Alien: Covenant: Ridley Scott’s Time-Wasting, Pointless Sequel

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alien covenanEditor’s Note: Alien: Covenant opens in wide theatrical release today, May 19, 2017.

In the era of franchise filmmaking and shared universes, the end is never really the end. It’s a new beginning, a new beginning involving prequels, sequels to the prequels, spin-offs, and after a franchise has run aground on the infertile shores of creative bankruptcy, an inevitable reboot to restart the cycle all over again. We haven’t entered reboot territory yet in the Alien universe, but with Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s time-wasting, pointless sequel to Prometheus, the underperforming Alien semi-prequel ($126 million against a $130 million production budget, with another $275 million internationally), we’re one, inevitable step closer to that reboot. After Alien: Covenant, it’s clear we can’t get there soon enough. For all of its flaws, Prometheus promised a new, potentially invigorating direction for a dormant franchise in desperate need of one, but moviegoers soundly rejected Scott’s “Let’s take a space trip and meet humanity’s creators” premise. Following moviegoer preferences, not to mention studio dictates based on those presumed preferences, often means a compromised vision (if any). “Compromise” is the key takeaway here.

Unfortunately, genre conventions, not to mention audience expectations, eventually take over and when they do, Alien: Covenant tosses aside every vaguely interesting, barely developed idea it ever had.

When we last left Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), the lone survivor of a super-secret, corporate-financed mission to make contact with our alien forebears, and David (Michael Fassbender), a more perfect than human android with a big synthetic brain and a distinct lack of morality (an error in his design, apparently), they were headed off into the deepest reaches of space, ostensibly to find the Engineer homeworld and ask them, “What’s Up? Also, why did you want to wipe out humankind two millennia ago?” Forced to course correct, Scott completely jettisons the Shaw-David storyline for a pre-Prometheus prologue centered on David and his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), as a newly activated (born?) David, fully self-aware, fully self-aware, asks piercing questions of his mortal creator. Scott and his screenwriting team, John Logan (Penny Dreadful, Hugo, Rango, Gladiator) and Dante Harper, leave the question of David’s whereabouts for a mid-film reveal and given David’s proclivity for playing God (or Doctor Frankenstein if you prefer), it’s a meeting that the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship carrying 2,000 colonists, 1,140 embryos, and a crew of fifteen, will soon come to regret.

alien covenantMirroring Alien, the crew of the Covenant awakens from an extended slumber not by a distress call of unknown origin, but a neutrino storm that damages the ship, wakes up the crew mid-trip to a new world, but leaves their captain dead. That leaves Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup), the ship’s reluctant, unsteady second-in-command, in charge, and Daniels Branson (Katherine Waterston), as his executive officer. The now dead captain was also Daniels husband, forcing her to deal with the trauma and grief as Oram struggles with the reins of leadership and – you guessed it – a human-made signal of some kind emanating from a nearby, Earth-like planet. While Daniels argues for caution, Oram, a god-fearing man who believes in Providence (i.e., the hand of a benevolent god), rejects Daniels’ reasonable-sounding objections. The promise of a new home world close at hand – versus continuing on a voyage that involves seven more years aboard the Covenant – proves irresistible to the rest of the crew.

Alien: Covenant annoyingly reverts back to one of Prometheus’s weakest elements: Characters shed massive IQ points to further a bleak, ultimately nihilistic plot that essentially resets the story for at least another, non-essential prequel.

While some, including the chief pilot, Tennessee (Danny McBride), remain about the Covenant, most of the crew takes the lander to the surface of the planet. In less than short order, deadly, body-morphing spores infect not one, but two crew members. Their respective demises involve the usual mix of gore, blood, and body horror. Scott introduces new variations on the old-school chestburster scene: a back-burster and later, a mouth-burster. Both feel like cheap knock-offs or imitations (probably because they are), though moviegoers eager for an Alien fix will likely feel differently. As the nameless, almost faceless crew members succumb to infection and attack by proto-Xenomorphs (Neomorphs), David, stranded on the planet for over a decade, arrives to save them from certain death. But since malevolent androids are part and parcel of the Alien universe, David’s return functions as a harbinger of almost certain doom, an idea underscored by David’s doppelganger, Walter, a newer model programmed with a sense of morality and duty missing from earlier models like David.

Anchored by Fassbender’s dual performance, the David-Walter meet-and-greets easily stands out as Alien: Covenant’s most memorable. It’s in those scenes that Scott’s preoccupations with artificial life, preprogrammed identity, and human-centered morality shift to the foreground. Unfortunately, genre conventions, not to mention audience expectations, eventually take over and when they do, Alien: Covenant tosses aside every vaguely interesting, barely developed idea, reverting back into a proto-Alien action-horror film, with the rapidly dwindling crew facing extermination via various, violent means. Just as unfortunately, Alien: Covenant annoyingly reverts back to one of Prometheus’s weakest elements: Characters shed massive IQ points to further a bleak, ultimately nihilistic plot that essentially resets the story for at least another, non-essential prequel. Scott has promised us possibly two more sequels before the series links up to Alien’s first scene. Let’s hope it’s just one more (or maybe none at all). If Alien: Covenant, like Prometheus before it, proves anything, it’s that some questions – like the origin of the Space Jockey and where he came from – are better left unanswered, to be argued over and speculated about on fan forums and social media, not in a big-budget, prequel series.

5.5 MEDIOCRE

In the era of franchise filmmaking and shared universes, the end is never really the end. It’s a new beginning, a new beginning involving prequels, sequels to the prequels, spin-offs, and after a franchise has run aground on the infertile shores of creative bankruptcy, an inevitable reboot to restart the cycle all over again. We haven’t entered reboot territory yet in the Alien universe, but with Alien: Covenant, Ridley Scott’s time-wasting, pointless sequel to Prometheus, we’re one, inevitable step closer.

  • 5.5
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About Author

Mel Valentin hails from the great state of New Jersey. After attending New York University as an undergrad (politics and economics double major, religious studies minor) and grad school (law), he relocated from the East Coast to San Francisco, California, where he's been ever since. Since Mel began writing about film nine years ago, he's written more than 1,600 reviews and articles. He's a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.