“There’s so much here that doesn’t make sense…”
– Katherine Waterston as Janet “Danny” Daniels, Alien Covenant
Is the Weyland-Yutani Corporation made up of really stupid, willfully ignorant, and incredibly single-minded people hell-bent on burning through piles of money and human bodies every chance they get… or am I missing something here? Every time they try to get an certain cranky, homicidal alien life form for their research or whatever other unsavory purposes, bad things happen and just get worse. I could just blame the robots, but it hasn’t *always* been their fault.
The humans on the other hand? Ay-yi-yi, we’re talking idiotic in increasing percentages in what, over a century of trying to bag that xenomorph and its assorted relatives? That’s a pretty lousy batting average, folks. That said, the original Alien gets a big fat weekend pass for its crew’s carelessness because you got your average space truckers griping about low wages and such who had no idea about what was coming thrown into a situation they had no control of . Although, now that I think about it… what the hell was Ash’s plan had the Nostromo crew somehow killed off their unwanted passenger first?
Granted, the current chronology of the Alien franchise means the events in Prometheus came first and brought us the unbalanced synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) who ends up even nuttier in Alien Covenant (more on that below). Then we get Ian Holm’s creepy, frustrated and malfunctioning Ash in 1979’s Alien followed by the Lance Henriksen’s helpful Bishop in Aliens and Alien 3, followed by Winona Ryder’s “Hey, huh? I’m an android?” part in Alien Resurrection. While Ridley Scott seems hell bent on making a few more Alien films that take place before the original, Alien Covenant manages to (wisely) swipe enough from the above films not shot by Scott to somewhat good effect. Still, I’m somehow left with more bad questions than good answers about a ton of important stuff.
There are some great things to say about the looks, so let’s get that out of the way first. Thanks to Scott’s keen eye for details great and small, the film looks fantastic for the most part. Some of the practical effects to CG shot blending is a tad strange-looking (well, the teeny-tiny CG Alien is a freaking HOOT), although you might not notice unless you pay very close attention. But the script plasters over so much hard-wired crew stupidity that it makes for constant distraction because of all the rock-dumb things that transpire during its running time. If you thought the dynamically dopey duo of Fifield and Milburn in Prometheus were bad for your brain pan, wait ’til you see this clumsy crew of red shirts that land on the new planet. That said, this is a film hitting home video with mostly solid special features (some of which helpfully expand the story and make more of the doomed cast likable). But it’s a tough watch because the underlying script is flat out awful.
After the Covenant (carrying a crew of 17 plus 2000 hyper-sleeping humans and over a thousand frozen embryos) is damaged during a freak accident, the surviving crew intercepts a signal from a nearby planet it’s decided by the new captain (Billy Crudup) to make a landing on an uncharted world instead of following the plan. The film tosses out the explanation that the crew is too spooked about the accident and resulting deaths to want to go back into stasis for over seven years, but we do get one crew member (Waterston) voicing her objection to the idea but being overruled. In English, 15 minutes or so in and my brain was doing back flips over the logic gaps happening. Then again, when one of the co-writers says in an interview that the original film came out in 1977 and no one bothers to fact check (filming didn’t start until 1978 and the film wasn’t released until May 1979), you know you’re in for something that’s off on a basic level.
Why doesn’t the ship have drones and/or probes to send out in case something like this happens? Given that even basic communication with the Company would take a few weeks, why not be better prepared for all sorts of emergencies? Even given the explanation that the original planet the Covenant was headed to had already been fully mapped out and vetted, wouldn’t they still need to do some sort of environmental check there before they landed just in case things changed? Nope, instead of a rational, well thought-through scientific response, we end up with a shorter, weeks-long jaunt to a totally unexplored world that ends up being a total deathtrap nightmare hell for all. Also, the ship only has ONE main landing craft and no emergency backups for its sole synthetic, Walter (Fassbender) who yep, gets sent down with the stupid crew.
I’m over-emphasizing the work stupid here for a reason because there’s ZERO viable explanation for these guys and gals landing without full-body coverage spacesuits on an alien planet despite it being a near-perfect paradise (which it MOST certainly isn’t). The lander pilot unwisely decides to plop the ship in the water 8 kilometers from the signal site simply because she “doesn’t like the terrain” and we soon end up with two of the crew infected thanks to a few more dumb decisions. Two alien attacks, some bloody deaths and and the total destruction of the lander later, the survivors are rescued by a hooded figure that just so happens to be David (Fassbender) who’s totally out of his mind after ten years of alone time. The fact that he looks like Iggy Pop as Curve in The Crow: City of Angels wearing a Jedi robe was not lost on me at all (Or: yeah, I laughed a lot and had to pause the film for a bit).
The David/Walter element of the film is pretty interesting, particularly when it’s revealed what transpired in that ten year period and a few fates are revealed via flashback and general nosiness. The Walter model has been toned down to be a great deal more helpful and Fassbender’s dual role work here is incredible stuff to behold. Unfortunately, the film sets up the audience for a clear tell when David cuts his hair and starts babbling out stuff like a villain in a bad spy movie giving away parts of his master plan. Amusingly enough, one character actually falls for his evil shenanigans, dying by facehugger surprise because he’s to dumb to not know he’s being lead to his inevitable death.
Speaking of death, the film’s different aliens are stealthy but lighting fast and hard to kill. It’s pretty obvious Scott was intent on making this a “scarier”, bloodier film than Prometheus was. But he also reigns himself in from using too much gore… with mixed results. Lots of super-quick cuts and a few scenes of extended attacks are here, but the most effective shot in the film is one of a decapitated head slowly, gracefully spinning in a pool of water. It’s a freakish enough image that it’s used twice and manages to be haunting each time. Other than that moment, I didn’t find the film scary at all. I was too busy paying attention to the story and it’s plot hole potholes to be more than annoyed as the issues piled up.
Plot elements from Prometheus are either dropped entirely or glossed over (most likely to fit into the next few pre-Alien films, I guess) in order to emphasize David’s mechanical madness and hatred of humanity. While he and Walter fight it out on a few fronts, the Covenant is endangered twice by insanely doltish decision making (from Danny McBride’s Tennessee character) that only works because the plot forces it to. There’s an eventual rescue mission made using a jury-rigged crane/platform thing and yep, a final battle against one more alien that manages to make it aboard the Covenant.
With all the callbacks to other films in the series popping up so often (including tips of the cap to Jerry Goldsmith’s score), the film tries way too hard to nod and wink itself into making itself likable. Worse, the final twist was so telegraphed that it was less a surprise and more of a shrug that actually made me blurt out “Shit Happens!” out loud to an empty room before laughing for about two minutes straight.
One thing to point out though:
Spoiler: uh, actually… she does (end spoiler)…
Anyway, this film is a mess. A very good looking mess, but nevertheless, a mess. That said, as a longtime Alien fan since 1979 (yeah, I’m that old) I’m curious to see where it ends up as more prequel stuff gets made. As noted, the special features here help out a great deal, but one shouldn’t have to shell out for a rental or retail disc just to see bonus footage that makes a movie more interesting. In the midst of all this is what seems to be Scott attempting to tie in Blade Runner and its upcoming sequel into the Alien universe, something that has my eyeballs spinning in my head for a few reasons.
Suspension of disbelief is something that’s important in most movie science fiction yet, Alien Covenant falls into the trap of painting itself into a blind corner with a busted airlock open and waiting at the end of the hall. All the high-minded stuff about potential deities, Byron versus Shelley and that ironic use of Wagner that opens and closes the film ends up wasted if you do more than pretend to study the story. But, let’s fully expect this trend to continue because sometimes you have to see a thing all the way through no matter the end results. That said, it might be time to put this canon into a cannon and shoot it off into the sun if things don’t get smarter on the human front.
Score? Eh, My eyeballs still hate me. Rent it if you must.