I just came back from the pre-premiere screening of Alien: Covenant. This movie had a lot riding on it. It had the unenviable job of pleasing those of us who thought Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was a mini sci-fi masterpiece, by creating more mythology and expanding of the world of the Engineers, and those who thought Prometheus was a bore and wanted a tighter bridge to Scott’s original 1979 Alien, by adding more action packed scenes and tense horror. Was it successful? That’s up to you to decide, these are my thoughts.
My biggest worry going into this film is that it would be yet another retread of the tired Alien franchise formula – reach a planet or location, find out the planet or location has some unfriendly inhabitants, die. For the first few acts of the movie it was mostly that. (This is evidenced in the trailers and doesn’t really give anything away.) There wasn’t much wonder to the exploration of new terrain, if it was all old terrain. It was by numbers enough for me to go take a quick bathroom break and head back without feeling I had missed anything important. Perhaps for the young audience who has never seen the original films this may be exciting – and, in fact, the Covenant’s crew decent onto dangerous terrain is well filmed and staged.
Once we get to the part of the movie we all know is coming – infections! – things get a bit more interesting. There is a some more mythology built in, pseudo-religious subtexts, and a bit of the heartbeat that kept Prometheus ticking. We are given a little more information on The Engineers and take a few steps to move the story forward towards direct prequel land. Although some attempts are made to flesh out the world and its characters, the movie falters a bit. It feels afraid to go too far into the territory that divided some many audiences with Prometheus. Information in this movie comes in blurbs as opposed to long meditations on a theme.
When the movie shifts into decidedly “Alien-esque” territory, it offers up some interesting material – a few that I wish would have been explored further, especially when it comes to how exactly these xenomorphs think and react to the world around them. Again, I felt that this was fear of Prometheus backlash. Ridley Scott and the studio wanted a crowd pleaser, not another starkly divisive movie. Alien: Covenant had quite a few opportunities to really build on the themes of creation and humanity, but it whimpered just as each opportunity seemed to be reaching a crescendo.
Another failure of the film was the casting. None of the characters in this film were nearly as charismatic to root for or despise as Sigourney Weaver, from the original four movies, or Noomi Rapaca and Charleze Theron, from Prometheus. Even Michael Fassbender managed to be a little less interesting here as an improved, and less curious and self-willed, version of the earlier David. It even took a while to spring on me in the movie’s final two acts who our heroin (in traditional Alien fashion) was going to be, and when I established that, I also realized that I could not have cared less if she had lived or died because the film had not done a good job in getting me invested in her. This makes the final scenes less thrilling, as we, the audience are just waiting for the inevitable ending to show its scary xenomorph face again.
Alien: Covenant is sure to please audiences who haven’t seen a good Alien movie since Cameron’s 1986 Aliens. Although the exposition is overly long and full of “stupid people doing stupid things” moments (if you thought the biologist in Prometheus was dumb when he decided to play with an alien snake, wait until you get a load of these mental giants), when the movie finally gets going it has a few entertaining action set pieces.
The heart stopping action is too little and too late, though. And again, these scenes are hampered by the sense that Alien:Covenant doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be – a serious heady movie (like Prometheus) or a call back to what Scott and Cameron were able to achieve in their first two iconic movies in the franchise. This juggling act seemed to be too much for Ridley Scott to handle – and it shows. We are never sure whether to hold on to our movie theatre seats in suspense or to sit back and ponder what a character has just seen or what they may have meant by what they just said – and I have a feeling Ridley Scott wasn’t too sure of that himself either.
I probably won’t go running out to see Alien:Covenant again, but it is the most thorough and well made Alien film since the original four. It’s certainly more enjoyable to watch than Alien 3, and headier, in parts, than the popcorn-thrills of Alien: Resurrection, but it’s not quite in the same league as the first two movies. Even the campy first installment of the Alien vs Predator series had a little bit more pop in its step and more faith in its thematic vision (blood, jump scares, and gore) than this movie. Although I didn’t hate the film, I would have preferred to have seen either Alien 5 or a Prometheus 2 – a half spirited mixture of the two just didn’t do it for me at all.
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