Alien: Covenant… Frankenstein meets Giger

2017.25: Alien: Covenant (CInema)

I usually avoid too many spoilers with cinema reviews, so I’ll warn now that spoilers lie ahead this time. There’s simply no other way of writing a review of this latest Alien film.

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The importance of, and reliance on, the San Diego Comic-Con and other similar Cons all over the world, is a modern calamity and something that I consider with despair. The pandering to the tastes of geeks by Studios and film-makers and television producers is, frankly, a terrible mistake. Associated with this is the power of social media and the internet in sharing and disseminating opinions and observations. Why on Earth a professional film director or producer with years of experience and training suddenly has to pander to the opinions of a snotty twelve-year-old from the middle of Nowheresville to validate a multi-million dollar project created by hundreds or thousands of craftsman and technicians is a mystery to me.  I would include this blog in this horror but I know it has such limited visibility that this blog’s effect on the world is utterly inconsequential (so I consider myself not guilty, thanks).

I’ve mentioned this before- that the geeks have inherited the Earth, and we have all these bad genre movies now to thank for it.

First things first- I did not hate Alien: Covenant. I really quite enjoyed it. I found it disturbing and horrific and fascinating. And yes, frustrating too, which I’ll come to soon enough. Its clearly a better film than Prometheus, but what bugs me now is that it is clearly a lesser film than it might have been, because Ridley Scott, post-Prometheus, seems to have reconsidered his new Alien film projects largely due to the outraged geeks who criticised Prometheus for not having Giger’s alien in it. Simply put, with Alien: Covenant Ridley is giving the geeks what they want. The irony is, that might not be enough for them- or they may have gotten too much of what they asked for.

Yeah, I’m going to blame those geeks as much as Ridley for what Alien: Covenant is, and I’m going to be mighty pissed reading and hearing from all those angry geeks complaining that they have seen all this alien action before. They bloody demanded it, and now they have got it. Which raises issues regards movie ownership, and the influence of fandom on genre films and franchises today. The blame for Prometheus‘ faults lie wholly with Ridley, but I’m not so sure regards the faults in Alien: Covenant.

Back when Prometheus was released, Ridley was quoted, alluding to why that film was devoid of Giger’s creature, that he felt the alien was done, the creature exhausted by over exposure in the sequels to the original film (and of course those terrible AvP films too). It seemed a strange thing to say, but you know, Ridley was probably right. Prometheus has its problems, but the lack of Giger’s Alien isn’t really the worst of them.

cov3So Alien: Covenant has lots of alien action- Neomorphs, Xenomorphs, Alien eggs, Facehuggers, Chestbursters… its like Ridley is checking off a geek’s Christmas wishlist. And yes, he does so with considerable style and skill. The backburster/chestburster are beautifully and convincingly staged way beyond what the 1979 film could have managed. The Alien (or an evolutionary pre-version of the 1979 creature) is more mobile and convincing than previously depicted on film. Even the Facehugger manages to swiftly leap and creep around better than before. But they also seem the most disinteresting moments of this film, even if the sheer amount of gore and brutality tellingly inform the changes in films since 1979 (and yet, just as in 1979, it is the inferred horrors that are most effective here). The familiarity is this films biggest weakness. This is perhaps inadvertently reinforced by the soundtrack using so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien score. At least Prometheus, with its original score, had its own identity. Alien: Covenant rather lacks this, and frequently hearing Goldsmith’s score doesn’t help matters- instead it just increases that sense of familiarity and reminders of the (superior) original. Its inevitable, I guess, that familiarity with the franchise impacts on successive entries- at its worst, Alien: Covenant feels like another reboot, like those awful Star Trek films or The Force Awakens.

This film improves whenever it deviates from this Alien heritage. At its best, this film is Prometheus 1.5 as it continues the story of the synth David and Elizabeth Shaw from the ending of Prometheus, and their quest to the Engineer homeworld. Seeded within it are fascinating glimpses of what Ridley perhaps originally intended to be Prometheus 2- but you always have the feeling that this is not the film that Ridley originally intended to follow Prometheus.

(Then again, I still remember my surprise that Prometheus was getting a sequel at all, and feel pretty lucky to have Alien: Covenant; at the very least we get a continuation from Prometheus‘ frustratingly open-ended conclusion).

Just as he was in Prometheus, the highlight of Alien: Covenant is Michael Fassbender and his deranged synth David, whose God-complex issues are further amplified by too much time on the Juggernaut contemplating the mysteries of the Engineers. Just as he has found humanity wanting, so too has he found the Engineers wanting. In a moment of truly apocalyptic  horror he dispatches an entire world of its life, bombarding the Engineer homeworld with the juggernaut’s payload of Black Death. Also, David’s search for perfection and desire/need to create life has resulted in Elizabeth Shaw suffering a truly horrific fate (for Prometheus fans, her fate must be as ill-met as the fates of Hicks and Newt in Alien 3, and there’s certainly an interesting symmetry there, one that raises its head for Daniels, too, at the very end of Covenant- what is it with the Alien franchise punishing viewer’s investment into its characters?).

This is the really interesting stuff to me. Ridley seems to have turned the Lovecraftian horrors of Alien into a modern re-working of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which tellingly itself had the subtitle The Modern Prometheus). Okay, none of its particularly subtle. David’s chamber of horrors, in which he stores/analyses his monster creations (including the awful cadaver of Shaw), is one of the finest creations of the Alien series. Its truly horrific and is enough to give one nightmares. Ridley seems to be saying that David is the real monster of the Alien films, and Fassbender is brilliant. In hindsight, maybe the android Ash in the original Alien was an indication of how the Alien series would become centered on artificial intelligence and its dangers for mankind?  2001‘s themes of alien intelligence and its part in the creation and evolution of man (a preoccupation of Prometheus) seems to have mutated into this Heavy Metal-styled Frankenstein abomination of xenomorphs, body horror and worldwide mass destruction.  Its heady, fascinating stuff.

cov4The corporate paranoia seems to have been noticeably dialed down, but a prologue with cold-hearted creator Peter Weyland clearly suggests and maintains his part in David’s deranged sense of superiority over all things and the responsibility Weyland has for all that ensues. Just as the Engineer’s Black Goo creation destroyed them, will artificial intelligence destroy man?

Alien: Covenant brings Walter, an ‘improved’ model of David, again played by Fassbender, into the story as a counter-balance to David’s (insane? corrupted?) programing. Lacking the feeling and emotion of David, Walter is governed by a sense of duty and responsibility and lacks David’s creative instinct. Perhaps Weyland Industries realised their initial mistake, but is it too late with David running amok in the heavens? One of Alien: Covenants worst offences is the poor ‘twist’ near the end involving ‘Walters’ real identity, which seemingly seal’s Daniels to Shaw’s earlier fate. Had it been better handled, it might have ensured one of the most brutally downbeat endings of the franchise. Intellectually it’s still fascinating but it lacks the punch that it deserved.

These new Alien films may be frustrating but they are also oddly interesting and I really hope that Ridley gets to make his intended next Alien film. Now that the geeks have had their fill of Giger’s creations perhaps Ridley will be able to further exploit the Frankenstein themes that interest him so much. What will David do next? What horrors will Daniels and Tennessee be forced to endure? Will the Engineers return, or some Space God that created them? Is the fate of all civilizations their own destruction at the hands of what they create as they achieve God-like technologies?

People forget, perhaps, how execrable Alien: Resurrection was or those AvP films- compared to them, these new films are almost high art. Maybe, Xenomorph aside, these new films aren’t really Alien movies but that doesn’t make them redundant.  For all the faults of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, Ridley has at least for me made the Alien franchise interesting again.

If nothing else, I’ll always remember Alien:Covenant for putting a huge guilty smile on my face with the line “That’s the spirit!”  Ha ha. Priceless. And was that nail that Shaw keeps another reference to Batty, or some reference to the crucifixion (re: my Prometheus theory raised in yesterdays post)? Or am I over thinking things? Sometimes we have to remind ourselves, its only a movie, as John Brosnan used to say.

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6 thoughts on “Alien: Covenant… Frankenstein meets Giger

  1. Matthew McKinnon

    A very surprising review!

    I saw A:C last night, what a weird and disjointed experience. Did Scott really direct all of this?

    After the first fifteen minutes or so, I thought the film had found its level: I was fairly entertained by what felt like an unpretentious franchise offering. The sort of film you might get a few sequels down the line after the original, where the budget is modest but adequate and a fairly new director gets to make a competent hack-work out of mandated existing ideas and add a few little personal flourishes. Like an Elm Street sequel in the ‘80s. Hell, thinking of it as that sort of B-movie allows you to set aside the ongoing suicidal stupidity of the characters doing things like landing on an unsurveyed world without any protective clothing.

    Then there was the middle section, and the surprise arrival of David [although it wasn’t a surprise, really, because there was a scene stuck on the front of the film which explicitly spelled out the Big Themes, and automatically you know he’s going to appear later]. And everything gets boring real fast.

    We’re suddenly in a very different film. One with a cleverly-filmed scene of homoerotic bonding between two androids [that made my audience laugh out loud]. With a misplaced flashback to ancient Rome for some biblical death and destruction [why does this flashback appear where it does, rather than where Walter seems to prompt it with a question, later in the film?]. And the massively disappointing revelation that the aliens we know and love are not strange, terrifying entities from the depths of space, but the results of a robot’s genetic experiments, based on his grudge against humanity.
    So we move even further from the beautifully dark mystery of the original film, and further into Midichlorian territory than even Prometheus dared take us.

    The whole David/cave section is so ramshackle and odd: it appears anyone can just wander around and discover very disturbing things at random – no doors! – but no-one seems inclined to explore or secure a perimeter or anything, and they’re really trusting taking this CLEARLY WEIRD AND VILLAINOUS ROBOT at his word, so no-one stumbles on anything hideous until the script needs them to.

    Also, it’s step down for David, because what made him compelling right up until the end of Prometheus is the fact that he was ambiguous. All his actions could be accounted for as a result of his instructions from Weyland, but there was still a little edge.
    That’s gone now, as he’s revealed way too early on [with that misplaced flashback] to be a homicidal lunatic. A moustache-twirling movie villain.

    I’d also like to add about this section that one of the last things I was expecting to see in an Alien film was super-fast-cut martial arts robot fight, but fuck it. All bets are off, I guess.

    So when things finally ramp up and we’re back to big action again, everything feels lacklustre, as though Scott has finished with the stuff that interests him and handed it back over to the other director again.
    We go through the motions with some sealing off bulkheads and trapping the creature in an airlock and blowing it the fuck out into space etc etc. Plus, a twist ending that wasn’t a twist. The end.

    What a weird mega mix of bits and pieces from the whole series so far. Drop-ship shenanigans, guns & explosions from Aliens; weird [and after a little while, repetitive and boring] amber-lit tunnels & hideous deaths of characters from earlier film & alien POV shots from Alien 3; and the cheap, hasty feeling of the first AVP film, ticking off iconography breathlessly in a fanboy rush. And of course, the hollow pompous grandiosity of Prometheus, of course: huffing and puffing about big borrowed ideas that are less interesting than the ideas they’re displacing. And bits borrowed [or borrowed back] from Sunshine, as well.

    I don’t think it’s geeks that are to blame: its simply studio logic. They would never let Scott follow through on his duff ideas from Prometheus for another full length feature: it worked before because everyone in the world was expecting another horror/action Alien film. But now the cat’s out of the bag, if you want to get people to see another go around, you need to deliver on that sort of thing for real. Geeks are actually heavily divided on the pros and cons of Prometheus: witness our discussions – but normal people and studio heads are the ones who want brand IPs to behave the way they should.

    Lastly, I’m very surprised, most of all, that you have any love for how the Aliens were rendered here: they looked terrible. Very much in keeping with the crappy-sequel aesthetic and the smaller budget, but still dreadful. I honestly though I had travelled back to 1997-era CGI with the creatures here. The adult creature that they fought in the big climactic battle looked exactly like the CG creatures in Alien:Resurrection. And was I imagining it, or did the creature that burst out of Billy Crudup’s chest actually grow bigger onscreen, like the wasp in that Sinbad film that had the magic potion dripped onto it?

    Anyway.

    I hope Scott does get to make another film that wraps this up, and connects the dots to the original film. Because then it’ll all be done and dusted, out of the way, and we can simply consign his entire Prequel Trilogy to the dustbin of history and pretend it never happened. In much the same way as a certain other trilogy I could mention.

    1. Appreciate I may be being overly kind to the film. During the film, and when I came out of the cinema, I was really rather angry about it- if I scored films it would have been a 5 out of 10. But I had watched Prometheus only the night before and compared to that, well, even Covenant starts looking good, and as I thought about the film overnight, my opinion warmed to it, hence that surprising review. I’d actually give it a (generous) 7 out of 10 now.

      Hey, we have to keep things positive- we need to get the Yanks bums on seats next weekend if we want to see another film- God, I’ve sold out!

      I don’t know, I certainly can’t argue with many of your points. Simply saying its better than Prometheus is me damning it with faint praise anyway, and yes, Alien didn’t need a prequel. But then again, it certainly didn’t need a sequel like Aliens either, which is a film I particularly hate. Part of me wishes sequels were unheard of, and films existed alone and independent of any others.

      Funnily enough, I have since read an enlightening interview with Ridley in which he says Covenant was shot inside something like 73 days and brought in for $111 million. Which isn’t an excuse exactly, but for a major Hollywood blockbuster with its major set-pieces and scale, it is leaning towards what equals b-movie budget territory these days. Worse films have had sums north of $200 million wasted on them, and looked inferior, and it would excuse some of the effects issues and the rushed/perfunctory final third. What would Blade Runner’s $30 million budget of 1982 be adjusted to in todays money?

      It seems pretty efficient film-making in my book, whatever the merits of the actual film, and maybe its one of those cases where a bigger budget/more time might have improved things but it simply wasn’t forthcoming following Prometheus’ performance and reception. Reminds me a little of how surprisingly low-budget the Star Trek films were following TMP, how that turned them into smaller, almost tv-scale films when you watch them today.

      Maybe there is an extended Directors Cut that fleshes things out more/ re-orders some of the sequences. No doubt my opinion may change watching the Blu-ray, but I really did like that Frankenstein stuff and considered all the creature stuff a necessary evil to get any kind of follow-up to Prometheus made. The one good thing about Ridley getting sidetracked by his Alien prequels is that he is not directing 2049. If that film turns out as good as it currently looks to be, then I’ll forgive these Alien prequels everything.

  2. Mixed feelings about this. Definitely better than Prometheus, at least. The Alien-y bits do feel perfunctory — Scott’s interest clearly lies in the creation stuff.

    That doesn’t mean it’s a story that needed to be told, though, and certainly not this version of it. I completely agree with Matthew that the aliens were better as mysterious “terrifying entities from the depths of space”.

    1. Curious that this film is getting blasted for losing some of the mystery though, when I really thought that particular rot set in with the universally-praised Aliens, what with Cameron’s invention of the Queen Alien laying eggs, anthropomorphising the creature. Its all been downhill since the original. I’d hate Covenant to get particularly demonized for it.

      1. Matthew McKinnon

        It’s one thing making the Aliens more insect-like (a definite problem, I agree).
        Quite another to spend two films effectively dismantling the whole beloved mystery of the Aliens and replacing it with a join-the-dots Frankenstein story.
        These last two films really do piss on the original’s legacy.

  3. Georgia

    I actually really enjoyed this film, there are bits about it where I literally felt myself wanting to shout at the screen but I thought it stayed faithful to alien – face huggers etc. It was definitely enjoyable but it does make you miss how they used to create the alien by keeping it mainly in the dark because it’s a man in a suit which is what I think makes it more scarier when you can’t see it as opposed to now it’s full on cgi in front of us.

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