Director: Ridley Scott
Screenwriter: John Logan and Dante Harper
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, DemiÃ¡n Bichir
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 | 122 Minutes
Release Date: May 19, 2017
The truth is that while I liked Alien: Covenant, I didn’t love it. What’s tragic, aside for the future the prequel sets humanity up for, is that all it would have taken to make the film phenomenal was some small tweaks and changes.
Alien: Covenant lacks the same emotional heights sci-fi fans associate with Ridley Scott’s film of 1979 or James Cameron’s 1986 sequel, though it’s not without merit. Chief among the complaints is that the new film seems to sit on the franchise’s laurels rather than push it forward in the way Casino Royale did for James Bond or Logan did for X-Men. It’s been 38 years since the original Alien thriller, but this movie lacks some of the lauded learnings and innovations of modern science fiction cinema.
Consider the thread that weaves films like Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian, and Arrival together – the idea that whatever the off-world adventures the protagonists in those tales are undertaking, there is something – or someone – whether a child, a lover, or a parent – grounding them; tying the main characters to the real world and motivating their actions. This anchor doesn’t just serve the character. Rather, it gives the 21st century viewer of far-flung future adventures an emotionally relevant handle to hang onto, while being dragged on whatever wild, spacefaring ride the writers wish to take them on.
Covenant has no such anchor. Scott eschews the use of this successful storytelling tool of the last several years – and which he employed well in 2015’s The Martian. Instead, the Alien: Covenant viewer billows in the proverbial solarwinds, tied to nothing and no one. While certain characters, namely Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) and terraforming expert Daniels (Catherine Waterson), with their ties to religion and lost lovers respectively, seem to have deep and rich backstories, the editing and timing of the film does little to nothing when it comes to allowing those tales to flourish, let alone develop. The remainder of the characters are, for the most part, simulacrums of characters we’ve seen in space sci-fi before:
- The southerner who likes to drink and pushes the rules;
- the medic who frets that they can do little else than patch someone up;
- the xeno-biologist whose curiosity sparks the precipitating action;
- the stoic soldiers or mercenaries.
You get the point. We’ve all seen these characters before, and they offer little that is new and exciting to the genre. In the case of Alien as a franchise, with such a decades-long, well-established universe, one would expect Alien to focus more on exactly who these people are, and why they chose to pick up and start their life anew, terraforming a distant and possibly desolate world. Is Earth ravaged? Is it too crowded? Are these religious pilgrims escaping a world subject to a dominant paradigm anathema to their own, as in the days of European colonization of North America?
Rather, we learn little about these people aside from the fact that the first half hour of the film assures the viewer (over and over and over again) that every female present can be defined as being some male’s wife. The ties that bind them are as weakly defined as their personalities, and the motivations of the characters are simple and transparent. Without this depth of character, viewers don’t really care whether characters are taken out by the eponymous Aliens, known as Xenomorphs, and which diminishes the emotional power of the film.
[Weyland Yutani Lander among mountains.]
That criticism aside, Alien: Covenant‘s landscapes and sets leave nothing to be desired visually, but similar lack backstory. In addition to the stunningly rugged and lush terrain, the viewer is presented with gorgeous sets of an ancient and storied civilization, which erected beautiful, brutalist, colossal stone structures, and managed to create a city, hand hewn, like their statues, out of some shiny, dark, and unforgiving rock. These people were remarkable. While the story of their long years is mentioned visually, it’s a scratch on the surface which leaves the viewer more interested in how those people came to be than in the main characters of the ensemble cast.
[An ancient city hewn from unforgiving rock.]
Where unqualified praise is concerned, religious themes abound throughout the film, but director Scott does not deliver them in any sort of heavy handed way. He’s wonderfully insidious where faith and religion are concerned, avoiding the trap of creating a so-called “message movie” and instead forces viewers to wonder about the state of a society that places faith on the margins, or that allows new faiths to displace old ones. The interplay between David and Captain Oram is clever in its svelteness, and in its references to the Devil. David’s desire to create, as well as his relationship with humanity, is similarly a point of focus in which Ridley Scott is able to add richness to the film without leaving the audience feeling disinterested, confused, or thrown off. These interactions do not rise dramatic tension in any significant ways, though they don’t need to since drive powerful, meaningful, and necessary plot actions.
Returning to the visuals, it’s fair to say that new technologies unavailable to earlier films in this franchise allow us to experience heretofore unseen aspects of the alien/xenomorph scourge, including the way they interface with other beings or adapt to their surroundings, or react to synthetics like David and Walter. The use of these techniques are hit-or-miss, but academically speaking, they provide powerful and necessary visual storytelling.
While Alien: Covenant is technically stunning, with beautiful landscapes, robust special effects, and fantastic lighting that pays homage to some of sci-fi’s greatest works, it’s the aforementioned lack of focus on the Alien continuity or depth of character that makes the film difficult to fall for. Similarly, some editing choices keep the suspense of the film from reaching its full potential. The chief example is that, while the interplay between David and Walter (both played by Michael Fassbender) is utterly marvelous and the highlight of the work, a climactic scene between the two almost reveals too much. It would perhaps have been better to leave the audience in greater suspense throughout the film’s final act, and then, as the movie concludes, deliver the visuals in a twist shaped by a montage of that that scene’s footage***. This would have delivered utter horror to newcomers to the Alien universe, and would have given longtime viewers a concrete jumping-off point to discuss the connections between the suspense of Alien: Covenant and 1979’s Alien.
[The first Xenomorph?]
To sum up, Ridley Scott’s latest effort is a satisfactory film that could have been utterly brilliant with just a few tweaks. For those fans of the series who just need more of the late H.R. Giger’s Xenomorphs dealing out death and destruction, there’s plenty of that. For others, Alien: Covenant lived up to at least one key expectation – it very much managed to avoid the traps that made the previous installment, Prometheus, which made that film so unfulfilling. Still, the story, for all its visual glory, feels thin — on thrills and on suspense — and lacks depth on character development and on plot. Alien: Covenant is at best an auxiliary tale to the central story that captured the imagination of the world in 1979 and continued to do so 1986’s Aliens. Alien: Covenant is not a must-see or pivotal aspect of the franchise.
Imagine if you never saw David reach for the knife, but instead saw Walter about to bring down the rock to smash his head? Then, later on the ship, you noticed that Walter’s flesh wounds were not healing themselves in the same way they had when David assaulted him with the flute, giving Walter an otherwise mortal wound. NOW, imagine if, when Daniels was on her way to sleep, her horror was interspersed with David reaching for the knife, surprising Walter with it, and then standing victorious over Walter’s broken body. Imagine if you saw, as she was freaking out in her sleeping pod, David donning Walter’s clothes and quickly lopping off his own hand. Then we’d all basically lose our shit.