Spoiler Review - 'Alien: Covenant'
Alien: Covenant is a beautiful disappointment, much like a lot of Ridley Scott's films. Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Counselor, Robin Hood, Prometheus and Kingdom of Heaven are several examples. Before you jump on my bones, there have always been exceptions to his fumbles: Gladiator, Alien, The Martian, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, a lot of people even tell me the Director's Cut of Kingdom of Heaven is actually really well done (I haven't seen it to make a judgement), and the list of absolute classics goes on but the point I'm trying to make is that Scott was never a writer for any of these. None, zilch, zippo. He barely has any film writing credentials yet everyone expects any projects he's tied to are sure to turn to gold. Ridley Scott is one of the greatest directors alive but we need to understand that a Ridley Scott film is only as good as its writers and it's obvious now more than ever with Alien: Covenant.
Alien: Covenant opens on a prologue sequence of Peter Weyland activating the android, David. Weyland and David engage in conversation about his name, music, and ultimately about life. David questions why he should serve humans if he is immortal while they are nothing but flesh and bone, but Weyland proves David’s subservience by making him pour a cup of tea that’s only inches from Weyland.
Fast forward ten years after the events of Prometheus, colony ship Covenant with it’s two thousand colonist cargo is on a seven year journey to settle on the habitable planet of Origae-6. The Covenant runs across a space burst which damages the ship, waking the crew (of which are our heroes Daniels, Tennessee, and Oram), and killing the captain and forty-seven colonists still in hyper-sleep. While making repairs, Tennessee receives a transmission from an undiscovered habitable planet nearby, which the crew embark to investigate.
After they make landing in a dropship, the team uncover the Engineer ship from Prometheus and Elizabeth Shaw’s dogtags. While surveying the terrain, several crew members get infected by spores on the ground resulting in the gory birth of the Neomorphs, progenitors of the classic Xenomorph, that proceed to kill the captain’s wife and attack the pilot. The pilot of the dropship tries to kill the creature but fires upon the explosives in the hull, blowing the ship up and stranding the crew. Another neomorph births and takes out several other shipmates. Suddenly, a flare blinds everyone overhead which scares away the neomorph. The person who fired the flare is revealed to be the android David, having been marooned on this planet for years and living in the center of a dead Engineer city. He explains that he and Elizabeth Shaw crashed on the planet, which resulted in Shaw’s death and the accidental release of the black goo from Prometheus upon the city, killing the Engineers and mutating the environment. Suspicious of David’s actions, the Covenant’s android, Walter, speaks with David and they discuss what it means to create versus what it means to serve.
The surviving neomorph eventually finds their camp kills a crew member who needed some alone time. David tries to communicate with the creature, but it’s killed by Captain Oram, sending David into a rage. Oram demands answers from David so David shows Oram his experiments with the black pathogen over the years and his masterpiece: the Protomorph egg. David tells Oram the eggs are perfectly safe and as Oram rears his head closer, a facehugger busts out and implants a Protomorph in his chest.
Covenant breaks protocol and gets close enough to the planet to use a loading ship to save the survivors. The Protomorph emerges from Oram, closely resembling the classic Xenomorph, and attacks. Walter was right about David all along and the two engage in hand to hand combat where Walter appears to be the victor. Tennessee and Daniels manage to kill the Protomorph but once back on Covenant, they discover another alien is loose after another of the crew was infected and they go on the hunt. They manage to kill the creature by impaling it with a tractor and hurling it into space. Daniels and Tennessee are put into cryosleep but not before Daniels discovers Walter to really be David. Daniels screams in anguish as David puts her to sleep for their seven year journey to Origae-6. Now in full control of the Covenant, David is ready to experiment on the crew with two alien embryos he brought on board.
God, I wanted to love this movie. Hell, I even wanted to just like this movie. I saw the film in IMAX opening night, and once more the following night, and the opening sequence with David and Peter Weyland and the following scene in space are just mouthwatering to science fiction fans and Alien fans alike. The interiors of the Covenant are masterly crafted and every frame is so full of color, props, hard work and sweat that I was immersed within minutes. I felt at home. The Covenant sets look genuine from the interior but the exterior shots have some so-so computer generated solar sails; however, this is Ridley Scott at his best. He knows how to immerse an audience with visuals alone. The film is beautiful. I was afraid from the trailers and stills that it would have the same monotone filter as Batman v. Superman, but it’s actually got quite the colorful palette. The landscape shots are as breathtaking as always and the exterior shots of the Engineer ship, reminiscent to Alien, are still awe-inspiring though it’s played pretty close to the chest with nostalgia, which I think the film relies too heavily on.
While I do enjoy the musical score, it takes so many cues from Alien that it doesn’t feel nearly as original as the score of Prometheus. Though the percussions during the Neomorph hatching sequence are quite intense, never once did I feel like this score, and even the movie, had its own identity; it was relying too heavily on what came before it. The spectacle of Alien is here but it’s missing that character and drama the series is known for. I got so lost in nostalgia and spectacle until I paid more attention to the moment to moment dialogue and character actions, which are so nonsensical and dumb that it kept pulling me out.
Nearly every dire situation in the film is a result of the poor choices made by the Covenant’s crew. They quickly jump on exploring a new habitable rather than the one they’ve spent years studying and preparing for, they don’t wear containment suits on the planet (doesn’t matter that there’s breathable air, this is a newly discovered planet of which you have no data on including plant life or wildlife, wear hazmat suits), they touch the spores that infect them with Neomorphs, they slip on blood, they blow up their own ship, they split up constantly, they put their faces directly over an alien egg after the obviously evil robot tells you too, MUTHUR is shut down long enough not to detect an Alien on board, and two people are killed because their music is too loud for them to hear the alarms going off. There isn’t one moment that felt naturally disastrous, everything felt forced and contrived. The crew constantly, and I mean constantly, put the two thousand colonists on board the Covenant in danger at nearly every turn even though it’s their responsibility to protect them. Worse is the characters who argue not to endanger the colonists still end up putting them in danger. The same mistakes from Prometheus are here but these characters are just as incompetent, if not more.
Another negative is that Alien: Covenant opens as a disastrous situation unfolds with little to no backstory given to the characters. The film asks us to care about the captain’s death, played by James Franco by the way, when there's no reason to because the audience was never set up to empathize with his and Daniels’s relationship until shit hit the fan. Newcomer Katherine Waterstone as Daniels does her best with what she’s given as the central protagonist but at no point was I as engaged with her as I was with Sigourney Weaver or Noomi Rapace. Her character introduction begins in tragedy and she’s acting her butt off through most of her scenes but it just felt like she had no real progression and suddenly in the third act she turns into a badass with no lead up to it. Danny McBride’s here by the way. His character Tennessee is fine but there’s really nothing more to his character other than the space cowboy who likes calling women “Sweet tits.” Billy Cruddup’s Captain Oram could probably have been the best character as he’s the only man of faith on the ship but he’s underdeveloped and the extent of his faith is unexplored.
Michael Fassbender, as both returning character David and the Covenant’s new artificial person, Walter, is electric. He seamlessly transitions between characters with ease and anytime it was just one of them on screen, you always know which android you were looking at by composure, voice, and facial expressions. David’s character has changed drastically from Prometheus, now adopting a god complex. All of his actions in the film strongly capture his desire to rule and create, which is a step up from his unexplained intentions in Prometheus but we don’t see that development from wanting to help Elizabeth at the end of Prometheus to his megalomaniac rantings in Covenant. He even goes so far as to explain how Elizabeth was the only human who ever treated him with kindness but that ultimately didn’t matter because she somehow dies in the crash and David dissects her to further his research in experimenting with the black pathogen. It’s also unexplained whether she really did die in the crash, whether he killed her, or if she died from having the black goo infect her from Prometheus. Alien: Covenant doesn’t even answer any of the questions from Prometheus such as why the Engineers created humanity (if they did), why they tried to wipe us out (Jesus Christ was an Engineer and the Crucifixion was an act of war which you have to look for outside of the movie), and why they never tried wiping us out again. By having David wipe out the Engineers, it felt like the writers were flushing everything from Prometheus down the toilet but by doing this, they replaced questions with more questions.
Allusions to "Ozymandias," Frankenstein, and the Bible are all here but it’s all underdeveloped. Alien: Covenant is a dumb movie disguising itself as a smart movie, much like its predecessor but contains half of the intrigue. David represents Lucifer, banished by his creator for the desire to create and believes himself to be a superior being. There’s the idea that it’s better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven. David puts together the Protomorphs much like Frankenstein’s monster and uses Elizabeth Shaw’s body as the catalyst but they don’t touch on how she’s infertile yet gives birth to an entire species. Also, Daniels stabs David in the chin with a nail. We get it, it’s cool that you’re adding all of these analogies but could you please flesh them out?
It’s a bummer how Alien: Covenant dodges the themes and questions left by Prometheus and focuses primarily on setting up the exact origins of the Xenomorph, diminishing the mystery of the creature, and disregarding the statues and murals presented in Prometheus. The gestation period is all out of wack too. Aliens are popping out left and right like it’s AVP. This can easily be fixed in the sequel because these are Protomophs but this just diminishes the Xenomorph, which has to gestate for hours or days. Continuity be damned, I guess. After Damon Lindelof abandoned ship, Fox sought out new writers for Covenant and it really shows. Rather than focusing on making this film as a follow-up to Prometheus by answering questions and furthering the Engineer storyline, they fall back on using the Alien to less than enthusiastic results.
The titular creature is what we’re all here for but there’s little suspense or tension of its reveal, especially after finding out that the Protomorph and maybe eventual Xenomorph are a result of David’s experiments. Now, I wouldn’t mind this origin if it was expanded upon but it really isn’t. There are great ideas here like man’s hubris in playing God created the Devil who is now creating Legion to wipe out all life. Poetic, no? Sadly, with only thirty minutes left in the runtime, they rush out the Alien with little build up and a poor explanation. David had been experimenting with the black goo and eventually used Shaw’s reproductive organs to create the eggs but it isn’t explained how he does this and the stupidity of Oram's character makes this scene even more frustrating. David also says that the Alien is the perfect organism but how is it the perfect organism if the facehugger has to latch onto the face while the Neomorphs have the ability to impregnate their host from any orifice on the body. How is that not already perfect?
The effects aren’t the best for the Neomorphs or Protomorphs either. Every time you see them, they're in full frame and in the light instead of being covered by clever editing and shadows. CGI is used heavily for many scenes where it’s running and it’s hard to find the creature at all threatening when it looks like a big cat or a lumbering bipedal ape. You know those special effects that are so good you can’t tell what’s fake or what’s real because how real it looked? Alien: Covenant’s effects are the opposite to me. They probably used a practical suit for many scenes but I just didn’t thin it looked that good, but nowhere near as bad as Alien 3’s effects. To me it felt like the alien shouldn’t have been in the film at all as what was once a good start to a series pondering about our place in the universe has devolved into generic slasher horror.
The kills by the alien are also lacking. I had expected Ridley Scott to bring back some of those scares that had been missing from the series since Alien 3 (though that one was on the edge of being a slasher, wasn’t it?), but it was more in line with what I’d see if I were watching a Friday the 13th film. Every cliche in the book is here and they’re not updated in any way that makes them more interesting than what you would find in your typical slasher film.
“You were such as disappointment to me,” is a line that David says during the two-hour runtime of Alien: Covenant and it sums my experience watching Ridley Scott’s latest attempt to revitalize the Alien franchise. It breaks my heart that I don’t like a Ridley Scott Alien film, it really does. There are however things I do like about it. The score is good though it relies a little too much on the first Alien’s themes but I loved it when the theme from Prometheus kicked in. The first thirty to forty minutes were really engaging and had me excited to see the movie a second time but that excitement digressed as the film progressed. Alien: Covenant just feels rushed. Instead of focusing on the journey Prometheus promised, the writers forced the alien back to the forefront, making for a less than stellar return for one of the greatest creatures in Science Fiction.