Alien: Covenant

Since James Cameron’s Aliens, none of the Alien films have known quite what to do with the titular beast that serves as the series’ most distinguishing feature. As early as David Fincher’s (underrated) Alien 3, the creature’s antics seem perfunctory, thoroughly demystified through familiarity. Indeed, the lifecycle of the beast has become so obvious that later films have felt the need to speed it up in order to avoid any audience impatience; the creature’s gestation and growth, which seemed somewhat drawn-out in the first three pictures, now seems to occur in a matter of minutes.

Little wonder that subsequent Alien films have tried to find ways to divert focus from the creature, or at least find new ways to contextualize it. Covenant‘s predecessor, Prometheus never properly featured the beast at all, content to only gesture at it through distant relatives. Prometheus created a new monster to serve as its focus: an android Frankenstein’s monster grappling with his disappointment in his human creators.

This same monster, Michael Fassbender’s David, serves as the center of Covenant, and his mad artist-cum-scientist proves to be much more terrifying than the CGI beasts that also populate the film (outside of one or two moments, Covenant‘s beasties–some familiar, some vaguely new–are treated with all the ho-hum obligation that characterized the use of velociraptors in Jurassic Park sequels). He also has a much more complex emotional life than any of Covenant‘s vacuous humans (as with Prometheus, the human beings seem to have been drawn using dotted-lines). The film never works better than when we get glimpses of the curious insanity behind David’s ambitious, horrifying attempt to fill the void of his own purposelessness with artistic creation, which Covenant accentuates through his interactions with a new android, Walter, both his double and his foil.

Covenant has other admirable touches when Ridley Scott goes full-on Ridley Scott, recreating Böcklin paintings and utilizing excerpts from Wagner operas on the soundtrack. Covenant has vistas that few recent blockbusters can match, including a haunting necropolis–the Pompeii-like ruins of an alien civilization–wherein much of the story’s action unfolds. These elements add aesthetic grandeur to what is essentially a riff on The Island of Doctor Moreau (following after Prometheus‘ variation on At the Mountains of Madness).

Alas, much of Alien: Covenant finds Ridley Scott straining to be James Cameron. Scott has never been particularly skilled at building the kind of clockwork blockbuster sequences that Cameron or Spielberg so excel at crafting. Scott lacks the careful sense of geography, of meticulous setup and payoff, required for big, thrilling, action spectacle. The big set-pieces in Covenant (which generally feel like rehashes of iconic beats from the prior alien features) only have life when Scott locates a striking image. The connective tissue is so perfunctory that it’s inert.

Scott has been open about his intention to make many more films in the series, and, accordingly, Covenant follows contemporary blockbuster convention in teasing yet another installment as it concludes. The lingering questions raised by Covenant aren’t enough to combat the feeling that the series has been suffocated by the staleness of its own conventions.

9 Replies to “Alien: Covenant”

  1. This is so right on. I’ve always thought that the original Alien was a film that was singularly allergic to sequels and world building. The impact of that film came from following the characters’ dawning comprehension that they’re trapped in the horrible life cycle of a merciless creature and also the life cycle of an evil corporation that designates the crew as vessels of wrath for its own ends. Once these incomprehensibly horrible things are out in the open, it can’t be a nightmare anymore, just action schlock (Aliens) or ponderousness (Prometheus) or some combination of the two (Alien: Covenant, I presume.) I won’t be seeing this one. For me, the destruction of the Nostromo is a buried footnote in the Weyland corporation’s logs and Ripley and Jonesey are still floating out there.

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    1. Hey now, Aliens is not schlock. In some ways I daresay it’s an even better film than Alien, which never entirely sheds its B-movie roots — though obviously part of what makes Aliens so good is the way it builds on the look and feel and structure of the original film.

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      1. Nah. Alien$ is the fanfic version of the first film. Same plot just with several aliens, the crew are soldiers, MOTHER is Paul Reiser, the robot is good, and the cat is a little girl. Plus the movie ruins the nightmare of the invincible creature since it turns out you can just end one with a sidearm to the head. It’s a fun film but exists in a different universe from the masterpiece original, with different rules and cartoony characters.

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      2. It’s weird that you can acknowledge the existence of the Paul Reiser character while also claiming that the film has “cartoony characters”. Giovanni Ribisi in Avatar was the cartoony version of Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens. The Paul Reiser character is masterfully written so that you don’t assume he’s a bad guy at first — he takes Ripley’s side against the Marines, for example — and it’s only later, as secrets are revealed and allegiances shift, that he turns into the corporate villain. You want cartoony? Try the android in the first film, who blathers some nonsense about the Xenomorph being “perfect” because it has no “delusions of morality”. That’s sci-fi B-movie boilerplate. (P.S. Anyone who thought the Xenomorph was “invincible” wasn’t paying attention to the final sequence in the original film, where Ripley didn’t even need a proper firearm to finish it off.)

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  2. I was apathetic to ALIENS for years. This changed when I returned to the theatrical cut for the first time in decades. It’s a night-and-day improvement on the extended version: economical, tense, immersive, and coherent.

    The characters in ALIENS are more cartoonish, but this feels like a necessity in the tight theatrical cut. Many of them barely have any screentime.

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    1. Hudson is certainly cartoonish. Maybe some of the other marines, too.

      But you know what else makes me think of the Ridley Scott film as “cartoonish”? The way the Xenomorph just sort of sits and hides and doesn’t pop out of the shadows until just the right moment to make people jump — it totally reminds me of that scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? where Bob Hoskins says, “You mean you could have slipped out of the handcuffs at any time?” and Roger Rabbit replies, “No, only when it was funny!” That’s the Xenomorph in Alien: Could it have lunged at Dallas at any time or stuck its hand out at Ripley in the shuttle pod at any time? No, only when it was scary! (Seriously, given that the motion tracker showed the Xenomorph moving towards Dallas, why is it in a stationary position with its head bowed down when Dallas finally turns around and shines his light on the Xenomorph?)

      And there’s a shot of the Xenomorph just sort of standing and waving its arms, right before it attacks Lambert, that has always looked to me like a man in a suit. Somehow Cameron’s film never loses the illusion for me.

      And then there’s that finale in Scott’s film, with Ripley in her underwear and the camera down low, pointing up at her crotch. Total B-movie move, and yet one more thing that Cameron manages to never do in his movie.

      Just a few more data points that come to mind whenever people try to exalt Scott’s film high above Cameron’s film as some sort of “masterpiece”.

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      1. I don’t think of the alien as being cartoonish in ALIEN because I see the film as trying to make the creature surreal and elemental. That shot from the attack on Lambert is in that vein.

        I think both ALIEN and ALIENS are great. If I have some preference for the former, it’s because it gets under my skin more. The uncommon rhythms of the storytelling, the creeping sense of utter isolation, the pervasive sense of dread, the alien as some kind of inhuman existential force… that all gets to me.

        But all that isn’t to minimize ALIENS’ considerable accomplishments. It’s an economical, immersive, thrilling film. It just doesn’t keep me up at night.

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  3. It’s in how the characters act for a largely static camera. Alien’s characters had a 1970s realism to them. There was casualness, nonchalance, in-jokes. You felt like you were hanging out with actual people doing a job. It’s immersive. People weren’t mugging for the camera and delivering lines. Aliens is a great action movie but that’s all it is.

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    1. “Alien is a great monster flick but that’s all it is.” See how that works?

      Not that I would ever be *that* dismissive of Alien. But I see no reason to be that dismissive of Aliens, either. Unless one has a prejudice against action movies in general, in which case your opinion of any given specimen of the genre doesn’t count for much.

      It’s funny that you’d say Alien doesn’t have people “delivering lines” when I already pointed out to you one of the cheesier bits of line delivery (the “delusions of morality” bit).

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