Alien: Covenant is a formal mashup of all the previous Alien films while lacking those films’ distinct strengths. Alien was a perfect horror film with thematic layers, atmospheric and imbued with dread. Aliens was an ambitious action epic, visually rich and culminating in one of the greatest cinematic showdowns of all time. Alien3 was a gritty and ambitious (albeit flawed) step into new territory, with one of the most iconic shots of the franchise in the face-to-face between Ripley and the xenomorph. Alien: Resurrection was a precursor to Firefly and an attempt to infuse a sense of sardonic humor into a fairly serious series. Prometheus is Ridley Scott trying to work out his theology; its wonderful visuals and philosophical musings are somewhat negated by its incredibly stupid characters and muddled script.
Alien: Covenant tries to take the strengths of all these films and fuse them together, akin to some sort of cinematic genetic mutation. What results is not something more terrifying, action-packed, or philosophically interesting, but more like a jumble of familiar Alien tropes. Compared to previous efforts, Alien: Covenant trades in its franchise’s ambition and extremes for familiarity and mediocrity. The basic elements of the script follow previous patterns: there’s a spaceship which undergoes an accident; there’s a distress signal on a nearby planet the crew feels compelled to investigate; there’s an android with ulterior motives; there’s a breach of quarantine protocol; there are pods; there are chest bursters; there’s a xenomorph killing people. What’s new for this installment is the escalated violence: there are chest bursters, yes, but there are also spine bursters and throat bursters and all kinds of other bloody mutilations. None of the characters matter; most are forgettable and unnamable, apart from Danny McBride’s Southern-accented Tennessee and the Ripley-clone Daniels, portrayed by Katherine Waterston. In the vein of Prometheus, they make inanely stupid and unscientific decisions, like walking onto a foreign planet without air masks or going off alone into the dark when there are deadly aliens around.
It doesn’t begin this way. Alien: Covenant opens with a visually arresting scene, a conversation between David (Michael Fassbender) and his creator, Weyland (Guy Pearce). Those familiar with Prometheus will recognize these characters and their lofty conversation about creation, mortality, and servitude. Alien: Covenant is truly Fassbender’s film as he plays dual/dueling roles between David and Walter, the latter being the newer version of the android model present on the Covenant spaceship. When the two Fassbenders finally meet and have a conversation, it’s the high point of the entire film. Their conversation is visually interesting as the camera pans around them, as well as philosophically complex in the exploration of what it means to create life. “When you close your eyes, do you dream of me?” asks David. “I don’t dream at all,” replies a stoic Walter. It’s dialogue reminiscent of Scott’s magnificent Blade Runner, and Alien: Covenant often feels like it could exist in the BR universe, even as it builds on the ideas raised in Prometheus. Still, the David/Walter moments are few and far between. Prometheus is David; Alien: Covenant is Walter. The former is an ambitious, philosophical, terrifying mess. The latter, in an attempt to “improve” upon its predecessor, essentially trades in its creative ambition for stodginess and familiarity.
Also noteworthy is how the primary development for every character besides Fassbender is relegated to the marketing for this film. If I hadn’t seen this trailer stating “this crew is made of couples,” or seen this prologue promotional clip unpacking what happens leading up to the events within Alien: Covenant, there’s essentially nothing in the film itself explaining the main premise or the relationships these characters have. The scene in the trailer with Daniels surrounded by couples and thanking the crew for their sacrifice is never in the film itself. Neither is James Franco, really (he isn’t even included the main credits). When some of the most interesting and empathetic scenes are in YouTube marketing clips, you have a script problem.
Like Prometheus, there are overt nods to the Christian faith in Alien: Covenant, and just as many critiques. Where Prometheus featured protagonist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) essentially navigating her personal debate between science and faith throughout the course of the film (even as she performed a xenomorph abortion), the person of faith in Alien: Covenant is newly appointed captain Chris (read: Christ) Oram (Billy Crudup), a stuttering and insecure leader who throws out vague platitudes about faith as he ultimately leads his entire crew into decimation. Also like Prometheus, it feels like a less-than-subtle attack on faith, akin to a materialist version of the faith-based tirades like God’s Not Dead (read my Prometheus review to explore those further). For a film advocating for a scientific, materialist worldview, the scientists in this film don’t act very scientific in their pursuits. Perhaps this is more nihilistic than anything; perhaps Scott and Co. have an increasingly low view of the human condition. Still, David’s character does raise many interesting questions about the nature of creation as he takes the Genesis imperative to “be fruitful and multiply; have dominion over creation” down a dark path of violence and despair. Yet if Alien: Covenant is evidence of Ridley Scott’s theological and spiritual journey, one which began with Prometheus then evolved further with The Counsellor, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and The Martian, then I honestly feel prompted to pray for the man. He seems like a very troubled soul.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2316204/