In Ridley Scott’s 2012 foray into the ALIEN universe, the prequel Prometheus, the mission was to find the origin of humankind. But with his latest work, ALIEN: COVENANT, Scott reveals that his true obsession is to make it as clear as possible that we should know the true origins of the alien xenomorph species that have been making short shrift of humans since 1979’s ALIEN. But Scott (and current screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper) are not content to simply know what planet these creatures are from or how they first came into contact with humans or any other race. No, he wants us to know that the universe’s “perfect organism” might not have started out that way, and the resulting film is a tedious, frustrating—sometimes infuriating—journey into myth-making that is the cinematic equivalent of reading the recipe for your favorite cake without actually getting to taste the final product.
And much like the ingredients of a cake, some of them as quite tasty in their raw form, while other elements are dry or bitter or without any real flavor at all. As you would expect from a Ridley Scott ALIEN movie, it’s quite often an impressive thing to admire visually. In a story set 10 years after PROMETHEUS, a colonization ship from earth, loaded with thousands of sleeping human as well as a large sampling of frozen human embryos, along with a small crew, are traveling space in toward a planet that the Weyland Corp. believes can sustain life. The crew is woken up by unexpectedly is a small disaster that kills a few of them (including James Franco, in a strange, uncredited cameo) but results in them hearing a transmission from a much closer planet than the one they are traveling to, one that also looks like it may be able to sustain life.
Among the crew are the returning Michael Fassbender, playing an upgraded version of the android he played in PROMETHEUS—this one named Walter. Since Franco’s character was the ship’s captain, the new leader is the less certain Oram (Billy Crudup), a man of faith who decides they must discover the origin of this clearly human signal. Also on the ship are Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the natural leader who seems more authoritative but it relegated to underling for the time being; Danny McBride as the pilot Tennessee; Carmen Ejogo, Demián Bichir, and Amy Seimetz, all of whom are welcome faces in a mix clearly meant to mirror the casual working relationship and humorous banter of the original film.
ALIEN: COVENANT throws a lot of backstory and information at us, with so many references to Prometheus and earlier ALIEN films that it feels like treading over familiar territory in attempt to give us more details that in no way add to the terror, suspense, or what should be the inherent anxiety of just about any situation put forth in this movie. We do find out what happened to the ship that Noomi Rapace’s character from Prometheus takes off in with her android buddy David at the end of that film. And while David’s continuing research into the biology and practices of the xenomorphs is intellectually interesting, I suppose, it doesn’t add to my appreciation of them as killing machines.
This is the deeper issue with ALIEN: COVENANT. While all of this book learnin’ certainly changes our perception of the alien creatures, knowing more about them doesn’t make them any more terrifying; quite the opposite, in fact. It was because we knew so little about both the way they behaved and the form they took that ALIEN worked so well. We were discovering things and making wild guesses about the aliens along with the crew, all the while crew members were being picked off. It was a new level of sci-fi based horror, and now Scott is performing an autopsy on his original masterpiece to find out who makes these creatures tick. Who gives a rat’s ass? He can coach this search for answers in as many stunning sets and production designed alien landscapes as he’d like, but finding out that the unfurling egg/face-hugger/chest-busting process that we’ve grown to know and love might not be how these creatures originally functioned adds nothing to this mythology.
With a collection of solid actors like this, of course we get some great performances. But in support of what? Fassbender, in particular, is given so much room to play and create, both as Walter and the rediscovered David, both of whom are meant to shares qualities but be quite different personalities. Waterston is also quite good as a first-generation, Ripley-like character, who proves herself to be both smart and brave. Like most of these films, no lives are sacred, so don’t get too attached to anyone. That being said, it seems a little more obvious than it should be who will make it to the end.
ALIEN: COVENANT makes interesting use of familiar imagery, especially when it comes to the discovery of a crashed ship, and of course all of the iconography associated with the aliens, which are still among the greatest-designed movie monsters in all of filmdom. But it all feels like so much rehash and nostalgia mining in the film’s attempts to bridge the plot between PROMETHEUS and ALIEN. Again, I have to wonder: Why? I’m not one of the knee-jerk naysayers that asks the winey question: “Who asked for this sequel?” If the resulting film is good and adds too, rather than repeats, the ongoing story, then I guess the answer is “I did.” But this bridge doesn’t really take us anywhere or add insight into any aspect of this scenario. If anything, it strips away so much mystery that it’s like turning on the light in a haunted house. Where is the fun in that?
It’s not impossible to find value in ALIEN: COVENANT—Fassbender’s work being at the top of the list of things to admire. But all of the fine production and acting is done in the service of a story that is ultimately empty, even though it wants us to believe it brimming over with fascinating and revelatory ideas. In the end, it’s about a robot gone bad and an alien doing what comes naturally. Why does that sound so familiar?