‘Alien: Covenant’ Is Lost In Space
Ridley Scott’s prequel has no scares but plenty of pretension
Thursday, May 11, 2017
“Alien Covenant,” how do I hate thee, let me count the ways …
Referencing Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet as a means of summing up my feelings for Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant” (opening May 19 throughout San Diego) is more fitting than you might think. Scott’s new “Alien” prequel quotes Browning’s contemporaries Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, and fancies itself a kind of poetical, existential work of science fiction. But sadly it fails miserably.
Not since George Lucas made his “Star Wars” prequels has a filmmaker revisited a franchise that he created and gone so wrong as Scott now does with his "Alien" prequels. Scott's 1979 "Alien" remains an iconic horror/sci-fi classic that came at a time when likable, even lovable, aliens and robots were a thing. So "Alien" leapt out of the dark to remind people that space creatures and robots should be scary.
But Scott abandoned the franchise and left the sequels to such big name directors as James Cameron ("Aliens," 1986), David Fincher ("Alien 3," 1992), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Alien Resurrection," 1997). Then there are those "AvP" films, which are like a bastard offshoot of the original film.
The first “Alien” was a tense, claustrophobic sci-fi horror film that worked on the simple principle of something scary jumping out of the dark at you. It boasted H.R. Giger's brilliant design for an alien that seemed designed to do nothing except kill and survive.
But Scott’s two prequels, “Prometheus” and now “Covenant,” completely abandon that classic movie monster formula that was so primally satisfying in the first film for a pretentious meditation on where we come from and who created us.
The prequels are set in the "Alien" universe but well before Dallas, Ripley, and the Nostromo had their lethal encounter with the less than friendly xenomorph. In "Prometheus," a pair of scientists, have been studying past civilizations in the hopes of finding a key to man's origins. Their mission goes awry and "Prometheus" ends with David (Michael Fassbender), an android, and Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) escaping a dangerous planet.
"Covenant" does not exactly pick up where "Prometheus" left off but the crew of the new ship Covenant is out to colonize an Earth-like planet far off in space and along the way, they cross paths with the USS Prometheus and once again the idea of man's origins comes up.
There are a pair of Prologue videos on YouTube that were released to create buzz for the prequel but those scenes are not in the film. And that is a shame because they actually did stir my interest and make me hopeful. The scenes are The Crossing and The Last Supper and probably because of a two-hour plus running time were left out of the film. But you can still watch them in the links included here.
In "Prometheus," there was at least a nice parallel between the humans seeking their origins and the android David knowing his. The suggestion being that maybe whatever created the human race is not something god-like and holds no answers. Or that the answers, like the answer David gets about his creation, will not be very satisfying. But "Covenant" makes a different turn and takes the story in more of a Dr. Frankenstein direction by looking at a creator who thinks himself a god because he creates life and attempts to control it.
Now I have nothing against cerebral science fiction, in fact, I love films like “2001” and “Ex Machina.” But “Covenant” only thinks it is cerebral. It preens and postures like the character of David and wants us to admire all that it has done. Unfortunately, the script by John Logan and Dante Harper just isn't very clever and never embraces any sense of real horror.
Because the characters are never developed (in a crew of 15 I cannot even remember the names or faces of half the people) and we do not feel emotionally invested in them, there is not a single moment of tension or one genuine scare anywhere in the film’s two-hour running time. In the press materials, Scott is quoted as saying, "‘We’re going to make a hard R-rated film, and we’re going to need a lot of claret" (which is a term for film blood). But gore alone does not make a horror film and in "Covenant" all it elicits is an "oooh that looked nice" response to all the "claret."
Another central problem is the alien simply does not look as good as the one in the first film because Scott seems to have forgotten what made the creature work so well originally. The first film was all about keeping the alien hidden in the shadows and nooks and crannies of the ship so our imagination could fill in details. But in "Covenant" the design looks sort of like Giger's but just not as good in its new CGI form. There is some interest in the way the film looks to the origins and creation of the alien itself but again it is just never well-developed or executed.
“Prometheus” is often cited by real scientists as a film they hate because the scientists are portrayed as dumb and follow none of the edicts of good science. Things do not improve in “Covenant.” Not all the characters are meant to be scientists but the crew of the colony ship Covenant display an intelligence level that makes the characters in “Idiocracy” look bright.
Here are just a few of the dumb things done by this crew. They discover a new and mysteriously hidden planet, and when they land, they wear no protective gear or helmets and guess what? They get infected with some lethal spores. Then when two crew members — one infected and one not — come on board, another crew person locks them in quarantine and after refusing to open the door to let the uninfected person out, suddenly and foolishly returns to open the door, slip on some blood and drop her weapon. Oh, and did I mention that only moments before the other female crew member also slips on the blood and falls. Really?
Then the crew is made up of couples, apparently because this is like some space ark and everyone has to be paired up to colonize the planet. Because of the emotional ties between married couples, everyone makes bad decisions that put the ship and the mission in jeopardy because they are too emotional about the well being of their partner to think clearly.
Then as bodies pile up nobody seems to proceed with any more caution as they explore the planet and meet its sole inhabitant. And because the film fails to develop any of the characters in any meaningful way, there is no tension as to their fates and no sense of concern over their deaths.
Once again though, Fassbender is the only interesting thing in the film. In "Prometheus" he played David and he reprises that role here as well as taking on the role of a lookalike android named Walter. Both these android characters prove to be more interesting than any of the humans and that is mostly the result of Fassbender's clever performance.
The film also looks good visually in terms of some of the production design and cinematography. But many effects shots seem to exist only as something to try and impress us and not really as a well integrated part of the story.
"Alien: Covenant" (rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity) is even more disappointing and aggravating than "Prometheus." One friend leaving the theater said they never want to see another "Alien" film again. Unfortunately, Scott has two more prequels in the works and based on his track record so far, I am not very hopeful that it will deliver anything good. But then Scott has always been a wildly erratic director delivering gems like "Alien," Blade Runner," and "Thelma and Louise," but then bombs like "1492," "Robin Hood," and "Exodus."
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