When choosing to visit a faraway planet,
Some strange world never examined by man,
Those who can claim to be smarter than granite
May favor caution as part of the plan.
Instead of just landing and waltzing around,
Content to breathe air you know nothing about,
Perhaps wearing helmets would seem rather sound
Or keep parties small, if you have any doubt.
If common sense fails and you go out exposed,
With most of your redshirt crew ready to fall,
You’ll wish you’d seen all that this movie proposed,
Though you may have feared then to leave Earth at all.
MPAA rating: R
Earlier this year, I made up a Top Twelve list of 2017 movies I hoped would be good, and this is the first of the twelve I’ve gotten to see. I hesitated to give it a watch after hearing of the increased violence and mixed reviews, but my curiosity and loyalty to the Alien franchise won out. So, is it good? Well, sort of and no. It’s a thoroughly mixed bag of a follow-up to 2012’s Prometheus and the first chance Ridley Scott has gotten to directly sequelize one of his own films (since Prometheus was a prequel).
Unlike many, I quite liked Prometheus, especially upon a rewatch. It’s a different animal than the first Alien, more concerned with thought-provoking philosophical questions than extraterrestrial jump scares, though there are still enough of those for me. Alien: Covenant does indeed return to the dominant horror of Scott’s original film, but it feels more indebted to its predecessors, even if it does spice up some of the familiar beats. For one thing, it’s as if the story of Prometheus has started over, just instead of scientists seeking out humanity’s origins, we have a ship full of colonists headed for a distant new world, again all in stasis and again monitored by a Michael Fassbender android, this time the American-accented Walter. When a Passengers-style space wave damages the ship and kills the captain (James Franco, barely), the remaining crew who awaken pick up a signal from a closer planet and investigate its source as a new potential colony site. As you might imagine, the planet’s infection of alien DNA is out to get them from the start, and there’s a good deal of death and dismemberment, as well as the return of David, the other synthetic Fassbender from Prometheus.
If you liked Alien and Aliens, you’ll enjoy all the scary survival stuff that reminds you of those two, but Scott is still bent on explaining his alien mythos, with David as the creative force behind the biological set-up for the aliens we all know. In doing so, Scott’s bound to divide opinions on what David does and why. In fact, he’s far more interested with David than with the human characters, who are all couples for this colony mission and at least earn token sympathy when their spouses inevitably bite the dust. Katherine Waterston is the prominent Ripley of the group and does a reasonably good job at remaining sane while others make poor decisions out of panic. The acting is secondary, though; where the film excels most is in the dark visual wonder of the planet and the frightening intensity of the action. The double climax at the end may be suspiciously similar to that of Aliens, but it’s ratcheted up to even more thrilling levels. Those two scenes alone were worth seeing on the big screen.
Yet, two awesome scenes don’t quite make up for the fact that the rest adds up to an unsatisfying mess. (Moderate spoilers in this paragraph!) I had really hoped for more, considering the open questions at the end of Prometheus, where Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw took off with David to search for the Engineers. Shaw is sadly only a memory here, with David’s actions toward her only slightly clearer than his intentions, and unless a future film provides another perspective, it’s a frustrating letdown for a character who deserved more. Likewise, casting David as a sort of Frankenstein figure obsessed with creation at all costs is more than a bit perplexing. Fassbender plays him well with a coldly self-righteous zeal, but I wish I knew why David is so enamored with these grotesque alien spawn. He clearly admires human art and music, so why does he see creative humans as unworthy next to these mindless killing machines? And then there’s the end, the twist I easily saw coming which follows a trend in horror movies I dislike where the villain gains the upper hand. It’s chilling but not a way to end a movie, especially when these Alien films aren’t reliable in picking up the plot threads and characters of what came before. It’s like the beginning of Alien 3 tacked on to the end of Aliens; if Aliens had ended like that, it wouldn’t nearly have the same respect it does.
On top of all the disappointing plot developments, Alien: Covenant has far more profanity and gore than its predecessors, which might please fans of those things but are inevitably a turnoff for me. The first two Alien movies may have had their notorious shock scenes, but the rest of the film usually thrived on the terror of what you didn’t see (Dallas in the tunnels, Burke opening that door), which is the kind of tension I prefer over the gruesome sort. I’m also not sure what to make of the film’s religious overtones. Billy Crudup as Oram, the insecure first officer who takes command after the captain’s death, is “a man of faith” and is intent on proving himself reliable and clear-minded, even if it also makes him cruel and unpopular. The trouble is that this early character point goes nowhere. I liked the simple but sincere and unbroken faith of Shaw in Prometheus, but considering what happens to her and Oram, I’m not sure why the subject of faith is even broached.
Thus, despite my high hopes, Alien: Covenant was a disappointment, even with its high-quality production, a few truly awesome scenes, and some perceptive literary references. Yet I had a similar initial reaction to Prometheus too, so maybe a rewatch will help, though I doubt it. Scott has stated that he’s willing to keep making Alien movies as long as fans want them, a prospect that doesn’t hold much hope for me anymore since, as much as I want more of this franchise’s strengths, its weaknesses are becoming more and more plain.
Best line: (Walter, with a naïve sentiment the film doesn’t support) “I think if we are kind, it will be a kind world.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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