Let’s get this out of the way, first and foremost, Alien: Covenant is a poor sequel to Prometheus and an even poorer prequel to Alien. Perhaps superfans of the series will revel in the cursory depth implied by putting Weyland Industries employees on a death mission, but average fans of well-executed scares or the xenomorph itself are going to find the crucial aspects that make an Alien movie feel like an Alien movie, deeply lacking. Prometheus was an unpopular yet successful sequel in my opinion because it firmly grounded the importance of why Weyland Industries even began their terrible exploration and subsequent attempts to militarize the xenomorph throughout the series. It expanded upon the idea of humanity itself being a created race in a way that was unique, but you could see the DNA of the film eventually leading to Alien, despite really being a movie more about humanity and its origins. Enter Alien: Covenant, a movie that I’m not sure even it knows what it’s trying to say.
The overarching similarities and thematic threads all become jumbled between the different kinds of film that Covenant wants to be, but can’t commit to entirely. There are moments of body horror sure, but nothing worse than the brief clips you’ve already seen in lots of trailers by now, which unfortunately are the best parts of the movie. In Prometheus, my biggest criticism was the apparent lack of foresight (and intellect) on its characters’ behalf, and unfortunately, this problem has only been exacerbated by the muddled screenwriting that jumps from character scene to plot scene to action scene, seemingly at random. At a certain time in the film, this reached critical mass, since I found myself wondering openly about how a particular beastie got onto a rescue ship and this led to me deducing a plot twist that really wasn’t all that much of a twist. It’s jarring especially because the first act of the film is quite an excellent sci-fi thriller about the dangers of space travel. This is when the movie worked best, as it’s a criminally unexplored genre of film, and personally, I’ve always found space exploration and travel, when realistically depicted, to be among the most intense and claustrophobic cinematic stories you can tell. Nothing is made to support human life in space the way Earth does, and the stark illustration of that concept is one of the core strengths of the Alien series. The other obvious strength is the creature design of the xenomorph, which itself is such a curious and fascinatingly foreign creature that it’s survived this long on its mystique and visual appeal alone. Let’s face it, these monsters really are only there to murder and look scary, and a lot of their appeal disappears the moment you conclusively explain their origin, down to the last detail. Is it necessary to understand why the xenomorph looks or it behaves the way it does? The answers lie in this film but are as simple and as disappointing as you can lazily imagine.
That’s not to say the film is entirely without merit, as the performances from Michael Fassbender in his dual role is easily the highlight of the film. He does an excellent job showing how subtle affectations can create a sense of singular identity within a conformity, and one could almost imagine a whole film made of Fassbenders, all acting circles around each other ala some kind of bizarre Weyland-Yutani themed version of Orphan Black. The character of Daniels, (played competently by Katherine Waterston), is also a resourceful and quick thinking protagonist who holds her own and even saves others, but cannot hold a candle next to Weaver’s Ripley, who makes everyone in this film seem like a bunch of bumbling fools. In the original Alien, we ARE watching a bunch of bumbling fools, truckers basically. They’re just making a delivery when they bump into a distress call on a derelict planet, yet even they went through more safety protocol than the protagonists of Covenant. In Prometheus, this was explained away by the enthusiastic passion of exploration overriding rationality, and in Covenant, this isn’t explained. They just land on a mysterious planet and don’t think to protect themselves from any foreign pathogens or diseases at all. It’s frustrating to watch when the parts of a good movie all exist within a framework, but just aren’t meshing together at all to work properly. There’s a good sci-fi thriller about space in here, there’s a lousy body horror movie once they land on the foreign planet, and the last act is a direct sequel to Prometheus, that ends with an extremely predictable twist and lead-in to Alien. It’s like watching three different little movies, and only one of them is good.
Alien: Covenant tries to be the bridge between the loftier and more individual elements of Prometheus and the grounded horror of Alien, and it fails at both. At best you end up with a bizarre mishmash of predictable moments staged around characters who never really earn your affection, and thusly it’s a movie without any stakes. Combine this with the foreknowledge that we all know these characters don’t impact the Alien series in any way other than a tangential exploration of an origin that was unneeded to start with. You’ll end up with a pre-sequel that doesn’t do anything new, exciting, or memorable. I went into this movie with high hopes and found myself ashamed at its predictability. At that point, I mostly felt bad for the talent involved, because there are some good performances and production here, it’s just marred irrevocably by its superfluousness. The entire time I watched this, I kept thinking “There’s no threat on any of these Alien planets that Kirk, Spock, and Bones wouldn’t have scanned, prepared and dealt with in 30 minutes by now.”
Now I don’t know about you, but if a modern sci-fi film has me comparing its writing negatively to Original Series Star Trek, it’s not doing a good job of being a sci-fi film. It’s a poorly written film with an identity crisis, one that could almost be mirrored by Fassbender’s David, if this movie cared enough about its storytelling to do so. But it doesn’t care, and neither should you really.
P.S. – The CGI alien looks dumb and shiny as hell in that bad CGI way. Sad!
GEEK Grade: C-
Images: 20th Century Fox