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ALIEN: COVENANT (2017) review

May 22, 2017

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written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (screenplay) & Jack Paglen and Michael Green (story)
produced by: Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer, David Giler & Walter Hill
directed by: Ridley Scott
rated: R (for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity)
runtime: 122 min.
U.S. release date: May 19, 2017

 

In the weeks prior to the release of “Alien: Covenant”, which finds Ridley Scott returning to the franchise for the third time after starting it all with the space-horror original “Alien” in 1979 and his ambitious existential space-horror return, “Prometheus” in 2012, there were articles on the internet that had Scott stating this new film was something of an apology, that he had “listened” to the fans and is giving them what they want. That’s the last thing I want to hear from an artist. Imagine Michelangelo or Picasso just falling in line and giving what clients and critics want or expect from them? I shudder to think. The fact that “Prometheus” had the least amount of acid-blood xenomorphs and face huggers than in previous installments were the very least of its problems, so littering “Alien: Covenant” with a greatest hits mashup of the movies that came before it is the last thing this once-bold and creative series needed.

It’s as if Scott and the films numerous screenwriters (John Logan and Dante Harper, based on a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) sat around with an Alien checklist to ensure “the fans” would be pleased. I picture them sitting around a conference room table like corporate suits – maybe with some 20th Century Fox suits – looking at “what we did wrong” in the last film and figuring out “how we could do better” simply by scouring online complaints and butthurt outcries. After all, like so many other Hollywood franchises these days, it’s all about keeping a “brand” alive and not taking recognizable characters and venturing into unknown territory, like “Alien 3” and “Alien: Resurrection” (the unfairly maligned sequels) did. “Return to Form” is a wretched proclamation that gets thrown around when describing, often celebrating, an artist who throws the candy everybody supposedly wants and meets a broadly assumed expectations of the masses.

 

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Granted, there will be viewers who will love “Alien: Covenant” and most of them will likely be those who hold very little knowledge of the first two films or those moviegoers who just want to see creepy aliens let loose in a slasher flick. They’ll think it’s “awesome”, a statement which will lead me to assume that they’re unaware of what’s come before this movie. That’s fine. A movie can/should certainly stand on its own merits and it’s logical to suppose that one “Alien” movie is bound to be somebody’s first.

“Alien: Covenant” takes place in 2104, a decade after the events of “Prometheus” that saw survivor Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) flying off in a spaceship after everything went to hell, both hoping to meet their makers. That’s the last we saw of those two. There’s a new ship called Covenant (just like there was one called Prometheus), manned by a crew that’s housing two-thousand colonists in cryo-sleep along with a thousand embryos, with the goal of arriving on Orrigae-6, a vetted remote planet these Earthlings can hopefully call home. On board, supervising the ship’s functions and tending to any human need, is Walter (Fassbender as well), an upgraded version of David, also created by the Weyland-Yutani Corporation.

 

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When an unexpected solar flare rips through the ship, structural damage and human fatalities occur, forcing Walter to prematurely wake the crew out of their stasis, which unfortunately leads to the dramatic death of the ship’s captain (a cameo by James Franco) as well as a couple others. Fixing repairs and reeling from their loss, the crew now led by first mate Oram (Billy Crudup), must pull themselves together and determine what needs to be done to continue with their mission. When chief pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) receives a faint distress signal presumably from a human on what looks to be a nearby habitable planet, the decision is made to check it. Terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston) voices her apprehension, but the thought of going back to sleep for another seven years just isn’t that appealing to everyone else and the decision is made to seek out the source of this enigmatic signal. What could go wrong, right?

Shortly after they arrive on the mysterious planet with its suitable geography of tall grass, forests, lakes and mountains, the crew’s situation turns grave. Two members of the crew unknowingly become hosts to neomorphs, which result in death, attacks, death and the destruction of their shuttle. Marooned on what is now clearly a dangerous planet with their communication to the Covenant disrupted, Walter, Oram, Daniels and head of security, Sergeant Lope (Demián Bichir) struggle to survive. A lone cloaked figure appears from the dark, lighting a way to hopeful safety, seemingly familiar with the environment and eager to help the crew.

 

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Thus begins the second of a three-act story, one that has the most interesting and absurd story elements, but is far more intriguing than the tropes recognizable from previous entries in the franchise used in the first and third acts. This is the part of the story where we learn the source of the distress signal and we learn what David (the lone cloaked figure) has been up to since we last saw him in “Prometheus”, giving Fassbender a chance to play two synthetics, a development which provides viewers with the most weirdly fascinating interaction in in the entire movie. We wonder just how different these two synthetics are and how they will perceive each other’s existence. David has proven he’s quite devious and not to be trusted, while Walter is supposedly an upgrade and, from what we can tell, very loyal to his crew. But, does Walter have the capacity to be just as devious? Maybe/maybe not, on both accounts. But the more time we spend with both Fassbenders and their curious homoerotic dynamic, the more we realize that none of the other characters are interesting – in fact, their characterization is bland and predictable.

While this second act offers some interesting revelations from the David/Walter scenes, this is also where “Covenant” unfortunately turns into a slasher film. There are these strange moments that mostly work where it’s revealed has been playing Dr. Frankenstein with the xenomorph DNA, but Scott cuts away to scenes of other crew members wandering around his cavernous domicile only to meet their bloody deaths. It feels cheap and simply a way to thin the herd, so we can have as few survivors as possible for the action-packed third act (hint: you can bet it’ll involve an alien getting jettisoned into space like we’ve seen in previous “Alien” movies) which also has a ludicrous shower scene straight out of the “Friday the 13th” series.

 

 

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Another interesting inclusion found in the second act is when we learn what happened when David and Shaw arrived on this planet. It’s an unsatisfying and convoluted way to fill in gaps. Well, mainly what David did, since we sadly don’t see much of Rapace’s Shaw (that’ll be in the director’s cut) here, despite there being a prologue filmed that went online prior to the film’s theatrical release. It’s actually one of two prologues that fill the gaps and add much-needed characterization that’s missing in this cut. If you’re familiar with Scott’s work, you know that he’s prone to releasing a “director’s cut” once his films come out on DVD/Blu-ray.

Make no mistake, the sound and vision of “Alien: Covenant” is just as strong as “Prometheus” (well, almost), neither contributes to the film’s problems. Both films were lensed by cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, a frequent collaborator with Scott) who compliments earthy blues, greens and browns with his use of light and shadows, lending a distinctive atmosphere to the film. Australian composer Jed Kurzel (who recently worked on two Fassbender films, “Slow West” and “Assassin’s Creed“) is new to the franchise and incorporates musical motifs from Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score to “Alien” and Marc Streitenfeld’s beautiful theme from “Prometheus”, to his own work here. One baffling bit I found utterly jarring is a scene where David is playing that Streitenfeld theme on his recorder, as if to serve as a meta-moment that breaks down the fourth wall. It’s akin to a member of the U.S.S. Enterprise whistling the recognizable theme to Star Trek on his way to the bridge.

The cast is populated with actors who are generally enjoyable in other movies – Carmen Ejogo and Amy Seimetz to be specific, both of whom share a genuinely thrilling scene in the away ship’s infirmary – but it’s hard to get invested in their characters since there’s not much time given to describe who they are, what their specialties are and why they are valuable to the crew. This is partly due to the ticking kill count, but mainly because Waterston is miscast in “the Sigourney Weaver/Ripley role” and any other female character development will get the short shrift – although her Daniels character doesn’t seem as strong and resourceful as Ellen Ripley, or even Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw, for that matter.

 

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Dimension is missing in the characterization of these roles, forgoing character development for the sake of hitting familiar plot beats. When McBride’s Tennessee is told by Daniels via radio that his wife has been killed, the actor is far from hysterical. It could be that McBride, who we welcome in a somewhat serious role (although he’s a version of the country/western character that Idris Elba played in “Prometheus”), is new to conveying such emotions, but I doubt that. It’s just another missed opportunity in the script to show the characters as fully-realized human beings. The same thing can be said for Crudup’s problematic Oram, when he loses his wife. There’s barely a blip of emotional distraught. I thought the concept of having the crew be composed of married couples would bring a sense of grander emotions when everyone starts to get inevitably killed off, but the Scott and his screenwriters are unconcerned with grieving or any other kind of emotions, save for fear.

You may think I’m expecting too much from “an alien flick”, but that just means you’re unfamiliar with the potential of these movies. The first one was a aunted house/horror film, the second a war film, the third a prison movie and the fourth was a mad scientist/horror flick – all doing something different and unique with face huggers, acid blood and incubating xenomorphs. Plus, considering what Scott brought to the genre (credit must be given to designer H.R. Geiger as well) as well as the impressionable age of my sci-fi fan self when I first watched “Alien”, I think its natural to want a filmmaker to engage viewers in a manner just as captivating as before, albeit with some new take on what came before. Unfortunately, outside of the Walter/David stuff, we get “more of the same” here. The only form I wanted Scott to return to is in maintaining an unapologetic vision.

You just watch, at some point 20th Century Fox corporate execs will no doubt give “Prometheus” a re-apropriated title “Alien: Prometheus”. For all its audience derision, “Prometheus” was at least bringing something different to the series, presenting some compelling thought-provoking moments along with some head-scratching. There’s a lot more head-scratching here, but it’s out of frustration, not wonderment. I’ll take the existential pondering (posturing) and space exploration of “Prometheus” rather than the regurgitated plot elements and overall repetitiveness of “Covenant”.

 

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RATING: **

 

 

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