(Because of the mixed reactions to the film from critics across the internet, we are running two reviews of Alien: Covenant. Here’s a negative take on the movie. For a different take, you can read Karen Han’s positive review.)
Ridley Scott has made two great films: Alien and Blade Runner. In spite of the sequel to the latter coming this fall, Scott has chosen to cross-breed these two science-fiction classics in making Alien: Covenant. Based on that title, you might hope that this will right whatever wrongs were incurred by his 2012 film Prometheus, which professed to start the origin story of the feared xenomorphs while populating that story with some of the dumbest characters in recent memory. You would be wrong. Alien: Covenant is basically the answer to a question that shouldn’t have been asked: what if Roy Batty was the lead of an Alien movie?
If Michael Fassbender’s “synthetic” character David didn’t seem Batty-esque before, he sure as hell does in Covenant. Fassbender is the clear lead, from the first scene. David meets his creator, Peter Weyland, and pinpoints an irony: the mortal Weyland wants to meet whoever created humans, while David has already met his creator and has a potentially infinite lifespan.
The film then jumps to the year 2104 and the colonization ship Covenant. A newer synthetic is onboard: Walter, also played by Fassbender. Things go south instantly, as the ship is struck by a solar blast, killing its captain. The Covenant‘s new skipper (Billy Crudup) is faith-driven and far less confident; Crudup’s presence represents one of many ideas that are mentioned and almost immediately discarded. Aside from paying lip service to his faith, the script goes nowhere with his character’s religion colliding with hard science. Instead, he exists to make the poor decision of landing on a nearby, Earth-like planet sending a mysterious radio transmission. Will this lead to almost-certain death at the hands of ruthless aliens? Do xenomorphs enjoy gestating in unassuming dudes’ stomachs?
Of the colonists, only the now-widowed Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is aware of possible terror on the planet. Daniels is as close as the film gets to an Ellen Ripley surrogate, from her tough-minded exterior to her short haircut. They’re obligatory elements that barely make up a character, much in the same way that every aural or visual allusion to Alien in Covenant feels forced. Scott and writers John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, and Michael Green are vastly less interested in the mythology of Alien than they are in the stories of David and Walter.
The centerpiece of the film, thus, is not one of the various gory sequences when an alien attacks one of the crew members or bursts out of their bodies. No, it’s the scene where David (whose presence on this mysterious planet is a signifier of the film’s reticence to be more than a Prometheus sequel) teaches Walter how to play the flute. Imagine, if you will, Michael Fassbender playing both parts in the scene of To Have and Have Not where Lauren Bacall asks Humphrey Bogart “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.” The scene in Covenant has its own version of innuendo, courtesy of the line “I’ll do the fingering”; the moment is clearly homoerotic, certainly since in a later scene, the two synthetic characters share a kiss.
To be clear: Michael Fassbender is very good in this film, as he was in Prometheus. His talent aside, the problem is twofold. This is a bad Alien film because it fundamentally misunderstands what makes a good Alien film; also, it’s just not very good outside of the lead performance. Fassbender’s presence is so overwhelming in the film; Scott would have been better off either making these movies with no tangible connection to Alien, or just making a Blade Runner sequel with Fassbender as the new Roy Batty.
Combining elements of those two films may sound intriguing, but it works less in execution than in theory. The larger issue with Fassbender as the lead is that it makes the crew members of the Covenant basically set dressing. Outside of Waterston, Crudup, and the ship’s pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride; with James Franco showing up briefly in the first act, maybe Ridley Scott is a stealth Your Highness fan), the crew barely have identities or established names. This, of course, makes it easier for said characters to make dumb decisions – Crudup’s choice to land on this strange planet is more logical than stupid, but most of the decisions he and others make afterwards are just idiotic.
Here lies the problem: a good Alien movie does not feature a) characters making massively stupid decisions and b) a synthetic character as the lead. Even Alien3 gathered the latter point, if not the former. Waterston would make a fine Ripley-esque lead, if she didn’t feel like a supporting character in David’s relentless quest of creating something perfect. No doubt, there’s a way to make another good Alien movie. And there’s a way to place a phenomenal dual performance from one of our best actors in a genre piece musing on the philosophy of life and creation. Alien: Covenant doesn’t know how to be either of these things.
/Film Rating: 4 out of 10
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