When I actually look back on the expectations of Alien: Covenant, I wonder if it just had way too much to carry and if I might feel better for it with that in mind. Doubtful, because I’m thinking right now about how it is trying to be a successor to Alien AND a successor to Prometheus – both movies I like very much (fuck the Prometheus haters) – and I still am kind of disappointed by it. It cannot be both of those things whatsoever, something I think the evident mountain of cut footage by Ridley Scott (who directed all three movies I just mentioned) shows his awareness of because of how very dissonant both movies are. Prometheus is a philosophical musing and Alien is blunt horror film with no room for thought. There are great moments of Alien: Covenant that could function for both the scary monster movie genre film and for the introspective treatise on the cost of creation and meeting your maker and so it’s upsetting to have to choose between one or the other, but it’s a very obviously unbalanced mesh of ideas that cannot share the same movie and if I had to pick one: I wish Alien: Covenant were the shallower mad scientist/slasher horror movie it became in the later part of itself.
What makes me lean that way is so much of what is aesthetically great about Alien: Covenant would be better suited for genre filmmaking than existential writing: the production design by Chris Seagers full of gothic dark edges of ancient towers and surrounding ruins, industrial weary space station rooms, and chillingly light green exteriors (those colors especially brought out by cinematographer Darius Wolski). There’s an interior candlelit set that looks like the inside of a hollow body and the sketches all around it are the alarmingly clinical sort to spell out the intentions of its owner in plain sight. Which is to say nothing of the return of Giger’s phallic monstrous Xenomorphs and I… fuck, man, I wanted to start out sounding positive enough, but if I’m going to talk about the Xenomorphs, well…
It’s no secret Prometheus and Alien: Covenant function as prequels attempting to elaborate on the origin of the Xenomorph species, something NOBODY asked for and that is presented in an inevitably disappointing fashion by the script by John Logan and Dante Harper. So we’re meeting prototype versions of the xenomorphs and they just look flat-out stupid. They’re bad. They’re a bunch of overlit unconvincing CGI pygmy see-through versions of the Xenomorphs, they look even worse in motion, and we see them too much. We eventually get the full-grown versions of Giger’s creature and THOSE look fine, but they get very little screentime. So, the worse thing to me an Alien movie can do is make the actual monster – frightening nightmare fuel that he already is in design – look stupid and, man, this might just be the second worst work on the animal since Fincher’s Alien 3.
Anyway, back to sounding positive for a bit more, and it’s not gonna be easy given I’ve already gotten started on what I don’t like about Covenant. The other thing that aids the idea of Covenant working better as slasher film than Ridley Scott’s thoughts on God is how indistinct Logan and Harper’s characters are. We have 14 different crewmembers of the titular Covenant ship, all married to each other and all responsible for the safety of the over 200 also-paired colonists in hypersleep. After Captain Branson (James Franco, thankfully not saying a thing or even opening his eyes) is killed in a freak accident that wakes the rest of the crew, they find a potentially closer habitable planet. The new Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes the decision to give it a look, despite of the protest of Branson’s widow and terraforming expert Daniels (Katharine Waterston), and save them the longer trip. The boots on the ground discover the place to have shown evidence of a previous humanoid population and the wreckage of the Engineer ship from Prometheus yet the planet seems completely deserted. If you need to be told what happens once spores are shown to enter two of the crew’s bodies, you haven’t seen Alien.
Anyway, like said before, the crew members are all just a body count for the xenomorphs once they savage their way out into the world and they’re only as identifiable as their performance. Good news for Waterston’s final girl persona and Crudup’s obnoxious man of faith; okay news for Amy Seimetz and Carmen Ejogo who have really one scene where they get to provide a louder note of terror and admittedly do well with it; bad news for practically everyone else. Danny McBride is hands-down my biggest reason to be excited for this movie (my love for Eastbound & Down overwhelms my love for Alien or horror) and his attempts at drama and fear were frankly labored here. The only actor decently serviced by the script is Michael Fassbender as two separate synthetics – David’s sinister return from Prometheus and the duty-bound Walter – and I would do an injustice describing how astoundingly Fassbender serves their split identities and the thematic material that exits David’s lips and enter’s Walter’s minds as the former tries to influence the latter. Fassbender-on-Fassbender action (both literal and figurative) is literally the only time all Scott’s attempted eloquences on humanity and destiny and questions of God and man actually have the sort of profound attitudes that suit such a film, as well as serving to flesh out David’s attitudes as similar to that of Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein and his motivations behind the third act of the film going full-on monster mode. It’s only a small amount unfortunately and that doesn’t work in anybody’s else’s shoes: not Crudup’s talk of the devil, not Waterston’s attempts at motivating her colleagues to survive. They’re good performances but they’re not Michael Fassbender and so don’t service the side of Covenant that wants to be the ponderous follow-up to Prometheus.
At a little under two hours, Alien: Covenant is not long at all. And yet it felt like it outstayed its welcome because of the double-stuffed goals of Ridley Scott and it’s seeming more and more like Scott should take it easy and stick to straightforward popcorn work. He hasn’t been nearly as successfully intellectual a filmmaker since Blade Runner (or the original cut of Kingdom of Heaven), but his eye for visuals still promises an ability to entertain on a surface-level. Prometheus and The Martian had the right idea only letting the strictly entertaining stand-out. It can’t satisfy otherwise.