Alien: Covenant (2017)
The enigma of the Xenomorph in the Alien franchise is diminished once you start to rationalise its heritage. Sadly, that’s exactly what Alien: Covenant has chosen to do. It jettisons the mystery of the original 1979 movie and pulls back the curtain, so wisely put in place thirty-eight years ago, to reveal a rather lacklustre explanation to the Xenomorph’s origin. Having spent nearly $100 million and employed a production team of some of the finest talent that money can buy, the resulting movie is not bad per se, just crushingly superfluous. After watching Alien: Covenant this week, my overall reaction can be distilled down to a deep sigh of indifference and a shrug of the shoulders.
Ridley Scott, now in his autumn years, strikes me as a film maker who is more enamoured with the technical, logistical and business aspects of film making. He appears to have a good handle on navigating the choppy waters of studio politics and certainly thrives within the complex process of crafting a big budget, effects driven movies. Yet his body of work has become very hit and miss in recent years and for me it is only The Martian that stands outs as being of note. Frankly, the will to make further Alien movies seems to be driven primarily by the potential box office and Scott’s presence has done precious little to move the franchise forward. He has now delivered two movies that frankly undermine the existing canon, rather than expand upon it.
Much of Alien: Covenant is a pastiche of what has gone before. At times Ridley Scott is plagiarising himself and not in an especially knowing way. He squanders a good cast by giving them precious little to do. Again, most characters serve little purpose other than to die. Katherine Waterston as Janet "Danny" Daniels has scope to be a credible protagonist but is sadly relegated to running, pointing and explaining the plot. Comparing her to Ellen Ripley is unfair because the actor is never given the opportunity to explore the role. Michael Fassbender appears twice this time round playing both a new android named Walter as well as David, who we last saw decapitated by an Engineer in Prometheus. Sadly, despite Fassbenders acting talent, the character remains a contrived and uninspiring foil. Remove the mirth and satire from Marvin, the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and you are left with the scope of Fassbender’s role.
Alien was a stripped down, minimalist, science fiction horror movie. It had a tangible air of claustrophobia and bucked some of the usual trends of the genre. The crew of the Nostromo were mainly blue-collar workers, not academics or soldiers. Their concerns were primarily those of their social economic group. Pay, job security and just getting the task done. Their practical story contrasted the esoteric nature of what they encountered. The crashed ship, the space jockey and the alien eggs were all deliberately unexplained and all the more enthralling because of that. Was the Xenomorph a simple predator or a highly evolved creature that natural selection had chosen to rationalise? Where was it from? Was it intelligent? These unanswered questions gave the beast gravitas. The answers that Alien: Covenant has chosen to provide undo this.
There are joyless action scenes, routine jump scares and some arbitrary sex and violence to be had in Alien: Covenant. The production design, cinematography and overall aesthetic screams A list production but the story that plays out is so utterly uncompelling and lacklustre. Ultimately the movie fails because it over thinks the source material. Rob Zombie made a similar mistake when he remade John Carpenter’s Halloween. He tried to explain a force of nature and by giving Michael Myers a detailed backstory of abuse and sadness, he turned the embodiment of the supernatural in to just another sociopath created by society. Alien: Covenant has effectively done the same. The Xenomorph has gone from being an abstract vessel for our subconscious fears to just a laboratory experiment by a disgruntled individual. From high concept to arbitrary in less than four decades. Sad.