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ALIEN: COVENANT

June 13, 2017

Alien: Covenant Review

In my time as a fan of the ALIEN films and all things xenomorphic, a dichotomy among fans has become apparent (mostly friendly… mostly). In any group of said fans, there will be a fairly even divide between those who prefer Alien and those who prefer Aliens (with considerably less love for Alien³, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus). While I have bounced back and forth between camps, these days I generally find myself stumping for the original over its almost equally tremendous sequel. Even the later installments in the franchise tend to be categorized by which of the two they adhere to the closest. With Alien: Covenant, director Sir Ridley Scott has carefully tiptoed that line in ways that are both deft and frustrating.

Scott’s own Alien (1979) was a science-fiction suspenser of the highest order and one of a handful of films to adopt the slasher-film structure before the full-on deluge of the 1980s. Aliens (1986) on the other hand, was James Cameron’s run-and-gun actioner. It remains a roller coaster ride with a great story. Covenant, meanwhile plays somewhat like a mixtape of the franchise. It holds to the slasher formula (for better and worse), it delivers action-packed shootouts, a coterie of alien beasts, and even furthers the philosophical bent of Prometheus. The result is interesting, but overstuffed and not as singular in its vision as either of the first two films. As a sequel to Prometheus (2012), Covenant reaches higher highs and also stumbles to lower lows, creating an entertaining if uneven experience likely to divide fans in much the same way.

Scott’s latest introduces viewers to a new crew on board the colonization ship, Covenant. An emergency derails their several-years-in-progress journey to Origae-6, and the crew are forced to make a difficult decision: go back into cryosleep and hope nothing else happens before reaching their destination, or check out another planet that is much closer and possibly just as habitable. Naturally, they opt for the devil’s candy. It is from here that Covenant picks up the story threads left dangling in Prometheus. The crew makes contact with David (Fassbender) and suffers a number of brutal encounters with various alien lifeforms which seem able to spring forth from practically anywhere.

Alien: Covenant crew

The plot is mostly that of a by-the-numbers horror sequel featuring characters meeting their makers one after the other. One way it is decidedly not like a horror sequel, and much more of a legitimately inquisitive science-fiction film is in the way it uses its two android characters, David and Walter, both played with gusto by Michael Fassbender. David, the main carryover from Prometheus, is afforded something of an origin story prologue, adding a little welcome shading to his character. Walter, his upgraded and less whimsical doppelganger, does not have the same existentialist streak, and the odd-couple scenes they share are the film’s most indelible.

The main thing Covenant has going for it, in a word, is… David. If the trailers had you wondering if his role would be diminished, don’t worry. Despite an entirely new crew, featuring the identical Walter, this is David’s movie all the way. If Alien: Covenant earns your praise, it will almost certainly be thanks to that devious, vainglorious android with the deep affinity for T.E. Lawrence. Similar to how the original run of Alien movies was Ripley’s story, this new prequel saga is primed to boast David as its defining feature. In David and Walter, Fassbender manages to successfully create two distinct characters. In the scenes they share, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was employing dueling impressions of Ash from Alien and Bishop from Aliens. He is really something.

The Fassbenders aside, Covenant has far too many human characters, as there are only a few who manage to stand out. Katherine Waterston as “Daniels,” Amy Seimetz as “Faris,” Billy Crudup as “Oram,” and Danny McBride as “Tennessee,” all manage to rise above the film’s hit-and-miss characterizations and leave lasting impressions. In Crudup’s case, he actually makes a poorly written character feel fairly substantial. Oram is the de facto leader of the mission after the catastrophe claims their captain. I understand that Oram is playing a stereotype of a small-minded religious person but I found the characterization lacking as I’ve never met someone strong in faith who is as blubberingly worthless as Oram. I don’t fault Crudup. This is just one example of how the characters feel like they are plugged in as plot devices rather than allowed to organically inhabit the story.

Covenant’s struggle with character is part-in-parcel with its struggles as a horror movie. In between bouts of science-fiction grandiosity, bad genre tropes abound. Consistent with the major gripes regarding Prometheus, there are many instances of characters behaving in unconscionably dumb ways that lead directly to their deaths. While Covenant is slightly less offensive in that way than its predecessor, it doubles down on bad movie logic anyway by having far too many characters who are only there to provide xenomorph fodder. Alien, in contrast, had no fat and every character was memorable. This allowed every death or disappearance to register. If Ridley Scott aspired for Alien to be “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in space” (which he did), then it is most curious that he settled for something more along the lines of Halloween 5 (or any other super-generic horror sequel) for Covenant. 

Another tactical deviation from Alien is that Covenant shows the xeno- and neomorphs entirely too often, and in broad daylight. This weakens the suspense. Sure, we’ve all seen these movies and know what the aliens look like, but if you want to make a scary sci-fi monster movie, then why diverge from effective monster movies tactics in favor of less effective ones? In an interview with Yahoo Movies that has been making the rounds the past few weeks, Scott said:

What changed was the reaction to ‘Prometheus’, which was a pretty good ground zero reaction. It went straight up there, and we discovered from it that [the fans] were really frustrated. They wanted to see more of the original [monster] and I thought he was definitely cooked, with an orange in his mouth. So I thought: ‘Wow, OK, I’m wrong’

This supposed realization is difficult to swallow from a director with Scott’s clout. It may begin to explain the sudden influx of tired horror tropes. If Scott felt pressure to show more horrific xenomorph carnage, it’s easy to hypothesize that the filmmakers felt the need to shoe-horn them in. If “more is more” was really the key takeaway from Prometheus, then one can see how that leads to additions like the shower scene in Covenant. At times, Covenant feels like a not-so-successful attempt to infuse an action movie with gory scares like Aliens did.

Unfortunately for Covenant, there is an inherent problem with creating a scary science-fiction film in the same vein as Alien that also leans into the “more is more” approach perfected by Aliens.  The problem is that those two approaches are almost diametrically opposed. Alien worked, in part, because audiences had no idea when or where the alien would strike and they feared for every character. Aliens also invested in its characters, but introduced a massive hive of aliens to up the ante. Generally speaking, the more screentime for the beasts, the less potential there is for fear to linger in the imagination. Whether the fans, the studio, the producers, or Scott are to blame, Covenant’s identity crisis seems to be the result of too much input from sources too far removed from the creative process.

Covenant is a remedial horror movie, but an above average science-fiction movie. This averages out to an experience that is more-or-less even with Prometheus. If you were hoping for Scott to return to his Alien roots, or to do his version of Aliens, then you are in for a mixed-bag result. If you’d be happy enough with a gory sci-fi flick that’s playful enough to feature one android teaching another android to play the recorder, then there’s still plenty of enjoyment to be have with Alien: Covenant. Count me among the latter.

Including “Prometheus” and “Alien: Covenant,” which is your favorite “Alien” movie?

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