By Jack Dignan
The Alien franchise has a long reigning history in cinema. It’s a franchise with a literal 50/50 split on good movies vs. bad movies, if we’re excluding the Alien Vs. Predator films. And I would definitely recommend excluding the Alien Vs. Predator films. Back in 2012, Ridley Scott, director of the original Alien, returned to the director’s seat for a not-prequel but kinda-prequel, Prometheus. It told the story of a group of scientists venturing out into the far reaches of space, only to be met with death (and weird tentacle things). The film divided audiences everywhere, culminating every possible reaction under the sun, but it’s part sequel/part Alien prequel follow-up, Alien: Covenant, was looking to set things right. For as much of a Prometheus fan as I am, Alien: Covenant looked impossibly good. That’s why it kills me to say that Alien: Covenant is very bad.
Several years after the failed Prometheus voyage, a large ship floats graciously through the depths of space. It’s a colonist ship, consisting of a mere 15 crewmembers and whopping 2,000 passengers. When just seven years out from their final destination, a far off planet ideal for starting a new civilization, the ship runs into an unforeseen complication. The crewmembers are temporarily awoken from hypersleep, forced to face this ship malfunction. Our central protagonist, technically speaking (more on this later), is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), following under the orders of Captain Oram (Billy Crudup). Whilst attempting to fix the ship’s issue, Tennessee (Danny McBride) unintentionally intercepts a transmission signaling out from an unknown, uninhabited nearby planet. Unsure of but intrigued about its seemingly human origins, the ship lands down on the planet to investigate. Here, terror awaits.
Discussing the plot from here on out proves to be a tricky task, simply because of the unexpected direction this film soon heads into. While advertised as such, an Alien remake this is not. For when the crew lands down on the mysterious, too perfect of a planet, infection strikes, causing previously unseen alien races to immerge, and it could mean death for each and every one of them. Also aboard this crew is Walter (Michael Fassbender), a new generation of artificial intelligence far superior to that of David in Prometheus, but almost identical in looks. The plot at hand verges on familiarity and sheer original madness. It starts as generic as can be, alluding to all the typical Alien scares that are sure to follow, but once the film’s first twist strikes, the plot evolves. It transcends into the Prometheus sequel it was always promised to be, but not at all in the way you’d expect.
This is, first and foremost, a continuation and companion piece to Ridley Scott’s ambitious 2012 sci-fi horror. Without delving into how, as it’s initial flip will probably surprise, the film takes a sudden turn. While the first Alien film is deliberately slow, it does so effectively, building up the tension and creating intrigue through its character set up. You not only care about the characters, but also desperately want them to survive. They’re real. Human. Alien: Covenant also takes a slow approach to its storytelling, but it doesn’t seem to grasp what made the buildup in Alien so effective. It wasn’t through instant peril, or spending 20 minutes exploring the surface of an unknown planet. It was what happened during that time. In Alien: Covenant, it’s nothing. We’ve seen characters explore new planets in every film, and while a little part of me was intrigued as to where it was going, it didn’t seem to allude at much. The plot was off to a halt before it even begun.
For as boring as it was to watch these new, uninteresting characters explore unseen terrain, it does go to show how well Ridley Scott remains at the craft of filmmaking. The Oscar nominated director is nearly 80, yet he’s still churning out new films faster than most of his Hollywood peers. His knack of filmmaking is far from wearing off, and Scott is a master of his craft. Everything from the sound design to the massive, illustrious sets is utterly compelling. His camera work is extraordinary, frequently capturing the horror unfolding through eerie long shots or suspense-building handheld movements. He knows what to use when, putting his decades of experience to use in an exceptionally well-made film. A spine-burster scene, the opposite of Alien’s famous chest-burster scene, is terrifying and extremely uncomfortable; a perfect mash of practical and digital effects to make for one hell of a moment.
It should be noted that this is absolutely Michael Fassbender’s film through and through. We open on an extreme close up of an eye, soon revealed to be that of Fassbender’s. This opening shot works as a metaphor for the film’s real protagonist, Walter (and in a way Prometheus’ David, who plays a vital role in the overarching story). Fassbender is extraordinary, for reasons all too good to spoil. The way his character is handled is not the way you’d think going in, even if it soon becomes obvious where it’s inevitably heading. It may have been set up to be Katherine Waterstone’s film, and she certainly nails every aspect of her character, but it’s Fassbender who pulls through and takes this film home. Plus, there’s a scene near the end of the second act that I won’t spoil, and it’s simultaneously the greatest and absolute worst thing about this movie. Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.
The problems with Alien: Covenant doesn’t lie within the craft. The craft, perhaps with the exception of the occasional visual effect, is near flawless. Each and every performance is dazzling, but with the exception of Fassbender, they’re all put to waste. The plot is painstakingly slow, full of idiotic plotlines and twists that are either dangled right in front of your eyes, or showcased in the trailers. Once this film makes that first shift from Alien to Prometheus, everything that follows can be seen a mile a way. But even with its predictability, especially the film’s bleak ending, a lot of the circumstances don’t make much sense. Prometheus raised a lot of questions, scientifically speaking and plot-wise. Alien: Covenant seemed to be the film set out at answering them, but it raises more while answering none. It left me more puzzled than I was coming out of Prometheus, and that’s a hard thing to achieve.
It’s so determined to try and find an explanation for its own lore that it winds up being unable to follow through with a coherent narrative. The visuals can be haunting, and just like with Prometheus, there’s a lot of cool ideas floating around, but they’re all unconnected strings blowing aimlessly through the wind. It’s frustrating how incompetent the film’s plot manages to be. The reasons why will be saved for another time, where spoilers will certainly be discussed, but so much of the film, in particular a certain character’s callous motives, is questionable. All logic is thrown out the window. Its overly complex storyline is artificial and lifeless, a 2 hour film where very little occurs, and what does left little resonance. A good hour in the middle of the movie slows to the point where nothing of any significance occurs; loosing the tension it worked so desperately to build.
This biggest disappointment this film faces, however, is that it’s just not scary. The previously mentioned spine-burster scene, and all consequential moments surrounding that scene, is brilliant. It’s what the film needed more of, yet failed to deliver. An initial facehugger scene, which occurs much later into the movie than I anticipated, does a good job at building the suspense, but merely because we know what’s coming. The facehuggers are terrifying, or at least there were back in 1979. When renewed for the modern day audience, they do feel somewhat underutilized. An explanation of their origin is unveiled, and its origin was one of the few surprises this movie has up its sleeve. Yet it’s stupid as fuck. In fact, all of the actual alien components of this new Alien film fall into that extremely unfortunate category, making this a disappointing way to reunite audiences everywhere with one of cinema’s most iconic creatures.
Like so much of this film’s plot, it’s difficult to discuss the xenomorph’s involvement in the film, more so than it is to discuss the neomorph’s. Both alien species, while sinister in appearance, are wasted. Alien: Covenant is first and foremost a human story, or at least one that continues to question the origins of mankind and the reason behind creation. Neomorphs come and go throughout, and while chilling at first, later appearances, especially their final appearance, are tiresome. In fact, that very final scene involving a neomorph has got to be one of the most idiotic moments in the entire film, lacking logic and upping the overall weirdness. No longer did they feel like any sort of a threat, even after some vicious, hyper gory attacks.
As for xenomorphs… well… I don’t wish to discuss them in great detail. Their appearance comes into play way too late, and when they’re used, I didn’t like where they ended up. The design is just as horrific as ever, but even when crawling along the roof or through the dark compartments in the ship, something felt off. They failed to scare. The aliens came and went with ease, never feeling as though they were too significant of a threat, despite previous installments proving otherwise. Every scene they’re in, and as few of them as there are, feels contained and under control. The characters were always able to outsmart them with ease. Alien: Covenant also introduces something new, and that comes in the form of alien vision. Yup, we see certain moments through the eyes of the aliens, and as much as I want to say it was cool, it took me out of the moment more than anything.
This is the first proper Alien film in 20 years, yet it feels more like a remnant of what came before than an actual continuation of the story. Disappointing is an understatement. This could’ve been good. It should’ve been good. But it’s not. A third film in this new trilogy of Alien movies is already in the works, supposedly titled Alien: Awakening. If this is to go ahead, and a part of me wants it to just to bring conclusion to the story, all it needs to do is be better than Alien: Covenant. I have so many questions and so few answers, and it’s up to Awakening to save this franchise.
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