many unhealthy relationships, I allow the many misgivings, providing the film every chance to be better than it is. It isn’t- just adjust your expectations (see, I’m doing it again).
Our film begins with a flashback involving David (Fassbender), one of the two survivors of 2012’s Prometheus. The scene sure looks neat, even if it doesn’t necessarily tell us anything new. Flash forward to a large spaceship hurtling through the void. This, as the screen tells us, is the colonization ship Covenant. A being that looks strikingly similar to David (but is not David) strolls through the ship as its’ crew and 2,000 colonists snooze. They are on their way to a distant planet, a place where they will make a new life for themselves as the first large-scale colonization mission in human history (if you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant’s two ‘prologue’ films, the awe of this historic mission will be lost on you). A rather convenient plot device in the form of a RSA (Random Space Anomaly) jerks the Covenant from its’ destination, waking the crew and damaging the ship. I say ‘convenient’, for their accident locale just happens to be in the vicinity of a human-like transmission. Seems impossible, right? Not for these four screenwriters!
You’ll never guess what they find when they decide to travel to the transmission’s source instead of their original destination. Danger! Everything from black spores and an abandoned ship to pale, spiny beasties that crave flesh straight out of the “womb”. As Walter (Fassbender again as the Covenant’s resident synthetic person) explains, the lost Prometheus mission appears to have matriculated to this new planet. A typical course of events follows, as a shrouded being named David arrives to help the crew out. Is he trapping them? Is he psychotic? What are his motives? I’ll bet you they’re sinister. The film alters course right around the time that the Covenant’s crew seeks sanctuary in David’s abode. We get wonderful moments of exposition between David and Walter, two strangers in the night navigating their place in the cosmos as creations of a flawed species. Then, in a move to apparently placate the unintelligent, we get overly familiar, required scenes of hide and seek, followed by been there, done that attacks, right up to the film’s coda involving the titular xenomorph.
Mind you, I have no issue with the appearance of the xenomorph in a film that was originally intended to be called “Paradise”, “Paradise Lost”, or just “Covenant”. As a fan of aliens and monsters and gore alone, I’d assuredly give this two enthusiastic thumbs up. I also have no issue with the requisite carnage that one would expect with said appearance. Wonderfully unnerving musical cues even prepare us for the “stalking to come”. In fact, turning the xenomorph into a standard-fare slasher movie villain makes sense- in a lesser film. There is just no need to simply satisfy horror movie fanboys- most don’t care for silly things like nuance and depth, and only look to have people mangled in new and interesting ways. I simply want Alien: Covenant to be something else, something more. Prometheus sold me on the idea that Scott saw this franchise as something with more story potential than just gooey things lurking in dark corners. So as a fan of science fiction first, I’m admit to being extremely disappointed.
After all, the term ‘covenant’ holds within its’ beautiful-sounding phonetic the idea of some kind of binding promise or even religious purpose. Scott and his screenwriters frustratingly tease at larger ideas however, never capitalizing on the gloriously blasphemous intentions of Prometheus. We left Dr. Shaw and David at the end of the last film looking to the future, and hoping to find the ‘home of the engineers’, or, ostensibly, “Heaven”. I’d love to tell you that this sequel has this deeper meaning I sought, or that the questions from the previous film were tackled with further gusto, but I’d be lying. Covenant is content to exist primarily as a “BOO!” movie, with alien saliva and entrails galore. Again, that’s fine if you’re a fanboy or executive, but I want more. Frankly, at this point in the series, we deserve more.
Scott and company do not completely disappoint, of course. The man whom I’ve come to call my favorite filmmaker has his requisite touches that tend to excite me. The film certainly looks incredible, and the production design has really no equal. I cannot recall another film, especially a science fiction film, having a more intricate and intimately macabre design coming in shy of a $100 million budget. And, as silly as the rehashed action in this film is, the cast’s performances are certainly consistent and appropriately tuned to the material. The pacing is rather brisk, almost to the point where I wondered why Ridley decided to leave his ‘prologue’ films out of the mix. An extra ten minutes to flesh out this story may have been a wiser choice, giving us time to develop the same hope and supposed faith that the Covenant crew had. Kudos belong to Jed Kurzel for this score as well. His synthesized take on Jerry Goldsmith’s classic Alien theme paired with some kind of organic, creepy, foot-stomping beats is one of the more unique and identifiable scores in recent memory.
Again, I’m left wondering how much potential the sixth film in the Alien ‘canon’ had, and how it could have been truly unique and wonderful. Covenant is a prime example of the potential of science fiction films, paired with the complete lack of a backbone most studios have in producing and distributing them. Despite having a well-known director at the helm, a pair of critical darlings in the lead, and a reasonably well-received (if not divisive) prequel film in Prometheus prior to this, 20th Century Fox was so skittish about this sequel that they demanded Scott put “Alien” in the title. And Scott, a producer himself, and normally so adept at toeing the line between material and commercial needs, relegated himself to the land of the spineless with this choice.
Prometheus was a “mistake”, per Scott in a recent interview. Come again? And he didn’t realize how much fans wanted to see the “alien” again? Why in the world would Scott and his writers deviate from their three to four film plan for groveling fanboys? No one but Ridley Scott can cut off Ridley Scott’s balls at this point in his long career. Either make the Alien film you want to make, or simply stop making them. After all, you’re the godfather of this entire genre, deserved or not. I find it hard to stomach that an octogenarian filmmaker that never seemed to give a shit what people thought before magically abandoned ship in a genre he helped create. It leads to the only summary I can arrive at- Covenant is an occasionally brilliant, wonderfully designed, tense, perfectly frustrating film that I wish was made differently. My hope is that a third prequel film can round out this whole story, somehow making sense of this middle entry, thus justifying my need to continue this unhealthy relationship with a bunch of slimy xenomorphs. I guess just can’t quit you, Ridley.