Every artist reaches, and then passes, their creative peak. It happens to everyone involved in creative endeavors should they survive long enough. Bands grow stale, the words of authors lose their ferocity, and auteurs show their viewers passable films where once there were epics. Declaring an artist as being past their prime is a bit like writing an obituary while a person is still alive, but those are the feelings that are evoked by watching a film like Alien: Covenant. It’s gorgeous to look at, and is still obviously the construction of a master filmmaker, but the deft touch and tight focus that made Alien a classic is all gone.
Alien: Covenant is Ridley Scott’s long-awaited return to the Alien franchise. He flirted with a return with 2012’s Prometheus, but at times that film felt like a condescending ‘fuck you’ to the franchise, as if it had become something no longer worthy of Scott’s talents. He decided to blow up all the lore and turn a simple story about a bloodthirsty alien into a convoluted mess on the origins of intelligent life on Earth. Prometheus was a film that was far too complicated, was packed full of unlikable characters, and was just plain poorly written. In that, Alien: Covenant is identical.
Picking up a decade after Prometheus left off (this film is much more Prometheus 2 than it is an Alien movie) the film tells the story of the interstellar colonial ship Covenant. Aboard the ship are 2,000 colonists, a few drawers of frozen human embryos, and a dozen or so ship’s crew, all tucked away in stasis for the long journey to what they hope will be a new home world. They are being watched over by the ship’s computer, called Mother (voiced by Lorelei King), and Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android of the same type as David (also Fassbender) from Prometheus.
During some routine maintenance, a random burst of neutrinos severely damages the ship, forcing Walter and Mother to awaken the crew. The damage kills the captain before he can wake, leaving the second in command, Chris Oram (Billy Crudup), as the new captain. Other players of note are Katherine Waterston as terraforming expert Danny, and Danny McBride as hotshot pilot Tennessee.
Before this new wrinkle in the plot settles down, the crew detect a star system nearby that appears to have a planet tailor-made for colonization. They can either check out this new planet, or go back into stasis for the remaining seven years of their journey. Checking out the new planet is a no-brainer, and also the last intelligent decision made by anyone in this film.
In a coincidence far too unbelievable even for Hollywood movies, the planet happens to be the same planet David and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) flew off to at the end of Prometheus. Chris leads a party down to the planet’s surface, and things play out in pretty much the same way they did in Prometheus. A couple lunkheads in the cast become infected with a mysterious substance that causes them to birth creatures similar to the xenomorphs of the Alien flicks. But still, not yet the alien audiences have come to know. That’s because David hasn’t had the opportunity to test those out just yet.
That’s right. The nasty, multi-jawed and multi-clawed creature of the Alien films is, according to Scott’s brainstorms and the work of screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper, the result of an android carrying out scientific experiments while stranded on a strange planet. David took the black goo of Prometheus and somehow turned it into an alien.
I’m not sure why Scott felt it necessary to go back to the Alien films. Sure, fans of the franchise have always been open to the idea of a return. Why wouldn’t they? Scott is a great director. But he brought with him these ideas about the origins of the alien that, frankly, aren’t that good. In fact, an origin story is not what the alien needs. The alien isn’t Batman. It’s a simplistic creature whose only job in a film is to terrify and kill. Giving it an origin story serves neither of those purposes, and choosing to make it the creation of a humanoid robot is far less interesting than the mystery implied by the cargo hold full of eggs from the first Alien film. That shot of the eggs, combined with the giant dead space jockey, did more for the alien than two prequel movies have managed to do. A maxim of good horror and sci-fi films is not to reveal too much. Too many answers rob a film of possibility. They take away the audience’s ability to use their own imaginations to fill in the gaps. These gaps are what keeps the wheels turning in a viewer’s head long after the credits roll.
We see it again and again in film, when prequels are incapable of capitalizing on the mysteries presented in the main sequence of films. The Star Wars prequels, The Thing from 2011, Hannibal Rising, and more. Audiences have an appetite for these stories and the answers they provide, which is why they keep getting made, but really it should stop. It works for superhero flicks but not for much else.
So, Scott created a rather tall hill to climb in taking on these prequels, and he failed to reconcile his grand plot ideas to the alien. But what about the horror flick stuff? This is still an Alien movie, after all. There’s good news, there. There are indeed aliens in this film, more than one type, and they cut a satisfying swath through the cast. The scenes where the cast is hunted and winnowed down are satisfying, but mostly because I couldn’t wait for every one of the human characters to get killed.
Ridley Scott has made a very pretty film, but it’s also a bad film. It needlessly complicates a story that didn’t need any narrative help, and it did so poorly. Scott also made sure that if any other filmmaker decides to take on an Alien film, they will be burdened by all the backstory Scott filmed with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Forty years ago, Scott took the ideas of Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, cut off all the fat, and gave us Alien. Had someone been around to do the same with Scott’s ideas, or just had the power to kill those ideas outright, maybe a good film could have come out of it. Unfortunately, no one was around to save Ridley Scott from himself.