Editor’s note: this is my regular review of ALIEN: COVENANT. If I get into the science, I’ll do it in a separate article.
Not only is ALIEN one of the greatest science fiction films ever made, it is one of the greatest films ever made, period. It is perfection in just about every department, including production design, cinematography, writing, acting, score, and direction. In an era where studios were making anything with a space theme to capitalize on STAR WARS, along came this wholly original work of ever ratcheting tension and horror.
With ALIENS, James Cameron brought an entirely different sensibility to the subject, and took it in a different, but no less iconic direction. But after that, even two of my favorite directors, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet took a swing and a miss. I’ll give PROMETHEUS credit for at least trying something original and adding intriguing elements to the backstory, but in the end it was a train wreck. You can’t make plausible scifi horror with Scooby Doo characters.
Sadly, ALIEN: COVENANT is yet another misfire. It is the best ALIEN movie in 30 years, but that isn’t saying much. This is much more like PROMETHEUS 2 than ALIEN anything. We have yet another ship with a crew in stasis with a synthetic watching over them. They go to a planet, marvel at the mysterious, yet missing Engineers, and make a series of ever-more-stupid decisions resulting in catastrophe. There are xenomorphs sprinkled into the action this time, but that’s about the extent of the difference.
The characters in ALIEN: COVENANT are slightly more nuanced than what we got in PROMETHEUS. We have the synthetic Walter, a more well meaning version of his predecessor, David, both played by Michal Fassbender. Then there is Billy Crudup’s Oram, the captain and a man of faith. Next in charge is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and then there’s Tennessee, played straight by Danny McBride. Demian Bichir is criminally underused as the token hispanic — I don’t even remember his character’s name. The rest of the cast barely speaks.
Best part of ALIEN: COVENANT is watching Michael Fassbender play opposite himself. His David is an agent of chaos, replete with the poetic soliloquies suiting a machine with a god complex. He just can’t understand the do-gooder naiveté of his younger brother Walter. We’ve seen this dynamic plenty of times — Loki vs. Thor, or even the android version in Lore vs. Data. It also serves the “are androids good or bad” trope (see also BLADE RUNNER, previous ALIENs, AGE OF ULTRON, etc.) Even though it is derivative, enough time is devoted to it, and the angle is unique enough that it still works here.
I can’t say the same about any of the other characters. Oram has a backstory about being faithful Christian full of self-doubt about his leadership abilities. Yet this is never really explored, even when the plot becomes practically pregnant with themes of birth, creation, and death. It is almost like they forgot to finish writing that character, though more likely it was a relic of a script written by a half-dozen credited writers. Daniels is the plucky female who knows the right thing to do, even if those around her don’t, in the tradition of Ripley and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. But other than that there is basically nothing to her character. I couldn’t find a reason to root for her. The only marginally interesting human is Danny McBride’s Tennessee, yet he doesn’t get enough screen time to really do much more than serve a specific role in the plot.
The worst part about it is that the characters here just do the dumbest possible things in nearly every situation to put themselves in more jeopardy. They go exploring an Alien planet without helmets. They don’t bother with a quarantine, when they know characters mysteriously fall ill within minutes of setting foot on an unknown planet, and they go wandering off alone for no other reason than to make themselves easy xenomorph targets. Somebody defended this to me as Ridley Scott fully embracing the tropes of horror. But this isn’t horror, this is borderline self-aware parody. That works in a comedy like SCREAM, but it undermines the serious and atmospheric tone they are going for here. And the thing is, the production design, the CG, and everything about the look of the film are gorgeous! It makes it that much more heartbreaking to lose the film in the writing and characters.
There are at least some spectacular scenes of horrible violence in ALIEN: COVENANT. Sadly, it isn’t enough to rescue the film. The interplay between David and Walter is fascinating, but it is only a small part of the plot. With no interesting human characters, this meant I was just rooting for the aliens the entire time. There is some entertainment value in that, but there is absolutely no tension.
All that would be well and good, just a ho-hum mixed bag of an outing in a once-glorious franchise. But it is the attempts to add to the mythology of the franchise that fail so spectacularly that it actually makes me angry. All that backstory built up about the Engineers in PROMETHEUS is just dispensed with here in a few sentences of exposition. The events shown in that flashback are more interesting than the entire rest of the film here. Meanwhile, the attempt to explain the origin of the xenomorphs is midichlorians-level bad. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it is so wrong-headed, and so implausible, and so violates everything that we already know about the life cycle of the xenomorphs that it retroactively makes the other movies worse.
Like George Lucas before him, Ridley Scott is making a series of overstuffed, misfocused prequel films that mainly serve to undermine his landmark science fiction work from the 70s. I wish he would hand over the reins to an up and coming auteur who was inspired by ALIEN in the first place. I suppose that could eventually happen, but only if these bad movies don’t kill off the franchise first. Thank god he isn’t directing BLADE RUNNER 2049.