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.
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.
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?
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.
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.