Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to lightJohn Milton, Paradise Lost
As the level of anticipation for this last Alien entry has risen to be nearly palpable, so too rises the level of disappointment of the movies overall. Looking back over the series, you can track the quality of the movies and almost create a roller coaster ride with the line connecting them. The thunderous beginning of the series, followed by twists and turns and corkscrews in the movies that come after. All of these aspects inevitably ending with this movie: a slow and sad end of the ride. Ending a series with a movie like this reminds us all of lessons taught repeatedly throughout many franchises in the last decade: a simple premise CANNOT uphold 40 years of movies and still remain as fresh as the start. I’m pretty bad at analogies involving roller coasters, but I’m pretty good at being bitter and jaded about movies, so let’s end this project with Alien: Covenant.
Taking place after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant follows the crew of a ship that shares the movie’s name. The ship, whose mission is to carry frozen colonists to a new habitable planet, quickly faces a dangerous space anomaly. Amidst disaster, a small part of the crew is awakened to respond. Strange signals appear to the now awakened crew, giving them the location to previously unscanned space and a planet with conditions fit for colonization. With the threat of a ship falling apart while in cryosleep, the newly appointed captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to set the course for this newly discovered world, choosing to go directly against the advice of his first mate Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Immediately after touching down, more terror presents itself to the small group of crew members awake. Will they make the correct decision and leave, or blindly allow themselves to die on an unfamiliar world with no hope of rescue?
The Great Strain Continued
I have a very hard time with the Alien franchise following the prequel movies. They have this strange sense of wanting to be about something different, but also feel like they’re forced to be Alien movies. Prometheus had a very small pool of interesting things in the movie. While I didn’t like it as an Alien prequel, it could easily have been tweaked to be a standalone sci-fi movie. As said in the last entry, Prometheus could have been made to be a story about an android seeking answers to creation and becoming a creature ambitious to create life for his own purposes. David’s plan in Prometheus was ultimately one that relied too heavily on coincidence for my liking, but I could see that as a lone movie in the genre.
Covenant strains itself even more in the battle to simultaneously be franchised with Alien as well as to be something else entirely. The movie is almost a blatant course correction to steer the prequels back towards the xenomorph saga, easing fans of the series into wanting more from the prequel movies. It has more to say about David (Michael Fassbender) and his twisted ideologies on creation, but it also has to have a team of people encountering xenomorphs and being all but wiped out by them. Tucked away somewhere within the deep lore of the making of this last movie, I know in my bitter mean heart that there was a story explicitly meant to be more than just another sequel in the Alien lineup.
There is an even greater thematic element of creation in this than in the previous installment. David had become the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission after the mysterious death of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and has settled on this new planet that is the setting for Covenant. Experimentation on the indigenous Engineer alien population, as well as the experimentation on Shaw, allowed for David to create his own weird ecosystem of creatures. Using the black goo that he found in the derelict spacecraft he and Shaw piloted to arrive on this new planet, David found new purpose in creation.
I get that the writers are trying to accomplish making multiple parallels in the creation theme. You have engineers creating humans, humans creating androids, and finally David creating xenomorphs. All instances in this cycle are attempts to control power over life itself. It may even be a longer chain with engineers only being a link in something much larger. In creating something to rule over it, ultimately these progenitors become supplanted by their progeny. I am completely on board with these ideas. To quote Ultron in the Avengers film, “Everyone creates the thing they dread.” What stumps me is the reasoning behind this theme being in the final edit of Covenant’s script as the LARGER thematic motif than the original movie’s “fear of the unknown”. Now the franchise has a definitive explanation behind literally EVERYTHING the original story tried to keep vague, including the specific origin behind the xenomorph.
Characters From A Sitcom
The cast is more or less what you would expect from the franchise at this point: Weirdly fleshed out as an assemble but no true main character. There is now a weird trend developing with the franchise where there is no longer the feeling of a central character. While Daniels (Waterson) is supposed to be the main character, the story doesn’t really happen from her point of view. Prometheus had the same problem with Shaw (Rapace), and Alien Vs Predator: Requiem had a similar problem with Dallas (Steven Pasquale). The attention given to each character feels like it is equally shared. It reminds me of a TV show. The amount of character time would be fine if there was special attention focused on the viewpoint of one specific character. Screen time is shared with everyone, and then the final act of the movie has a main character. Personally, I think that a movie with either David or Walter (Michael Fassbender) as the main character would have been a stronger choice with the story and strong theme provided.
As for actual characterization, it is just as difficult as movies prior. You get some idea of what kind of people make up the crew, with the androids being completely fleshed out. The stated problem of tension between the sequel that is desired and the prequel/sequel for Alien presents itself. All of these people need to die in horrible, gruesome ways, so giving them a personality can be challenging. Crew members are mainly characterized by their relationships with each other first, and then given basic traits second (kind of like the show Friends or How I Met Your Mother). We learn that Daniels is married to an uncredited James Franco, and also she is a strong first mate in that order. Captain Oram (Crudup) is married to medical officer Karine (Carmen Ejogo), and also he is religious and a bad captain. Tennessee (Danny McBride) is married to pilot Faris (Amy Seimetz), and…well he wears a cowboy hat and knows John Denver music. Compared to the characterization given to David and Walter, these people might as well be chimps. But everyone in the movie has relatively equal screen time.
It makes a small amount of sense that relationships are attached to a character before their rank or job because most of these characters suck at everything they do. Karine is a terrible medical officer; she is absurdly calm about a soldier who presents dangerous symptoms while on an unscanned alien world. One of the soldiers takes a Smoke break on a planet that could very easily have highly flammable flora he flicks the cigarette on to. Pilot lady is so blood thirsty against one of the monsters that she accidentally shoots an explosive barrel instead of just running away. The list can go on, and this movie deserves it to continue, but there is really only one character that I would like to vent frustration about.
What The Hell Is Oram Doing?
This was the million-dollar question I was constantly asking myself. Oram is absolutely the most incompetent person in the entire Alien franchise. This is saying a lot considering the sheriff in AVPR (John Ortiz) let children steal firearms and let a nuke go off in his hometown. Trust me when I say that Oram is by far worse than any sheriff in any movie ever.
It all begins with a simple choice: stay the course or delve into the unknown. After the catastrophic incident that kills the Covenant’s captain, a transmission is intercepted. A planet that falls within acceptable ranges for colonization lies along the path to their true destination. Oram sees a choice laid out before him and decides to…take his chances on the new world. Daniels explains to him just how many variables they are betting on when thinking about going to a new world. The Covenant’s crew had run hundreds of scans on the original planet; countless simulations of the terrain and atmosphere. Rather than making a safe choice, Oram wants to venture towards a new planet based on a fuzzy transmission. His fear is that continuing with the mission will result in more deaths and longer sleep cycles. Even when Walter (Fassbender) has expressed that the incident that killed the captain was completely random. Regardless, we have our first choice and the plot can now take place.
The next pivotal choice he makes is a fatal one: follow David into his weird egg room or kill him and end it. At this point in the second act, David has been revealed to Oram as a secret asshole. He is soft and cushy with one of the prenomorphs that murdered a crew mate, and Oram accuses him of being the devil. When presented with the secret asshole revelation, Oram decides to…ask David what he’s hiding. Oram has literally pieced together that David is a wacky robot and wants in on the secret rather than to save everyone. It’s bizarre and results in Oram being impregnated with the first official xenomorph.
What the hell is wrong with this guy? He was chosen by the writers to make two of the worst choices in the entire franchise, and they were made because he’s an idiot. There was no wool pulled over his eyes on anything in Covenant. Oram just screws everything up. Either he was accidentally made into the worst character in the franchise, or nothing else because he totally was. I’m sure Ripley would be turning over in her lava-filled grave if she could see the events of this movie.
Aliens, Alien, And David’s Alien
I didn’t cover the weirdness of the black goo extensively in the last review, but it is a really confusing element of this movie. In Prometheus, the black goo is a biological weapon that is used to manipulate organic life. beings that come into contact with the goo either transform into disgusting versions of themselves or become host to a parasite of some kind. Worms turn into snakes and the geologist guy turns into melted plastic. When it is sexually transmitted, like with Shaw and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), it creates a squid monster. This is some pretty wacky stuff, but it works as a weird substance in science fiction.
Once again, this goes wrong when you imply that the black goo was a steppingstone along the path to xenomorph creation. With there being no real xenomorph at the end of Prometheus, the writers had to have a true xenomorph by the time the events of Covenant take place. It would take too long to show various stages of development, maybe even an entire four movie span just to get a true xenomorph. So instead, David just created xenomorph eggs offscreen…the facehuggers and chestbursters and everything. No explanation was necessary because it was all taken care of by a robot living by himself on a forest planet. Granted, there were straggler engineers that he could have tested things on, and he could have made the xenomorph breakthrough while running experiments on Shaw (he killed her offscreen). I mean I’m no expert on xenomorphs (even after watching every movie closely and taking notes), but I was led to believe that there needs to be a queen involved in making eggs. Oops!
Aside from the tomfoolery about how the xenomorph came to be, there’s not much else to say about the xenomorph itself. The design was just fine. With animation being as good as it is now, there would have to be a pretty big blunder for the xenomorph to actually look bad. Some of the effects were actually enough to keep me entertained in between the varied levels of bad this movie had. My one complaint is that the video game xenomorph in this movie has the same amount of saliva coming from its mouth as the live-action masks did in previous movies. The slime has a real presence when it is used as a real prop. Trying to replicate the effect with computer graphics makes it look incredibly fake.
Paradise Lost (Final Thoughts)
Alien: Covenant originally was going to be titled Alien: Paradise Lost. The movie was set to be an ambitious reimagining of the classic poem by John Milton. David is a pretty good allusion to Satan from the poem, and even references it with the line “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” The David plot consists entirely of interesting things like a robot deciding to play god, and even attempting to seduce another robot to his cause like the angels that rallied to Satan. He wishes to reign in the Hellish path set before him by his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce).
Everything this movie had going for it was entirely in the plot line of android Satan. Sadly, as with most things in the franchise, good is heavily weighed down by bad.
Final Verdict: 3 out of 5
I have reservations giving this movie a 3 rather than a 2, but to be fair I did actually like it. If I were to guess why I liked it so much, I would say that a better movie was forming in my head while watching the movie equivalent to junk food. In another life, I would be giving a movie about robots playing God a 4 out of 5 that had nothing to do with Alien. If you can shut your brain off for two hours this movie is a treat on the eyes with special effects and action. You really have to shut your brain off for characters like Oram to make any sense. If you’re someone like me and can’t shut your brain off for a movie, then get ready to have many distracting questions while watching this.