Alien: Covenant is directed by Ridley Scott and stars Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Michael Fassbender and Damien Bichir.
Ok, I’ve got a lot to say about this movie and about the Alien franchise in general. It’s been a strange and wild ride since Ridley Scott re-started the franchise with the very mysterious and confusing Prometheus and one of the goals of this movie is surely to answer a lot of the question marks left hanging in the air with that one as well as join that prequel more solidly to the universe we know from the 1979 horror classic, Alien. But the timeline is screwy with these movies, so let’s unscrew them a little bit before we proceed to talk about Alien: Covenant.
When Alien first hit the screens, I was nine years old and my parents wouldn’t let me see it but my mom sat me down and actually walked me through the entire story and I was riveted. An older friend of mine who did see it before word got out about the face-huggers and chest-poppers told me that he’d never ever been in a movie where the audience was so astounded and shocked by what they had seen, reflected in the deathly silence that fell over the theater when the chest-popper first appeared. It was literally unbelievable and such a total surprise, no one knew what to think for a full ten seconds, before nervous laughter and roars of amazement filled the room. When I did finally see the film as a teenager, I thought it was the single best monster horror movie I’d ever seen and I have kept that opinion to this day. The direction, production design, artwork and special effects were all best-in-class, so to speak, and when Blade Runner was released in 1982, Ridley Scott was cemented as the king of visual story telling, even better in my mind at certain aspects of it than Stephen Spielberg.
Fast forward to 1986 and James Cameron, self-proclaimed King of the World and arguably one of the hardest working and most groundbreaking directors of my lifetime, wrote and directed Aliens, the action-packed follow-up which was to action movies what Alien was to horror movies. Simply one of the best sequels ever made, Aliens continued the story of Ripley and put a solid exclamation point ending to the story begun in Alien, even if there were still unanswered questions as to where the beasts had come from in the first place and who that giant space jockey was whose corpse the Nostromo crew encountered when they found the alien eggs.
Well, rather than tackle that issue, new writers and directors came on board who seemed to not get what it was about Alien and Aliens that made them so successful. David Fincher’s directorial debut was nearly his last with Alien 3, a movie that went through so many re-writes and directors that it was barely made at all. Unfortunately, the final product reflected that chaos, with all the protagonists from Aliens except Ripley dead before the opening credits finished rolling and somehow a surviving face-hugger loose on a penal colony. The shenanigans which ensue were so bad that the movie was almost universally panned and it did nothing to forward or contribute to Ripley’s story or answer any questions left by its predecessors. In fact, Ripley’s self-sacrifice at the end gave everyone the impression the franchise was truly dead and buried in a pit of molten lava.
Unfortunately, Hollywood being Hollywood, that was not the case and we were treated to another go around with Alien 4, otherwise known as Alien Resurrection, in 1997. If you weren’t keeping track, this one was set centuries into the future and despite Winona Ryder and Ron Pearlman on board, this was just another disaster with Ripley’s corpse somehow cloned and brought back for military weaponization.
We’ll just skip the Alien vs Predator movies because they contributed nothing really to the Alien canon. They were not bad movies, to be honest, and I enjoyed watching the stories they presented, but they take place in modern times and are impossible to reconcile with the Alien films, especially since Prometheus was released. Perhaps the key continuity issue is that the aliens we were all familiar with from Alien forward didn’t exist in that form until far into the future. So if you treat the AVP franchise as a sort of alternate reality to the Alien canon, you’re all good and you can enjoy them without thinking too much about how they all fit together.
And so it was that everyone just pretty much wanted to forget that Alien 3 and 4 were ever made and, at least according to everything I read, people pretty much purposefully forgot about them when discussing potential sequels or prequels. In fact, Neill Blomkamp of District 9 and Elysium fame, published concept art for a proposed Alien 5 and his plan was to scrap any mention or trace of Alien 3 and 4 from his re-boot. But Ridley Scott had picked back up the reins and Prometheus was the project that went forward, teased as belonging in the same universe as Alien and building on its DNA but not being a direct prequel to the earlier films. So what was it? everyone wanted to know.
Well, Prometheus happens in 2089 with archaeologists digging up humanity’s possible galactic origin and approaching mega-billionaire Peter Weyland to finance a space exploration to a previously unvisited moon known only as LV-223 which might have the answers they are looking for. In terms of timeline, this is the earliest film in the series, with Alien taking place in 2122, giving lots of time in between for the events of Prometheus to morph into the events of Alien. And to be clear, LV-223 is not the same planetoid that the crew of the Nostromo land on in Alien and which the Colonial Marines return to in Aliens. That is LV-426. How the beasties get from LV-223 to LV-426 is but one of many mysteries which are not resolved yet.
In fact, one of the problems with Prometheus and one of the reasons people were not satisfied with it was that it seemed to leave more questions than it answered. Ridley Scott said that while James Cameron had dealt with what happened to Ripley, he wanted to know more about that dead Space Jockey from the first film. So we get the Engineers and them seeding planets to create life similar to theirs, but we don’t get why they are doing that, what their antagonism is towards humans or how exactly they are related to the black goo which seems to destroy everything it touches. There is speculation that the Engineers created the black goo as a bioweapon but we can’t really be sure of any of that. In the confusing mess of an ending, we get the protagonist Shaw and android David flying in an alien ship to the Engineer’s home world to find out why they seem to be so upset with humanity while an alien creature bursts out of a dead Engineer’s chest back on LV-426. Are these the xenomorphs we are familiar with or just a step in their development?
In order to get any answers at all, fans had to read interviews with Scott to get what he was really driving at in Prometheus, because the film was not definitive in almost every way. We mainly have writer Damon Lindelof to blame for this, because he was the one who suggested and re-wrote the original draft of Prometheus from being a more dirct prequel to Alien into something he thought should be its own unique story with its own unique characters and theme. He more than anyone else was responsible for taking the big themes Scott wanted to address and putting them into a concrete form. In the final version of Prometheus, we are not really given a very satisfying experience. As Variety film critic Justin Chang wrote, the film’s narrative structure was unable to handle the philosophic dimension of the plot and Prometheus lazily deferred key plot points under the presumption that a sequel would be made.
So we finally come to Alien: Covenant, taking place 10 years after Prometheus in 2104, with still 18 years to go until the events of the original Alien take place. And where do we stand? Well, I’m not going to give any spoilers here, so I can’t get too deep into the story.
It features a whole new set of characters in a colonization ship called the Covenant, including an upgraded version of the David android from Prometheus, this one named Walter, who speaks with a more westernized accent. They are on their way to a planet called Origae-6 with 2000 colonists in hypersleep and a small crew also in hypersleep but who are awakened when there is an accident that almost disables the ship. While repairing it, they receive a random transmission which sets them on a new course and shenanigans ensue.
Cinematically, this is perhaps one of the most beautiful horror/action films I’ve ever seen. Ridley Scott is an expert technician when it comes to framing, pacing, cinematography and special effects and he uses Dariusz Wolski as cinematographer masterfully. There is no point during the film where you at all question any element of what you are seeing on screen, where there is any distracting miscue or foreign element in a shot. It’s worth seeing this film just to admire the art direction and production design. Seeing how this film is supposed to take place 20 years before Alien, though, it would have been nice to see more continuity between that film and this one in terms of spaceship design and technological features, because these guys have tech that is far more advanced than what was in Alien and Aliens. While I loved everything I was seeing in terms of what was there, I’m a stickler for production design details like this.
Now visual effects aside, if only the story had been as sweepingly good as the cinematography, I would be able to give this movie a lot more praise. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed by much of what happened. Lindelhof did not return to screw things up this time; the screenplay is credited to John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. Where they got it right was in creating a tight action film with horror elements such as various types of alien creatures who terrorize the crew both on land and in space. There is nothing wrong with any of the buildup and there are a few scenes where the tension is so high I found myself wound up on the edge of my seat. However, the horror elements are also entirely too predictable, like right out of Scream or Friday the 13th to be honest, telegraphing the death of almost every single one of the characters who ends up at the wrong end of the alien’s teeth. So if you can imagine how you know what’s coming but it still engages you vicerally, you’ll get how good the direction and acting in this film are.
Getting back to the story, though, there are some resolutions to what came before in Prometheus but they are…unsatisfying and honestly seemed more like a dodge. I can’t help but wonder if, like in Prometheus, there are scenes on the cutting room floor which need to be released to make sense of certain elements. And there is a particular character who I’m not going to identify who pops up half-way through the film and who does things which make absolutely no sense at all.
So all things taken into account, I’m going to give this movie a rating of “Meh.” It’s strong on raw filmmaking talent in every respect, but its story and continuity are lacking in such major ways with the other Alien franchise films it’s nestled between that it’s ultimately not what it should be. This movie is sure to have a huge opening weekend regardless of anything I say, so let me know in the comments what you thought and where you think the franchise may be heading now. I’d love to hear from you.
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