Alien: Covenant Review | An Essay on Why Ridley Scott Shouldn’t Make Alien Films Anymore

WORDS: Patrick Kolan |  @patchkolan

There are a few ways I want to approach this, so let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way. Alien: Covenant is a very pretty, very watchable disappointment in all the same ways as Prometheus before it. Nothing in the intervening years demonstrates to me that Ridley Scott has learned about what an Alien film is and isn’t—the heart of what makes his own Alien, and James Cameron’s Aliens, true science fiction masterworks. This critique stands in hope that some of the discourse enters the collective psyche and he either clears out of this franchise for good, or more hopefully, he course-corrects.

In clear terms, this is Prometheus 2. This is not Aliens Redux. Those hoping for the charm of Sigourney onboard the Nostromo or the clever, well-paced tension a marine squad clearing a site will find only shades here.

Instead, we follow another crew on their journey to colonise a planet, led by yet another incapable captain – this time played by Billy Crudup and supported by, frankly, too many characters to create a clean central throughput for the audience to follow. I mean, we’re supposed to connect with Katherine Waterston’s second-in-command, Daniels. Yet, she’s often relegated to tearful reactions that I suppose the audience is expected to mirror. Michael Fassbender returns as Walter and David – two droids, weirdly played at times as starcross’d lovers, a veritable Fassblender, or Fassgrindr – Fassturbation material in someone’s wacky future fanfic.

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So much potential here; once again, we have a great cast who are under-utilised.

Guy Pearce and James Franco both enjoy about five minutes’ cumulative screen time, rounding out a rather excellent cast, featuring Danny McBride playing Kenny Fucking Powers in a Space Suit and Amy Seimetz as the lady who screws everything up for everyone. Along the way, storytelling logic also gets blown out of the goddamned airlock. There are tears, fits of rage, explosions, panic-induced decisions and plenty of viscera. The LEGO pieces are all here for a satisfying Alien instalment, but nobody read the instructions – they just looked at the picture on the box and went for it.

Unlike Prometheus, which aimed to establish a mystery (as muddled as it was), Covenant simply focuses on the wrong moments. The crew gloss over the discovery of a gigantic alien craft full of – human – dog tags, barely squeezing out a reflective line of exposition. As a result, we spend three seconds reflecting on the surviving members of Prometheus crew, a pivotal connection for the audience that also serves to tie the films’ antagonists together. Shortly after this, we also spend six minutes watching two robots playing the recorder. The pretension is palpable.

There’s a lot of poor decision-making going on in Alien: Covenant; once again, scientists use exactly zero of their assumed scientific know-how while exploring uncharted alien worlds. They walk around in no protective gear, sniffing, stomping, plucking at flora, pissing in the wind and generally sticking their fingers and faces into all manner of untested exotic material. Then, of course, someone gets sick and everyone panics and acts like assholes.

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Note: if you’re a scientist on an alien exoplanet, maybe watch where you step.

Why? Why is it so hard to work meaningful scientific practice into Prometheus and Alien: Covenant? I’m not asking for a lot here: protective gear, an ounce of restraint, a thread of logic behind the action – something that might indicate the crew actually were the best candidates earth could find to populate a new planet. In a post-Trump, Idiocracy world, maybe this really is the dystopian timeline we can look forward to.

This harkens back toward the basic biology of an Alien film: it’s about the audience projecting themselves into the situation. It’s about experiencing the horror and developing empathy with the crew.

What Alien isn’t: it’s not about the aliens. This might seem counter to the whole production, but an Alien film has so little to do with Giger’s ‘xenomorph’, that the franchise really should be retitled ‘Screaming Down Corridors in Space’. Historically, the titular alien, the central threat, is an expressionless, unreadable foe that drives suspense, prompts jumps, makes you fear the silence and the blind corner. Not seeing the thing chasing you is infinitely scarier than knowing exactly what’s behind you. It’s a base fear we all inherit.

Alien is also not about knowing what these creatures are, where they come from, who made them, why they made them. It’s not about the origin of species and their genetic variations, the conditions of their birth, the differences between chest-bursters or egg-borne crawlers. These are questions that need not be asked. It doesn’t matter.

Rather, this is liner-notes stuff, to be worked into the novelization or referenced in the making-ofs, pandering to the most die-hard of Alien fans. It does not aid the effectiveness of the horror. At best, it only serves to pad out the poor pseudo-science behind the series, relying on a muddled backstory involving, um, invasive alien bioweapon pathogens, weird alien spores, a race of proto-human beings who had a hand in creating the human race, robots questioning the purpose of their existence, an evil corporation somehow underpinning the whole fiasco …are you still with me?

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Outstanding mix of practical and digital effects, mired by the film’s insistence on spoiling the ambiguity and tension at every turn.

Let’s say it together: the brilliance of the Alien franchise is the art of suspense and the projection of basic hunter/prey fear. It’s really that simple. Pit your hero against a force they don’t understand, in circumstances that require guts and creativity to overcome. Hold the shot for a while. Kill the soundtrack. Keep the field of view tight and the lights low. Shoot in reverse, keeping your subject in frame and the viewer guessing. Throttle the pace of these scenes. Don’t telegraph the action or the twists. Show less. Keep us guessing.

All of these points are underlined in the final act, where you might expect the stakes to be raised; lone survivors to be constantly on edge, creeping around corridors and translating their tension into that of the audience. But no, instead we have one character very literally tracking the alien the whole time, constantly updating the crew on where it is, while the heroes also blatantly spell out their next moves like a poorly narrated game of chess. How is an audience supposed to draw tension and fear out of a sequence if every move is announced, then delivered, one after another? These are basic, systemic flaws that should have been worked out of the script years ago.

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What is this, A Cure for Wellness? If you’re going to play on philosophy, make sure your shooting script isn’t made of Swiss cheese.

All of these production maxims, and many others, are ignored in Alien: Covenant; it’s like Ridley Scott has defined horror by upping the body count – and in doing so, he’s ignored all but the most superficial, broad strokes of the franchise. Yes, it has quick-wriggling face-huggers; yes, it has labyrinthine spacecrafts occupied by sassy scientists and hayseed engineers. But he has neglected the beauty of subtlety, the power of a patient filmmaker’s gaze.

My final point: I find it so hard to fathom that this – this – was the story Ridley Scott chose to tell above all others. A meandering tale of pompous robots playing god; humans making poor decisions on the other side of a galaxy.

We know where the aliens come from. We know how the sausage is made. In this, the dread that is drawn from that dark place in the heart – the fear of the unknown – is gone forever. These are not hellbeasts, nor are they ants in a colony. They are just another misfired project, the product of ego and a misguided desire to go one-better. Ridley Scott and Fassbender’s David share this covenant.

2 stars

10 Comments Add yours

  1. Todd says:

    Bravo. This shear bone-cutting review cuts to the real marrow of truth about an effective Alien movie. Hunter-prey. Hitchcock would agree: Less is more, and what they’re given ng us here is more that is less. Being chased by an unseen but ostensibly powerful hunter is what drives great movies like Alien, Aliens, Predator, and more. Learning about how to defeat it is important, but knowing the full origin story is not. Indeed, having this powerful mysterious hunder come after us on a larger scale, closer to home, is scarier still. What we don’t need is some prequel giving us the Midichlorian equivalent of an explanation. Spot on review!

    Like

    1. Todd says:

      Bravo. This shear bone-cutting review cuts to the real marrow of truth about an effective Alien movie. Hunter-prey. Hitchcock would agree: Less is more, and what they’re giving us here is more that turns out to be less. Being chased by an unseen but ostensibly powerful hunter is what drives great movies like Alien, Aliens, Predator, and more. Learning about how to defeat it is important, but knowing the full origin story is not. Indeed, having this powerful mysterious hunter come after us on a larger scale, closer to home, is scarier still. What we don’t need is some prequel giving us the Midichlorian equivalent of an explanation. Spot on review!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Todd! Nice to know other people out there “get it” – let’s hope Ridley comes around…

        Like

  2. Patrick Bateman says:

    “What Alien isn’t: it’s not about the aliens.”

    Totally disagree. There are a thousand boring movies about running down corridors of spaceships trying not to die. Alien is partly unique because its aliens are so completely horrifying and so literally alien thanks to Giger.

    “Alien is also not about knowing what these creatures are, where they come from, who made them, why they made them.”

    Totally agree with this, however (a point which contradicts the earlier quote above, by the way). The xenos are unknown and unknowable, just as the original space jockey was. Scott has completely stuffed up the series by retconning the latter into a big blue space human, and now revealing wayyyy too much about the former.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. JxM says:

      Agree with all this. Alien IS about the Aliens: An enigmatic, interstellar apex predator/parasite. There’s so much you could do with them, both narratively and dramatically, if you treat them like a real creature — I mean, they must do something other than drool, bite and rape. How about humans landing on THEIR home planet, what else lives there? How do they fit into that food chain? Did they have their only civilization or coexist with another? How about characters interacting with them in some other way, like commercials with sad music showing abused Aliens in cages up for adoption… ANYTHING, literally ANYTHING but the premise that they were created by the same guy that taught Fred Flintstone how to draw stick figures.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks so much for taking the time!

        Like

  3. armontiago says:

    When the rumor that Neil Blomkamp was set to direct the next Alien movie I was excited for the franchise as I’m sure many others were as well. Ridley Scott gave us the true survival horror start that it needed. James Cameron made it his own with great humor and more action. David Fincher… tried and got his break so he could develop his own style. Sadly this is where we stand today.
    Alien Isolation the video game was the perfect example of where Ridley Scott should of taken the franchise. It is set between Alien and Aliens and has Ripley’s daughter searching for her mother. Alone on a ship that has the answer yet everything has gone wrong. The story slowly gives you clues of type of horror that is after you but you don’t know what it is and that’s what made Alien great in the first place. In the game you only have a few supplies to help you progress, flashlight, motion detector, pistol, and a few items you can make to help distract the creature that’s stalking you. There is a point in the game where you first have a real chance of being killed by the Alien where I was truly scared. It’s faster than you and it can’t killed, so your only choice is to slowly make your way through the level. You become engrossed in your surroundings, every sound you hear gives you clues to where it is and where it’s going. This level, the medical bay, perfectly defined what was so great about the franchise. An unknown horror lurking in the vents, all the while you have no defense and no escape. Ripley simply outsmarted best hunting her down and that’s what made Alien great. I know that it was only a game and a majority of people will never try it but if you love the movies then you should at least try it.
    Society has changed since 1979, people are so easily distracted that they need a cut seen every 1.7 seconds or whatever it may be. If Hitchcock was born I 1978 would we have a Vertigo coming out this summer, I doubt it and that’s sad. Hollywood is a reflection of our culture and our culture seek out the newest Marvel movie or Fast and Furious. I see people around me beeping excited for the newest pile of garbage that Hollywood spews out. I try to introduce friends to something older that has meaning yet is much slower than what they are used. I watch as they become immediately bored, start playing with their phones, and want to change to the newest Fifty Shades movie. That’s SAD to me. It’s sad that we get remake after remake and when an original like Ridley Scott reboots his own franchise with the same dribble that is leaking from Hollywood it can only mean one of two things, one of which I hope is true, that the studio is driving it in this direction, or he has lost touch with what made the original so special. That’s why we either need new blood in this franchise or sadly let it die.
    I have yet to see the newest installment but I’m already disappointed. Sorry for the long comment but I’m passionate about the subject as you are. Thanks for the review

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    1. Spot-on! Thanks for the thoughtful response– and totally agree about Alien: Isolation too.

      Like

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