The Broken Promise of ALIEN: COVENANT

Some random thoughts on ALIEN: COVENANT. I’m assuming you’ve seen every entry in the Alien movie series. If not, move along.

A:C is the work of talented people who made something that is both a sequel and a prequel, a bridging work that has many good things but lacks a real purpose. Prometheus came out about five years ago, and in the gap, Scott has said in interviews that he became aware of fans online wanting more of the alien, more facehuggers — the very elements of the series he said were old hat, never to be seen again. Prometheus was a big hit, bigger than it looks like A:C will be, in part because it appealed to more than just the hardcore Alien audience. A:C is a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of the character David and his robot brother. It lacks cohesion.

The Covenant is nicely realized, with some beautiful exterior shots. The Nostromo is still the most impressive spaceship set of the series, and one of the best in cinema.

There are nods to Lawrence of Arabia and Robinson Crusoe, but the real seed of the story is The Island of Dr. Moreau. David is the father of ‘the big chap’ in the original alien, but he’s been doing a lot of experimenting in his own House of Pain-like lab, where Elizabeth Shaw was apparently a victim of vivisection — the most dramatic event of either P or A:C, and it happens off-screen.

A:C continues Prometheus’ watering-down of the strangeness of the alien and those who carried its eggs to the planet in Alien. Who the hell created that truly alien-looking spaceship? Big white dudes, that’s who. What kind of elephant-like being piloted the ship? Big white dude in a bulky spacesuit. In exchange, Prometheus showed us the head of the corporation behind The Company, and his dysfunctional family. I’m skeptical any fan of the series gives much of a damn about that. This new focus on the Weyland clan makes this more about economics than Lovecraftian god-liens. Aside from more big heads and an impressive spaceship docking that goes very wrong for some very human-looking Engineers, Scott has turned the heat down on his Big Science Fiction Concepts. From making the big chap, facehugger and the derelict eggs the results of The Company’s activities to wiping out a godlike race in a few minutes, Scott has shrunk the alien universe.

David’s lab reminds me a little of the lab in Dan O’Bannon’s The Resurrected, a Lovecraft adaptation.

A:C has too many supporting characters who are just victims-in-waiting. Billy Crudup’s character is another in a series of weak, dumb authority figures in the series, fun to mock but damaging to credibility — wouldn’t there be more drama with strong, smart characters than these lambs of God who just hang around to be foolishly slaughtered? People whose job it is to settle an alien world breathe in alien spores when wearing space suits would have saved them a lot of trouble. It seems like everyone loses a spouse, which loses its impact, and everyone gets over it pretty much right away.

Prometheus had its flaws — which the fans have lingered over — but it had some evocative effects and sets and a spectacular climactic set piece. Mocked and picked at, the rolling dreadnought was still impressive. A:C’s effects work is crisp in the space scenes and the ruined Engineer city. The false climax (a dumb action scene with a flying pickup truck zipping around and hitting things while our plucky heroine is on top with a rifle) and a been-there, done-that final alien attack lack the visual pizzazz Scott is known for. There’s a crane that’s bigger than the forklift in ALIENS, another alien in the hallways of the ship, and a couple of trucks falling out of a ship. It’s not drama; it’s mayhem.

The series continues with the losing-your-head motif, in an effective sequence with the quality of a vignette: We hardly know the victim, and see more of her after she’s been decapitated than before.

Scott makes some puzzling choices with the musical score. Bits of Harry Gregson-Williams’ music for Prometheus returned (Scott seems to have moved on from Marc Streitenfeld as his regular composer), but the late Jerry Goldsmith’s main theme from the original Alien gets more play in this than it did in the movie it was written for. Jed Kurzel contributes some droning and some generic suspense music, competent enough but nothing special. Scott’s visuals can not only support powerful music, they will be enriched by them. Maybe he thinks it’s more cinematic to have minimal assistance from the music. Too corny?

The ending is impressive in its sourness, but I’m not sure where it can carry the series. Although we don’t know how the David-created alien eggs got into the derelict from Alien, do we really need all of the dots connected? They did that with Darth Vader in the Star Wars prequels — how’d that work out? Maybe the concept for the series is simply not big enough to do much more with. After six movies (or eight, depending on your tolerance for predators), what more can be said about the monster The Company keeps trying and failing to get its hands on for “the bio-weapons division,” especially now that we find out it was a PRODUCT of one of the company’s products?

Alien: Covenant is one of the oddest films ever made in a long-running series, certainly the strangest entry since Alien Resurrection. Both movies use genetic engineering by The Company to alter the nature of the aliens and thus their meaning. While Prometheus promised to be the opening act in a Wagnerian space opera like no other, a Kubrickian voyage to god, gods or god-like alien life, Scott’s newest (final?) entry tells us he didn’t mean all of that. What was once a unique science fiction horror series about the foolish and daring contact with forces outside all previous human experience has become much more routine. It’s not a bad or worthless movie; it’s just so much less than was promised.

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John Stephen Walsh

I write horror, science fiction and weird. Worked in warehouses, schools and social services. My books are on Amazon. https://johnstephenwalsh.wordpress.com/