It’s 2017. We’re six films deep into the Alien franchise at this point, eight if you count the two Alien Vs. Predator team-ups. So, what do we want from an Alien movie at this point? Characters worth caring about? Giger-esque visuals? Slightly new variations on the xenomorphs? Overly obvious, bordering on amusingly pompous metaphors? A strong female lead? Awesome death scenes?
No, seriously, I genuinely want to know because I flat out hated Alien: Covenant, and while my opinion is not entirely unique it’s still in the minority, at least based upon review aggregators, blogs and other sources. In fact, on the drive home from the movie last night I listened to the latest episode of the Filmspotting podcast, and was stunned to hear Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen throwing as much praise Covenant’s way as they possibly could.
Their argument: Covenant deserves to be celebrated because after 2012’s overly ponderous prequel Prometheus (a flawed film I admire for its ambitions and handful of standout horror moments) Ridley Scott is finally done with his philosophy seminar and back to making a straightforward Alien movie again full of stupid space colonists (led by Billy Crudup’s incompetent Captain Oram) engaging in close-quarters horror and encountering face-huggers and xenomorphs. Plus, who can resist the appeal of Michael Fassbender delivering a dual-role performance as a new, slightly more compliant android named Walter and as his returning Prometheus android David?
Um, I can, especially when this dual-role performance comes in such a terrible movie.
Also, this isn’t actually a straightforward Alien movie. It is one-half Alien movie (a ship full of non-distinct crew members respond to a distress signal on a nearby planet and display criminally low levels of caution), one-half Prometheus sequel (the planet turns out to be the Space Jockey’s home world where now-batshit-insane David conducts his continued alien experiments, giving him plenty of opportunities to wax poetic on just how great he is and how shitty humans are). It comes off like an annoyed comprise between Fox’s commercial interests and Ridley Scott’s actual artistic impulses. Fox wanted xenomorph kills; Scott wanted to continue his philosophical diatribe about faith and the big questions in life. So, there’s an opening prologue featuring David and Guy Pearce’s Peter Weyland heavy-handedly discussing creation and man’s mortality, Captain Oram repeatedly talks about his faith for no good reason and David and Walter homoerotically play the flute together while debating ethics.
Then most of the humans suffer horrible deaths.
Scott gets to say he did something interesting with the material; Fox gets to say, “Here’s your xenomorph kills, ya bunch of knuckle-draggers.” Everyone wins?
Not really. The uneasy compromise results in an absolute mess of a movie which should leave neither Alien nor Prometheus fans satisfied. The Alien fans have to sit through a lot of ponderous bullshit, an astonishingly dull first half hour and a de-emphasization of the aliens in favor of giving more screen time to David. The Prometheus fans have to deal with Covenant’s often outright insulting reveals of what happened to Shaw (Noomi Rapace, whose only speaking lines have been cut out and consigned to an online-only prologue) and David in the 10-year period between the events of the two films.
Prometheus 2, ladies and gentlemen:
Yet plenty have walked away from Covenant perfectly happy. What am I not getting?
Perhaps it is this: Covenant is like a latter-era slasher movie where we already know all of the tricks and are simply there to see astonishingly incompetent characters suffer inventively gruesome deaths. With each deeply stupid decision, they make the more we cheer to see them torn apart. The moment we try to actually care about any of the characters other than the obvious final girl candidate, in this case Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and her constant worry face, is the moment we misunderstand what kind of movie we’re watching.
When viewed through that lens, Covenant’s many failings might be easier to ignore because, hey, there’s at least that one awesome scene where instead of bursting out of someone’s chest we see an alien claw its way out of some poor dude’s back. Plus, one girl whose name we never bother to remember gets full-on decapitated, which Scott emphasizes through repeated shots of her severed head floating in a pool nearby her body. And shower sex quickly turns to bloody shower death for one couple.
However, even by slasher movie standards, the characters in Covenant are too dumb to live. There is obviously a disconnect between what we know and what they know, which already puts them at a disadvantage in terms of ever coming off as competent. The script does them no favors, though, instead leaning into one cliché after another as if to inspire more raucous crowds to shout the Alien-movie equivalent of “Don’t go in there, you idiot!” The same, of course, was also true of Prometheus, but at least that film had some interesting ideas; Covenant has none.
Moreover, apart from Crudup, Waterston and Danny McBride as the ship’s pilot Tennessee (we are to assume it’s a nickname) not a single one of them has even the hint of a memorable personality. Even that might be paying too much of a complement to Crudup, who mostly mumbles about his faith and inferiority complex as the acting Captain (the real Captain, played by James Franco for no Earthly reason whatsoever, immediately dies in a sleeping pod fire). The character relationships we’re meant to care about (e.g., Crudup and McBride both have spouses in the crew) don’t last long enough to matter because Covenant fundamentally does not care about anyone who is not named Walter or David, to the point that there was meant to be a married gay couple in the movie but they cut the scene establishing this relationship because they probably needed more time to gaze longingly at Fassbender. So, there’s a scene of one man cradling the dead body of his husband, and we have absolutely no idea they were anything more than friends.
But there I go again forgetting what kind of movie this is. The characters are almost exclusively idiotic dead meat red shirts. Even though she’s obviously the most competent character in the movie, Daniels is no Ripley. She’s not even as interesting as Shaw. However, people sure do die real nice. Fassbender gets to add a dual-performance to his reel. We get to say, “Well, now I’ve seen a chest-burster, back-burster AND neck-burster.” That’s good enough, right?
Not for me. I would have been happier re-watching Prometheus or even Life.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Is it an Alien movie? Is it a Prometheus sequel? Silly, rabbit. It’s both, and both halves suck the life out of the other, leaving behind a narrative mess. But, hey, Ridley Scott and crew at least had the courtesy to offer up a handful of “haven’t seen that before” horror sequences.