The Aliens franchise and I go way back. Alien (1979) was legitimately the first horror movie I put my feet into the chair in the theater in righteous fear. If you tell anyone I told you, I will deny it.
The Alien xenomorph (the standard black carapace, acid-for-blood design) has the rare distinction of being a terrifying mess even after all this time. Its unique and oblique appearance runs opposite any aspect of natural law our minds feel comfortable dealing with and remains the singular element of any redeeming value in these films.
H.R. Geiger’s work stands supremely over this body of work and I think he would be saddened by what has become of it. I have watched this beloved franchise over the decades (and it has been decades) — almost four of them and I have had mixed feelings about these recent additions.
Being fair, the only Alien movies I loved were Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986). Alien 3 (1992) was a hot mess. Aliens Resurrection (1997) tried so hard but the initial premise of cloning Ripley just sucks the life from the movie leaving you to think the best years were behind this series.
Prometheus (2012) and now Alien: Covenant (2017) were slated to be a revival and a return to the Alien Universe in three parts. Let me assure you, I am not the first to describe the story in Prometheus to be, at best, lackadaisical storytelling dependent upon “Plot-Induced Stupidity” to carry the day.
Set in the year 2104, this prequel to the Alien saga, opens ten years after the Prometheus was presumed lost. Not to worry, the same irresponsible behavior seen in the Prometheus crew has continued in the next generation of space explorers. Prometheus was filled with scenes of people investigating things, taking off their secured space helmets and messing with alien lifeforms without any sense of fear.
Here’s where I start having trouble. As a modern citizen of Earth, I would assume space, moving into space, living in space, on alien worlds, would be inherently dangerous. I would assume any interaction on another planet where I am unfamiliar with the lifeforms there would be potentially hazardous to my health. Watch Prometheus and tell me if you see anything resembling the caution any reasonable space-faring citizen should evince.
If I were to guess, I would assume humanity is moving into space due to some catastrophe on Earth and as such, literally anyone can now seek out a life on a colony world. It’s the only way I can see such a lack of overall intelligence in the decision-making members of this crew. Except crew of the ship should be presumably the smartest and best-qualified individuals on said colony ship.
The Covenant is bright, roomy and filled with happy colonists depending on an a pair of artificial intelligences to shepherd humanity to their new world. Mother (the ship’s AI) and Walter (the ship’s synthetic humanoid) are efficient, effective and expected to arrive at their destination, Origae-6, in about seven and a half years.
During a routine deployment of their energy collection technology (in the middle of nowhere, so don’t ask me what they are harvesting … perhaps it’s neutrinos) the ship is damaged and the crew is forced to be awakened. Okay, that throw-away line about neutrinos bothers me because the neutrino is the ultimate near-massless particle, so having them damage the ship set me off. Hire some science consultants, please! Anyway, the ship is damaged, the crew awakened and we are thrust into a comedy of what should have been avoidable errors.
The Good Stuff
The spaceship Covenant is a beautiful design. Reactor in the back, crew in the middle, brains of the ship and the command compartment in the front. I applaud the designers of the ship except for whatever that energy sail is supposedly collecting. Those scenes are to show how talented the crew is and in these moments, you can almost believe it. Every planet scene whether above it or below it were breathtakingly lovely. I have nothing but good words for the CGI and matte artists who did the work making the planet as amazing as possible. The alien CGI was also excellent, with the transitional forms causing me to wince appropriately at their horror.
The sound crew did an excellent job as well especially when layering the dialog, music and monster sound effects in the same scenes. Nothing overwhelmed the senses, voices maintained their clarity and special effects maintained their proper place.
The set direction was great. Scenes with Michael Fassbender’s David and his artistic hideaway were astoundingly crafted with wonderful artwork.
As to the actors: Unfortunately Fassbender and to a lesser extent Daniels are the only characters who deliver a performance worth noting. Seeing the return of the synthetic David (from Prometheus) and watching the change in the perspective of the later upgrade Walter was almost worth staying awake for.
Is this lackluster acting a failure in the script? Possibly, but between each group vying for who can do the stupidest things it was hard to care about any of these disposable crewmembers and strange as it sounds, I think the performances of the actors reflect the underlying tone of the script — a “why bother” feeling.
The Bad Stuff
The story didn’t deliver on any of the expectations fans had come to hope for either. Those questions include: Who created the xenomorphs and why? Who were these aliens that piloted the ship and why do they look like Humans (or why do Humans look like them…) What was the origin of the Jockey (the original alien host who brought them to the first planet Ripley encounters them on)? Why would anyone create such a terrifying creature? Was it part of a series of experiments designed to create life or is it a weapon designed to destroy it? What is the underlying purpose for this story – why should we care? Is there an alien homeworld? Will we ever get to see it?
Prometheus failed to answer any of those questions, though it promised to. Alien: Covenant continues the tradition of not explaining anything, though it gives you just enough chills to show up for the third movie. Honestly, I don’t think it will be worth the wait. I predict, more beautiful artwork, more new aliens, a return of a classic xenomorph queen and some further android chicanery.
This movie is sadly one of those I cannot wholeheartedly recommend, not because it is not a work of art, because clearly it was. Artistically, it is a stunning piece of work. Parts of this movie are lovingly crafted by artisans who deserve to work on stories worth telling. This movie isn’t one of them.
I can’t recommend it completely because as I have mentioned in the past, there are so many stupid events necessary for the story to progress, it feels as if the story just doesn’t take the viewing audience seriously. Is it as bad as Prometheus, which I would have rated a one-star movie out of five? No. It can squeak its way into three stars out of five stars purely on the artistic merits of the movie. Visually outstanding, artistically beautiful, with breathtaking cinematography, but emotionally dead on the inside with actors who barely seemed to care.
What kills this movie are the incredibly stupid mistakes required for the film to progress. If your movie depends on plot-induced stupidity to tell its story, then nothing you create from that story has any integrity. People will see the failing of your writing and hold it against you for the rest of your story.
Sigh. We all had such high hopes. Maybe next time …
Alien: Covenant debuted in the United States on May 18, 2017 and was directed by Ridley Scott. The story was written by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. The screenplay was crafted by John Logan and Dante Harper. The only cast members I cared about were Michael Fassbender as Walter, Katherine Waterson as Daniels, Billy Crudup as Oram, Danny McBride as Tennessee, Demián Bichir as Lope and Carmen Ejogo as Karine.