BY ZOEY SMITH:
Alien: Covenant Review
Much like how Alien: Covenant’s shell-shocked interplanetary colonists stumble away from the traumatizing horrors of discovering the true nature of the Xenomorph menace, I too have walked away from Ridley Scott’s latest stab at making a decent Alien film in a daze of debilitating, numbing existential confusion, disillusioned with a truth that did not align with what I was expecting.
Disclaimer: I’m a huge Alien apologist; I’ll praise the glories of the first two films as shining examples of the glories of cinema, I’ll beg people to give the criminally un-loved Alien 3 a second chance, I’ll gladly play along with nonsensical theatrics of AVP films and Alien Resurrection; hell I’ll even try to convince people that Prometheus was good-ish (hint: deleted scenes). The Alien franchise has, over the course of 8 films, been subject to the artistic visions of their respective creators. Given that 5 directors have had their turn at creating Alien films, every film in the series bears the distinct style, substance, and tone often reflected of their directors. In a way, it can be said that the Alien universe has been a hotbed of cinematic expression and creation. It can also be said that Alien: Covenant brings its experimental A-game, but totally drops the ball by trying looking backwards far more than it should.
My expectations for this film, as incredibly low as they were, were entirely upended by this film’s gonzo left-field sensibilities and slick production. Sure, the unfortunate stench of nostalgia mining is as present as ever, but underneath that mass-market exterior is a profoundly strange film deeply concerned with the nature of creation, and the responsibilities creators bear. However, it is extremely debatable as to what the film is saying about this subject matter, if anything at all. Just slapping “heady” themes into your film doesn’t make it smart, and all the profound meditation in the world can’t save Alien: Covenant from its deeper sins of plain mediocrity: it’s a rather stunning accomplishment to make a film that is both unpredictably imaginative and tediously formulaic as this.
For those not up to speed, Alien: Covenant takes place sometime after the events of Prometheus, where a ship over 2000 space colonists, on route to start a life on an Earth-like homeworld, choose to investigate a cryptic message being transmitted from a mysterious, undiscovered planet. Once on planet’s surface, the colonist stumble across the Engineer cruiser that Dr. Shaw and David hijacked from Prometheus, only to later have several crew members infected with by a surprise reappearance of Black Goo (remember that?). After the infection, the new Neomorphs emerge (omfg am I the only one that yearns for the days when monsters were just referred to as ‘the monsters’) and totally wreck the shit out of the remaining colonist. Before everyone is killed, the group is rescued by David (played by the film’s best asset, Micheal Fassbender), who then takes them to seek shelter in an alien city littered with thousands dead Engineers. It is here that the group discovers the truth: that David and Dr. Shaw arrived to this planet, an engineer homeworld, and unleashed the black goo upon their civilization! And that David has a god complex which drives him to experiment with the black goo! And that David created a strain of goo that closely resembles that of the Xenomorph we all know and love! And that David killed Dr. Shaw to create the first Xenomorph!
Yeeeeaaaaaaa it’s a bit of a letdown, made even more vexing by the fact that NOBODY ASKED FOR THIS. NOBODY WANTED A XENOMORPH ORIGIN STORY. Well, maybe a group of uncritical diehard fans were clamoring for this, but that hardly represents what most moviegoers care about.
It’s never fun to witness genuine artistry to be utterly betrayed by staid tropes and genre conventions, even if said tropes are ripped straight from legitimately interesting sources. While Alien: Covenant doubles down on the deeply existential musings Prometheus, the film also liberally remixes both the first film’s cold, bleak aesthetic along with a more raw, gory take on James Cameron-esque action sensibilities established in Aliens. Perhaps the perfect recipe for an Alien film, but all the parts work to frustrate more than enthrall. The encounters with the new Neomorph threat come across as predictable and limp, only made watchable by Scott’s tight pacing, energetic execution, and handsome style. The unsettling, grotesque presence of the Alien is diminished thanks partly to shoddy CG work, and more so to years of exposure in popular culture. Tension is implied to exist in this film, but the mechanisms responsible for creating this response fail to do so.
Sandwiched between the action bits are the parts of the film I should theoretically love: probing, exploratory science fiction with ‘big questions’ questions on its mind. Character-focused world building. Stunning cinematography that doesn’t flash by faster than my brain has time to process. A creepy, ethereal soundtrack that samples the best motifs from past films. Scenes where people sit in a room and talk a lot and not much happens. Space ships and people doing space stuff in spacesuits in space. Oh, and this film gets weird.
Really, really weird. I mean, when your film opens with a 5+ minute scene of guy lecturing his android creation on the reason for his existence, you’ve gone down a path of weird you cannot pull back from. We are treated to many levels of weird; uncomfortably close and personal alien encounters, strangely theatric Xeno infections/births, bizarre character moments (there’s a bit where the David teaches another android how to play the flute!), and tonally misplaced, over-the-top set pieces. While all of this strangeness HAS been present in previous Alien films, Covenant’s deathly serious tone mixed with its more nonsensical elements puts it in the same league as the bizarrely hyperactive Alien Resurrection. Hell, A:C may even be a legitimate contender with Resurrection for the title of Weirdest Alien Film (but, it is a tough call; Scott’s cool, measured affect is in a completely different league than Resurrection’s adolescent, feverishly bonkers style). I’m sure a part of me would totally be down to watch this again, provided plenty of booze/hard drugs is on hand.
I still cannot confidently say whether I liked this film or not. I think, under repeated viewings, I might come to appreciate how ‘out-there’ this film gets with themes and plot, even though the overly familiar elements failed to excite. I’m normally extremely hugely accepting towards films whose ideas outshine their execution, but Alien: Covenant challenges my tolerance far beyond what I comfortable with swallowing. There’s a lot of neat stuff, weird stuff to mull over here, but unfortunately there’s also a lot of endure. Perhaps, maybe, too much.
(HEY, maybe the fucking DELETED SCENES will clear some of this up? Sweet Jesus, have you SEEN the digital short clips that were apart of Covenant’s marketing? There were some legit character bits in there that ARE NOT IN THE MOVIE. Ugghghghghghhghghghghghghghghh I thought Scott was trying to learn from his mistakes on Prometheus)