A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.
That feeling is acutely on display in the prologue of the film. We start with events that take place before the main action of Prometheus. Peter Weyland, the mysterious artificial intelligence engineer, is quizzing his latest invention, David (the android we met in Prometheus). The two have a conversation about creators, both David’s and mankind’s. It’s the kind of “where did we come from and what does it all mean” exchange that can feel fresh in other contexts, like Scott’s own Blade Runner, but here it just feels stale. The movie serves as a convoluted explanation for the existence of the Xenomorph species that has caused so much death and destruction throughout the Alien series, and not much else.
Comedian Patton Oswalt has a great bit in one of his standup routines about the Star Wars prequels, and why they were so bad. In the bit, he has an imaginary exchange with creator George Lucas, in which he envisions what it would have been like for Lucas to explain the content of the movies in anticipation of their release. “Do you like Darth Vader?”, the imaginary Lucas asks Oswalt. The comedian excitedly responds in the affirmative, describing some of the villain’s coolest attributes. “Well,” Lucas says, “in the prequel, you get to see him as a little kid.” In his trademark acerbic style, Oswalt angrily shouts back at Lucas that he doesn’t give a shit where the stuff he loves came from, he just wants to see the stuff he loves. Mr. Scott, I don’t care about your overly obsessed origin story for Xenomorphs, just give me facehuggers and acid for blood, man!
We do get a healthy dose of that here, but nothing that approaches the finest moments of claustrophobic terror on display in the original Alien, or its equally excellent sequel, Aliens (directed by James Cameron). The main action of this new film concerns a colony ship, the Covenant, that suffers a massive power failure in the middle of its journey. Walter, the lone android on board (David v2.0), helps revive the hibernating crew so they can decide on a course of action. While weighing the options, the ship intercepts a strange radio transmission from a nearby planet. The world seems perfect for sustaining human life and is only weeks away, instead of years, like their original destination. It’s a scenario that feels too familiar – we’ve been here before, and more than once.
The new spin Logan and Harper try to put on Covenant is stilted and unsatisfying. When most of the crew take an expedition craft to the planet’s surface, they eventually find David, the only survivor following the events of Prometheus. Actor Michael Fassbender plays both androids, and we can tell them apart by David’s British accent, and Walter’s American one. Fassbender does his best to give these humanoid robots gravitas, but the pretentiousness of the dialog – talk of creators and their creations for example – makes that hard. The scenes of genuine horror, with aliens attacking the helpless crew, are undercut by subpar special effects and an inclination to show too much. Less is always more in these films, so it’s much more effective to let the audience’s imagination fill in the gaps. As is all too often the case, the wholly computer generated monsters have a certain weightlessness to them. You can tell the actors are interacting with nothing at all. Scott tries to recreate a few of the iconic moments from his original, like the facehugger and chestburster, but he isn’t able to bring anything new to them. Basically, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen a million times. And the twist in the final minutes is about as unexpected as the effect of a fast-food meal on your waistline.
The most poignant question in relation to Alien: Covenant is why? Why do we need another Alien movie? The cynical answer is also the financial one. It’s a known quantity that will get butts in seats and make a little money. Aside from that, it offers more explanation on an origin story that isn’t particularly interesting, and scares that don’t come close to improving or expanding upon the earlier pictures in the series.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- There are some good scares and tense moments in Alien: Covenant, to be sure, but overall the disappointing CGI and frankly boring mythology obsession make it a failure.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Truth time. I didn't say it in this exact way in the main review because it's not a very mature criticism, but the real problem with Alien: Covenant with regard to its own mythology and the origin of the Xenomorphs is this movie has its head way up its own ass when it comes to that. There. I said it. And I feel better.
- Also in the realm of not particularly mature observations: Katherine Waterston's hairstyle in Alien: Covenant is kick-ass. There's a certain 80s throw-back quality to it that I highly enjoyed.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Two weeks of big Hollywood blockbusters has put me in the mood for a small, intimate comedy. No review next week, because I'm checking off another National Park: I'll be spending a week camping and exploring Mammoth Cave NP in Kentucky. When I return, I'll be looking at The Lovers, starring Debra Winger and playwright/screenwriter/actor Tracy Letts, who wrote, among other things, August: Osage County.