WARNING: The following contains minor, unspecific spoilers.
About the worst crime an Alien film can commit is to be boring.
So lock ‘em up and throw away the key, boys. This one is caught, tried and convicted.
Covenant is an attempt to right the franchise after the mixed reception received by Prometheus, returning it to its roots and making it squarely about the xenomorph and bloody scares.
The problem with this approach is that Prometheus’s issue was never that it strayed too far from the Alien mythos or that it didn’t adhere to the Alien formula, it’s that so much of it was poorly written and that the characters were dumber than a pail of shit left out in the sun after a Kid Rock concert. The ideas behind Prometheus were excellent. Exploring the origins of mankind, discovering the goals of the Engineers, and getting tantalizing hints about the broader nature of the Alien universe was all fascinating stuff, and it was brought to us with a largely fantastic cast. It’s just that the writing sucked and the cast was largely tasked with being as dumb as humanly possible. The result was a movie that deeply divided audiences.
Ridley Scott and crew took the wrong message from the criticism, though, and the result is Alien: Covenant, a movie whose main goal is to recreate the original Alien, but on a lush green planet instead of on a dank spaceship.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, I suppose, it’s just not very interesting.
Still, there is nothing wrong with formula when the formula is awesome. If it’s a tight, tense thriller with some good scares and an oppressive atmosphere, that can’t be a bad thing, right?
Except Covenant is none of those things. The titular aliens can still be frightening, but here they are largely just grotesque. They’re scampering creatures usually accompanied by lots of splatter but little in the way of dread. When the full grown xenomorph finally shows up (and you know it’s going to), it’s much the same. It doesn’t lurk in shadows and torment us with fear. It’s more a wild animal here than it is a mysterious, unknowable thing. The terror of the first film, thrills of the second and existential dread of the third are absent. None of the death scenes – and there are MANY death scenes – are even set up or presented in a clever or interesting way. Even the Friday the 13th movies made an effort to have each kill be unique and clever. Not so here.
If there is anything interesting about the movie, it’s the actors, specifically Katherine Waterson’s solid turn as one of the colonist set to land on a new world (some critics compare her to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, which is lazy, and misrepresents the character), and Michael Fassbender’s fantastic dual performance as the androids David and Walter.
Indeed, if there is anything at all chilling about this movie, it’s David. We begin with a flashback to the early days of David’s creation, before the events of Prometheus, and then pick up where Prometheus left off, slowly learning what became of Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and what motivates this complicated, engaging creation. Fassbender is magnetic in the role, bringing a strange, inhuman kind of nuance to his performance that always skirts just on the edge of the uncanny valley. It’s damn near perfect.
Not as perfect are the predictable twists his story takes. There are a series of reveals that cast light onto how he got onto this remote planet and why he’s there, but none are particularly surprising. Once the very first reveal takes place, everything that follows becomes obvious within moments, including the final momentsof the film. The same holds true for all the story beats. Covenant is pure formula from start to finish, which wouldn’t be a fatal flaw if it was executed with any sort of panache – but as notes earlier, it isn’t.
By the time the final act rolls around and you’re waiting for the usual “kill the alien” climax (not to mention waiting for the obvious twist of the knife you know is coming), you’re left just kind of trying to figure out why you just watched what you watched and how it’s supposed to add to the Alien universe. (Hint: it doesn’t.)
For all its many, many faults, Prometheus at least brought a lot of ideas to the table. It attempted to be a smart, thoughtful successor to the original Alien, one that expanded on its concepts while still bringing the same sense of horror and dread to the table. It may have failed in that respect, but the effort was respectable.
Covenant make no such efforts. The initially planned story exploring the world and motivations of the Engineers was dropped in favor of more running from bugs, and the running from bugs we see here isn’t exciting or thrilling or scary or entertaining. It’s just some stuff happening on screen with CGI splatter.
Make no mistake, I’m not saying Covenant is a bad movie. It’s not. But it is a boring movie.
Ridley Scott is 79 years old. He’s had a fantastic career and remains even today a director with an immense talent for creator striking visuals. He’s got another movie in this franchise in the works, assuming Fox doesn’t pull the plug after Covenant’s disappointing box office take. I like both Scott and this franchise too much to do anything but root for it to be a movie that lives up to the promise of what both Prometheus and Covenant could have been.
Because so far this set of prequels has been nothing but missed opportunities.