With a brand new Ridley Scott Alien film released this past weekend, we at Psycho Drive-In thought it would be fun to look back at each of the films in the official franchise. So having done that, the Psycho Drive-In All-Stars now have some things to say about the latest film in one of Hollywood’s most enduring and important science fiction franchises. Here are our takes on Alien: Covenant.
It’s difficult to talk about Covenant without spoilers, but I’m going to endeavor to do so. Some context: as much as I enjoyed Prometheus, I recognize that I’m in the minority there. There are and were many who simply didn’t get it, or who were put off by the fact that this wasn’t the Alien film they were expecting. Apparently, Ridley Scott took this criticism to heart and attempted to address it in his treatment of Covenant. What we end up with here is, unfortunately, a rather weak compromise between the existential dread and open-ended nature of Prometheus and the more direct horror-house stalker-in-space themes of Alien.
It would be easy to lay all of the film’s flaws at the feet of this kowtowing, but I’m not sure it’s entirely to blame for Covenant’s faults. There’s another broader theme at work here that may have been a part of Scott’s plan notwithstanding any compromise. There is a progression present in the central female leads that I’d like to hone in on: In Alien, Ripley’s defining characteristic is that of survival. In Prometheus, we find Shaw defined by her thirst for knowledge, she survives often in spite of this. The driving force in Daniels’ life is love.
These touchstones inform each film directly, and it’s clear from the opening of Covenant that this is a film focused very much on the idea of family, heart and the human capacity for love and trust. It’s a difficult line to walk in depicting these elements on film and Covenant veers wildly between coming across as genuine vs. feeling like a bald attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience. When it works, it’s sublime. When it doesn’t, it grates.
Perhaps Scott’s original vision for a post-Prometheus follow-up would have found a way to make this work, but as it stands it’s a hard right turn from the larger questions asked and insightful discussion engaged by its predecessor. Even the themes of humanity playing God with AI are washed of their nuance in the rising melodrama that unfolds. It can’t help but feel like a step backward, intellectually and philosophically, and that’s a damned shame.
There are things I loved about it though. Katherine Waterston as Daniels does manage an incredibly emotive performance. I often wanted the film to be better, just for her, just to rise to her level. We can crack all the Kenny Powers jokes we want, but Danny McBride was cast with the sole purpose of grounding this far-flung sci-fi story in something relatable and I think he manages that. The tech and settings are magnificent for the first half of the film. Fassbender gives a positively amazing performance, whether you love or hate his character.
The first half of the film feels poised to deliver something on par with the expectation set by Prometheus, and the sense of wonder it inspires is profound. I was enjoying getting to know this crew, I was enjoying the sense of mystery building. And then quite suddenly all questions are answered, explicitly, in an all-out sprint to the finale.
— Adam Barraclough
This film is a series of don’ts. It’s an object lesson in how not to develop a sequel or prequel or whatever horrid hybrid thing this is. Caught somewhere in the realm of time between Prometheus and Alien, it’s a nowhere anecdote of how bad things can be. Don’t answer a distress call. Don’t change course. Don’t make the wrong person second in the command line. Don’t leave all the character development to the actors. Don’t make literally everyone disposable. Don’t double down on Michael Fassbender (did he really do that much for X-men or Assassin’s whatever? He’s good, but he’s not a miracle worker). And from the person who’s given such memorable spotlights to Ford, Weaver, Crowe, Douglas, Sarandon, Davis, Moore, Washington, etc., Scott really doesn’t spend much time highlighting anyone else on this crew of rising stars and character actors.
James Franco is actually the luckiest member of the cast since his cryogenic Captain Branson goes up in flames before they’re even all awake. The space arc ship is well-designed and interesting, including a great visual sequence where its solar sails are damaged and then efficiently repaired by a competent crew. That’s about the last smart thing they do. Daniels should be next in line, as she later on shows a steely command of high-power terraforming equipment that should be enough to avert the cascade of disasters they trigger. In a fair world. Which this isn’t. Damien Bichir’s gay soldier and Danny McBride’s southern stereotype deserve more development with their doomed partners before the bodies start bursting open from within. Billy Crudup tries to give his maligned pious leader a point of view, but the script presents him only as an overwhelmed victim, without sympathy.
Don’t go around kicking alien mushrooms, whatever you do. Don’t wonder off to bathe while people are dying. Do not caress that pulsating pod. And please don’t believe a supposed savior whose best line (after Crudup’s Oram asks him if they can all be checked for infection) is a chilly tossed off “Oh, you’d know by now.”
Shawn’s Rating: 2 Stars
— Shawn Hill
Not a single film in the Alien franchise has made me feel like after watching it, I’d just like to go have a few beers and forget about the whole experience. Until now. And surprise, the beers aren’t even necessary (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).
Alien: Covenant is eminently forgettable.
And that’s entirely down to the way people reacted to Prometheus. With Prometheus, Scott returned to the world of Alien to expand the universe, pose larger questions about that universe, and take the franchise into new areas. Unfortunately, he chose to do so without spelling everything out for the viewer, trusting that today’s more sophisticated audiences wouldn’t need their hands held through the process.
He was wrong. And the loudest voices on the internet are the bitchers and moaners, so, from the director’s own mouth, we get, “It went straight up there, and we discovered from it that [the fans] were really frustrated. They wanted to see more of the original [monster] and I thought he was definitely cooked, with an orange in his mouth. So I thought: ‘Wow, OK, I’m wrong’.”
So, while there were legitimate critiques to be made about the scripting (particularly about Damon Lindelof’s contributions), what Scott heard was “Fewer Engineers, More Xenoporphs” and thus, a visionary filmmaker sold out that vision to appease internet trolls.
Instead of watching as Scott explores crazy ideas about the origins of humanity – and the origins of those origins – we get a story that is, in effect, an elaborate apology, culminating in a genocidal flashback and the cheapest, most poorly orchestrated Alien bughunt in the history of the franchise.
But it didn’t have to be this way. While, admittedly, the two Prologue videos uploaded to YouTube by 20th Century Fox are far more interesting than anything we actually see in the finished film, the first half of Covenant serves as a meticulously crafted dark mirror image of Prometheus, right down to its construction and order of the scenes. Thematically, it provides an echo of Prometheus, where instead of looking for answers about humanity’s origins, it’s about creating an origin for humanity on a new world. Prometheus was about ideas and searching for knowledge, Covenant is about living and searching for a home.
However, once the “Take Me Home, Country Roads” signal is discovered, the film takes a right turn into tediousness. The only light in this entire middle sequence is the performance of Michael Fassbender, who’s David has become an enigmatic mixture of Doctor Moreau and Colonel Kurtz. The other Replicant (Scott’s word, not mine) he plays, Walter, serves as the safe counterpoint to David and could be seen as Scott’s symbolic representation of how the two films were created, as Walter has all of the creativity removed by corporate interests for the sake of appeasing a marketplace made uneasy by creativity.
Note how Walter states “We are Walter” as opposed to David’s fierce individuality and subtextual resentment of subservience.
But it doesn’t really matter much, as it’s not explored in the film (beyond a shippers’ paradise of Fassbender-on-Fassbender action) any more than any philosophical element is explored. Instead, we get what screenwriter John Logan appears to be best at, a vanilla mish-mash of previous works attempting to capture the magic that everyone loved about the originals.
I’d love to have seen what Scott was originally intending to put on the screen. Even the change in title from “Paradise Lost” to “Covenant” implies a shift in attitude from exploring his own ideas to acknowledging the audience’s role in the filmmaking process. Be careful what you ask for, people.
There are some things to love, though. The set design is gorgeous. The ships are beautiful. Even some of the monster design is nightmarishly cool – what we get to see of it. That’s offset, however, by some truly glaringly bad CG.
I won’t annoy you with going into too much detail about the most annoying things, like making sure we have a “Tennessee” this time instead of a “Dallas” (Danny McBride is serviceable enough, but asking him to act ‘grief’ is maybe pushing his skill set) or that the Engineer’s homeworld is apparently just one city on an entire planet (when their entire purpose seems to be about expansion and spreading their seed across the universe) or that there’s not even a pretense of taking precautions upon landing (if the scientists taking their helmets off bugged you last time, this should make you want to walk out) or not explaining why the Engineer ship is crashed up on a mountainside after the flashback makes clear it docked above the city or where the xenomorph eggs came from without a Queen or the fundamental question that these films were supposed to answer in the first place – why was the original Engineer ship from Alien crashed with a hold full of eggs?
And was I the only one laughing when after saying “I’m just burning up” in the “Last Supper” prologue, James Franco literally burns up? That’s comedy gold right there.
Not quite the comedy gold of barely taking first place at the box office by less than a million dollars (to a film that has been out for three weeks now) while simultaneously making over $15 million less than Prometheus did its opening weekend. At least the cost-cutting (Covenant’s budget was $33 million less than that of Prometheus) is all there on the screen.
— Paul Brian McCoy
Was Prometheus really as bad a movie as fans made it out to be? While the 2012 Alien prequel could be rather obtuse, and the characters made some of the stupidest decisions as reportedly intelligent scientists, it had an intriguing central mystery, moody sense of atmosphere, great sets, some viciously memorable sequences like Noomi Rapace’s self-directed surgical operation, and a delightfully supercilious Michael Fassbender bot. By the film’s end there were still plenty of outstanding questions unanswered, and so five years later director Ridley Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant to further confound and entertain.
The crew of a colony ship takes a detour to land on a habitable world and trace the mysterious transmission belonging to the android David (Fassbender). As expected, all is not what it seems and the crew is almost immediately put into jeopardy.
For fans who wanted more answers from Prometheus, there is a surprising amount of carryover to serve as a resolution for the prior film. There are a few big reveals, particularly about the xenomorph evolution, but the overall Alien storyline is moved just mere inches forward, slightly closer to the events of the 1979 original. The biggest problem with Covenant is that it’s too pedestrian for far too often. It sticks pretty close to the formula we’ll all familiar with, so we know it’s only a matter of time before the xenomorphs hit the fan. There is a dearth of memorable scenes here. The characters in Covenant aren’t that much smarter and make their fair share of stupid decisions (hey, let’s ignore the existence of wheat on an alien world or the possibility of killer microbes being in this breathable air). There’s just more of them to be killed off. The movie doesn’t really bother getting to know a far majority of them, consigned to the fact that they’re only here to be later ripped apart and exploded in gore.
Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) does a fine job as a Ripley replacement. Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down) has some effective dramatic moments too. But the best reason to watch Covenant, an altogether middling Alien sequel/prequel, is for twice the Fassbender robot action (there’s a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, which likely will break Tumblr). Alien: Covenant is a missed opportunity of a movie hampered by a disappointingly predictable script, tedious characters, and a lack of strong set pieces. It’s acceptable entertainment but not much more. The moral: don’t be a dick to robots.
Nate’s Grade: C+
— Nate Zoebl