[This review contains no spoilers.]
Ridley Scott is a uniquely frustrating director. On the one hand, he’s made many very good if not quite great films and a few incredible films including two of the most influential in sci-fi cinema history, both of which are being continued this year: Blade Runner and, obviously, Alien. He’s also made complete garbage like back-to-back stinkers The Counselor (review) and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Some would say that he even killed his own franchise with Prometheus. But just when it seems time to give up on the once-visionary filmmaker, he makes The Martian (review) and those previous struggles are all but forgotten. If nothing else, through all his ups and downs, one thing you have to admire Scott for, and one thing which perhaps causes many of those ups and downs, is ambition. Scott is one of the few directors who has managed to work at a high level through a variety of genres with little repetition between projects. Themes and styles may repeat, but seldom does Scott’s work feel like a direct copy of what he’s done before. This trait ends with Alien: Covenant.
For context, I am not one of those people who hated Prometheus. It seems to me that much of the criticism against that film came from the fact that it wasn’t quite Alien enough. It was too ponderous and without enough of the face-hugging, chest-bursting action they wanted. Personally, while Prometheus wasn’t anything spectacular, it looked great with its effects and striking color palette, and the story with its allusions to Greek history, religion and John Milton was just heavy-handed enough to make its themes obvious but ambiguous enough to leave details to interpretation. Even more, the entire idea of building a film, and a new franchise, around an unexplained corpse in a film released over thirty years early demonstrated a level of forethought far beyond what, at the time, looked like a series which had long fallen into repetitive, convoluted reasons to have yet another cast of miners/soldiers/prisoners be torn apart by space monsters. What should have ended with Aliens in 1986 managed to stagger through two more films before finding some form of new life in 2012. In short: I liked Prometheus. And I wanted to like Alien: Covenant.
Also, in short, Covenant is good until it becomes an Alien movie.
We are immediately hit over the head with the theme of creation from the opening scene where Michael Fassbender and Guy Pierce reprise their roles from Prometheus, only without the piss-poor old man make-up. This one scene has all the traits of elegant science fiction: white rooms, reference to centuries-old classical music, cold and distant imagery, a servile and unfeeling robot, and abstract dialog about the nature of creation and the limits of human mortality. The film promised from this opening is one of high-minded, some would probably say pretentious, rhetoric, and deliberate pacing where small details like the name of a symphony carry a great deal of unexplained weight. The film which follows this scene seems to want to deliver on this promise but very much doesn’t.
The new Ellen Ripley character is obvious from the first moment we meet the latest crew of disposable husks for xenomorph reproduction. Anyone who’s seen even one of the Alien movies should immediately know not to get attached to any of these characters, not that there is reason to get attached since several of the Covenant’s fifteen crew members are given little character beyond a vaguely defined on-ship job and a spouse. It’s telling when one of the most interesting character moments comes in the video recording of an already-deceased crew member, who is then supposed to serve as the major character development for one of the leads. The effect is that each set-up for an alien encounter feels less like a vice slowly tightening around our protagonists and more like another check on a list of must-include death scenes. All tension is lost when the audience knows exactly what will happen every single time a crew member wanders off alone. Similarly, the careful, claustrophobic horror of the original Alien is replaced by busting blood packs and torn limbs. In my viewing location, national censorship cut out the most graphic content, but blood alone doesn’t make for effective horror. Dread does. Uncertainty and attachment do. Aggressive alien babies doing to idiot meat sacks exactly what aggressive alien babies do to meat sacks practically begging to be ripped in half doesn’t make for tension. It makes for monotony. None of this helped by the fact that this crew of, one would assume, intelligent scientists do every foolish thing that most twelve-year-old children are taught not to. The admitted genocidal villain offering a look at something “beautiful” is basically the same thing as a salivating, twitchy man wearing a prison jumpsuit saying there’s a boatload of candy right inside his van. Gee, thinks the idiot we’re supposed to care about, I’ll just stick my face in it. Another kill later in the film is painfully obligatory. Alien: Covenant is like the Alien franchise on auto-pilot, with absolutely nothing surprising and the exact same plot as every single other movie.
If there are bright spots in the film, they’re the continuation of Michael Fassbender’s ascension into the pantheon of modern cinema performers, and the trickle of information offered of the extended Alien mythos. For Fassbender, his mannerisms and delivery between characters are good if a bit obvious. More impressive is how he manages to subtly portray conflicting emotions through a pair of characters that are meant to be increasingly emotionless. Unfortunately, again, the development of his characters follows only the most obvious path, hitting all the necessary points in a story that, while thematically interesting, and filling the hole which a lot of the criticism of Prometheus focused on, is eventually tossed aside for more predictable Alien repetition. The intrigue of the alien planet, its origin, the lost society, and what could be learned from such things, is tossed away in service of yet another iteration of the same, tired formula. There is so much that could be done with the setting of Covenant, and in its two-hour runtime, roughly ten minutes is spent in service of what is visually striking set-up.
I’ve often said that the worst thing a film, book, album, show, or any other type of media (and even one of my greatest fears in life) can do is waste potential. With Prometheus and now Covenant, Scott has introduced a vast universe waiting for explanation, but rather than follow the narrative promised in the previous film, he uses the exact same formula that we’ve endured not just through thirty years of Alien films but of every last stand science fiction, horror, or war film in history. The ambition that Scott built his career on is entirely lost with Covenant. The result is a film that is simply unnecessary. For some people, seeing a best-of compilation might be fun, and for those people, many of whom probably hated Prometheus for not being Alien enough, Covenant may be great. I’m happy for them. But for others like myself, who would rather see something new and exciting than the same formula that was already tired almost twenty years ago, Covenant offers nothing but more proof that Ridley Scott is a uniquely frustrating director.