Alien: Covenant (2017)

MAY 21, 2017


I don't know what it is about Prometheus that gets people so worked up on both sides of the argument, but I hope we don't have to listen to the same online shouting matches for another five years about Alien: Covenant, because despite the title it's really just "Prometheus 2", following up that film's themes and, once he's reintroduced, main character. Additionally, it suffers from a number of the exact same problems (dumb characters! Too much ret-conning about where the aliens came from!), so it's possible some of these folks can just copy paste their old critiques into new Facebook posts. My only hope is that Ridley Scott makes the next film quicker, and then it finally connects up to the first Alien, so people can stop theorizing and go on with their damn lives. Until then, please stop arguing - both films have strong points and weak points, like most movies ever made (including Alien and Aliens, sorry to burst your bubble), and like EVERY movie ever made, there will be people who saw it differently than you, and their minds won't be changed by your tweetstorm.

As for me, if I was ranking the series, I'd put this one about in the middle, same as Prometheus, in that both are not up to the original "Ripley Trilogy" but better than Resurrection and the two AVPs, though I guess those films no longer count (if they ever did?) thanks to the reveals in this new branch of the series, which makes AVP's plot seemingly impossible. I'll let you discover the specifics yourself, but I don't think I'm spoiling too much when I say David (from Prometheus) is back and has seemingly doubled down on his "villainous by curiosity" nature, as he is once again doing things just to kind of see what happens even though he seemingly knows it will spell doom for his human colleagues. But this time there is another android, Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender, with a different accent) who is a later model than David, designed to be less human i.e. potentially evil. It's this dynamic that Scott was clearly interested in (the film opens with a lengthy conversation between David and his creator, Guy Pearce - this time without old man makeup), and thus it's no surprise that it's also where the film really shines - the two androids conversing about whether saving someone's life is programming or a "soul" is fascinating, and I could have easily watched another half hour or so of their debate.

But alas, people who bought tickets for Prometheus wanted more alien action than they got, so this time they get it, even if Scott's heart doesn't seem into it. People will argue about the gestation periods and all that because they have nothing better to do with their lives, but everyone else can enjoy the fact that we get not one but two aliens bursting out of bodies in the film's first half, along with the accompanying body count. The plot, such as it is, concerns the titular Covenant, a pioneer ship with fifteen active crew and a couple thousand frozen colonists ready to build a new world on a distant planet that was found inhabitable. But as this is an Alien film, a mysterious transmission from none other than Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace's character from Prometheus) has them detouring to another planet (no, not LV-426, but not the one from Prometheus either) and looking for the person who sent it, and that's where the trouble begins as two people get infected (with a new method - inhaling xeno-spores!) while they hunt for Shaw on this strange planet.

One interesting thing I noticed is that the movie has very few "nighttime" scenes - most of the alien action occurs outside during daytime (albeit overcast, it's not a "sunny" entry), which allows us a better look at the various creatures. The full sized ones are practical and used sparingly but well, so all of that stuff is fine - the problem is that the action/horror beats themselves are rather uninspired. Again, these people are rather dumb, or at least overly prone to panic, as one blows up themselves AND their transport by firing wildly in a room filled with gas tanks, and later one shoots his squadmate in the same circumstances. Two of them even go off for some shower sex at one point; to be fair they thought the alien was dead at that point, but were you REALLY in the mood after ten of your friends were killed? If Scott and his writers (four are credited) put as much effort into these sequences as they did the more thought-provoking, big idea ones, this could be a minor classic instead of just a pretty good entry in a very erratic series. Hell, even Life offered more inspired "killer monster on a spaceship" action, even though on a base level it was just Alien - why can't an actual Alien movie measure up to the damn knockoffs?

As far as the humans go, they're the usual mixed bag of recognizable character actors (Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Billy Crudup) and borderline anonymous grunts, giving a mix between the first Alien's blue collar paycheck collectors and Aliens' tight squad of buddies. Character development is fleeting to the point that I didn't realize two characters were married until one cradled the other (dead one) in his arms, and probably will have better material on the Blu-ray (as did Prometheus, for the record). The nicest surprise was Danny McBride, playing the ship's pilot who only makes I think two jokes throughout the movie, shedding most if not all of his usual persona for a change (I find him to be one of those guys that always plays variations of the same character). I was also happy to see Callie Hernandez from Blair Witch as the co-pilot; she doesn't get to do much beyond challenge McBride's decisions (they're all on the ship above the storm-ravaged planet; he wants to go help the others, she wants to keep the ship safe) but it's still fun to see her go from low-budget found footage to a megabudget flick like this.

But they're led by Katherine Waterston, who the script lets down more than anyone else. Her husband is killed early on (not alien related) so she's sad, fine, but that's pretty much her one note throughout the film. And they give her Ripley-esque hair, which does her no favors as you're constantly reminded of what a better character Sigourney Weaver got to play. She barely even gets to do anything badass; Walter saves her in one action scene, McBride's character is backing her up throughout another... for a series that is iconic for its female protagonist (an Oscar nominee for Aliens, in fact - incredibly rare for genre movies at all let alone sequels) they really should have delivered more on this front. I had to double check her character name, for Christ's sake (Daniels), and I actually like Waterston from her other movies, so I can't imagine how blank she'll be to viewers who have no prior connection to her.

That said, it's really Fassbender's show, and he is terrific (as he always is). They don't interact too much, but when he's playing David and Walter in the same scene, it's electric, and it also provides the film with its most suspenseful moment as David does the fingering on a flute as he tries to teach Walter to play. I spent the entire scene sure that David was going to ram the thing through Walter's skull (or chip, I guess) to kill him, and tensed up more than I did for any of the uninspired alien scenes. But even when David is talking to other characters, he is riveting - I love how casual he is about how evil he is, and the glee he seemingly takes at taking advantage of how stupid some of these people are. There's a minor "faith vs. science" thing going on between him and Billy Crudup's character (a man of religion) that also shines, but it also seems like it got whittled to the bone, either by rewrites or a nervous studio, unsure if they were willing to allow more of these heady conversations in a summer movie about aliens. God forbid anything be interesting nowadays.

Long story short, if you want more alien action than Prometheus offered, you'll get it - but it's still very much a Prometheus movie, far more concerned with ideas about creation and man's place in the world than xenomorphs scurrying around and melting faces with its acid blood. You get those things, but even a child can probably sense the filmmaker was in a rush to get them over with so he could get back to what actually interested him. Like Prometheus, the film would probably be a lot better if it was completely disconnected from a long-running franchise; Ridley may have started it, but it became another thing, and now he's forced to serve two masters (in a time when impatient audiences won't allow him to really dig deep with the things he wants to explore). I actually liked how the Alien series always offered another filmmaker's unique approach to the material (even Paul WS Anderson), but now it's seemingly a Ridley Scott series - it's a tough thing to shake off when you're watching the movie for the first time, especially when they're seemingly promising more Alien than Prometheus by changing the title. I luck out a bit in that I've never held the original series up to as much scrutiny or obsession as say, the Halloween movies, so I can't get angry at these things like some die-hards do (AVP:R is the only one I flat out dislike, but Alien - my favorite - isn't in my top 25 movies or anything). Again, they have their weak points and their strong points, and this is no exception - it's just weird that the weaker things are the parts we ostensibly bought tickets to see.

What say you?

1 comment:

  1. Alien is one of my favorite flicks, but other than that, my feelings on the movie were borderline-identical to yours. Kind of wish Scott had just stuck to whatever he originally had in mind, fandom be damned.


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