Major spoilers below.
“Alien: Covenant” is an offensively stupid piece of filmmaking from a director who should know better. Maybe it’s senility; maybe Ridley Scott has just lost his fastball. More likely, it’s the screenwriters’ fault (all six of them). By trying to tie together “Prometheus” and “Alien,” while also attempting to ask “big questions” and create a successful horror-thriller, they created a train wreck.
Any Ridley Scott movie must be compared to his classic “Alien.” “Covenant” falls short in every category. “Alien” succeeded due to a small, strongly defined cast of characters, a well-established location, and an antagonist whose perspective was never seen, thus making its appearances a shock to both characters and audience.
The problems with “Covenant” began with its marketing campaign, a flaw “Prometheus” shared. Both movies released whole scenes to act as trailers in the lead-up. “Prometheus” had a TED talk scene with Guy Pearce’s Weyland that helped set the stage for the film’s events. It wasn’t crucial, but helped fill in gaps. Covenant’s “Last Supper” scene, however, is crucial. If included in the actual film, it would have been one of three scenes to include the entire cast, and it’s the only scene to clearly establish all the characters’ couplings. The scene’s removal robbed the film of one of its most important moments.
To truly dig into the failures of “Covenant,” a spoiler warning is necessary. I’ll try to put all the major spoilers towards the end of the piece, but if you intend to see the movie, do yourself a favor and read this after. You can tell me whether you agree with me or no in the comments.
‘Covenant’ Tries—And Fails—To Be Profound
The movie opens with Weyland (Guy Pearce), last seen dying in “Prometheus,” hidden by old-age makeup and addressing his creation, the android David, played by Michael Fassbender.
Here the movie quickly recaps the entire theme of “Prometheus”: “Where do we come from? Who created us, and why?” Weyland gives David his mandate of discovering that answer.
Biblical allusions are thrown around frequently in this movie, but these deep thoughts tend to be laid on too thick. When Weyland asks David to choose a name for himself, he stares at a statue of David and chooses it as his namesake. If David the Android is David, then Humanity is both his Goliath and (you’ll see…) his stone.
The movie then jumps to Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender) playing a newer model of David, roaming a colonization ship.
It’s a credit to Fassbender that both David and Walter are played uniquely. With the David-Walter relationship, it’s clear that Scott and his screenwriters are interested in the question of “What is human and what does it mean to create?” But those are themes Ridley would have been better off exploring in the “Blade Runner” sequel (you get the feeling he regrets giving that away).
Unlike ‘Alien,’ We Feel No Connection To The Characters
The movie quickly dispenses of (blink and you’ll miss him) James Franco. It’s here that the removal of the ‘Last Supper’ scene really hurts. Without knowing anything about these characters upfront, they’re all entirely disposable. The killing begins before a line of dialogue is even exchanged.
In “Alien,” you spend time with all the characters before they start dropping dead. It helps that they’re all played by solid character actors: Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton as the epitome of blue collar truckers are classic. When they die, it sucks because you actually like them.
Here, Danny McBride’s Tennessee is the only character who’s given any life, which is more McBride’s doing than the script’s. The rest of the non-Fassbender cast are utterly unmemorable.
With “Alien,” there’s a buildup before people start dying. But in “Covenant,” unnamed Character #5 is quickly infected upon landing on the planet. The rest follows a pretty obvious path. You see alien spores enter the ear of Character #5, and enter his brain. When he gets sick and a white CGI alien bursts out of his back, it’s expected, and thus underwhelming.
Upon David’s re-introduction, all those deep thoughts are brought to the fore. He talks of Ozymandias, how Walter can’t create, and generally waxes poetic. He teaches Walter to play a flute in a Fassbender-seducing-Fassbender scene, which is meant to be taken very seriously, but comes across as unintentionally hysterical. By the time Fassbender sinisterly kisses himself, there’s absolutely nothing left to take seriously.
This Film Doesn’t Build Mystery, It Destroys It
A white alien comes back to wreak terror, but since the audience sees it entering the building, there’s zero surprise when it kills its next victim. It sucks all the tension out of the scene. This is a point of contrast with “Alien,” a movie that never showed you the Alien’s point of view. It was always an unknown.
What follows is the first “big reveal”: David infected the planet and created the aliens. The white alien obeys David, and they have a downright funny father-child moment before Crudup guns it down. We’ve seen this dynamic before with Ripley and the weird humanoid alien in “Alien: Resurrection.” It was ridiculous then, and it begs the question: did none of those involved see that movie and recognize its errors?
The movie pushes on to a question no one wanted answered. Where did the Xenomorph, the original alien from “Alien,” come from? Well, David, of course.
The stone David launches at his Goliath, mankind, is the xenomorph egg. Once again, a scene meant to evoke tension and horror is undermined by the setup. The audience knows what’s in the egg, and Crudup’s character has already seen that David created the alien that he just killed.
There’s Nothing Amazing, Or Even That Scary
When David tells him, “Just take a peek inside, it’s safe,” everyone knows where it’s going. And as with every scene meant to invoke terror in this movie, it results in laughs. The chestburster pops out, looks to David and mimics him. The movie has more in common with “Spaceballs” than anything else.
The film finishes with generic action scenes—including a Fassbender vs. Fassbender hand-to-hand fight, a scene where Daniels fights the Xenomorph while attached to a cable on top of a flying ship, and then a five-minute Cliff Notes version of the Ripley vs. Alien sequence from the original.
On a whole, the film is generally well shot. The ship designs and sets are cool. Fassbender puts on a master class, even though he’s saddled with some of the more ridiculous scenes.
If this were a generic action movie, and its director didn’t have the resume he does, it would be utterly fine and unmemorable. But “Covenant” tells you time and again to take it seriously—even though it fails over and over at giving you a reason to.
Will Ridley Scott Jeopardize His Legacy With This Film?
Many like to say that George Lucas retroactively hurt the original “Star Wars” movies with his prequels. This doesn’t really hold up (especially when one looks at the Payne argument for Episode III), since by the end everything squares up. Even if Anakin’s a whiny kid, he still becomes a guy who’s willing to murder a room full of whiny kids.
With “Alien: Covenant,” however, Ridley Scott reframes “Alien” as Man vs. Android. He changes the antagonist. It doesn’t ruin “Alien”—you can still watch that movie and forget everything else. But in today’s cinematic landscape, where every universe is shared and all must have an origin, it leaves a yearning for a time when films left mystery intact. Because otherwise, we end up with something that looks more like a parody than the thing that used to give you nightmares.