Ridley Scott’s attempts to demystify his iconic Xenomorphs only dilute the primal terror that made them compelling in the first place
Alien: CovenantDirector: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Studio: 20th Century Fox
MPAA Rating: R
UK Release Date: 2017-05-12
US Release Date: 2017-05-19
“Ignorance is bliss.”
-- Thomas Gray
Obviously, Thomas Gray hadn’t a notion of drooling monsters or giant spaceships when he first penned those words back in 1747, but the sentiment perfectly encapsulates why Alien: Covenant, the latest entry in Ridley Scott’s ill-advised return to his Alien saga, is so disappointing.
On every level, narrative to visual, Scott’s attempts to demystify his iconic Xenomorphs only dilute the primal terror that made them compelling in the first place. When audiences first cringed at the Gigerian nightmares from 1979’s Alien, the aliens were little more than killing machines honed through eons of evolution and a nasty reproductive mechanism. Now, Scott does everything but indict the midi-chlorians to explain where the Xenomorphs come from and how they got so damn scary.
Scott’s breakout classic succeeded because of its simplicity; humans trespass into an alien domain with disastrous results. Desperate to keep the franchise relevant after 40 years and six glorified re-makes, Scott is forced to morph this simple premise into a grand statement about Man’s (and machine’s) desire to play God. Yeah, it’s even more boring than it sounds.
Katherine Waterston as Daniels
Alien: Covenant picks up ten years after the events of 2012’s Prometheus; a feature film that holds the ignominious distinction of being inferior to its own two minute trailer. If you’ll remember, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the severed head of the synthetic lifeform, David (Michael Fassbender), were hauling ass across the galaxy after their entire crew was decimated by a seemingly indestructible alien life form.
If that plot sounds familiar, it’s only because it’s been re-cycled and re-purposed for six different films in the Alien franchise (disregarding the ridiculous forays with Predator). Here, the crew of the Covenant, a colonization vessel assigned to settle on the planet Origae-6, intercepts a “ghost” transmission from a woman who sounds suspiciously like Dr. Shaw singing, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver. Like the idiots that they are, the crew scraps their mission to Origae-6 in order to track the signal, which, oddly enough, originates from a habitable planet with seemingly no inhabitants. No red flags there, huh?
The one admirable enduring trait of this otherwise derivative franchise is its unabashed nihilism. In a universe populated by soulless computers, ruthless corporations, and ill-tempered monsters, there's little expectation that anyone will get out alive. It shouldn’t come as a spoiler then that Scott and his screenwriters stick to this formula, though it takes them an excruciatingly long time to reach their predetermined destination.
This familiarity undermines everything that Scott is trying to accomplish. We’ve seen this routine so many times -- the face-hugger bursting from its egg to ensnare the next unfortunate host -- that Scott is forced to use this once shocking visual as an almost comical plot point. Instead of hiding in the shadows or crawling through air ducts like demented rodents, these Xenomorphs just stand out in the open, staring down their next victim as if they bought a ticket for the privilege.
The cinematic geometry of the alien attack is no longer scary. Indeed, none of this is scary. If Scott intended Alien: Covenant to be a horror film, he failed to execute his plan on nearly every level.
Gone, too, is any attempt to create compelling characters. It’s been said that what separates Alien from the usual haunted house yarn is the character’s physical inability to escape the house. Alternatively, one could argue it was the distinctiveness of the characters that invested you in their plight. Each had their own goals, foibles, strengths, and weaknesses.
In Alien: Covenant, you barely learn the names of the primary crew members, let alone anything that makes them relatable. Katherine Waterston plays ‘Daniels’, the latest version of Ripley-lite. Michael Fassbender returns as ‘Walter’, a next generation ‘synthetic’ that has been stripped of all autonomy to avoid that pesky android habit of facilitating the murder of his fellow crewmates. Tennessee (Danny McBride) is the hick who drives the ship, and Billy Crudup is the hopelessly overmatched captain.
Michael Fassbender as David / Walter
There's also a formidable villain whose identity proves to be the film’s singular surprise. This villain also conveys (through painstaking exposition) all of Scott’s thematic intentions, as well as the rationale, origin, and propagation of the Xenomorphs. That Scott sticks to his tired Alien formula instead of structuring a proper story around his only interesting character remains a mystery (perhaps the only mystery Scott leaves unsolved).
Visually, Alien: Covenant checks many of the boxes for a Ridley Scott film. From the look of the desolate alien landscapes, dense rain forests, and detailed spaceships (including miniature space vehicles that bear a striking resemblance to those used in Blade Runner), to the interplay between light, dark, and shadow, Scott continues to distinguish himself as a singular visual stylist. The film’s opening sequence, in which the Covenant unfurls its massive solar sails to recharge its depleted energy stores, is a particular highlight.
Where he fails visually, however, and what ultimately dooms any chance for his film to succeed, is the complete ineffectiveness of the Xenomorph designs and renderings. Long gone are the genuinely creepy puppets of Stan Winston, who lovingly designed creatures that embodied the horror of H.R. Giger’s otherworldly imagination. Scott replaces these magnificent props with listless computer-generated abominations that have little articulation and no personality. They flit about with such artificial quickness that it’s impossible to comprehend what you’re seeing. The result looks cheap, unconvincing, and positively goofy.
It’s impossible to say if Ridley Scott has lost his passion for the Alien franchise, but Alien: Covenant has the look and feel of a perfunctory sequel. Adding a convoluted mythology about the Xenomorph origins doesn’t equate to scares, excitement, or entertainment value. There’s simply no reason for this film to exist, regardless of its fleeting visual pleasures. This ship has definitely sailed.