Home » At the Multiplex » Alien: Covenant
         

Alien: Covenant

I thought that Alien was a franchise that should have ended at two movies, and Ridley Scott was all washed up. I said as much on multiple occasions. And a huge part of why was Prometheus, the lumbering atomic bomb that left a beautiful explosion and a radioactive fallout of “What the fuck was that?”

I was naturally as skeptical of a sequel as anyone else, but three very important decisions were made right off the bat. First of all, writer Damon Lindelof had his bullshit-smeared fingerprints all over Prometheus’ convoluted plot, and booting him off the sequel was a great first step.

Which brings me to the second big choice: This was very clearly branded as an Alien film. None of that dumbfuckery about “sharing the same DNA” or treating it like some huge revelation that this was a prequel. I don’t know if the filmmakers thought we were stupid or if they were somehow ashamed of the association, but it was an inexplicably bad move either way.

The third big decision? We’re following a completely different crew who get themselves dropped into the aftermath of Prometheus. So if you don’t remember or sufficiently understand the events of the prequel, that’s all right — we’ve got a new bunch of characters to find the answers so you don’t have to!

Alien: Covenant opens ten years after its predecessor. This time, we’re following a crew that’s in hypersleep on their way to a colonization mission. Alas, the crew is woken about seven years prematurely, after a freak solar flare damages the ship and kills quite a few souls on board. Even worse, one of those casualties was the captain (James Franco, of all people, in a cameo role).

By a stroke of luck, this is when the crew picks up a rogue transmission coming from a habitable planet nearby. How this planet could have gone undiscovered for so long, and how any human transmission could be coming from a place where no one has ever gone before, are mysteries. The crew sends a landing party to investigate, and to make a long story short (too late!) it turns out that this is the planet where David and Dr. Shaw landed after the events of Prometheus. Whoops.

I’d comment on the crew, but so many of them are made-to-order Xenomorph chow that precious few are worth discussing. There’s Oram (Billy Crudup), who makes every possible mistake after inheriting the captainship. There’s Tennessee (Danny McBride), a totally reckless pilot who endangers the whole damn mothership and all 2,000 souls on board when the landing party ends up in trouble. We’ve also got Tennessee’s wife (Faris, played by Amy Seimetz), another reckless pilot who destroys everything in sight at the first sign of danger. You can start to see what I’m talking about with regard to “Xenomorph chow”, right?

Really, there are only two characters (actually three, but we’ll get there) who are really worth a damn. First of them is Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston. She’s the newly-minted widow of the captain who died in the solar flare. She was clearly designed as a strong female protagonist in tradition with the franchise, and if she falls short of Ripley’s legendary heights, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Waterston proves herself more than capable of holding the screen, striking just the right balance of competence at her job and bewildered panic at this strange new situation.

Incidentally, I may have forgotten to mention that (presumably because this is a colonization mission) the crew is made pretty much entirely of married couples. Not only does this invite biblical comparisons with a certain other ark, but it also helps raise the tension for the surviving spouse when a character gets killed off. At least that’s how it works in theory — in practice, finding sympathy for anyone is hard when we know they exist only to get killed off in short order.

Which brings us to the only unmarried character in this crew, and the second character worth any kind of damn: Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. He’s an android, a similar but highly upgraded model to David, Fassbender’s character in the previous film.

Walter and David share quite a few scenes together, and the effects work is beautiful. Watching Fassbender act opposite himself is utterly spellbinding, and the scenes themselves give a whole new meaning to the term “homoerotic”. Moreover, their discussions raise all sorts of philosophical questions about creation, destruction, the meaning of existence, humanity’s worthiness to keep going, and so on. This is all stuff that Prometheus was trying to comment on, but it’s far more focused and coherent here. It definitely helps that most of the discussion centers around the androids themselves and the Xenomorphs, giving us a clear subject and anchor point for all these heady concepts and questions.

Even better, we’ve seen far too many idiots try to create or control the Xenomorphs for power or monetary gain. This film offers a different motivation for tampering with the Xenomorphs, and I personally found it quite fascinating. On the other hand, it’s not like the Xenomorphs really needed an origin story to begin with. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have simply been alien life forms that reached this point of evolution in their own way. It wouldn’t have made them any less interesting or scary. Not that the new explanation takes away from the Xenomorphs in any way, but still.

Getting back to the returning Prometheus players, Guy Pearce appears briefly for a cameo role in the prologue. Noomi Rapace’s character doesn’t appear in person, but her picture is shown quite a few times, and her shadow looms heavy over the whole story. Yes, this movie actually makes the effort at providing some closure to the rat’s nest of open ends left by the previous film, and I’m grateful for the effort. There’s still a lingering smell of bullshit, but I’m grateful for the effort.

And as much as I gripe about the obvious cannon fodder, the fact remains that there is some spectacular gross-out horror to be seen. I’ve heard people wish that Prometheus had only been the one scene with Rapace in the medical pod, and this sequel is absolutely a step in that direction. Additionally, the atmosphere is so engaging that I was sufficiently entertained while waiting for the next kill to happen. Though there are a few exceptions: Most notably, the shower kill so laughably schlocky that it belonged in a different film entirely. We’ve also got some of those “monster POV” shots, a cliche that seriously needs to die already. But then we have a last-minute twist that I had seen coming from twenty minutes earlier, and it still landed like a punch to the gut when it came. If that’s not a sign of some brilliant direction, tell me what is.

Then we have the action. The trailers have already shown off a scene of Daniels swinging off a huge ship, and that sequence goes quite well. Also, it’s a testament to the filmmakers that we can tell David and Walter apart while everything is moving around so quickly. Unfortunately, a lot of the action scenes are so dark and loaded with quick cuts that it’s not always easy to tell what’s going on. In particular, the climax has so much stuff flying around the screen that huge stretches are incoherent. Though we do get a couple of Xenomorph kills involving heavy machinery — none are quite as satisfying as Ripley’s iconic power loader, but they’re in the same spirit nonetheless.

The best compliment I can pay to Alien: Covenant is that it feels like a natural middle ground between the first two movies and the prequel. It makes a strong case for Prometheus as part of the canon and not “That One Film That Never Happened.”

It really does feel like the filmmakers took a long hard look at the atmospheric horror of Alien, the sci-fi action of Aliens, and the ambitious philosophical themes of Prometheus, and put them all together into something the fans truly love. Even if that comes with taking on the faults of all three aspects: Respectively, paper-thin characters who occasionally get killed in laughable ways, scenes made incoherent by darkness and quick editing, and pretentious bullshit.

On the whole, in spite of its flaws, this was definitely an Alien movie. Even at its worst, the film is enjoyable in a way that’s compatible with the first two films. That alone is definitely worth a recommendation.

Leave a Reply