I’m “biast” (con): wasn’t crazy about Prometheus
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It’s difficult to imagine that there will ever be a movie scene as unexpected and as shocking as that bit in Alien — yeah, that bit — when a tiny horrifying alien creature, all teeth and slither, bursts out of poor John Hurt’s chest and slowly gawps around as if to say, “That’s right, meatbags: I, your worst nightmare, have arrived.” We sure as hell are not going to see a replication of the paralyzing terror those of us in the cinema darkness shared with the human onlookers onscreen if no one is even trying to stun us like this again. Not even Ridley Scott, the guy who so masterfully created that bit in the first place, even as he returns to that universe.
There are so many ways in which Alien: Covenant is a crushing disappointment — even more so than 2012’s Prometheus, to which this is a sequel — but the biggest one is how dull it is. There is nothing in the least bit startling or shocking or even mildly unexpected here. (One big “twist”? The first incubated alien bursts not out of a guy’s chest but out of his back. Much innovative. So surprise.) Scott’s screenwriters — Jack Paglen (Transcendence), Michael Green (Logan, Green Lantern), John Logan (Spectre, Skyfall), and Dante Harper — have tossed out most of the pseudoreligious, pseudophilosophical gunk of Prometheus to return to the sci-fi horror nuts-and-bolts that drove the best installments of this series (Alien and Aliens), but they have no idea what to do except to borrow a bunch of beats and notes from those first two movies. The beats and notes are shuffled around a bit — and mixed with some other tired science-fiction banalities — but not in any way that disguises their familiarity. The most engaging thing for me while fidgeting boredly through Covenant was muttering all the lines of dialogue from Alien and Aliens that slot perfectly into the action here. (“Well, we’ve got to get the other drop ship down from the Sulaco…”)
It’s not too many years after the events of Prometheus when the crew of the Weyland-Yutani colony ship Covenant is awakened from cryosleep long before they were supposed to be. Another “twist” from Alien: it wasn’t the strange transmission that awakened them; they were already awake dealing with mechanical trouble on the ship when they intercepted the signal, so that’s totally different then. So now their interstellar mission diverts to a planet it wasn’t supposed to be stopping at — probably not a good idea at all — and now they are wandering around on this other planet getting infected and dying. Twist! The room full of giant creepy facehugger eggs comes later rather than sooner, because the xenomorphs here haven’t quite yet developed into the HR Giger horrors to come (the events of Alien are still in the future).
Now, if Covenant were an Alien retread that actually understood what made Alien so effective, that might not be so bad! But instead if seems to be aping other sorry Alien retreads; this is yet another episode of “indistinct characters we never care about running around screaming and getting killed in various gruesome ways.” The reason that Alien and especially Aliens are so quotable is that all those amazing bits of dialogue are positively dripping with personality and individualized attitude: if you tried to give Hudson’s lines to Vasquez, or Ripley’s to Burke, it wouldn’t work; they would sound ridiculous. All those characters are so vividly drawn, and through the scantest conversations — the writing is sharp and clever and vibrant.
Not so in Covenant: almost everyone is completely interchangeable, and their dialogue nothing but the blandest of infodumps and plot mechanics that could be delivered by any other character. And there’s too many of them for any single one to get any meaningful moments. You can’t blame the cast, which is mostly made up of terrific actors, including Billy Crudup (20th Century Women, Spotlight) as the mission’s captain, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Steve Jobs) as his second in command, Carmen Ejogo (Selma, The Purge: Anarchy) as a scientist, and Demián Bichir (Lowriders, The Hateful Eight) as some sort of military officer. (Honestly, just try to figure out what everyone’s job is supposed to be, and why they are part of this mission. You mostly can’t.) Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse, Slow West) is back as Walter, a newer edition of the android, David, he played in Prometheus, and his role is the juiciest and also the most distinct… but it’s also the one that descends into those aforementioned tired banalities that have absolutely no place in what is, I suspect, intended to be cutting-edge science fiction.
And you can forget the intense claustrophobia of Alien and Aliens: Covenant spends a lot of time roaming around in the wide-open spaces of the planet: a vast forest; a vast abandoned alien city. Even when it is trying to ape Alien’s corner-the-thing-in-the-ducts sequence and Aliens’ blow-it-out-the-airlock scene, which it will do later, there’s no feeling of dangerous confinement. How did Ridley Scott (The Martian, Exodus: Gods and Kings) forget how to do this?
But probably the most regrettable thing about Covenant is that in attempting to expand the Alien story and its universe, the movie only ends up diminishing it. This is extra ironic thanks to the flashback that opens the movie, dating from before the events of Prometheus, in which Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce: Holding the Man, Results), creator of David, speaks to David about his search for the origins of humanity. Weyland believes that everything that humanity does — such as create great art — is meaningless unless we know how humanity came to be. (Refuting that is an argument for another time.) Weyland finds it unsatisfactory to think that humans are an accident of evolution, the result of nature’s chance, and he is convinced that humans were created much as he created David. And, indeed, Prometheus vindicated this belief, with the introduction of the alien Engineers, who appear to have constructed humanity from the DNA up.
It’s hardly a spoiler, because it was already hinted at in Prometheus: Covenant edges toward the idea that the Aliens, the acid-for-blood xenomorphs, are also the result of a deliberate creation, for a very deliberate purpose. That’s why they haven’t quite reached the form they will have in the future, when Ripley fights one on the Nostromo: the Aliens are not done being tinkered with yet. The sequel to Covenant that the ending of the movie promises would appear to be aimed at closing a circle that we didn’t even know existed: there are Big Reasons why the Nostromo crew will find what they find on LV426. And that is a diminution of the horror of Alien, which was about venturing in the unknown wilds of the universe and finding something mind-boggling by random chance in a big huge scary cosmos. (Yes, the Company knew something was there, but what was what the crew was supposed to find out.) There’s a wonderful presumption about what we might find Out There that is variously credited to astronomer Arthur Eddington and to biologist JBS Haldane: The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine. What Covenant does is take something that had been beautifully inexplicable — unimaginable, if you will — and shove it into a box that makes it explicable, imaginable, and consequently smaller, even frivolous. By removing the awful incomprehensibility of the Aliens, Covenant makes them far less scary, and far more ordinary.
After Covenant, I wanted nothing so much as to go home and watch Alien and Aliens again. They’re still fresher and way more fun, even upon a hundredth viewing, even once you’ve memorized them, than this blurry copy. Like a xerox of a xerox, Covenant has lost the sharpness of the original, its significance getting drowned out by meaningless noise.