How do you like your sci-fi? Do you prefer mind-numbing and life-altering philosophical explorations? Or would you rather shut your brain off while watching spaceships, aliens, and mayhem? With “Alien: Covenant” Ridley Scott attempts to meld both of these into a single film. However, what could have been a brilliant hybrid is instead a painfully obvious struggle between the story Scott wants to tell and the story he thinks audiences want to see.
Recent articles are claiming Ridley Scott has “apologized” to the fans for “Prometheus.” This isn’t exactly true. These eye-catching headlines are twisted from an interview with Yahoo, in which he states:
“….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. The fans, in a funny kind of way — they’re not the final word — but they are the reflection of your doubts about something, and then you realize ‘I was wrong’ or ‘I was right.’ I think that’s where it comes in. I think you’re not sensible if you don’t actually take [the fans’ reaction] into account.”
While not an apology, it’s equally disturbing that a director of his stature feels he was “wrong” due to the reaction of some overly vocal fans. (Often the most vocal people are the ones you should pay the least attention to.) “Prometheus” disappointed many because it wasn’t an “Alien” film, even though it never claimed to be one. Instead, it offered a number of interesting discussions on Science versus Religion and man’s unhealthy obsession with immortality in any form. It wasn’t a perfect film by any measure but was fascinating nonetheless. So many questions were raised by the end of it that a sequel would be necessary if only to answer some of these questions.
But the fans have spoken and now we will never know and answers to life, the universe, and everything on our journey towards planet LV-426. Instead, we have what is clearly a bridge between the ill-fated “Prometheus” series and the iconic original “Alien.” The story picks up a decade after Elizabeth Shaw(Noomi Rapace) and David (Michael Fassbender) head off to the Engineer’s home world. Their fate is meant to be one of the film’s secrets, but the second prolog video released prior to the movie spoils it entirely. A large colonization ship from Earth is passing through the region when a catastrophic event wakes the crew of 16 from cryosleep.
The crew of this ship is mostly paper-thin cookie cutter characters who define themselves by repeatedly reminding the audience who their wife is. It’s oddly frequent, absent only in the gay couple you don’t realize are a couple until one is disemboweled. This is perhaps by design, as the majority of the screentime is devoured by four main characters. Michael Fassbender returns as not only David but also a newer model named Walter. Walter has a few “upgrades” over his brother, namely the implied absence of emotion and an inability to create. Katherine Waterston steps in the required “strong-female-lead” role as Daniels, the wife of Captain Branson. She’s a part of the crew, but it’s not clear exactly where she ranks or what her responsibilities are. Billy Crudup plays the incredibly frustrating Oram, a Christian zealot who for some reason is second in command.
Brace yourself, for the next sentence, will likely come as a shock to many. The very best elements of this movie are the ones that borrow from the themes set forth in “Prometheus.” In a pre-title scene, we witness the moment that David was brought online by his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). This sequence is a masterclass in cinematic storytelling. Every single element exists to teach us something about the core of these characters within a few short minutes. The artwork in the room, the name David chooses for himself, and what that symbolizes regarding his ego. Watch closely as David asks “Am I?” Weyland’s initial confusion on what question is being asked, and the quick shot of the Piano’s brand name. Absolute brilliance.
Oram’s inclusion in the crew is another stroke of genius. At first, he seemed to be a poorly written character, a complete sod who had no business being on that ship or in the movie at all. However, on further consideration, he is a perfect reflection of the themes these two movies are examining when contrasted against Elizabeth Shaw. Shaw was strongly religious, but in the face of discoveries that some would consider to be damning to her beliefs, she had calm, highly intelligent reasons for continuing in her faith. She believed in a higher power, a creator of all, even if it might not be exactly like the biblical fables she was raised on. Her faith was a true part of her core and it made her a better person. Even David’s opinion of humanity was swayed by her kindness. Oram is the ugly flip side of religion. It’s hinted that he experienced some form of the traumatic event as a child which damaged his personality. He’s the kind of guy who never shuts up about his “faith” pushing it in everyone’s face in an attempt to divert their attention from the insecurities raging within him. His faith is both a rickety crux and a fragile shield for his bruised psyche. Fascinating that his name has an Old Norse origin meaning “serpent” or “dragon.”
Sadly, each moment of perfection is balanced with moments of pure silliness. Apparently, for the xeno-fodder to meet their deaths in a timely matter, the entire crew has to behave like retro horror characters. “Let’s explore a completely unknown planet with no safety precautions at all.” “Let’s split up!” “Let’s split up again!” “I’m a female, so I need to go freshen up. Alone. In a strange place. After so many people have died. In water that likely contains countless unknown alien pathogens.” “More people have died! Let’s split up some more!”
Further frustrating is the movie ignoring its own “rules.” A certain suspense of disbelief is required for any fantasy story, the boundaries which are set by the world rules it defines for itself. For example, “The Matrix” established a logic which explained how characters could perform superhuman feats and (debatably) played by these rules throughout the entire series. In the first two Alien films, the reproductive cycle and timeline for this reproduction were clearly defined. Since then this time cycle has been thrown out the window for plot contrivances, “Covenant” is the most offensive of them all. What took days or weeks in previous films now apparently takes only minutes in this one. Some of the final action scenes shred the remaining tendrils of plausibility with gut-wrenching nonsense. Why spend multiple lines of dialog explaining how a Cargo Transport ship is overpowered, then strip it down further and boost it’s engines, only to have an extended sequence where it has difficulty gaining altitude with only a handful of people aboard?
How to rate a movie that is equally brilliant and stupid? Split the difference, and then add a ½ star for how gorgeous it looks. Sadly, as Walter points out to David, “If one note is off, the whole symphony collapses.”
- Alien: Covenant