Director: Ridley Scott
Starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demian Bachir
Out of ****
Oh man, this one hurts.
I think I should start by acknowledging that the original Alien, is one of my favorite Sci-Fi/Horror films ever made, and James Cameron’s sequel is one of my 10 favorite movies. There are no two films in a series that so successfully depict, more or less the same material, in two completely different ways. Alien is basically Halloween in space, while Aliens plays like a Vietnam War film.
Alien alongside Ridley Scott’s second feature (and masterpiece) Blade Runner, make up an almost unequaled career-opening one-two punch. Unfortunately for Scott, his subsequent efforts have mostly been lofty ambitious ideas, failed in one way or another by puzzling story arcs or directorial decisions by the man at the helm. I have learned to expect disappointment from Scott, who has helmed much hyped post-millennium properties such as American Gangster, Hannibal, Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies, etcetera, etcetera.
Once again I was suckered into having high hopes for Ridley's latest opus. The buzz around Covenant is that it is a return to what made the first two films so visceral and harrowing. The reality is unfortunately, that this is still very much a sequel to 2012’s profoundly stupid Prometheus. The meandering, surface deep ambitions of existential exploration are still present, but the questions left open by the pretzel-twisting logic of its predecessor’s screenplay are unceremoniously dropped; creating a tortoise shell of a premise without a turtle inside. Why Scott didn’t cut his losses and simply abandon connections to the 2012 dud is a frustration that followed me out of the theater. The Engineers of humanity depicted in the first film, (the shaved, Stone Golem looking guys, who raised 5 new questions for every 1 that they answered) are merely an anecdote here, rather callously dispensed with in a way that is just as maddening as the convoluted Chariots of the Gods horse-shit that was lavished upon us in Prometheus.
The film’s opening (after a brief re-introduction to Michael Fassbender’s android David, and some dialogue and ideas lifted straight from the aforementioned masterpiece Scott already made about creators' relationship to their creations) is pretty typical of the Alien-universe. We join the crew of the Covenant spaceship, whose destination is a planet said to contain necessary atmosphere for sustaining human life. Their mission is to deliver two thousand some-odd colonists frozen in Cryo-sleep, with the goal of starting a new civilization. We spend some time meeting the crew, and even get a bizarre and extremely brief cameo from James Franco, which doesn’t have a prayer of avoiding being unintentionally funny. Most of the rather disposable party members may as well have gotten a similarly brief cameo, because we get almost no sense of who they are or how they relate to one another. They’re all supposed to be paired as couples, but the screenplay can barely be bothered to explain who’s romantically entwined with whom. Katherine Waterson plays Daniels, the obvious Ripley surrogate here. Waterson handles herself quite nicely in this role – at least when she’s not dropping off-screen for chunks of the second act, while we watch her fellow crew members wander off by themselves to get eviscerated, like they’re in a goddamn Friday the 13th sequel. Michael Fassbender has a dual role as both the android David from Prometheus, and the synthetic aboard the Covenant ship. Scott has a lot of interest in this derivative Blade Runner notion of the maker being unmade by what he makes and what not. Fassbender is perfect in this role, but the attention these two characters get ends up sucking the air out of the rest of the film. There’s a seemingly endless sequence that made me want to slit my wrists, where Fassbender and Fassbender quote Ozymandias and play a flute or something, for each other. I really wished the droids would shut the hell up and get out of the way of my Alien movie.
The inciting events are setoff by a rather unwise decision made by the Covenant's inexperienced captain (the spectacularly nut-less Billy Crudup); rerouting them for a different planet, because of its immediate proximity and supposed similarity to Earth's atmospher. Hell quite quickly breaks loose once they land, compounded by the mostly anonymous crew’s rather dumb decisions. I laughed during Prometheus, when a renowned scientist decided to take his helmet off after surveying a strange-world’s atmosphere for 15 minutes; these morons don’t even put their helmets on on the way out the door. Other similarly brilliant choices are made, such as their propensity for wandering off solo, and firing a shotgun at an advancing Xenomorph when in it is in front of some rather obviously explosive barrels.
The brilliance of the first two Alien films was that, next to Sigourney Weaver, the monsters were the co-star. They were an omnipresent dread, so terrifying that we were left thinking about them even when off-screen; as if they were at all times crawling in an air-duct towards the heroes. Covenant makes the unfortunate decision of putting the creatures on the sidelines. Depicted mostly as a side-effect of genetic and evolutionary meddling, the Aliens are not the primary threat in the grand scheme of things. Even the requisite cat and mouse chase through the corridors of the ship, feels rushed and completely anti-climactic; as if those of us who waited 20+ years for another decent Alien movie, weren’t looking forward to that exact moment. The parts of Covenant that do focus on the title-creature feel borrowed from the other films in the series, and often times it’s not even borrowing the best parts. Unlike the original film, the Xenomorph is over exposed, puzzlingly-visible, seen clumsily descending ladders over a CCTVcamera. Unlike Aliens, where the dumb-ass expendable characters all unceremoniously dispatched in one terse 5-minute sequence, here they hang around to be killed one by one, sadly never hearing one of their cohorts so much as use their name. Even the late, great Bill Paxton’s grunt character was smart enough to turndown such surefire suicide-missions; greeting a chance to go outside and manually repair a cooling tower with the brilliant retort: “oh yeah..sure, with those things running around? You can count me out.” Even the criminally underrated Alien 3 lends some of its relentless bleakness, but the stakes of this film and the character’s reactions never quite allow the nasty-tone to take hold.
Alien Covenant is not total waste, there’s a couple of sequences in particular that pulsate; including a kick-ass set-piece aboard an escaping shuttle; which features Daniels dangling from a bungee outside trying to shoot a moving target crawling around the exterior. That scene and a few others play like gangbusters on a big screen. Unfortunately there’s simply not enough tension and not enough attention paid to the Covenant crew, to really get our hearts pounding. The film is instead distracted by ideas already explored in much better and worse Ridley Scott movies. If Sir Ridley wanted to make a film focusing on the ramifications of creation, both of the human race and the devils spawned from it, as well as the dynamic between the Replicants err I mean synthetics and their view of humanity, then he should’ve just directed the goddamn Blade Runner sequel we’re getting this year, that no one asked for. There are 2 more Alien movies set to follow this one, but if they are going to continue to explore these well trodden themes to diminishing returns, well you can count me out.