Alien: Covenant is an Alien/Prometheus Hybrid
The summer of 2012 was a monumental moment in anticipation for me. Two of the biggest movies ever, The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, were being released. But neither happened to be my most anticipated of that year.
That’s because a little film called Prometheus was arriving in June. Not only was it Ridley Scott’s return to sci-fi, but it was a prequel to his original masterpiece, Alien. The cast was stacked (Theron, Fassbender, Elba, Pearce, Rapace), Damon Lindelof (Lost) was penning the script and the TRAILERS!!! Oh my, those TRAILERS!!!
I was so certain Prometheus was going to live up to the hype that I pre-ordered the blu-ray on Amazon before even seeing the movie. I’ve never done that before.
Sadly, the film ended up being a letdown. The best way of describing Prometheus is akin to dating a really really dumb supermodel. She’s absolutely stunning to look at, you’re going to have some good times, but ultimately she has too many faults for the relationship to last.
Prometheus suffered from having too many big ideas and theories. I remember the tagline for the film being, “Questions will be answered.” But did we really have a lot of questions from the original Alien? Yes, we wanted to know about the space jockey, but that was it. It’s an exquisitely shot and suspenseful film, but it’s basically a glossy B-movie monster flick. The plot is refreshingly simple.
Prometheus struggled to balance the horror aspects of the story with its more philosophical ideas. Lindelof was the main culprit for these inconsistencies. The film is a classic example of a story collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. It also doesn’t help that all of the characters are seemingly really smart scientists making extremely idiotic decisions.
So while my anticipation for the follow-up, Alien: Covenant, was certainly tempered, I was coming around to the notion that Scott had listened to the feedback and decided to make more of a crowd-pleasing Alien film.
However, the results are mixed. Scott certainly listened to the fans, but in doing so, he’s made a film that is equal parts Prometheus and equal parts Alien and they don’t quite fit.
Taking place 10 years after the events of Prometheus, the crew of the Covenant is in route to a new planet in hopes of colonizing it. But during their hypersleep, a blast of solar radiation damages the ship, awakens the crew and kills the Covenant’s captain.
This unexpected occurrence puts the crew in range of a mysterious signal from an uncharted nearby planet. Rather than go back in their pods and sleep for another 7 years to the planet they intended to inhabit, the new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to divert the mission to this unknown world because, reasons.
The formula for all three of Scott’s Alien films are the same. Crew finds signal to a mysterious place, they go there and nearly everyone dies.
This includes Prometheus even though the film attempted to be thought-provoking and esoteric. But the fans didn’t like all of this contemplation about where we come from so Scott decided to play the hits by including xenomorphs and face-huggers.
In doing so, Scott has a hard time balancing the “What does it all mean” aspects of Alien: Covenant with the genre elements.
After the crew is met with the harsh realities of this uncharted planet, David (Michael Fassbender), the “synthetic” (or robot for the layman), from the Prometheus rescues them. David is still fascinated by life in all its forms and I won’t go much into him except to say that his intentions aren’t exactly noble.
As I mentioned earlier regarding Prometheus, one of the aspects of that film that didn’t work were the thinly-drawn and utterly stupid characters. You didn’t know any of them so by the time they were being picked off one-by-one, there were no stakes or emotional connections.
Alien: Covenant does a little bit better job of establishing some of the crew members (They at least know each other before the mission, unlike in Prometheus), but in large, they’re just as indistinguishable and disposable as the Prometheus crew. Crudup’s character for instance says he’s a man of faith. But Scott fails to explore this trait any further. So it just ends up being nothing more than an outline of a character someone wrote at some point.
Danny McBride is also in this movie. Thankfully, he isn’t merely there for comic relief. But calling him Tennessee and having him wear a cowboy hat doesn’t really do much other than remind us of characters from Alien.
Our main heroin, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), has the Ripley look and she’s given the best set piece in the film. But even she has little backstory other than she was married to the captain.
Like Prometheus, the most interesting character in the film is David, who isn’t even human. Scott seems to relish in the scenes involving him while the human characters and their inevitable demise feel like filler. You can tell he wanted to make another Prometheus story and the studio said, “no, we want more aliens.”
When we do eventually get our alien in the third act, the action kicks in. Scott not only calls back to his original film, but there’s a nice nod to Aliens as well as Psycho.
The alien itself is mostly CG (I miss Stan Winston) and other than a terrific sequence where the xenomorph is attempting to board a ship as it takes off, the creature is mostly shot in the dark or in quick cuts. Gone is Scott’s terrific Jaws-like technique in the original where the alien was hidden which built suspense of the unknown.
The climax to Alien: Covenant and the scenes where Daniels tracks the creature through the ship’s corridors strangely feels like Scott’s version of every Alien movie that has come before. There’s nothing new here. Scott also plays with a conceit that we know will eventually come, but in doing so, it somewhat sabotages the suspense. The ending is a downer and if you really think about it, it doesn’t even make sense.
Scott has said in interviews that he intends to have another Alien film released in 18 months. I greatly admire his work ethic, especially at his age. But he should focus more on character, specifically human, and less on the evolution of life and all of its imperfections. Your franchise is imperfect at the moment, perhaps you should focus on that first.