By Henry Kulick
Ridley Scott’s Alien helped define the sci-fi genre in film almost 40 years ago. It’s hard to believe that Xenomorphs have been tearing through ill-equipped crews for that long, but May’s release of Alien: Covenant marks the eighth film to take place in this universe, and the third to be directed by Scott.
If anything, this goes to show those story elements that worked back in 1979 can still leave an audience white-knuckled and craving more. But through all that time, the same predictable mistakes are still being made and I’ve got to wonder how much longer it can last.
Alien: Covenant puts the personnel of a colony ship through the masher as they decide to deviate from their ideal plan mid-journey of colonizing a planet years away for one that presented itself in some sort deathly deus ex machina. This skeleton crew of scientists, mercenaries, and officers stumble over one another and even themselves as they come to realize this new world is closer to hell than home. It’s one heck of a journey watching them come to this realization, but the viewer can’t help but feel a bit of I-told-you-so as things come to their devious end.
While a few of the details are changed, this will sound par for the course for most fans of the franchise. It’s the Xenomorph’s bloodthirsty double-jaw that flocks an audience, but everyone knows by now that the character’s decision making within these films is sometimes the bigger enemy. The crew of the Covenant takes this concept to market and reaps all of its eye-rolling reward.
The crew of the Covenant isn’t as blue collar as those aboard the Nostromo were, but they’re not the highly-trained professionals aboard the Prometheus either. They fall somewhere in the middle of these two groups. Well trained, but also just names on a dotted line.
But even with that in mind, this small group has the lives of 10,000 hibernating colonists in their hands. Before leaving Earth, there must have been a few meetings about protocol—namely, not changing which planet you’re allowed to colonize.
These actions taken in the first ten or so minutes set the somewhat ridiculous tone of the movie. Dumb people doing dumb things and facing the consequences. This tone is rarely betrayed by any of the actions that follow through the rest of the film. And it’s kind of a bummer.
While Tennessee, played by Danny Mcbride, isn’t exempt from poor decision making, he quickly becomes the fan favourite along with the main lead, Daniels, who’s played by Katherine Waterston. These two seem to be the only characters that really deserve any praise, besides Michael Fassbender’s David and Walter. That’s right, Fassbender is doing double duty in this film, returning as the synthetic David from Prometheus, as well as a 2.0 model that’s less prone to, you know, stabbing.
The trio’s acting may have compelled the story on its own. Mcbride, best known for drug-using, debauched roles is very fresh and effective in giving life to the colony ship’s pilot–someone who experiences loss, but still wants to do what’s right for the greater good. Waterson was going to be compared to Sigourney Weaver from the day of her casting and while there aren’t feet big enough to fill those shoes, she does a great job of portraying a no-nonsense officer that drives the story forward.
Speaking of driving the story forward, Fassbender’s ability to act as himself speaking to, well, himself didn’t come off as corny, but interesting, and very emotional at times.
Four entertaining characters don’t save a story, especially when the beats in that story that revolve around them are as predictable as they could ever be. Specifically, the relationship between the two synthetics and how their story intertwines is one of the most predictable things you’ll see on-screen in 2017. There were audible scoffs in the theatre when the big reveal was made at the end.
However, the Alien franchise seems to get a pass on the fill-in-the-blank scriptwriting, because as I mentioned earlier, these characters are usually meat for the machine that is the movie’s namesake. It’s through the namesake, the aliens themselves, that I was immediately reminded why I was in the theatre.
When they hit somewhere around the forty minute mark, they hit hard and fast. In fact, I’ll give most characters a pass for the bad decisions they made during the film’s most blood-pumping moments—the alien’s literal gut-wrenching arrival. Things happen so quickly that it’s hard to imagine anybody acting as they should. It was on before I knew what was happening and it was over around the same time I realized there was a giant smile plastered across my big, bearded head.
CGI is relied upon exclusively to give life to the various extraterrestrial monsters. This sometimes came off looking very dated, like the work wasn’t finished. It was pretty odd for a big-budget film in 2017, but what’s more frustrating is that the Alien franchise has always flourished in the use of makeup, costumes, and practical effects. Also known as a man in a giant, obsidian suit.
With the pioneering that’s been made in costume design from people like Greg Nicotero and his work on The Walking Dead, or Neal Scanlan’s awesome old-school approach to designing the aliens in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s very odd that Ridley Scott didn’t go back to his practical roots for applicable scenes in Alien: Covenant.
Other than the CGI-heavy scenes, the production value of Alien: Covenant is best it’s ever been in the entire franchise. For all the flak that Prometheus deservedly gets, set design and art direction was the name of the game and it achieved a unique, powerful setting because of it. As we transition from the Engineer’s storyline and into the alien’s, we see two worlds coming together.
And while I enjoy the shift in scale, there’s something that every fan is going to have to swallow: the alien’s origin is no longer an unknown. Hell, its origin is almost familial to the human race,, and not a lot of viewers will enjoy that.
From a filmmaker’s perspective, Ridley Scott is clearly passionate about his beloved franchise, even after all this time. With a want to explain everything and leave nothing to the imagination, it comes down to the level of respect that should be given to the audience. From the shoddy script, to the excessive CGI, to the intent of the movie itself, he and his creative team should have taken the time to wonder whether the Covenant’s story was worth telling in its final state.
A large majority of the people who showed up to Alien: Covenant are fans of the work Scott’s done in the past. That doesn’t mean that the same story can be regurgitated with different actors. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean that the things we loved about the original Alien have ever gone anywhere.
Even with my complaints, I walked out of the theatre nodding my head. Satisfaction from the Alien franchise derives entirely from R-rated death scenes and at least one protagonist overcoming the wretched thing, if only for now. That’s exactly what Alien: Covenant delivers, even if the package is a bit dusty and the delivery driver took the worst route possible to get there.
With only a few films left, maybe even just one, to link Prometheus to Alien, I have to wonder what Ridley Scott has in store next. I have high hopes that he knows how to conjoin this saga because this franchise has taken enough of a beating. One thing is for sure: good or bad, I’ll still be paying the price of admission.
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Henry Kulick is an InFocus blogger and film writer who’s almost always in front of a screen. He’s always looking for the newest worthwhile stories to drool over, and they’re almost always in film and television. That’s where you’ll find him. You can also find him on Twitter (@Gatorfolk).