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Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Most people can agree that Ridley Scott’s Alien was not only one of the best films of 1979, but was also a seminal horror event. James Cameron’s 1986 sequel Aliens was an abrupt change of genre from horror to pulpy sci-fi actioner. Still, it broke new ground and created an entirely new class of film. Both were groundbreaking.

Interested parties are less united on the rest of the catalog. I consider Alien 3 to be a misguided but somewhat underrated enterprise. Resurrection was a mess and I’m still not sure if I really saw it, or if anyone really saw it, or if it was just some sort of spore induced mass hallucination. Obviously the less said about Alien vs. Predator the better.

Next up in the pantheon was Prometheus. Here was an Alien movie that promised us answers to questions that nobody was asking. For example, where do the Aliens come from? How did they come to be? What were the thoughts and motivations of not only the beings who created them, but specifically the beings who first encountered them and then (spoiler alert) created US? It delivered a contradictory mishmash of navel-gazing tripe from which only Michael Fassbender came out well.

And like a lot of prequels, it left me feeling like the story had ended right when the movie I actually wanted to see was about to begin.

So fuck you, Prometheus.

Flash forward to today, to the latest in a line of Alien movies that seem like parodies of the same. The word Covenant refers to a colony ship carrying hundreds of frozen settlers. The vessel is damaged by something-something space-rays and Walter (Michael Fassbender), the service android on board, wakes the crew. The captain is killed because his life support pod is inexplicably filled with napalm. Second in command is a man named Oram (Billy Crudup), who was close to both Captain Branson (James Franco) and his wife, who is oddly referred to by the mononym “Daniels” (Katherine Waterston).

Next, the surviving crew want to have a prayer service for the dead. And this, as with society in general, is where things jump the shark.

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Mazel tov!

For some reason Oram refuses their request with the subtlety of a rabid wolverine, insisting that because of the dire circumstances there’s no time for such sentiment. No obvious logic is given for the intensity of his stance, and there seems to be no material gain from it. The crew of course defy him, and the ship doesn’t seem too damaged for Oram to spend several minutes delivering a rambling monologue on the many benefits of casual atheism.

In fact he specifically mentions how he was denied the ship’s captaincy due to his psychological profile coming back marked “tendency to deliver rambling monologues”. So why was this clown on the ship at all – let alone as the Captain’s stunt double? He is cartoonishly unfit for the position, and we are given no choice but to hate him immediately. It’s a cheap and transparent stunt, and it weakens the film considerably whether you realize it at the time or not.

There’s little time to dwell on it though, as the ship picks up a mysterious transmission. It’s a John Denver song and the source is an amazingly earth-like planet that’s magnitudes better than the one they’d already chosen. So they decide to abandon their carefully planned mission, years in the making because the ship’s folk music buff heard something off his playlist. This part of the film also needs a laugh track because every time you find yourself thinking “His behavior makes no sense” or “This planet is obviously bullshit”, Daniels opens her mouth and says the exact same thing.

Each time, Oram’s response is basically “I’m in charge and you’re not la-la-la-la”.

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“la-la-la-la-la-la-la”

This is also the attitude of almost every other character in the film. Every challenge the protagonists face is entirely of their own making which would be fine if this were a comedy, but it’s not. What’s more frustrating is the fact that the people we’re asked to sympathize with are not making good decisions. Foolish choices backfire and create bigger stakes, but with a smaller threshold of believably. Our heroes are making what seem to be clearly terrible decisions; doing and saying things that no reasonable person would.

Then they act surprised when bugs start exploding out of the walls and suddenly there’s blood everywhere.

People who are supposed to be trained professionals – colleagues who have worked together for years – come completely unglued at the first sign of stress. Then, they start making rabbit-running-straight-at-the-car level bonehead choices. After that, disaster strikes. To compensate, another unbelievably moronic decision is made, leading to an even bigger explosion/infestation. Wash, rinse repeat. It’s maddening and while it’s clear the first 45 minutes or so of Covenant are meant to be thrilling, they instead made me angry.

I mean, took-away-my-childhood angry.

I get that the screenwriter’s goal is to get the crew isolated someplace where a swarm of Xenomorphs can murder them in brutally ironic ways. I’m fine with that. It’s the reason I live and breathe. But this is a crew who behaves as if it’s their goal, too! Here’s an example from the second act, broken down into convenient cause-effect form:


  • Source of transmission located. Storm above site is capable of fucking up all the things and stranding the landing party (this is explicitly stated).
    • Crew attempts to land anyway; no reason given for not simply waiting out storm.
      • All the things fucked up. Landing party stranded.
  • Crew explores planet without spacesuits; conducts biological survey to determine whether safe to explore planet without spacesuits.
    • They touch everything and conspicuously stick their faces into every slimy orifice that looks like it might spray deadly alien microbes into your brain.
      • Several crew members immediately infected with deadly alien microbes
  • Medical officer returns clearly infected crew to ship, consciously ignores protocol designed to prevent such.
    • Bugs start exploding out of the walls and suddenly there’s blood everywhere. 

My friends, the entire film is like this. At no point did I believe in the credibility of these characters, and at no point did any of them give me a reason to. This, of course, makes it rather impossible to feel anything when they inevitably die in brutally ironic ways.

For 122 interminable minutes Daniels wanders in and out of the story, incredulously warning anybody who will listen not to touch that or not to land the ship there. And then they do it anyway – and fucking die. Like cockroaches, they act on instinct – never learning from the fate of their peers. Maybe there was supposed to be a laugh track. Maybe this is some kind of twisted drug trip Daniels manufactured entirely in her crazy head.

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Yay drugs!

These are not the kind of things you’re supposed to be thinking about when you’re watching an Alien movie. And you know what else you’re not supposed to be thinking about? Shelley. Byron. Michelangelo. Beethoven. There’s a subplot here involving the now deceased Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) and David, the screwy android from Prometheus (also Michael Fassbender). It includes a lot of self important exposition about herbal teas, classical music, philosophy and creations eclipsing their creators – all things one obviously dreams of in an Alien film.

And of course for all its bluster, Covenant never delivers on any of this. Service is paid to the fate of Noomi Rapace’s character from Prometheus, and to the oblique motivations of Ian Holm’s character from the original film. But whatever homage there is feels hollow and unsatisfying. Everything feels hollow and unsatisfying, because there appears to be nothing substantive behind it. The inevitable interaction between David and Walter gives Fassbender a chance to stretch his chops a bit, but unless your idea of plot development is watching snooty robots learn to play the flute (and I realize it might be), keep walking.

Or maybe stick around, if you’re into it…

If this new pair of Alien films are supposed to lead up to something, it’s going to have to be big to justify four hours’ worth of maddening, self indulgent narrative cartwheels. And before you try to tell me that it’s “just a movie” and that I should “lighten up”, remember that those are your standards. My standards are that if I’m going to pay good money to be told a good story about intergalactic hell-beasts, then I damn well want to be satisfied. And if the best you can come up with is robot poetry readings and human-shaped lemmings skittering off a cliff to their obvious doom, then you have fucking failed.

The final indignity is when Covenant ends not unlike its predecessor: leaving me more interested in the movie they’re teasing next than in what I just saw. The Alien franchise has officially devolved into an endless bait and switch operation, long since jettisoning its horror/sci-fi roots and morphing into a ham-handed series of navel-gazing Blade Runner knockoffs.

Maybe Ridley Scott should be off doing that, and leave the Aliens behind for James Cameron.

Again.

 

 

 

Jack Burton View All

When some wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac grabs your neck, taps the back of your favorite head up against the barroom wall, and he looks you crooked in the eye and he asks you if ya paid your dues, you just stare that big sucker right back in the eye, and you remember what ol' Jack Burton always says at a time like that: "Have ya paid your dues, Jack?" "Yessir, the check is in the mail."

2 thoughts on “Alien: Covenant (2017) Leave a comment

  1. That does sound frustrating. I still haven’t had a chance to see this movie, but I plan to eventually. However, after reading many such reviews my expectations of it are pretty low. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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