ENTERTAINMENT: Alien Covenant--The Review
Let me just start off by saying, I love Alien. The universe is complex, expansive, and the first two entries in the science-fiction action-horror franchise--Alien directed by Ridley Scott, and Aliens directed by James Cameron--are Hollywood goldmines in terms of pacing, acting, storytelling, special effects, and emotional manipulation. It’s going to be hard to talk just about the first film because I’m enamored with everything the sequel brought to the universe we didn’t even know we wanted to see it in until it emerged. But, for the sake of this review of 2016’s Alien: Covenant, it’s aptly and direly needs comparison to the original 1979 film.
Freaking Covenant. Directed by Scott--director of both the original 1979 Alien and its strangely indirect 2012 prequel Prometheus--it pulls from greatness and strives for legacy, but stops short of an Alien movie that’s not really about the titular Aliens. Sometimes, this method of storytelling has a tremendous return: for example, The Walking Dead is a television series that isn’t really about zombies. Similarly, Dragonball Z is an anime series that isn’t really about the Dragon Balls. But, you could only imagine the riots in the streets if Pokemon suddenly stopped being a show about the Pokemon. If you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant yet, this is basically the premise! It’s a film marketed as a “true” prequel to Alien, turns out to be more of a sequel to Prometheus, and ultimately has little to do with the “aliens” the title suggests that this series is really about.
(Some spoilers ahead) So when the crew of the spaceship Covenant pause their colonization mission to intercept a rouge signal with its source stemming from a planet that can sustain human life--precisely the type of planet they were headed toward anyway--they slowly but surely find themselves in over their heads. Once on the suspiciously perfect planet, some of the members of the Covenant are exposed to spores that rapidly decrease their health until they become victims of a sinister birth--that of a rapidly-growing and utterly hostile alien "neomorph". The remaining crew members are rescued by David (returning from the film Prometheus), a Weyland android with high intelligence and suspicious motives, apparently stranded on this new planet. The crew of the Covenant also has an android name Walter, an upgraded version of David (both played by Michael Fassbender), who reveals that he and Elizabeth Shaw--the main character of Prometheus--crash-landed on this planet ten years ago in an effort to find the Engineers’ homeworld to understand why they created humankind, precisely what was denoted at the end of Prometheus.
Turns out David annihilated the planet’s population of Engineers and has been experimenting to create new alien lifeforms, including the neomorphs and the first-ever xenomorph: the titular “Alien” that would eventually cause Sigourney Weaver so much anxiety for years to come. The remainder of Covenant’s crew, now drastically reduced, attempts to leave the planet, fighting off both David and his new Alien, and return back to their ship, once again on course to their original destination. Unfortunately, despite their victory against the Alien and David, it is revealed that David has killed his advanced look-alike Walter, replaced him aboard the ship and, once the Covenant crew returns to “hypersleep”, meddles with the ship’s frozen human embryos by placing Alien embryos alongside them, placing the ship’s 2000+ colonists, all in hypersleep, in imminent danger. Credits roll.
Well, well. Unlike the original four Alien films, victory here isn’t attained by defeating the Alien menace. It’s all hopeless and bleak upon the universe-shattering revelation that, after almost 40 years since the original film came out, these xenomorphs are actually bioengineered--created--by someone else. David is suddenly the baddest dude in the universe, and director Ridley Scott establishes a universe within a universe that guarantees an attempt at a trilogy (at minimum) of new Alien films that take prior to the first film, with David as the master manipulator/creator/villain of said trilogy. Maybe this film should have been called David: Covenant. Fassbender does a remarkable job portraying both bad android David and good android Walter, giving them both distinct personalities by way of different English accents. Their interactions, as expected, are odd...quite odd. Again, a lot going on here with David. Not a lot with the Aliens.
Beyond the film's five core characters, Covenant's cast is completely forgettable. Outside of Fassbender's dual role as David and Walter, we have Katherine Waterson as our relatable, no-nonsense female lead, Daniels. Despite reviewers’ constant comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley--the heroine of the first four Alien films--it’s actually difficult to compare the two strong heroines, since Ripley is very different in each film: firstly a survivor, secondly a soldier, thirdly a prisoner, and fourthly radically not human. However, Daniels, perhaps a sort of "interim Ripley", does hold her own and proves to be a character worth worrying about. Billy Crudup is Oram, captain of the Covenant who, like Prometheus’ Shaw, is a person of faith who does his best to replace the original captain of their ship. Danny McBride plays Tennessee, the chief pilot who is unsurprisingly not cast as the token comedic relief. That isn’t to say he’s not funny just by being himself--which he is in anything he’s cast in--it’s just that he, like his friend and crewmate Daniels, is more occupied with survival. Those are the core five, and really nobody else in the entire film is worth remembering. For about two seconds, James Franco plays Branson, the Covenant's original captain. Though the two don't interact on-film, it's still entertaining to see Franco and McBride, two comedy powerhouses who have starred in a multitude of Apatowian comedies together, reunite in a non-comedy.
Also, the film makes an interesting point to have each character (androids excluded) play the spouse of another crewmember; this subplot unfortunately effects the story in almost no way. What could have been a creative way to develop characters and advance the narrative for a future Alien film turned out no other way than what has happened before: people who we don't remember die. It was a largely wasted opportunity to help the audience care for the Covenant crew the way we cared for the crew of the Sulaco in the original film, the marines in the second film, some of the prisoners in the third, and even some of the crew of the Prometheus, especially after the courageous sacrifice plays made by certain characters. Oram's faith in a higher power here also advances his character in exactly zero ways. Whereas Shaw's faith is challenged by other characters (especially upon the revelation that aliens exist and that they created humankind) and her opinions on her relationship with Jesus are out in the open, Oram's faith is just....there. It's like director Ripley had an idea with where to go with Oram's faith, or making the Covenant an entire crew of married couples, and then...well, forgot.
The Aliens aren’t all that impressive, either. After the questionable portrayals of the xenomorphs seen in 1997’s Alien Resurrection, 2004’s Alien vs Predator, and 2007’s Aliens vs Predator Requiem, and a quasi-omission of the creature in 2012’s Prometheus, Ridley Scott promised audiences the grand and highly-awaited return of the classic xenomorph in full form. No, we didn’t get that. What we did receive was a set of 100%-CGI creatures that mimicked next to none of the authentic horror Scott produced back in the day. Everything from how these creatures moved, killed, disappeared, and reappeared again, were simply non-intimidating, and certainly not scary. Even in-film, David goes above and beyond to show that the Aliens are just children who need care and love. It’s disgusting and hilariously out of place.
As one of the few freaks that enjoyed the 2012 sci-fi philosophy course Prometheus, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy this film either. It answers good questions left over from its predecessor and does well in bringing back David, Peter Weyland himself (albeit in a flashback, and played once again by Guy Pierce); and Elizabeth Shaw (though she only appears in images, played by Noomi Rapace) from that film. Even still, is this a good thing? If the films Prometheus and Alien were playing tug-of-war, and Covenant was the rope, Prometheus would probably win. The only issue is that it solely markets itself as the latter. Even after a gorgeously nostalgic title-screen sequence that eerily reflects, and promises the memories of, the original Alien (Prometheus cleverly did this as well, which immediately prompted me to believe that despite claims back then that it wasn’t an “Alien” movie, that it indeed was an “Alien” movie) the film takes its liberties to establish the real threat not as the Aliens, but as David.
David: Covenant isn't a bad film, but like it's prequel, it's taking the Alien universe to some strange places, off-beat revelations, and fewer and fewer characters we care about. Even the highly-anticipated "neomorphs" in this film had very little to do here, and it's almost guaranteed that they their existence, unlike those of the xenomorphs, here will have no significance in any upcoming sequel. So why give a science-fiction action/horror series that used to be quite simple so much existential philosophy infused with alien-bioengineering, androids with God-complexes, and humans with nothing better to do than do their best to find no answers to the questions they ask? Because, well, this series is dying, and like The Terminator, nobody will let this series die with dignity before some other idiot attempts to reboot it. Like me, the Alien fan who understand the universe and gave AvP a chance back in 2004 will like this film to some degree, but it certainly isn't what the promotional material promised. Patient fans deserve a bit more authenticity....less CGI, less confusing philosophy, and less androids. David: Convenant gets a 6/10.