A half-baked Prometheus 2.
I think it’s time to leave the old franchises of my childhood behind.
With Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott has forced me perform some difficult mental gymnastics, all with the goal of pretending that nothing came after 1996’s Alien: Resurrection.
For me, the first four Alien films are classics. They are unique yet deadly, rather like a xenomorph. Covenant is none of those things.
Wait, that’s not fair. In fact, Covenant is exactly like a xenomorph. It burrowed insides the other Alien films, cut up their DNA, rearranged it, and then burst onto our screens leaving only bloody carcasses behind it. What I’m getting at is that Alien: Covenant is an awful film, a mash-up of all the other Alien films minus any sense of originality, personality or suspense.
The story goes as follows: a big old cargo ship – sorry, I mean colonising ship – gets a mysterious signal, goes to check it out in a lander, and when they do, they find aliens. After a brief quarantine episode, the newly-hatched aliens wreak havoc until they are eventually destroyed by guns or shot out an airlock.
The resemblances don’t end there. The ship’s control system is called Mother. There is a deranged android who for some reason intensely admires the alien. There is even a shower scene, reminiscent of Brett’s death in the first Alien film, and that scene also features a snaking between-the-legs spiky tail moment, which is exactly how Lambert dies in Alien.
All we are missing is a ginger cat called Jones.
But the worst element of copy-paste is the new Ripley, Daniels, a sceptical gunslinging second-in-command who becomes a sceptical gunslinging first-in-command. Daniels takes over when the aliens start popping out and I feel bad for Katherine Waterston who plays her not because she acted poorly (she was fine) but because there will never be another Ellen Ripley a splayed by Sigourney Weaver. Ripley is the stuff of legends. You cannot imitate her. Look what happened when they tried in Resurrection.
Like Ripley, Daniels tries to tackle the alien by blasting it with a ship’s engine, attacking it with heavy machinery, and finally dressing up in a spacesuit and blasting it into outer space. This comes after the crew try to draw the alien to a specific place, shutting off its options by closing certain doors in the ship in sequence. Wait, isn’t that what they did in Alien?
So far, so similar. However, I simply cannot see Ellen Ripley making doe eyes and falling for the old cut-my-hand-off-too android switcheroo, which was almost as bad as Charlize Theron’s ridiculous death in Prometheus. Run to the side, Charlize! And silly Daniels. What do you do when you have two identical androids? Make sure you know which one is the good guy. I know emotions were running high but come on.
The whole thing annoyed me because it smacks very much of The Force Awakens, which from a photography point of view shamelessly poached virtually all its scenes from the previous films. Desert planet? Check. Forest planet? Check. They even had a death star, for Christ’s sake. Why did they do that to Star Wars? Because most of the under-30s alive today won’t realise they are watching a film that has already been made, so you can make a lot of money without much work by basically making it again.
Both Prometheus and Covenant, bathed in light, remove the air of dark suspense that I love about the alien films. We are not on an asteroid during a storm with poor visibility but on a lush expansive planet, with lots of wide helicopter shots in the daylight. The alien itself is demystified: previously a pounce-from-the-shadows kind of creature, the alien now takes centre stage, out in the limelight all the time in glorious high definition for all to see. We can see it all happening in detail. It’s scary in a jumpy kind of way, but unfortunately not in a memorable kind of way. Who will forget the creature leaping out to attack Dallas in the ventilation shaft? Or reaching for Ellen when she’s in the lander and thinks she’s safe? There are none of those moments here.
The characters also obviously all suffer from a severe case of post-cryo silliness, which also featured heavily in Prometheus. How else do you explain scientists touching down on an unknown planet without even giving it a once-over? The air’s breathable? Then let’s go party in it! If the air’s good, there couldn’t be monsters or bacteria or viruses or anything hanging around, right? If they’d just flown around a bit, maybe they’d have spotted that ghastly city of tortured bodies frozen in their death throes, and thought to themselves, ‘Yeah, maybe this is not the planet for us’.
This made me think of the scene in Prometheus where the clever scientist tries to stroke the alien snake. Why would you do that!? You run away from alien snakes, you don’t stroke them. These are meant to be clever people.
What they have done in Covenant is clumsily further the Prometheus plot line – cutting out poor Noomi Rapace, not sure what she did to annoy Scott – and focus on David, who is basically Ash from Alien on steroids. Michael Fassbender’s David speaks in riddles with a bad English accent because he’s a bad guy, and that seems to be all the motivation he needs to destroy the civilisation known in Prometheus as the Engineers AKA humanity’s creators. But this means a seismic shift as the alien actually takes a back seat to David in a very strange way when the android tries to befriend the creatures by teaching them to whistle or blow or something, thus revealing his desire to control them. The awful thing is they reciprocate. Aliens shouldn’t do that. The appeal of the alien is that it is alien; distant, unknown, other. You can’t make friends with it. It is the opposite of human, of everything we know. That’s why it’s called Alien, at once a noun and an adjective. That’s why it’s scary and mysterious. But Prometheus and Covenant have explained the alien’s origins to death, shone a harsh light on it, turned it into a pet, and it has killed the films.
Sure, we have Weyland-Yutani in the other films who also tries to ‘befriend’ the aliens and weaponise them, but that always ends badly because the point is you can’t control the aliens, they just want to kill things. David, however, succeeds, even if only for a tiny moment. He is the victor in this film.
Covenant messes with some seriously fundamental attributes of the Alien series and should not be in the so-called canon; it should be part of the Prometheus arc. For me, Prometheus was a splinter, a new more story-based arc that takes place within the Alien universe. So for the story to be wrapped up in a few flashbacks in Covenant was, for me, very strange. Why not call it Prometheus 2? Why link it to the Alien films so explicitly when it is actually something else?
They should have fleshed out Shaw and David’s journey to and arrival on the Engineers’ planet. That should have been the focus of the film, and it should have been called Prometheus 2. Then I would have given it a miss instead of wasting my money on the cinema ticket.