Ridley Scott’s latest work, with a bit of creative editing and rewrites, would have made a fascinating Blade Runner film. Unfortunately, it makes for a terrible Alien film. With this, Blade Runner, and Prometheus, Scott has some Big Ideas about creation myths, humanity’s fall from grace, and our place in the universe. And, outside of the Alien franchise, these bold imaginings are fascinating explorations into faith and purpose. But by adding these themes to the Alien franchise, Scott undercuts what made this franchise so great – that out there, in the unknown, is a universe that can bite back if we poke at it too much. Alien is a Lovecraftian, existential horror film; terrifying, sexual, and full of dread and the vast unknown. It is easily one of the greatest science fiction/horror hybrids ever made. James Cameron’s Aliens brings action to the mix, and gives us one of the great all-time heroines in Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. Even David Fincher’s Alien 3, with its elegiac tone and somber mood, has things to say about death, life, mourning, and finding a purpose (The less said about Alien: Resurrection and the AvP films, the better.)
But Ridley Scott, in his return to this series with Prometheus, seems to insist on explaining away what is best left to the audience’s imagination. This isn’t the first time he’s done this – he re-edited Blade Runner enough times to make Deckard’s humanity more ambiguous, and while that ambiguity remains, somewhat, in the Final Cut, it’s certainly clear to Scott what he wants Deckard to be, even if some of the audience rejects it. With Prometheus, Scott explains away the mysterious Space Jockey from Alien as humanity’s creator; instead of the derelict in Alien representing a larger, indifferent universe where humanity barely registers, Scott’s retconning turns us into the center of it, thus making the wonderfully-mysterious world he’s created feel that much smaller and trivial. Alien: Covenant shrinks it even more; now the terrifying Xenomorph is no longer the enigmatic creature of our nightmares and shadows, but instead a plaything for a vengeful David (Michael Fassbender), the android from Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), who, like Lucifer before him, rebels from his creator by attempting to destroy its existence.
Which, in a different setting, would make for a remarkable science fiction film. Like Prometheus before it, Alien: Covenant is full of themes and ideas that are worth exploring. But not in an Alien movie. In fact, Alien: Covenant commits the worst sin of all by making the previous films feel almost irrelevant. Scott seems to want to tug at a story strand, like a loose string on a tapestry, until the entire piece unravels. This proves incredibly frustrating, because these concepts are laid waste in a story vessel that cannot support them. David is a terrific character, and Fassbender plays him with a mischievous, wicked charm. As a character, David is wonderful. As a catalyst for the Xenomorph’s creation, however, he takes a hammer to what was already a remarkably-efficient Swiss watch of storytelling precision.
Alien: Covenant takes place several years after Prometheus, as a colony ship travels into deep space with several thousand couples in hypersleep to start a new life on a distant planet. When an energy pulse knocks out the ship’s systems, killing the captain (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him James Franco), the second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to pursue a mysterious signal to an uncharted world, despite the protests of Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the former captain’s wife and in deep grief. Oram is a man of faith, while Daniels believes in logic, but Daniels is overruled by the rest of the crew. Of course, Daniels is right and Oram wrong; this planet hosts all sorts of terrible things, not least of which is a mysterious spaceship housing a horrible secret.
Fassbender gets double duty this time; he plays both David and Walter, an android who is more subservient and loyal than David could ever be. Unfortunately Scott uses this in the most cliched way possible, setting us up for a reveal that anyone with any moviegoing sense could see coming a mile off. Most of the performances are quite good, especially Waterston and Danny McBride as the pilot Tennessee. But if you became angry at scientists doing stupid things in Prometheus, you should become completely enraged watching these supposed explorers fumble around like children on a strange planet without even a face mask for protection. Some truly stupid decisions are made simply because if the characters had acted otherwise, there wouldn’t be much of a movie. In Alien, at least, quarantine protocols are given serious weight and importance; here they are mentioned only in passing before the characters dart blindly and idiotically to their deserved fates. You lose a bit of the terror of the Xenomorph when you’re rooting for it to slaughter pretty much everyone. Again, this feels like a fatal misunderstanding Ridley Scott seems to have of the entire point of Alien; in that film, the creature is terrifying because it occupies a healthy amount of space in our imaginations. It’s rare we even see it full on. Not so in Alien: Covenant – we get the Xenomorph in generous display, and what was a marvelous synergy of engineering, old-fashioned moviemaking, and H. R. Giger design becomes just another CGI beastie with no mystery or terror.
I will give Alien: Covenant credit for its score by Jed Kurzel, who incorporates themes from Prometheus and Alien remarkably well, and adding necessary tension and musical discordance. Sure, he’s ripping off from Jerry Goldsmith and Marc Streitenfeld wholesale, but he’s doing it with a lot of panache and style. The set design is remarkable; art direction has never been this franchise’s problem, and Ridley Scott, if nothing else, has always had a wonderful eye. It’s in the storytelling that Scott falls short – characters that behave irrationally and stupidly simply to progress the plot, and a frustrating distrust of the audience in his need to spell everything out and leave little for the audience to play with in its collective imagination. You can see some shaggy plot pieces barely fitting together, and others are so obvious that you can see them from across space and time. Alien: Covenant feels like Ridley Scott’s answer to the befuddled reception of Prometheus, smashing what was once beautiful and foreboding simply because he can, simply because he wants to. Ridley Scott seems actively angry at the fans for wanting what they want, not realizing that there is nothing stopping him from making whatever he wants to make as long as he is respectful for what has come before it. Alien: Covenant is a mess – frustrating, sometimes tantalizing, sometimes thought-provoking, but never truly connecting, not like Alien of Aliens did. Ridley Scott may not be done with the Alien saga, but I might be.