After almost 40 years of Alien movies, it’s safe to say that we are all familiar with what the Alien creature looks like. A tall black slimy almost skeletal creature, with an elongated dome shaped
penis head, with a gleaming set of smiling teeth and a protruding penis tongue with it’s own set of teeth to punch holes through human skulls. We know all about the alien’s lifecycle, an act of oral rape from a spidery facehugger that impregnates a human host with a parasitic creature that eventually bursts out of the creature’s chest, only to scarper off before returning to hunt down each human one by one before it is blasted out of an airlock into the void of space by a plucky heroine.
We all know how an Alien movie plays out, because we’ve seen it before. Sir Ridley Scott’s original 1979 Alien movie became a reviled masterpiece across the genres of horror and science fiction. It was based on an old rather simple horror movie template but was invigorated with new life thanks to HR Giger’s creature design. The nightmarish biomechanical fusion caked in dark psycho-sexual imagery that was the alien creature had never been seen before in cinema. Here was a monster movie where the monster was an evocative piece of art in itself. Here was a monster that didn’t just eat us, but used as incubators.
Throughout Alien, Ridley Scott intentionally kept the creature mysterious, always changing, it’s various different forms only glimpsed at. The original titles morphed onto screen over the backdrop of space, morphing slowly into a word you understood yet by it’s very definition meant uncertainty and the unknown.
A L I E N
It took subsequent movies before the inevitable feeling of stagnation took place where people grew familiar to the alien design, and the movies didn’t really change anything beyond the original concept. Inevitably as most horror icons become, the alien became less scary.
Scott already mined one of the potentially interesting threads of Alien with 2013’s Prometheus. A film that explored the space jockey and derelict space ship the crew of the Nostromo discovered. It introduced a grander scope to the Alien universe, populated by big Star Trek ideas of human life being seeded on earth by a race of god like engineers, a plot which just so happened to involve the genesis of everyone’s favourite acid for blood big nasty.
Prometheus went on to divide people. It was a heavily flawed movie, sure, with glaring plot holes and questionable character logic and behaviour. Despite this, there seemed to be many intriguing ideas bubbling below the surface which fuelled rampant fan speculation in the years since it’s release and raised anticipation for the next movie. As something of a Prometheus apologist (we are legion) as well as an Alien fanboy, I appreciated the attempts the film made to make something new with the franchise, a direction seeped in deeply mythical themes of gods and men, the violent cycle of destruction and construction, and the great mystery behind existence itself. Why are we here? Why are we forever locked into this endless cycle of destruction and creation? Big mighty themes that man kind and science fiction has been musing over since the dawn of time.
Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s latest return to the universe he initiated over 30 years ago, is setup as a sequel to Prometheus but it is also something of a retconning. The hand of Fox, much like the hand of Weyland Yutani throughout the aliens films, is ever present to the point that Covenant feels like a severe case of franchise correction. In an era, where studios are frantically sifting through their old IPs and figuring out whether or not they can be rebooted into a sustainable money spinning franchise, Covenant feels like a big move to rectify the problems of Prometheus yet at the same time falling into the same traps whilst becoming a generic Alien movie.
In short, we’ve seen this movie before. Crucially, Alien: Covenant doesn’t feel ‘alien’ and therefore it’s just not capable of shocking or challenging audiences the way previous movies have. The worst part of it, is that it doesn’t even want to try to do something different.
The movie opens with a prologue sequence in which we are re-introduced to the android David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus. As a synthetic life form he talks with his ‘creator’ Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) about the nature of existence, the enigma of creation, if man created David, who created man? Fast forward some years into the future, 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the colonist space craft Covenant arrives on a remote but habitable earth-like planet. As the crew explore this planet, this largely deserted paradise, they meet up with David who let’s just say has been busy in the decade since Prometheus ended.
How improbable is it that the spaceship covenant actually meets up with an actual covenant? As probable as a spaceship named Prometheus that becomes enveloped in stealing genetic wildfire soup from an ancient power. Some one at Weyland Yutani clearly knows the score here and has a sick sense of humour.
Alien: Covenant includes many call backs to the original Alien. Out of the prologue the title morphs into view across the backdrop of space, just like in the original 1979 movie. It’s there for no other reason to be a reference. They even reprise elements from Jerry Goldsmith’s classic 1979 score, as visions of large space craft lumber silently towards uncharted unsuspecting worlds to that lonely echoey two note melody. As with Jurassic World and The Force Awakens, Covenant does seem to be on that kind of nostalgia trip. However it just feels a little bizarre because this is still Sir Ridley Scott in the directing chair, he’s effectively paying homage to himself.
The majority of the cast is largely forgettable. The characters comprising the crew of the Covenant are divided up into couples who are essentially going to populate a new world together. Prometheus was heavily criticised for it’s characters making nonsensical illogical decisions in advancement of plot, Covenant continues this tradition with aplomb but because of the relationships between characters they are at liberty to make more ill-fated decisions since they are making them out of passion and distressing emotional circumstances. I mean I guess it’s as good enough a reason to explain bad screenwriting. Unfortunately and most crucially most of the characters do not feel particularly padded out. We never really get a sense of the actual relationships between each of the couples, the ramifications and abject horror of their partners suddenly and violently being killed off by creatures they do not understand.
All horror movies of this ilk have to find some way to humanise their characters, expendable as they are. Alien and Aliens did so majestically, you think back to even the smaller roles in Alien, Parker and Brett as the blue collar workers grumbling about pay, the subtlety of Ian Holme’s performance as he effortlessly yawns his way through proceedings silently manipulating things behind the scenes. So much was said with so little. You think back to Aliens and how James Cameron was so good at developing each of the colonial marines so you at least felt the fear every time one of them succumbed to the aliens. In Covenant there is never enough time to truly get attached to these characters or understand where they are coming from. They are dispatched like a checklist:
- back burster man
- blood slip knife woman
- scared silly shotgun woman
- mouth burster man
- girl who gets her head bitten off
- sexy dead shower folks.
Katherine Waterson as Daniels is literally the only one of these characters who does have a degree of humanity, the only character we really get to know and feel for. She does slide into the Ripley character of the movie, the one who wants to follow protocol and maintain the safety of the crew – the one who is destined to bear arms and hatch the plan to destroy the creature once and for all. Just in resemblance, she is Ripley, because that’s what the film makers think we want to see again. Alien movies are always going to have a problem with ushering in strong heroines when the shadow of Ripley is so large but Waterson does at least rise to the challenge, pulling her weight in the film’s many action sequences.
Ironically, one of the other returning heroines from Prometheus is rather irritatingly written out of the movie completely. Hardcore Aliens fans are still sore about the fact that Alien 3 saw fit to kill off Hicks and Newt so unceremoniously – after everything they went through in Aliens. It’s the same with Covenant, perhaps worse in how it drops much of the promise and meat of that movie, of which that particular character represented.
Elsewhere you have Danny McBride as the pilot. McBride has been part of the Seth Rogan/James Franco stoner fratpack and there are elements of his typecast lewdness on display which does inject a bit of life and humour into proceedings, he’s actually pretty good in what is a semi-serious role. Billy Crudup is also present as the ships’ captain who is foisted into a role of responsibility making a series of ever worsening decisions which inevitably doom the lives of himself and his crew. He does what he can but his dialogue must have been difficult for any human being to say.
Ultimately and thankfully, Covenant is Michael Fassbender’s movie. Who plays two different models of the same android. Not only does he reprise his role of David from Prometheus but he also plays Walter who is embedded within the Covenant crew. It’s an interesting hero/villain dynamic that he clearly has fun playing around with. It’s almost as if Ash from Alien met Bishop from Aliens.
As with Prometheus, David continues to be a massive space dick maintaining that weird aspect of intended/unintended dark comedy that Prometheus had. David is given more time to talk and provide his own perspective about his own existence which was one of the more interesting themes of Prometheus. The scenes between David and Walter are among the film’s best, depicting too artificial people with opposing views on their human comrades. A scene involving a flute is particularly memorable in how it speaks to all that Bladerunner-esque replicant speak. David is the real star of the show and redeems much of the movie. There is much glee to be obtained as we see him gallivanting around this dead planet of his own making, still thinking he’s Peter O’ Toole despite having actually morphed into a fitting tribute to the late HR Giger.
The movie should just really be called D A V I D. The titles morphing slowly into view across a closeup of Fassbender’s smug unblinking face.
And what of the Alien creatures themselves?
Covenant does initially include new cosmetic twists on the creatures we are so aware of now. There are albino ‘neomorphs’ who burst their ways out of their human hosts in new and ‘interesting’ ways (What if they burst out of a person’s back?) They certainly look creepy but ultimately they are dealt with swiftly so the story can introduce the conventional black alien variety we are even more familiar with – however apparently these are still predecessors to the classic variety being called ‘protomorphs’. Neomorphs, Protomorphs, prequel versions of the xenomorph, a word coined by James Cameron when he wrote Aliens and needed a military word to describe ‘unknown alien creature’ – xenomorph is a word that doesn’t mean anything at all.
Each monster encounter starts and ends adding to the Covenant’s segmented and formulaic pacing. These creatures are supposed to be the perfect killing machine, but it’s surprising to see how the humans deal with them so quickly. These guys aren’t even packing pulse rifles, but they still make tidy work bug hunting.
One scene has the creature being observed as it navigates through the confines of the spaceship. We see it as clear as day, walking through corridors, climbing down ladders, before it tongue punches the cameras surveying it – because it somehow knows it’s being watched. In the previous Alien and Aliens we only had fleeting glances of the creature but now it’s just there for all to see. Nothing left to the imagination. More so, when the movie enters it’s second half there is hardly any room to breathe, the alien’s life cycle progresses at a breakneck speed – there is no time for the characters to process what the hell is going on, for that horror to descend upon them as it does upon us.
The big flaw that Covenant has, is concerned with telling the story of the genesis of the alien creature, to offer some kind of explanation which unravels much of the mystery that made Alien great in the first place.
It becomes clear during the second half that Covenant has a specific destination, but the journey towards that feels hurried, stitched together and forced. The aliens themselves feel as if they’ve been dropped into this movie to bring in the action setpieces and when it comes to action in an Alien movie, nothing can possibly hold a candle to Aliens.
You’ve seen this movie before, but done much better. More than likely you’ll see it again, because despite this being a retread, Covenant is a product of today’s practice of perpetual franchise sustainability and so also is contractually obliged to set up the next movie. The promise of which is potentially more interesting than what you are watching right now, which is actually kind of depressing. I remember feeling the same way towards the end of Prometheus.
Alien: Regression. Alien Covenant is a passable if largely unremarkable alien movie. Visually, being a Ridley Scott film, it’s astounding to look at, but the story is a patchwork quilt of things we have seen before. In no way does Covenant touch the greatness of the first two movies and it drops the bigger questions and overall mystery that made Prometheus more of an interesting and different beast. Though Alien: Covenant is perfectly entertaining in it’s own way, I was left with a nagging feeling of disappointment and over familiarity.
All of this has happened before and will happen again.