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Alien: Covenant
★☆☆☆☆
First run Theater cinema

After the pretentious and simpleminded PROMETHEUS (2012), I would have thought director Ridley Scott and the producers of the Alien franchise would have nowhere to go but up. Turns out that is not the case. Alien: Covenant, the latest film in the series of sci-fi/horror pictures that began with Scott’s genre-defining 1979 masterpiece, attempts to be both a sequel to Prometheus and yet another retread of everything audiences love about Alien and its first sequel Aliens. But each attempt to revisit and expand on the disturbing imagery, claustrophobic suspense, and astute narrative conventions of those first two iconic films ends up a pale imitation that only serves to degrade their legacy.

This latest installment centers on the crew of a colonizing mission whose seven-year hibernation ends when a space explosion hits their ship and kills some of the sleeping passengers. When the crew is awakened by their android to make repairs, they discover a planet right nearby that appears to be even more ideal for colonization than the one they’ve spent years planning to reach and live on. If you’ve seen any other Alien movies, you can pretty much guess everything else that happens. 

In the first entries in this series, the characters were highly relatable and multi-dimensional. They fit into certain types—jaded blue-collar laborers, eager young marines, money-centered company men, and so on—but each had a distinctive personality, and every course of action they took seemed well reasoned and logical. Sometimes we hated them for the choices they made, but we never thought they were making stupid decisions. In Prometheus, every character (with one key exception) was so inept, and each action so illogical, that it was impossible to buy into either the movie’s basic internal reality or its lofty thematic ambitions.   

Following the precedent set by the dimwitted stereotypes who populated Prometheus, the crew in Alien: Covenant also act in foolish and irrational ways in order to steer themselves into situations that will have terrible consequences.  In order to gin up more plausibility for these characters’ many bad decisions, screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper draw most of this ship’s crew as weak or impulsive. But those traits don’t make them all that much more believable. Indeed, it takes almost the entire movie before enough cast members have been killed, down through the chain of command, for someone to emerge who is credible as a person anyone would put in charge of anything.

The one engaging anomaly in Prometheus was the role of David, the android played by Michael Fassbender.  While Fassbender’s riveting performance and the character's intriguing conception were not enough to make Prometheus a worthwhile movie, they did at least make it watchable.  Scott doubles down on Fassbender’s talents in Alien: Covenant, and once again the actor is the only element that makes the movie at all appealing. 

But nothing can offset the greatest cinematic crime in this latest entry: the depiction of the aliens.  Like all prequels, these new Alien/Prometheus pictures concern themselves with explaining mysteries presented in the original films. Fans claim to care, for example, about questions like, “Where did the mysterious, monstrous life forms of Alien come from?” Can filmmakers ever provide satisfying answers to questions like this? I can’t think of a single movie prequel that succeeds in enhancing a viewer’s imagination of what might have come before.  And Alien: Covenant wallows in this failing.  

In the original Alien, screenwriters Dan O'Bannon and Ron Shusett established the complex, fascinating, and credible way the creatures incubate themselves inside a human host. This process required multiple life forms, a lengthy gestation period, and a lot of organic specifics that contributed greatly not only to the believability but to the tangible horror of that movie.  In Alien: Covenant, the creatures’ biological processes are simplified to leave more room for . . .  I’m not sure what. Philosophy, poetry quotations?  True, the deviations from what was set-up in the earlier films can be justified because the creatures in this picture are not exactly the same as the title xenomorphs of Alien and Aliens.  They are protomorphs or neomorphs. But that doesn’t change the fact that all the disturbing body-horror mystery has by now been exorcised from this series, leaving only predictable, bloody encounters that get less and less scary as the death toll increases.

In fact, everything in this movie is predictable because, unlike Prometheus (which at least attempted to do something fresh), its basic narrative is nothing more than a best-of compilation of story beats from the first two pictures.  Of course all franchise entries duplicate elements of their successful earlier films, keeping some aspects the same and altering others to strike a balance of the familiar and the new.  Fans of long-running series like James Bond, Batman, or even the Halloween and Friday the 13th movies relish seeing the clever ways that different writers and directors approach and subvert the conventions of a narrowly defined structure.  

Perhaps no one invented better variations on a successful picture’s conception, structure, and themes than James Cameron did with the first sequel of this blockbuster cycle, Aliens (1986). Cameron created a more-than-satisfying follow up that even managed to expand on the genres of the original, adding action-adventure elements to the existing sci-fi/horror combination. He picked up with the surviving hero of the first film and made her into one of the most iconic characters in all cinema history. He took a few very minor liberties with the creatures established in Alien, but for the most part everything he depicted built on what we knew about their make-up, lifecycle, and conduct.

In Alien: Covenant, Scott violates a great deal of not only what Cameron developed, but what he himself created. The cold, but lived-in environment of the original space ship, the Nostromo, and the palpably hostile atmosphere of the planet its crew sets down on were major aspects of what made Alien so much more effective than the standard sci-fi fare of the ‘70s (or any other decade).  And Scott insisted not only on creating the greatest space monster in cinema history, but also in keeping it hidden away in darkness for almost the entirety of his film. He knew that what we don’t see is far more frightening than what can be shown on screen—whether using old-school men-in-rubber-suit techniques or today’s state-of-the-art CGI effects.  Largely because of Scott, the almost forty-year-old Alien hasn’t dated a bit since it was released. It still feels as convincing and unnerving as when it was in theaters.  That is a phenomenal achievement that few other genre films can claim.

So why does Scott’s Alien: Covenant look as though it will be dated within two years? Why does this crew, living a century in the future, use the equivalent of iPads and GoPros? Why would several of these galactic engineers and pilots recognize a John Denver song? Why do we see so much of the aliens, and why aren’t they scary? H. R. Giger’s iconic creature designs have been reduced to generic CGI jump-scares. And because of the excessive and uninspired digital animation, many of the alien encounters in this picture look and play exactly like scenes from 2017’s other lame Alien knock off—LIFE

Scott has said in more than one interview that he thinks there are too many movies getting made these days. He believes the market is overcrowded.  This view assumes that the privilege of filmmaking should be reserved for only the select few who can really do it well. If he truly believes there are “too many movies being made these days,” maybe he should reconsider making yet another variation on a movie he’s already made. And maybe we should look at the last ten features Scott directed and conclude that this guy needs to retire and make room for some new voices and new visions.

Twitter Capsule:
Each attempt to build on the first two iconic Alien films ends up a pointless retread that degrades their legacy.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Produced by Ridley Scott, David Giler, Walter Hill, Mark Huffam, and Michael Schaefer

Screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper
Story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green
Based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett

With: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, Tess Haubrich, James Franco, and Guy Pearce

Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Editing: Pietro Scalia
Music: Jed Kurzel

Runtime: 122 min
Release Date: 19 May 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color