If the famed director Ridley Scott were in art school, his professor would be yanking the paintbrush out of his hand — “it’s perfect, stop adding brush strokes!” His wife probably has to pull spices from his hands as he cooks. If you’ve been playing along with this Hollywood giant’s career you know that he can never leave well enough alone. I’ve lost count of how many “versions” there now are of his early sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) and, after years of threats, that film will have a sequel this October, Blade Runner 2049, though Scott opted to pass the directorial reigns over to Denis Villeneuve (Arrival).
Having exhausted returning to that particular sci-fi well, Ridley has moved back even earlier in his career to the film that made him famous, Alien (1979). He’s now directed two prequels to it (Prometheus and now ALIEN: COVENANT) and more films are promised. (Perhaps the controversial ending of 1991’s Thelma & Louise is the only thing that’s kept that film, the third member of his holy trinity of masterworks, free of his tinkering!).
So how’s the new film?
If you need a quick refresher, Alien: Covenant (2017) is the sequel to the Alien (1979) prequel Prometheus (2012), the first official Alien film to brave the horrific thrills without Sigourney Weaver’s authoritative presence. Prometheus is set in 2090 so her iconic character Lt. Ellen Ripley hadn’t quite been born yet (Alien taking place 32 years later). Scott’s ultimately unnecessary ambition was to tell a backstory about the origin of life itself both human and alien (mostly alien).
Despite the ill-advised idea — horror films are scary if they remain unknowable — at least Prometheus is a virtuosically crafted wonder. The unlucky crew discovered a strange planet where “the engineers,” who look like giant albino humanoids, lived. I’m summarizing and probably poorly, but the engineers created the original version of what would soon evolve into those face-hugging acid-blood xenomorphs that have become the ultimate sci-fi boogeymen.
Prometheus ends, as these films usually do, with its final girl (Noomi Rapace’s “Elizabeth Shaw”) escaping the trauma with the help of her suspicious android companion (Michael Fassbender as “David8”).
Alien Covenant takes place fourteen years or so later (which means Ripley is now a little tween somewhere out there in galaxy) and initially seems disconnected from Prometheus. Despite that it’s excessively familiar as the franchise entries share the same formula.
You have a ship full of a diverse crew of would be colonists and crew, some resourceful (☑️), some of them immensely stupid(☑️) not many of them warriors(☑️), but the camera seems most interested in one brunette female (☑️, though this time it’s neither Weaver nor Rapace but Katharine Waterston as “Daniels”) and an android(☑️, Fassbender again… this time as “Walter”). The crew receive an SOS message from a distant inhabitable planet, where none should be, and they think “Hey, let’s investigate!” (☑️). Cue: scary music and alien mayhem(☑️). The Alien franchise is, at heart, a horror franchise set in outerspace so characters are required to do stupid things just as they do in slasher pictures. ‘Look there’s a bunch of blood. I think I’ll follow the trail into the dark basement / garage / woods!’
For reasons one can only presume are a market-driven olive branch to America’s noisy fundamentalist crowd the commander this time is a born again man named Oram (Billy Crudup) who complains to his wife Karin (Carmen Ejogo) that the crew doesn’t trust him because they fear he won’t make rational decisions due to his faith.
Because it’s a colonization mission the crew is filled with married couples. We have to ask, though: do LGBT people really not exist in the 22nd century? That’s super confusing given the franchise’s time frame. And when you add the subtextually gay David8 into the mix (the film begins with a flashback to Fassbender’s shady Prometheus android) it only makes things more uncomfortable in terms of the heternormative sexual politics.
Character stupidity is a staple of the horror genre (who doesn’t make questionable choices when terrified?) but sometimes it goes too far. Alien Covenant‘s most disastrous move is the character of Oram. He’s given a more thorough character description than any other human member of the cast (in that he has one at all!) but his decisions are so dumb and muddled that you can’t tell if the film is trying to humiliate the faith-based audience who might be rooting for him or if he’s making the errors because he’s trying to make rational decisions that aren’t faith-based. Is this Hollywood trying to have it both ways or is this just poor screenwriting?
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD
Oram’s stupidity is amply punished with a death you can see coming before he even takes the stairs into this film’s version of the scary basement.
Though Covenant lacks any action scene to rival that thrilling and sick abortion sequence in Prometheus, it’s still damn scary a couple of times. One of the best directed / acted / edited sequences is in the sick bay where doomed Karin is attending to a wounded coworker.
Consider it a missed opportunity that always reliable and beautiful Carmen Ejogo (last seen as the top American official in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t given the largest female role; she feels much less like a Ripley hand-me-down and more like her own original character. Covenant‘s visual glories are by and large less pronounced than Prometheus‘s too, partially because we’ve returned to the same locale.
The movie nearly makes up for its narrative and visual disappointments with double the dose of the perpetually perfect Michael Fassbender. The first trailers wisely didn’t spoil the fact that David8 returns but as if placing a cherry on top of that sweet surprise, the film’s most gripping scenes are nearly all of the Fassbender vs Fassbender variety. Walter is a model descended from the David8 but with the bugs worked out so he’s no longer homicidally curious. The two androids argue, they play the flute (no, really… “I’ll do the fingering”), they kiss (Fassbender’s look of artificially intelligent befuddlement is choice), they fight. Fassbender + Fassbender is the reason to buy a ticket.
Even though we didn’t need another Alien film, particularly given how many imitators that franchise has already sparked (remember Life this spring with Jake Gyllenhaal? Practically a clone!), we have another. Whether or not you choose to see it there will always be another coming, for better and worse. Mostly worse though even the “bad” films in this franchise have great moments– yes, even the much-maligned Alien³ (1992) and the bizarre Alien: Resurrection (1997). I can’t particularly explain my loyalty given the redundancies but I guess I’ve married in for the long haul, in mysterious sickness and short lived health, ’til gory alien-bursting-from-chests death do us part.