Directed by Ridley Scott
I was talking about Alien: Covenant with a man dressed as AC/DC's Brian Johnson at a party recently when he made a solid point. "If you had never seen any Alien movie before, you would think Covenant was a great movie," he said wagging his finger in my face. I had to concede the argument. He was right. If I had never seen any other film in this vampiric franchise, yes, I would think Covenant was a solid movie, worthy of recommendation. Unfortunately, I have seen the other films in the franchise. And Covenant is a bad movie.
Is Covenant the worst in the series? Nope. Resurrection is far worse. Prometheus, the best looking of the series, is far more tedious, far more headache inducing. The Alien Vs Predator films are barely a step up from Ed Wood's work. So, yeah, Covenant isn't the worst of the series, isn't the most headache inducing, isn't the most tedious. While Covenant is the best Alien film since Alien 3, that isn't really a high bar to jump over.
Covenant starts off promising, with amazing visuals and a slow burn, a touch of Kubrick and a nod to a younger Ridley Scott. David and his creator in a white room, decorated with with a bent towards minimalism. A piano, a painting, a tea set, a chair, a statue. A discussion full of existential meanings and riddles and alleyways and cul-de-sacs. It really is a disarming way to begin a science fiction film, Michael Fassbender and Guy Pearce laying out personalities and egos and ids with only some very smartly underwritten dialogue and understated performances. It is like a scene from another era, another time. From there we jump to a ship in space, large solar panels expanding like wings. Thousands of colonists and the crew sleeping away the trip while a new synthetic, also played by Michael Fassbender, and the ship's mainframe, named Mother, monitor and maintain the ship.
Stuff happens and the crew finds itself on a planet of great mystery where terrible things happen and characters behave in mind-meltingly stupid ways. Nothing nearly as frighteningly stupid as the behaviour in Prometheus, but some seriously "oh-my-god-you're-kidding-me" dumb moves. Like all subsequent films since Alien 3, the characters are nothing but walking talking plot devices. Need a way for the bad stuff to get into Cannon Fodder Number One? Make him incredibly inept and inattentive. Cannon Fodder Number Two, we'll make him so dumb audiences will wonder if he can use a fork when eating. How did such insultingly stupid characters get into space? Don't worry about that, we need to make Cannon Fodder Number Three do something that will give the audience Stockholm Syndrome as they sit there chewing on popcorn and checking their phones.
With this much cynicism and paint-by-numbers film making on display, Alien 3 widely regarded as the red-headed step child of the series, looks like a damn classic next to Covenant.
So, what works in Covenant you're wondering. The first half of the film is pretty good. It looks stunning. The sets, the cinematography, the costumes, the script, everything comes together in a really special way. Michael Fassbender and Billy Crudup bring their A-games. Michael Fassbender creates two completely different characters, both of them robots, both of them synthetic beings. But they have different priorities, different goals, different motivations, desires. Billy Crudup as the reluctant leader takes what in lesser hands could have been a rehash of William Hope's Lieutenant Gorman from Aliens and instead creates someone new and original. Both Mr. Fassbender and Mr. Crudup take what are archetypes in this series, the weak leader, the sympathetic artificial being and take them to new places.
Katherine Waterston is a fine stand-in for the strong women who came before her. While she never attains the heights where Sigourney Weaver's Ripley soars, her Daniels is tough and doesn't hesitate when called upon. Unfortunately, the movie deprives her of many opportunities to take charge and run into battle. Not as passive as Prometheus' Elizabeth Shaw, but not as kick-ass as Ripley, Daniels is somewhere in the middle. Where it took a while for Shaw to get to taking charge of her destiny, Daniels is already packing a big gun. But I don't think Daniels is ready to duct-tape a grenade launching machine gun to flame thrower just yet.
And Danny McBride is in this thing. We almost get a Pineapple Express reunion, so that's a bonus I think.
And now you're wondering, where does it all go off there rails? Covenant goes off the rails when it stops trying to do a single original… anything. At some point during production any attempts at originality got tossed and it just became a game of repeating beats and familiar tropes. The ship's mainframe is named Mother for Christ's sake. We have alien point of view shots, shades of Alien 3. We have soldiers working with a civilian crew. And Aliens waves from the sidelines. We have dastardly people with dastardly schemes. Hey, Paul Reiser, how you doing? The few touches of originality get buried under the avalanche of touch points from the previous films. If nostalgia is the name of my generation, Alien: Covenant is our Woodstock. A few new touches are added, but, really this is the same attempt to make the same picture so folks of a certain age will pay the monies and sit in the theatres.
The first film was a horror film set in space, and it is, truly and honestly, one of the Great Horror Films of ever. How does James Cameron follow that up? By creating one of the Great War Films of ever. Taking chances was the hallmark of the first two films. Even with the much derided third film, Mr. Fincher created something about being the other, something about willing sacrifice.
But the greatest sin that Covenant commits isn't a lack of originality. It's greatest sin is that it's not scary, not suspenseful. At all. Never. Not once. Some gore does not horror make. Some shadows do not suspense make.
This new series, Prometheus, Covenant and whatever follows next all come from some weird desire to over explain everything. Sometimes it's good to have the mystery, leave things unexplained. Wherever you thought the Space Jockey came from in Alien, it has to be better than the explanation we are getting sloppily spoon fed to us all these decades later.