Sci-Fi Connoisseur: Alien Covenant

So, it is here. Yet another Alien movie.

Spoilers will follow–ALL THE SPOILERS!

I’ve made my feelings known about the Alien films. Alien is great. Aliens is perfect. Beyond that, I live in a bizarre state of suspended reality. It’s sort of like how official U.S. policy is to deny the existence of Taiwan to China while simultaneously committing to defend Taiwan from China. I’ve seen all the films in the Alien franchise multiple times–yes, even the Alien vs. Predator movies–but at the same time, I insist that the following is true: There are only two Alien movies.

Now, about that last Alien movie that doesn’t really exist, Prometheus. It was a mess. A really, really pretty mess. So the simple fact that the new film, Alien Covenant, is a direct sequel to Prometheus starts it off on awfully shaky territory.

I went into Covenant with very low expectations, so maybe that’s why I left pleasantly surprised. My first thought was to agree with Christopher Orr from The Atlantic, whose review I hadn’t read but had noticed was headlined, “Covenant is the best installment since Aliens.”

But remember, that’s not saying very much. The Ripley sequels, Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection, always reigned above Prometheus–and towered miles above the AvP flicks, which are pure garbage–because of one simple reason: Sigourney Weaver. Her performance in Alien 3 lifted it from dismal and bleak cash grab to a serviceable send-off to a beloved character (who still deserved much, much better). Then Resurrection gave Weaver a chance to just play. Taking the Ripley character and twisting her drive and determination into a new, cough-cough, alien shape allowed Weaver to infuse the otherwise claustrophobic encounter with a brood of xenomorphs into something that was, if not good, at least intermittently interesting.

Prometheus’s characters, though, were poorly developed, as forgettable as all the nameless mercenaries and soldiers that get eaten in Resurrection or the shaven-headed convicts who are gristle for the gore mill in Alien 3. So, Ripley’s presence in the other films acted as a sort of check-mate, leaving Ridley Scott’s belated (and ill-advised) follow-up to his original sci-fi horror masterpiece a clearly inferior piece of cinema.

Now, Alien Covenant does no better by the continuity of the franchise as a whole than its immediate predecessor. The alien bioweapon we were introduced to and the culture and intentions of the albino giant Engineers responsible for it all still make exactly zero sense. In fact, by making the android David the ultimate creator of the xenomorph we know and dread, Scott has fouled up the continuity even more. The implication in Alien was that the Space Jockey–now “Engineer”–ship with all the eggs on it had been sitting there on LV-426 long enough for the Engineer’s body to “fossilize” into his chair. Plus, the oversized elephantine pilot of that ship was clearly killed by a chest burster. Covenant, though, sees every known extant Engineer slaughtered by David. Meanwhile, at the end he jets off at the helm of the human colony ship with some embryonic face huggers and about two thousand human guinea pigs to experiment with.

How is Ridley Scott planning on leading from this to the ship that Ripley and company find in Alien? At this point, the only possibility would be time travel. But hey, Leia remembered her mother, so who the f’ cares about continuity in sci-fi anymore, right?

I swear, we should pass a law with a statute of limitations on sequels.

But here’s the thing that Alien Covenant brought to the table that no other Alien sequel after Aliens ever did: characters I actually cared about.

During the last act of the film, as Daniels and Tennessee race to save the colonists and themselves from the xenomorph that has just spawned on their ship, I felt palpable dread. Not because I thought the alien might prevail, but because it was clear that David already had by taking Walter’s place. (Seriously, Scott might as well have shown us David winning that fight because even the noisy seven year old in the row behind me who didn’t seem to speak English must have known that was David, not Walter.)

Yes, these characters make decisions as monumentally stupid as those in Prometheus (when they stepped out on the planet without space suits, I was reminded of Galaxy Quest) but ultimately the characters’ motivations seem so much more genuine and less cliche than in the previous films. Daniels, the Captain, and Tennessee are all defined by loss that we get to see in visceral, human terms. They’re written believably and their reactions ring true.

In particular, I owe Danny McBride an apology because I went in assuming I would hate having to look at him on screen since I find his comedic performances so obnoxious. But he and Waterson held down the emotional core of the film.

Kudos also to the writers for not squeezing Crudup’s Captain Oram into any of the archetypal slots from previous films. Though he opposes Daniels and seems headed into territory like the sleazy corporate antagonist Burke from Aliens, the captain admits his mistakes and he and Daniels come together with the best interests of their remaining crew at heart. Also, his status as a “man of faith” looked like it was heading in the same dreadful direction as Rapace’s Shaw from Prometheus, but the film, mercifully, did not overplay that card.

Ultimately, though, despite the valiant efforts of this cast, this is still a movie that just never needed to happen. Scott abandoned many of his aspirations for a think-piece–which bogged down Prometheus in faux-intellectualism–and made a suspenseful film. If it weren’t posing as an Alien film and David had created some other kind of monster then perhaps this movie might stand on its own fairly well. But its connection to Prometheus and to Alien/Aliens means that it is both mired in the miasma of the former and doomed to be judged against the gold standard of the latter.

 

Nitpicks:

-Like I said, this movie does just as much of a doozy to the continuity as its predecessor. But it also continues a trend hailing from the Alien vs. Predator movies in which the life cycle of the Alien is tremendously accelerated. In Covenant, we see a chest burster emerge seconds after the host wakes up–as opposed to Cane in the original film, who was unconscious for hours and then had time to sit down to dinner before his progeny emerged. Also, a face hugger implants its seed instantly, whereas in past films the process took hours. Then in the end, the newly hatched xenomorph is full grown in what looks like mere minutes.

-Scott keeps the internal space of that temple/whatever where David leads the survivors pretty ambiguous. At one point, shots can be heard by the others from inside David’s laboratory, but when the neomorph thingy attacks what’s-her-name (seriously, they might as well have named certain characters Victim #1-5) her shots go completely unnoticed. The captain told her not to go far, but apparently she couldn’t find a place to clean up that was within earshot. Then later, the crew is looking for the captain, but apparently the place is big enough that they can’t find him until after David has had time to gestate an alien in his gut. Seriously, guys, you’re in a monster movie: DON’T SPLIT UP! Meanwhile, Daniels and Walter easily stumble onto incriminating “I’m the Bad Guy and I’m going to leave lots of written proof of it even though I’m ostensibly a walking computer” evidence against David. It’s quite a labyrinth where characters can only find each other or what they need when it’s convenient for the plot.

-Speaking of the temple and the city…Geez, Covenant crew: You don’t want to do more of a fly by or survey of a planet when you’re landing? That was a pretty big city…and, wait, was it the only one? Was the engineer planet really only populated in that one area? Eh? Again, their whole culture is pretty wonky and hard to understand. Why were they all gawking at the arrival of that ship when David shows up? The Engineers in Prometheus were supposed to have died a few thousand years earlier, right, so maybe the whole town came out because they were excited for their loved ones to finally arrive–after being delayed for frickin’ millennia!

-And how did the colonial survey miss this “too good to be true” planet anyway? Never explained that. Come on, guys. One line of technobabble, please!

-It seems improbable that nothing would have tipped Daniels off that David wasn’t Walter until she mentions the cabin. He must have taken pains to hide the little cut right under his chin where she drove that nail in, right? Was David carrying some really well selected concealer (Cover Droid?) or did he staple on some of Walter’s skin after cutting off his own hand?

 

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