Contained here are my thoughts on the film Alien: Covenant, the sequel to 2012’s Prometheus released May 19, 2017. The sixth film in the Alien franchise, Covenant follows the crew of a colonization mission as an accident in space leads them to explore a mysterious message being broadcast from a mysteriously habitable planet. Spoiler alert: Horror ensues.
I’ve started and stopped writing this piece so many times, my thoughts jumbled, tumbling over each other and being discard like so many proto-Xenomorph concepts.
Alien: Covenant is my least favorite kind of movie because I hate that I don’t hate it. The characters are mostly nonexistent, serving only as fuel to propel a story that never needed to happen forward. We are given so little insight into who they are or what’s interesting about them that there is no shock when they die and no validation when they succeed. As with Prometheus, the story can’t even proceed without the idiocy of our primary cast leading to their own, inevitable total destruction.
The film itself felt structurally confused. It starts as an Alien movie, introducing you to the meat puppets seasoned with tropes and the hints of personality, followed by the slow descent into doom. This is interrupted by a section that wants to be the sequel to Prometheus, providing some fleeting connective tissue to the questions we wanted to be answered in the previous film before snatching it away and telling us it’s not important. Finally, it returns to the Alien territory, complete with its [Spoiler Alert] “Oh shit, the Alien is on the ship” twist. Overall, it felt like the jammed a log of “high-concept” into the motor of passable sci-fi horror, leading to a disjointed final product. Supposedly about 20 minutes was cut from the film, and I wonder if this content could help smooth out some of the rough edges.
On a more positive note, visually, the film was strong. The camerawork, lighting, set design, locations, and CG were all handled well. The costuming was fine and felt like it was trying to touch the dirty future style of the original Alien, allowing characters to appear contemporary despite existing in the future. The designs of the pre-Xenomorphs were also somewhat interesting, pulling from years of Alien design and infusing some new ideas into the blend. On top of that, the illustrations that David made are outstanding and I hope some of them are in the art book I just ordered.
This leads me to something that I know some people hate. Why do we need to see how the sausage is made?
Meeting Your Maker
I’ve seen some folks compare what Ridley Scott is doing to the Alien franchise to what George Lucas did with the Star Wars franchise (which Scott has cited as being the film that showed him an effects-driven sci-fi film could be successful). I get the comparisons, both had great early works that stand well enough on their own, but both creators felt the need to revisit and inject new lore to explain previous events in their universes. The problem for me with this comparison starts and ends with characters.
Star Wars is a series where the characters are vital to the story being told. Like it or not, in the original Star Wars Kenobi tells Luke about his father being a Jedi Knight, fighting in the Clone Wars, what the Jedi Order stood for. All of this lore serves the universe, is interesting, and, arguably, was compelling enough to tell more stories within the universe. And, if we look at Darth Vader as the true main character of the original trilogy, we only see the end of his character arc, and where it began is a rich place to mine stories that have greater implications for filling out the lore.
Now, think about the Alien franchise. Ripley is the only compelling character to appear throughout most of the movies. Not much we can do with her story pre-Alien because she didn’t know the Xenomorph existed until reaching LV-426. “Ok, cool, what else do we have to work with? Well, we found all of these eggs on LV-426, oh and there was a giant alien corpse with a hole in its chest!” Unlike Star Wars, we had no lore at all for the “space jockey” and nothing pointed to where it came from. Mysteries can be interesting, but after the first film, we never really pointed back to the space jockey, and it wasn’t until 5 years after the fourth Alien film when Ridley Scott suggested that the origins of this creature might make an interesting movie.
There was also a much greater disconnect between the creator and their creation. George Lucas was steering the Star Wars ship until he sold his baby to the money-loving mouse. Scott was essentially uninvolved with Alien as a franchise after the first movie until returning to do a restoration of it for home release. The love, attention, and world building just wasn’t there.
Idle Hands are the Devil’s Workshop
I feel like what Scott is doing with the Alien franchise is best represented by what we find David doing in Covenant. Watch this viral-marketing prologue to the film if you haven’t and I’ll get right back to you.
Cool, so we find out that right after this cuts out, David drops those canisters on the Engineers, basically killing their entire species in one shot. He then spends his newfound free time experimenting with that black goo from Prometheus, or rather, he continued the experiments that he started when he infected Holloway with it in Prometheus. Apparently, David has spent the last 10 years tinkering with the black goo, infecting different organisms with it, trying to force its evolution in a way to make a perfect organism. It is even revealed that he used Elizabeth Shaw’s body to help develop the eggs for his face-huggers. David researched, tinkered, and tested, creating version after version of his creatures, looking for the right formula to breed his perfect organism.
This is Ridley Scott and this is what he is doing (Not the picture, that’s David as portrayed by Michael Fassbender). Failed attempt after failed attempt, he is going to keep tweaking the Alien formula, trying to create his perfect vision. It doesn’t matter to him how many are awful, or boring, or do a disservice to his original creation because he is the God of this universe and his will, not the will of Alien fans, is what determines what we will get next.
Well, until the studio steps in and stops funding his films…
Ruling in Hell
In a way, I feel like we can use the thematic progression of Prometheus and Covenant to respond to Ridley Scott and the current direction of his films:
Meet God. Ask God why? See God’s wrath. Rebel against God. Kill God. Become God.
Prometheus covered the first three of those, introducing the Engineers, attempting to communicate with them and figure out why they made humanity and watching them spite man for trying to create life in his own image. These themes are also echoed in the in-film prologue for Alien: Covenant, where we see David interact with his creator Weyland, question the purpose of his existence and be met with Weyland’s dismissive wrath (and laziness, get your own damn tea Guy Pearce). Through David, we also see the process of fighting back against the Engineers, killing them, and then becoming an “engineer” himself.
We can easily pull back and use this framework to look at Scott’s films.
We see the original Alien, which is nearly flawless. We ask (or are told we should ask) why the “space jockey” ended up there. We are given Prometheus and more questions, then Alien: Covenant and fewer answers.
Now we are rebelling by not supporting a bad movie. Next, we remove Ridley Scott from the pedestal we have placed him on. Finally, we need to take the throne ourselves by creating a new sci-fi/horror property that can show us why Alien was such a revelation in the first place.
Don’t complain about something not living up to your standards or achieving your vision if you are not willing to put in the work & potentially fail over and over again to create it yourself. If you don’t like the direction of a sequel, prequel, or reboot, you don’t need to be beholden to it, push away from it and become the God of your own universe.
So what are your thoughts? Did you love, hate, or find yourself unsure of where to fall on Alien: Covenant? How would you design your perfect prequel/sequel/reboot? What are lessons from an existing work would you bring to an original project? Get at me in the comments or on social media!