The last movie I got to before this was Star Wars: Rogue One (which you can read my thoughts about HERE), but when my friend offered to treat me to a late night viewing of Alien: Covenant simply to hear my thoughts on it, I agreed (not before clearing it with my wife first, of course). What follows here is a SPOILER-FREE review of the latest installment in the Alien franchise.
Expectations & Nostalgia
I've written ad nauseum about how current pop culture is powered by nostalgia (just read some of these previous blog articles), but lo and behold, here is another article that will fit that argument as well. Alien has and always will be one of the most influential films of my life. I was born shortly after the second film released, and so I was at the right age to get into the full Alien toy craze of the 90's despite being too young to have even seen any of the films. But these creatures - truly horrifying molds of plastic - inspired monstrous stories of death and dismemberment in my child's brain.
Fast-forward to 2012, and I am now a much older die-hard fan of the Alien franchise, despite it being a franchise that has been actively ruined my entire life. Alien was a masterpiece. Aliens was a strong sequel that changed the game only just enough to keep it interesting. Alien 3 came out while I was in my toy craze, and I loved the movie for simply being in the same universe as its predecessors, though I would later come to harbor luke-warm feelings for it. Then I skipped Alien: Resurrection, Alien vs. Predator, and Alien vs. Predator: Requiem until many years later, so jaded had I become towards the franchise as a whole. Other creators, even very talented ones, had tried and failed to recapture the imagination and the horror of the original title. In fact, I credit part of my current 'cautious skepticism' regarding many remakes, reboots, and sequels to the Alien franchise.
When I had heard that Ridley Scott was returning to the franchise with the bold and ambitious prequel/pseudo-prequel that was Prometheus, that cautious skepticism was kindled back into the passion I thought I had lost. Here was the original visionary, a filmmaker I already had placed atop my lofty list of Hollywood masters, and he was returning to the thing from which my love of him stemmed. He would finally show everyone else how a true Alien film should look and feel.
Suffice it to say that Prometheus was a convoluted mess of half-ideas that were all trying to come together and be bigger than they really were. Disappointed and crestfallen from that film's disjointed narrative, I stayed on top of any and all news of the sequel, hoping that the second one could absolve the sins of the first.
Somewhere between all of the name-changes (Prometheus 2 to Alien: Paradise Lost to Alien: Covenant) I could feel my hope dwindling. By the time the first trailer released, I got the impression it was a very different film from Prometheus. Instead of cryptic and pretentious, it looked like a base-line slasher flick. The horror pendulum seemed to swing too far in the other direction.
And then I saw it.
Look At How Smart We (think we) Are
From the word 'go', Alien: Covenant gave me a very bad vibe. It opens in a white room, immaculate and opulent. Here we see Guy Pearce reprising his role as Peter Weylund, alongside Michael Fassbender as the synthetic David, though here he is newly functional. The scene serves to set up events in act 2 of the film, but the dialogue is so on-the-nose that it is less compelling or engaging and more insulting, as if the writer feared the audience wouldn't follow the foreshadowing unless it was spelled out for us on Fassbender's perfectly chiseled face.
After that we get to the colony ship and its crew en route to a new planet, expanding humanity out into the universe. The film picks up a bit as it falls into a more familiar stride; large, industrial spacecraft and blue-collar crew, but the crew themselves are lacking the same charm and wit which they are trying to emulate. The dialogue, again, feels stilted and unreal, even if the performances range from adequate to strong. And it doesn't take too long from here before they hit the story beats of the original film: intercept a distress signal, investigate it at an unknown planet (this time incredibly Earth-like), and through their investigation unleash the creatures of the film, the reason any of us are watching this thing.
I was ready to see some new types of aliens. Much like Ridley Scott himself, I felt the original alien designs (which he refers to as 'dragons') were overused and have ultimately run their course. After hearing from several others that there were new kinds of aliens in this film, my mind began to imagine all sorts of ways the Engineers could craft biological weapons meant solely for killing. However, the 'new' aliens weren't different enough to really resonate with me. Add to that the fact that the humans in the Prometheus series continue to make the absolute dumbest decisions possible in any given situation, and I was checking out of the movie around the start of act 2.
As a quick aside, I understand that the tropes of the horror genre almost require people make stupid decisions. However, as a film that is already trying to radiate intelligence, and already trying to walk in the footsteps of its 1979 predecessor, the cast had no place being as dumb as they were.
Picking Up The Pieces
Prometheus didn't make the prospect of a sequel very easy. With Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and the severed head of David flying off into the stars with an abandoned Engineer ship full of lethal bioweapons, the next film threatened to be so far removed from any relatable story that it was easier to visualize it as a book than a major motion picture. However, considering what they were left with, the makers of Alien: Covenant did a pretty good job creating an entertaining piece that made more sense than its predecessor and left room for an intriguing sequel.
The visual effects are amazing, as we'd expect, and the chance to see an alien fight out in the wilderness was very exciting, even if it was brief. There's a nice, narrative-appropriate showcase for the artwork of H.R. Giger (if it wasn't his original concept art, then it was at the very least done in his style). Michael Fassbender brings this movie from bland to interesting, and is able to inject some variance to the otherwise one-note cast. And did I mention it handled the jumbled puzzle that was Prometheus well? That in and of itself is an achievement, even if there was still room for improvement in this film. Covenant even goes so far as to bridge the gap between black-space-goo and the xenomorph we all know and love, and does so in a way that makes sense.
Looking at Alien: Covenant solely on its own, it's a decent sci-fi horror movie that's worth a watch. When considering it against the greater Alien franchise, however, it ranks solidly in the middle, which is unfortunate as it also means that the film did very little to stand out on its own. In an effort to correct the misstep of Prometheus they landed too close the blandness. In my opinion, it suffers from it's early promises of grandiosity and high-concept science fiction, and then ultimately failing to deliver anything short of a by-the-numbers horror film. Covenant won't be remembered for it's gripping suspense or for it's shitty dialogue. It will likely be seen as a necessary bridge for any Alien completionists, and as a skippable title for anyone else.