On its face, Alien: Covenant seems to be the movie many people expected Prometheus to be when they first heard we were getting “an Alien prequel” from Ridley Scott. Chests burst. A short-haired heroine kicks extraterrestrial ass. And, most importantly, it actually features, you know, the alien that started this all.
Set ten years after the Prometheus and its crew “mysteriously” “disappeared,” mankind decided to send yet another massive spaceship hurtling into the great unknown – this time, packed with 15 crew members, 2,000 colonists and 1,140 embryos, and setting out for a new, hopefully habitable planet several lightyears (lightdecades?) away.
Still, following the collective letdown of the philosophy-laden and at times leaden Prometheus, Covenant comes out to far less fanfare than Ridley’s long-awaited return to the franchise five years ago. And despite mixed reviews, Covenant is certainly not all bad. For starters, it’s learned from Prometheus’ missteps. Scott’s second stab at a prequel cleverly plays with audience expectations – given everything we know after six movies and counting, watching a character stick his dumb mug in front of one of those alien eggs is even more squirm-inducing. Shit goes sideways early and often, resulting in far fewer philosophical digressions dragging the story to a halt and far more alien action. There’s a shower scene (presumably made solely for the purpose of putting a shower scene in the trailers). So yes, just to be clear, Alien: Covenant is not a bad movie.
It’s also far from a great one. The film’s biggest contribution to the franchise essentially involves finding new parts of the body for those pesky alien parasites to burst out of. It’s got a bizarre, almost hands-off approach to character development – if you don’t watch the accompanying prologue video first, you’ll likely start out extremely confused as to who just everyone is and their relationships to one another. (The crew is comprised entirely of couples: an interesting idea that’s basically used as convenient shorthand to account for its characters’ maddening lapses in judgment vis-à-vis ill-conceived rescue missions).
Yet, once again, much of the dialogue flops onto the floor like a dead facehugger. And once again, we see much of the same questionable decision-making that plagued Prometheus: the entire expedition marches right out the door onto an unfamiliar, uncharted foreign planet sans spacesuits and – surprise! – that decision comes back to bite them in the face, chest and back. Plus, it features a plot twist so obvious, you can see it coming from galaxies away.
Earlier this year, Scott willingly admitted to Yahoo Movies UK that he had gotten it wrong with Prometheus; a rare instance of a filmmaker being self-aware enough to own up to lackluster results. A director as iconic Sir Ridley could release a feature-length snuff film featuring an A-list cast and still get a pass. (Which, actually, kind of explains The Counselor…)
Still, Scott clearly learned a lesson from the backlash, telling the site, “We discovered from it that [the fans] were really frustrated. They wanted to see more of the original [monster] and I thought he was definitely cooked, with an orange in his mouth. So I thought: ‘Wow, OK, I’m wrong’.
And after watching Covenant, it’s clear that Ridley has given this a lot of thought, tinkering and tweaking and reworking the franchise’s DNA, only to deliver something that looks ostensibly like the original Alien – right down to Katherine Waterson as Ripley 2.0 – but still walks and talks and sounds like Prometheus, with its meandering musings on creation and what it means to be a god (with a lowercase g). All while completely missing the point.
See, it’s not just that those frustrated fans wanted to see more of the H.R. Giger-designed xenomorphs, the most famous alien this side of ET (although that’s certainly part of it.) It’s that they/we wanted to see something more tonally similar to the 1979 sci-fi/horror classic that started this whole mess – moody and beautiful, yes, but also scary AF.
Instead, much like Scott’s first prequel, Covenant is painfully obsessed with its own mythology. Delivering another navel-gazing deep dive into the xenomorph’s origin story, filling in story gaps that didn’t especially need to be filled.
Have you spent the last five years wondering how the homicidal Michael Fassbender-bot from Prometheus got the name David? Did you want to see more of Guy Pearce, sans old man makeup? How about a lengthy scene of one robot teaching another how to play the flute? Or Michael Fassbender making out with himself? (Actually, scratch that. Pretty sure that’s going to put some butts in seats.)
Like Prometheus before it, Covenant continues to wring yet another two-hour movie out of what was essentially a creepy throwaway mystery from the original 1979 movie – who was that giant alien “space jockey” and what was it doing with a cargo-hold full of terrifying alien Kinder Surprise eggs? It was added atmosphere and foreshadowing, not some secret puzzlebox meant to be unpacked at a later date.
Which is exactly what’s so frustrating about Scott’s pair of prequels: they show a bizarre, fundamental misunderstanding of why the original Alien works so well and why it became such a massive hit – because A) Ripley is one bad-ass action hero, B) it’s downright terrifying, and C) it was masterfully filmed. Not because we’ve all spent the past thirty-some-odd years obsessed with uncovering the central monster’s family tree.
Of course, that kind of clever franchise reverse-engineering has become the new en vogue trick for keeping a series going without endlessly piling on sequels. But a story like Alien began where it did for a reason. And not every open-ended question deserves – or needs – to be answered. Because honestly, who really cares about where those acid-drooling monstrous aliens came from when it’s so much more fun to watch Ripley square off against them?
Now though, the franchise has pointlessly looped back around, and it’s beginning to eat its own tail, instead of continuing to chart out for new, more promising directions. And according to Scott, he’s still got at least one more prequel incubating. Let’s just hope he learns the right lesson this time around.