REVIEW: Alien: Covenant [2017]

Score: 5/10 | ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 122 minutes | Release Date: May 19th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Director(s): Ridley Scott
Writer(s): John Logan and Dante Harper / Jack Paglen and Michael Green /
Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett (characters)

“One wrong note eventually ruins the entire symphony”

I was in the minority with Prometheus in 2012, declaring its brilliantly nuanced story diving beneath its genre conventions as the best entry in the Alien franchise since the original. It was spirituality-tinged science fiction whereas Ridley Scott‘s 1979 classic was character-based horror with palpable emotion-laden terror. Both were disparate worlds that fit together if not reliant upon each other. Scott found this new success in large part to screenwriter Damon Lindelof and the decision to scale back Alien references so that Prometheus could become a standalone catalyst for fresh stories far removed from Ripley’s inevitable journey decades later. There was connective tissue in the DNA, but not plot. When Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) escaped the carnage, we were to follow her on a parallel thread elsewhere.

Was a major studio truly allowing itself to reinvent a property within its own already-established canon to expand its world rather than provide concrete answers that risk subverting the original’s achievements? It was a gamble and to me they hit pay dirt financially ($400 million on a $140 million budget) and creatively. Fans of the old films wouldn’t have the opportunity to be disappointed because the endgame wasn’t to give meaning to those unanswerable questions that made Alien so intensely effective. The creature terrorizing Shaw, David (Michael Fassbender), and their crew wasn’t a full-fledged xenomorph so that species’ mysteries remained intact. We were experiencing something else, something steeped in scientific creationism and hubristic God-complexes. This slimy, unclassifiable thing wasn’t enemy as much as byproduct. Man became the monster.

And then things changed. Maybe Prometheus wasn’t as successful as assumed because talk about a sequel following this different path away from Ripley ceased. In 2014 Scott declared the “beast is done,” there would be no more xenomorphs because they were not the purpose of Shaw’s quest. Two years later, however, the film was completed and marketing materials started surfacing. Lo and behold the “Alien” moniker was brought back and the imagery of xenomorph grimaces and facehugger eggs were too. Everything Prometheus began was suddenly reverted back to the exact thing it sought to avoid. I can only guess the studio interfered. They demanded a return to what “worked”—a return to what fans wanted. Alien: Covenant would be the prequel many felt Prometheus failed to deliver.

As such it lives or dies on this level. Sadly, I’d argue it simply dies on all levels because the “horror” aspect of xenomorphs can never be as good as it was forty years ago. Not only does Covenant therefore render everything Prometheus did for naught, it also fails to create the same atmospheric suspense it hopes to mimic. Screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper are made to do way too much because they’re now tasked with fitting a round peg in a square hole. How can the Prometheus mission bridge to Covenant and then (as reported) at least one more film before directly leading into LV-426? How can the focus of “enemy” shift away from mankind’s greed and ego and back onto a word-less embodiment of nightmarish evil?

The answer is: very conventionally. It’s providing an origin-less creature an origin that only demystifies its unbridled malicious intent. It’s creating characters that are in no way shape or form capable of handling the worst-case scenarios a colonization mission possesses. And don’t forget the convenience of two identical synthetic beings with subtle but intentional differences able to “read” each other. There’s also the lazy and unnecessary reality that the crew is made up of multiple couples (despite there being two thousand other humans in cryo-sleep to rebuild civilization). Honestly, what are the odds five couples even have the ten-person expertise needed to man their spacecraft? The sole reason for spouses is to make it hurt when someone dies. Rather than build chemistry, the writers force it upon us.

Alien: Covenant therefore offers nothing of value besides a retrofitted expository history of creatures that work better without one. It does wrap up the trajectories of Prometheus‘ survivors, but in a way that renders them pawns in a bigger game more reliant on their ending point than their journey. What a disservice, especially since a majority of the why and how of what happens to Shaw and David arrives in an online-only prequel that some audience members probably won’t have seen beforehand. The same goes with introducing the Covenant crew and the potential of discord between them. It’s another web-streaming prequel that shows how Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is Captain Branson’s (James Franco) choice to speak in his absence—his wife rather than second in command Oram (Billy Crudup).

Do you need to watch these extras? No. But I will say that they give you a major leg up as far as comprehending the convergence of both stories. The former ruins the reveal that David and Shaw may still be out there, but what it portrays is critical to understanding frames of mind and ambitions. It may also be a spoiler as far as who the Covenant crew should fear beyond the proto-xenomorphs they encounter via airborne spores gestating within the bodies of unsuspecting victims. I would argue that no one should be surprised by the eventual reveal anyway, though. If this film can be commended for anything it’s a stellar cast with top-notch performances. Gleaning intent is never more difficult than looking at actors’ faces.

This is how we know the crew will do anything for those they love. Even some who believe he or she is pragmatic and objective enough to never let personal feelings get in the way prove that belief to be a lie. How could it not? This is why manning a mission with spouses is the worst thing you could ever do. It clouds your judgment, protocol, and actions. If you’re faced with the choice to save your husband or wife instead of the two thousand people you’ve never met who are sleeping and would feel anything if they died anyway, you will pick your loved one every time. And that’s exactly what these characters do to the detriment of their own survival. It’s what makes us human.

So there we have the filmmakers’ intent: showing our humanity as both our greatest strength and most destructive weakness. When Oram won’t let the others mourn someone’s death, they do so anyway and make him believe he doesn’t have their respect. When Tennessee (Danny McBride) is willing to push the limitations of their vessel beyond safety parameters so he can find out what happened to his wife Faris (Amy Seimetz) on the planet below, he talks married couple Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and Ricks (Jussie Smollett) into agreeing to jeopardize everything with him because they’d do the same for the other if roles were reversed. These risks allow them the opportunity to solve many problems. But more problems arise that need to be solved because they take them.

This is the catch-22 we’re supposed to be awe-struck by and yet it arrives so ham-fistedly that any hope for resonance disappears. It doesn’t help that we also know they’re all expendable from the get-go. As soon as we see what has happened to the planet they find against all odds (it’s not the one they’re supposed to travel towards), we know they’re simply cattle for slaughter. This renders their idiocy not the actions of blinded-by-love humans, but fictional characters the writers have manufactured for specific plot-serving purposes. It makes it so that we don’t care about any of them besides Daniels and Oram—their staunch opposition with one another as far as how to progress providing complexity even if it too drives the story more than them.

That’s what happens when you aren’t allowed to spend time with anyone. We knew who the characters in Alien and Prometheus were. We spent time with them away from tragedy to understand what lit their fire and which we could trust. We can’t do that with the Covenant crew because they are additions to an already existing story. They are propelled towards the already moving at full speed continuation of Shaw and David’s journey and therefore must serve the two of them above themselves. So we don’t care when one dies. Or two. Or three. They’re on the fringes of a mounting debate for what constitutes sentient life, a debate between David and the Covenant’s own synthetic Walter (Fassbender as well). This is where the film excels.

But of course it would be. That’s the philosophical evolution of what Lindelof presented on Prometheus. That’s what I came to see. Unfortunately it too now serves a different master. Rather than absorb moral questions posited to make parallels between human/robot and Engineer/human dynamics, it becomes backstory to xenomorph genesis—a far less intriguing prospect. So Covenant languishes in a purgatorial stasis that neither improves upon its predecessor nor equals its canonical successors. Instead of providing intellectual discourse it winks at us while pretending that connecting dots is just as worthy of artistic merit as creating something new. If Prometheus didn’t exist I’d probably have been on-board in a Rogue One way. Because it does and I know what’s possible, however, Covenant is little more than hollow excess.

[1] Katherine Waterston (Daniels) and Michael Fassbender (Walter) star in ALIEN: COVENANT. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[2] (L-R) Amy Seimetz (Faris), Benjamin Rigby (Private Ledward) and Carmen Ejogo (Karine) in ALIEN: COVENANT. Photo Credit: Mark Rogers TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[3] Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.
[4] (L-R) Danny McBride (Tennessee) and Katherine Waterston (Daniels) star in ALIEN: COVENANT. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox TM & © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

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