Journey into Hell: 'Alien: Covenant' Review
We've talked ad nauseam about the Alien franchise here at Kulture Shocked. From the second ever Kulturecast, where we talked about the original film, to last month's Cinematic Chit Chat, devoted solely to the Alien and Predator franchise, we've spent lots of time dissecting the infamous Xenomorph. With the release in 2012 of the totally-not-an-Alien-prequel prequel Prometheus, the franchise not only saw the return of acclaimed director Ridley Scott to the franchise he helped create, but also misstep for the fan base. Disavowing the film as "not a sequel to Alien but sharing some of the DNA" not only riled up fans who perceived it as mismarketing but also meant that the Scott never truly gave the audience what they wanted in the way of Xenomorphs and chestbursters.
Enter Alien: Covenant; the buckled knee response to the fan outrage towards the Xenomorph blue balls they've had since 2012. The film attempts to correct mistakes from Prometheus but in trying to do so ends up creating all new problems not only from a story-telling aspect but also with the main mythology as well. Not only does it further muddle the already convoluted backstory of the Xenomorph lineage, it also nullifies any lingering reason they may have been to revisit Prometheus. It's a level of franchise kamikaze that is eerily similar to the fun albeit mess that was last summer's Terminator Genisys.
Covenant focuses on yet another most forgettable and paper-thin crew of the Covenant, a colonization ship, that is headed for Origae-6. While en route, the crew receives a humanoid transmission from a nearby planet that is also habitable so, in typical horror movie fashion, they head to investigate. On the planet's surface, not only do they find the remnants of Engineer craft from the end of Prometheus but also the only sole survivor, the android David. What follows should be recognizable to anyone familiar with the franchise: expendable crew makes mind-numbingly dumb decisions, pseudo-Xenos run amok, female heroine steps in to attempt to save the day. It's almost as if this film has been made before, almost.
To fully understand the problems with Covenant, one must understand the criticism that was leveled against Prometheus by fans and critics alike. Not only did fans feel like they had been misled going into the film in regards to how it connected to the original mythos, but they also bemoaned the lack of the franchise's true star, the Xenomorph. They also bemoaned the fact that many of the characters were one-note, the third act was rushed, and it asked more questions than it even attempted to answer. The one bright spot that both the fans and critics agreed upon was the role of the android David, played by the talented Michael Fassbender. Not only did his character have more depth than all but one other character, Shaw played by Noomi Rapace, but he was mesmerizing every time he was on-screen.
If sequels, in some respects, are reactionary to the criticisms and shortcomings leveled against previous entries into the franchise, then Covenant not only misguidedly doubles down on certain aspects from Prometheus but overdoes it as well. If you liked Fassbender previously, you'll be happy to know that he has not only returned as David but also as Walter, a subtle nod to Walter Hill and David Giler, the producers of the entire franchise. If you were bummed by a lack of true Xenomorphs, then you'll love the fact that there are not one but two different species of Xenos in Covenant. If you liked one-note characters whose sole purpose is to be slaughtered by the Xeno or the black goo from the last film, you're in luck because there are even more this time around.
Fassbender as two separate androids not only serves as one of the most telegraphed plot twists in recent memory but also feels like diminishing returns. His performance in Prometheus was so successful because he was used sparingly as opposed to in Covenant where it seems that he's in almost every scene. I've never been a fan of one actor playing multiple roles in a film since it allows for certain easily abused tropes, and Covenant is no different in that regard. Too much of a good thing is a bad thing is a phrase that Ridley Scott and the film writers have never heard.
The inclusion of the traditional yet still not quite there Xenomorph is also heavy handed and woefully unnecessary. Since the backlash from Prometheus was so rabid, Scott and crew felt it necessary to not only add the classic Xenomorph but feature it in every single piece of promotional material possible. It's shocking that there wasn't a deal with McDonald's for little plush facehuggers and chestbursters to be the toy in the newest Happy Meals. Not even in the promotional material for Alien and Aliens made the Xeno the sole attraction used to entice prospective viewers. We get it, this is an Alien movie just please don't spoil a character's fate and a massive plot point in the trailer again, please.
As for the appearance in the film, the Xeno is sidelined for most of the film in place of the Neomorph, a ghostly white subspecies that exists, again, without any tangible explanation. When the classic Xeno does show up, Scott utilizes two age-old horror movie tropes that would feel more at home in Evil Dead and Friday the 13th than a Ridley Scott film. It's interesting to point out that for three Alien films, the original Xeno was the main focus and they are the three best films in the franchise. As in Prometheus, adding new aliens to the mythos just inflicts more damage on an already self-inflicted wound.
Aside from the glaring attempts to placate the fans, Covenant leaves much to be desired on its own. Katherine Waterston is serviceable but predictable as the latest female heroine attempting to recapture the evasive lightning that was Sigourney Weaver's Ripley. I'm hesitant however, to get invested in any character in the Alien prequel series due how poorly Shaw's story arc is tied up in Covenant; it hurts any future rewatching of Prometheus. Danny McBride is the best part of the film as the ship's pilot Tennessee; subduing his comedic roots for a much more serious and somber role. It's a welcome change for him but one that doesn't give him much to do, similarly to another immensely talented actor Idris Elba in Prometheus. The rest of the cast is given too little to do and serve as moving incubators for a cornucopia of nasties that the planet has to offer. It's made clear early on who makes it to the third act very early on in the film.
The third act of the film is where the tone shifts from suspense to CGI-laden mess to outright plagiarizing one's prior film. Not only does our Waterston fight the Xenomorph on a flying cargo loader as shown in the trailer but also rehashes the last thirty minutes of Alien in half as much time and with and eighth as much success. It's similar to the end of Prometheus in all the ways one would hope Ridley Scott would have tried to avoid. Each film's final act crystallizes the overarching issue with both Prometheus and Covenant: the journey will never outshine the destination. Both films have attempted to either distance themselves from the franchise or have embraced it begrudgingly to the point of emulation. There is no middle ground in either film and that's the biggest failure.
If Ridley Scott is to be believed, he's got six more Alien prequels in him before he calls it quits which is a sobering thought. If the next four films follow the formula established in first two prequels, then it's nothing but Xenomorphs, villainous androids, gorgeous cinematography, and expendable crews for the foreseeable future. Covenant is a bigger disappointment than Prometheus, a film that was already disappointing on its own. The biggest disappointment of all may be that Ridley Scott's prequel trilogy is the direct reason Neill Blomkamp's true Aliens sequel died on the proverbial vine. It's a shame; a damn shame.