Warning: This article/review contains spoilers.
As a massive Alien fan (and to an almost imperceptible lesser degree, an Aliens fan) I’m always excited for a new Alien movie, especially with Ridley Scott involved with the series again. Alien holds fond and terrifying memories for me because I had to sneak into a theater in 1979 when I was very young (too young!) in order to watch it... and it was glorious!
When Scott announced he was returning to the franchise that helped kickstart his studio career there was much rejoicing across the internet and within the intensely loyal (and critical) fandom surrounding it. Then he released the polarizing origin story in the form of the movie Prometheus. Not a bad effort by any account, nor a great effort. I am among those who really like the movie, and appreciate its themes, despite all the accompanying warts. Some fans appreciated that Scott was adding more world building and background to his already dark Alienverse, while others scoffed at the effort.
Despite all the community excitement surrounding this new series of Alien films, and in the very face of my own excitement, I can’t help but feel a large sense of disappointment after viewing Alien: Covenant. For the most part, despite enjoying it and finding it a fun and tense viewing experience, I still feel there is an empty hole in that enjoyment. How is it possible to enjoy something yet find a laundry list of inadequacies? There's seldom any grey area with it comes to film criticism these days. Critics and fans seem to either adore a film or absolutely revile it. Binary, black/white, adore/revile. When viewing Alien: Covenant, or any other movie for that matter (e.g. Prometheus), with an analog mindset it is possible to have that grey love/hate relationship with a film.
I liked many portions of Alien: Covenant, yet much of it came off as a lazy effort to turn the Alienverse ship back to a more xenomorph-centric course after all of the fan complaints about Prometheus, not limited to the following: lack of xenomorph, lack of facehuggers, lack of eggs, lack of acid blood, lack of chest bursting... you get the idea. Why does it come off as a lazy effort? Here’s why. Ridley Scott had full plans to do Prometheus 2, take us to the Engineer’s homeworld (loosely named Paradise) and continue to build on the origin story of biological warfare, biomechanical superbeings, and tying a rumored “war of the gods” together to arrive at that enigmatic crashed Juggernaut on LV-426 that is later discovered by the crew of the Nostromo. Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof had most of the Prometheus timeline planned out back in 2012, and none of it included the version of Alien: Covenant. But none of that was to be. Why?
The Long and Winding Road
In a 2012 interview with movies.com, Ridley Scott made the following statement related to the extension of the Engineer mythos in Prometheus 2. In the interview Scott is publicly justifying why he wanted to pursue the story of the Engineers:
“Because [the Engineers] are such aggressive fuckers . . . and who wouldn’t describe them that way, considering their brilliance in making dreadful devices and weapons that would make our chemical warfare look ridiculous? So I always had it in there that the God-like creature that you will see actually is not so nice, and is certainly not God. As she says, ‘This is not what I thought it was going to be, and I think we should get the Hell out of here or there won’t be any place to go back to.’That’s not necessarily planted in the ground at the tail end of the third act, but I knew that’s kind of where we should go, because if we’ve opened up this door — which I hope we have because I certainly would like to do another one – I’d love to explore where the hell [Dr. Shaw] goes next and what does she do when she gets there, because if it is paradise, paradise can not be what you think it is. Paradise has a connotation of being extremely sinister and ominous.” ~Ridley Scott, 2012
Scott is alluding that to tell this story in the next installment, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) will be alive and well to explore this new "paradise."
On the heels of the release of Prometheus came generally favorable reviews from critics... in addition to a lot of negativity from hardcore fans of the Alienverse. The two common complaints were that the new Engineers were not interesting or compelling (I disagree) and were a form of retconning the fossilized pilot shown in Alien, and that the crew (and their associated scientific skills) were portrayed poorly. Surely this got the wheels in Scott's head turning, as well as Fox executives taking note. After all, Prometheus was a mild hit ($403 million, worldwide). If we give the fans what they really want, Prometheus 2 will be a cash cow! Not necessarily.
In the meantime, Ridley Scott soldiered on with Prometheus 2 pre-production, still towing the line that the Engineer mythos would be prevalent, and that xenomorphs would not make an appearance. In 2014 he made following statement to Yahoo entertainment:
"The beast [xenomorph] is done. Cooked. I got lucky meeting [H.R.] Giger all those years ago. It’s very hard to repeat that. I just happen to be the one who forced it through because [the studio] said it’s obscene. They didn’t want to do it and I said, ‘I want to do it, it’s fantastic.’ But after four [Alien films], I think it wears out a little bit. There’s only so much snarling you can do. I think you’ve got to come back with something more interesting. And I think we’ve found the next step. I thought the Engineers were quite a good start." ~Ridley Scott, 2014
So it seemed clear that the Prometheus sequels would steer clear of xenomorph bug hunts and focus on the Engineers and the origins of the biomechanical horror we were first introduced to in Alien. But fans grumbled even louder.
Meanwhile, Scott finished a little hit called The Martian ($630 million, worldwide) which gave him momentum and leverage to actually push Prometheus 2 forward, and it received the official title... Alien: Paradise Lost, a reference to the epic poem by John Milton. Most fans assumed the “Alien” part of the title was tacked on for marketing purposes and the film would indeed follow the adventures of Dr. Shaw and David to the Engineer’s homeworld of Paradise as alluded to at the end of Prometheus. Just as abruptly the title was changed to Alien: Covenant and a short description was released by Fox that left many fans confused, because Dr. Shaw was not to be included. How can you have a Prometheus sequel if the main character flying off at the end of that movie is not to be found?
At some point Ridley Scott (and/or the studio) changed plans to return us to exactly the same Alien themes he publicly admitted are tired and overused: xenomorphs, et al. How did this happen? A combination of overzealous and loud fans, possibly in conjunction with the studio, made Ridley do a complete 180 on what he had publicly stated a mere two years before. Not only that, but they were going to re-commit one of the greatest sins in the Alien series... killing off a main character between movies. This was done with Alien³ when Newt, Hicks, and Bishop were unceremoniously killed between movies so the studio could push the franchise in a tangential direction. Fans remember this and fans despise this, and it’s one decision that leaves me sorely disappointed in Alien: Covenant because it shows the director, writers, and studio lacked vision and backbone to continue down a path of original ideas.
A Sum of Its Derivative Parts
So, that's all water under the bridge now. Scott hit that reset button, spun the steering wheel on the bridge of the massive Alienverse, and steered that ship to Alien: Covenant. Despite my ramblings above, it’s not a bad movie per se, yet it is still pretty much exactly what I expected after watching the development changes over the years... and after watching all the trailers. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Alien: Covenant is yet another Hollywood movie where the aggregate collection of trailers basically tells you the entire story. So stop watching trailers!
Despite a prologue consisting of a philosophical tit-for-tat between Weyland (Guy Pearce) and David (Michael Fassbender) that would have also worked as a prologue to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is decently paced, with excellent production value, special effects, and action sequences. But in the end it’s really just a well-produced retooling of Alien, sprinkled with leftover Prometheus lore for the sake of continuity. Wait... you don't believe me when I say it's a re-tooled Alien? Let me count the ways (massive spoilers):
- Ship detects a mysterious signal coming from a nearby planet.
- Crew discusses whether they should land or not.
- They land on said planet and begin walking to the source of the signal.
- They discover it's coming from a crashed Juggernaut ship, and enter it.
- Two crew members are infected and neomorphs burst from them; they kill many.
- (Slight deviations here involving David)
- Crewmember is attacked by facehugger, xenomorph birth occurs.
- Crew in orbit dispatches ship to pick up remaining crew.
- Xenomorph attaches itself to rescue ship, but is killed.
- Once they are back on the colony ship another xenomorph is born.
- Remaining crew herds it into a giant airlock and they flush it into space.
- (I won't give away the final, but predictable, ending.)
A few of the elements above are actually from Aliens, but the rest are clear parallels to events that happen in Alien, and this is the 4th movie that has used an airlock to kill some form of xenomorph at the end (Alien, Aliens, Alien: Resurrection, Alien: Covenant).
Aside from the blatant parallelisms listed above, there are some very nice touches and nods to the original Alien. In several parts of Covenant Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting main theme from Alien can be heard sneaking into the soundtrack. The bobbing water toy makes another appearance. Additionally, and somewhat oddly, there are also some pointers to Ridley Scott’s other classic film, Blade Runner. The opening shot of Covenant shows a close up of an eye similar to the beginning of Blade Runner. Both movies deal with the concept of “creator and created.” During a fight scene Walter (I believe) says “That’s the spirit!” to Daniels as she fights David and shoves a nail into his jaw. All similar themes from the fight between Deckard the Roy Batty. And finally, during the fight scene David slaps the gun out of Daniels’ hand just like Leon slapped Deckard’s pistol out of his hand. Whether these inclusions are an homage to Blade Runner or just recycled (and arguably lazy) android/replicant type behavior used by Scott in Alien: Covenant is up for debate. It does raise the interesting and age old question of whether the Alienverse and Blade Runner reside in the same setting/timeline. It’s a fun question to ponder, by my belief is that they do not... and should not.
Performances put in by the actors are believable, with Katherine Waterston being the standout in her portrayal of Daniels, who is the first person on the ship to lose their spouse when things go south. Much like Ellen Ripley in Alien, she turns from a run of the mille crewmember to a reluctant and forceful leader just to survive. This reinforces the fact that this is, indeed, a re-tooled Alien. Danny McBride was an odd casting choice. I kept waiting for James Franco to pop up and... oh, wait, James Franco did pop up! What a throw away character that was. I’m still baffled why Franco was in Alien: Covenant. Other than an online only marketing video, Franco’s screen time amounts to a welcome five second shot of his face.
The predictable ending sets up an inevitable sequel. As you can see, there’s really nothing new here, except the continued development of the android character David and his unhealthy obsession with self-deification by attempting to become a creator of life. This is a theme that runs deep in the two prequel films: Weyland believing “we [humans] are the gods now,” and artificial intelligence (David) believing humans are inferior because they are mortal. Weyland instilled in David that creating life is a form of deification. At their core the prequel films (Prometheus and Covenant) present ideas about what IS life, what qualifies as life, who can create life, and the struggle between evolved biological life and created artificial (biomechanical) life. The Created always end up destroying their Creators. Over thirty five years after Alien was released, these themes are infinitely more interesting to me today. Beyond that, the rest of Alien: Covenant is just slick action and xenomorph/facehugger body horror. But that can only carry an Alien movie so far today. I’ve been watching xenomorphs, facehuggers, and their body horror for several decades now... it doesn’t do much for me anymore.
A Confederacy of Dunces
One of the main complaints of Prometheus is that the crew make extremely poor choices. Does the crew of the Covenant fair any better? Not really. Poor decisions abound, as they do in most Alien movies. But as a thesis for my argument, I’ll give the one glaring example that made me (figuratively) slap my forehead in disgust and frustration. It killed my moviegoing soul just a little bit by watching. At one point Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) witnesses the bloody aftermath of a neomorph (see header image) attack on a crew member, and then secretly observes David talking to the neomorph like it was his pet. Oram kills the neomorph much to the distress of David, then threatens to “F*#% up” David if the android doesn’t come clean with what’s going on. David quickly agrees and gives him a tour of his Frankenstein-like work, eventually leading him into a chamber full of eggs. Once there David tells Oram to stick his face into an open and squirming egg because it’s “perfectly safe.” Oram complies, while the audience stares in shocked denial thinking “Whaaaaat? Why?!”... and you know what happens next. Who wrote this sequence, who approved it, and who filmed it thinking it made ANY kind of rational sense? Furthermore, did that person think the audience would truly believe that scene would play out instead of Oram making a semi-rational decision and saying “Hell no.” or blowing David’s smug head off?
Yes, these characters do stupid things... many stupid things. But there’s a gaping chasm between doing blatantly stupid things, and doing things that you are ignorant of that lead to bad outcomes. The example above is clearly the former, as are many throughout Alien: Covenant. Many of the decision made in the original Alien are the latter. David had previously established himself as an unhinged android who wanted to get closer with the neomorphs. He gives Oram a tour of his macabre lab, with dissections, preserved monstrosities, sketches, etc . . . and still Oram does the blatantly stupid thing and sticks his damn head in a disgusting and writhing alien egg. Why Ridley, why?!
Prometheus Connections and Beyond
As outlined above, Scott scrapped the full blown Prometheus 2 which was reported to give us more background on the Engineers and the reason why they created the “black goo” bioweapon, and their reasons for wanting to destroy Earth. We’ll most likely never get that story. Instead we’re presented with a threadbare connection between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant comprised, essentially, of a ship transporting them to an Engineer world just so Scott can radically change the trajectory of the story and have David commit genocide in his pursuit of godhood. There is an online prologue (The Crossing) that helps mesh the two movies together, but it’s doesn’t offer much except a few scenes showing Elizabeth Shaw alive and re-attaching David's head.
In my perfect nerd world I would have liked to see the prequel be a trilogy that tells the story of HOW that ancient Juggernaut crashed on LV-426. The rumored story behind the trilogy sounded far more interesting than seeing another crew stumble on biomechanical monsters, and having yet another one get aboard their ship, so they can ultimately flush it into a vacuum... again. I would much rather have seen the story of a war between factions of Engineers (one organic, one transcending to biomechanical because of their own twisted ideals). This was the basis for the original title Alien: Paradise Lost, a borrowing from John Milton’s poem of the same name dealing with a war between heaven and hell. Humans would inevitably stumble into this war through the meddling of Weyland, and the prequels would lead us to that ship on LV-426 with a cargo hold containing thousands of xenomorph eggs. Paradoxically, a ship that looks to have been there for thousands of years, yet has eggs in it that weren’t created until the timeline of David in Alien: Covenant, which takes place thousands of years after that Juggernaut crashes on the planetoid in Alien. So not only did Scott deviate from the original rumored prequel storyline, he’s introduced gaping a plot hole into this new timeline. This connection to LV-426 is still supposedly going to happen, but I don’t know how Scott plans to pull it off... or how effective it will be.
Here’s how I rank it within the existing Alienverse (the Alien vs Predator movies are not listed, because they are garbage, and acknowledged as such by Ridley Scott himself):
- Alien - for its slow-burn horror... a true classic of the genre.
- Aliens - a very close second for its non-stop action.
- Prometheus - for the beginning of the xenomorph origin story.
- Alien: Covenant - primarily for slick production and David.
- Alien³ - massive penalty for killing off Hicks, Newt, and Bishop.
- Alien: Resurrection - nope!
And for the record... yes, I believe Prometheus is a better movie than Alien: Covenant primarily because it introduced intriguing ideas that sadly were not realized in Covenant.
So by now you've probably discerned that I think Alien: Covenant is fun, yet predictable; tense, yet unoriginal; average and grey in every way, and it's why I have a love/hate relationship with it. Don’t kid yourself that it’s not a re-tooled Alien with some interesting David character development dealing with creator/created and the question of life. Without this secondary plot, Alien: Covenant would be nothing more than a rehashed science fiction slasher movie that’s a pale shadow of the original Alien. The warts born by Prometheus are having a negative effect on Alien: Covenant, keeping many fans away. It's on track to have a total box office draw nearing half what it's predecessor pulled in. This will not bode well for a conclusion to the prequel trilogy. It's only saving grace at the box office is that it cost $33 million less than Prometheus to produce.
I recommended Alien: Covenant only for dedicated fans of the franchise. The curious moviegoer is best served just renting it . . . or rewatching Alien.