Movie Review: ALIEN:COVENANT – serves the franchise better than Prometheus did, but suffers from the same maladies.

I’ll begin by getting it out of the way first: I hated Prometheus.  In terms of the franchise that was unleashed upon the world in 1979, it’s one of the weakest of the six core movies (I’m choosing to ignore the two crossover Alien v Predator movies) for a couple of reasons.  Though in saying that, I give it props for the same reason I do 1986’s Aliens, namely the attempt to try to do something different with the concept.  If you’re going to add another film to a franchise, you should at least do something unique.  Let’s face it, the actual concept of Alien is not sophisticated: human beings find a desolate planet in deep space, get infected with an alien parasite which becomes something they have to destroy … or they’ll be destroyed by it.  It suffers from the same self-limiting curse that comes with success: how do you make it just different enough without alienating the people that filled the studio coffers first time around?

While I like James Cameron’s Aliens as a good movie in and of itself, and acknowledge that it holds a higher place in geekdom for its many audience-pleasing moments and quotables, I felt it was more a case of Cameron simply building an action movie around the original.  In this movie, there’s not a lot about the story that would change much if you replaced the Giger-designed creature of the original with a horde of zombies, or vampires, or vampire zombies.  The movie is just about the military killing a horde of somethings, where any putz with a big enough gun can eradicate the creature with the pull of a trigger.  And sure, I understand that part of the reason the alien of the first movie appeared so hard to kill was because it was hunting space truckers that didn’t have the BFGs, but it still reduced the mystery, the ancient evil, that permeated Ridley Scott’s original.  But yeah, it tried to do something different, instead of simply presenting a lazy redux.

I’ll tell you that I am a huge fan of the first Alien.  I didn’t see it during its first run, but I did catch it in May 1984 when it played as a double bill with John Carpenter’s underrated movie The Fog.  I’d heard of it, of course – I think I had even already read Alan Dean Foster’s novelization – but seeing it on the big screen was a real experience for me.  From Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting theme, to the iconic chestbursting scene, the movie is a brilliant piece of cinematic horror and mystery.  After that point, the movie is a little less interesting, but still great entertainment.  And what remained with me after seeing it wasn’t so much the fate of the crew, or the gradual increase in body count that serves as a ticking countdown to the climax, it was the “space jockey” scene.  I can’t think of any scene in any movie I’ve watched that gave me such a great hunger to know what it was.  The buried alien spacecraft of The Thing, in 1982, gave me similar thoughts – I wanted to see McReady and co explore it to understand something about where the threat came from.

What little I knew about Prometheus excited me – the origin of it all, promised Ridley Scott, who was returning to the franchise that had made him an A-lister.  But as I said all those words ago, I hated it.  I wanted to know the history of that space jockey, but the last thing I was prepared for was that it was simply a space suit for a tall, musclebound albino humanoid.  It felt like a slap in the face, much like how the interior of the spaceship from The Thing was finally revealed in the 2011 prequel, and turned out to be … completely unremarkable.  I wasn’t convinced by the Prometheus story, in fact it angered me.  Some it was due to the ill-conceived backstory of the “engineers”, and how, like Aliens before it, the concept undermined the effective simplicity of the original, but some of it was the sheer stupidity exhibited by the characters.  An exobiologist that treats an alien life form like it was some kind of cutesy Earth animal; a moronic “scientist” who does nothing but talk like a jackass, then gets high inside his space helmet.  And then there was the matter of David, played by Michael Fassbender.  I was already a fan of his prior to Prometheus, and the promotional clips about David were vastly intriguing, but his role in the movie was annoying to me.  I didn’t get his motivation for doing what he did, or the crew’s apparent lack of concern about him being the obvious villain of the piece.  It all added up to a huge bucket of nope for me, as the kids say.  Hated it.

So when Alien:Covenant was announced, and when Ridley Scott seemed to acknowledge the lack of love for Prometheus by promising it would be a lot more in tune with the Alien francise, I was cautiously optimistic.  I went in expecting something that would be a whole lot less a sequel to Prometheus, than a return to what I loved about the first movie, but it’s largely a straight sequel.

You’re right in thinking I’m dumb for expecting Alien:Covenant to be anything but a sequel, and I fully admit that I went into the movie hoping it would make me forget Prometheus ever happened, so I’ll take the blame here.  My expectations were impossibly high.

In the movie, which takes place between Prometheus and 1979’s Alien, a large ship containing would-be colonists traveling to a deep space planet, to terraform it for habitational purposes, intercept a mysterious signal from a nearby planet.  As in Alien, they detour from their mission and seek out the signal.  They arrive in what appears to be Planet Pacific Northwest, a lush, moody, heavily forested planet that initially looks perfect for their requirements, but quickly proves deadly.  This is not the planet from Prometheus, instead, it’s the planet that David and Dr. Shaw eventually arrive at, after the climax of the previous installment.  Soon, crew members are infected by microscopic spores and cue the Alien franchise tropes.  A conveniently placed plot mechanic takes them to a large city full of the corpses of a humanoid race, whose fate is revealed in a flashback scene.  You can probably figure out what happens from this point on.  Up to this point, the movie isn’t too bad.  The worst thing you can say about it as that you’ve seen it all before.  The first 45 minutes or so is a meandering introduction to the crew and their mission, and it’s not terribly interesting or entertaining.  It’s all designed to set up the Ripley stand-in, Daniels, played by Katherine Waterson, of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, but the conflict generated between her and other crew members is tepid and lacks much dramatic value.  The others are anonymously written and portrayed, and Billy Crudup and Danny McBride appear in what amounts to little more than paycheque roles playing characters that have little depth.  Crudup’s erstwhile captain Oram has some depth as being a man of faith unready for the role, but it’s not exploited by the script, and he’s severely weakened by placing Daniels as the main protagonist from the get go.

When we eventually meet up again with David, this is actually where the movie lost me for good.  I blame John Logan for this completely.  I’ve seen enough of his work to be offended by a disturbing trend in it: the effete male as bad guy.  Coming from the mind of a gay writer, I wonder, is there something self-loathing about him that’s expressed in his work?  In this day and age, isn’t the trope of simpering gay men being the villain outdated?  I’m not exactly politically correct, but there’s no room in Logan’s crew for positive gay or bi characters, but he’s okay with David being the bad guy?  Now, I’ll be clear here – David was the bad guy in Prometheus, but he was presented as an aloofly asexual, clichédly upper-crust-refined Englishman, but Logan pushes him into a place- and a scene – that’s incredibly, embarrassingly awkward.  I’d have taken Crudup or Waterson as being identifiably gay or bi in a heartbeat, but Logan’s choice with David is mystifying, crude, and obvious.

One of the two good things that happens here is that David is finally given a motivation for what he does, and I liked it quite a bit, although I could totally have done without the egregious use of Shelley’s Ozymandias (it annoyed me as much as Interstellar’s similarly egregious use of Dylan Thomas’s Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.  The other thing is that it actually does what Ridley Scott said it was going to do, and bridges the gap between the prequels and Alien, at least in terms of the classic Giger design – and I’m not just referring to the xenomorph’s appearance, which you can see from the trailer: the movie serves as a kind of origin story, and I’ll leave it at that.

And while I won’t commend Logan for how he ends the movie, it is, like the prequels themselves have been, a different kind of ending, and I guess I liked that too, even though its primary goal is to lead into another movie.  Too bad that the setup for the ending is so obvious – not contrived, but you’ll realize that Logan barely even disguises the intent of one scene in particular, and you’re already predicting the weak reveal minutes before it happens.

The best thing I can say about Alien: Covenant is that it’s not as bad as Prometheus, and at least stops the franchise’s bleeding.

2.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope 2017

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