Alien: Covenant – Has Ridley Scott lost his mojo?

This article originally began as a review of the most recent entry in the long running Alien series, Alien: Covenant. However, in the process of writing it, I ended up straying off the reservation and waxing on at length about my thoughts on the Alien franchise as a whole. This further developed into a related critique of director Ridley Scott’s approach since he returned to the property that first made his name all the way back in 1979.

After a lot of re-reading and subsequent editing I’ve managed to wrestle my original jumble of words and mixed emotions about the series into what I hope is a vaguely coherent form. Read on then pilgrims, and beware, trenchant opinions contained herein…

Alien: Covenant (2017) review
I’ll admit it; I approached Alien: Covenant with some trepidation. I try to keep an open mind when watching new entries in franchises that hold a special place in the hearts of fandom. Alas, Fox seem determined to stretch this goodwill to breaking point when it comes to the Alien series. Ever since the much derided, but actually not bad Alien 3 (1991), those of us who love the Alien universe have been subjected to the risible Alien Resurrection (1997), the trying-a-bit-too-hard Paul WS Anderson effort Aliens vs Predator (2007), and the crime against humanity that is AvP2: Requiem. It really shouldn’t be hard to get right, yet the studio continues to make a complete pig’s ear of one of its most valuable franchises.

Alien: Covenant then, is a direct sequel to the 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus, a film that I could expound on enough to fill a whole other article just on its own. For now it’s enough to say that I found Prometheus hugely flawed, and many of those flaws carry over into its sequel. Picking up ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant’s story centres on the eponymous colony ship, travelling to the distant planet of Origae 6 to establish a settlement there. A freak space accident damages the ship, killing the captain (James Franco in a cameo), and waking the crew from hypersleep. Now led by nervy man of faith Oram (the underrated Billy Crudup), the ship picks up a signal sent out from a nearby earth like planet that Oram decides is ripe for settlement, pulling rank over the objections of crew member Daniels (Katherine Waterston).

After an initial exploration of their landing area, two of the crew are infected and killed by a mysterious lifeform that nearly wipes out the other members. At this point, David, the android from the earlier film (Michael Fassbender, still doing his spot on impression of Lawrence of Arabia era Peter O’Toole) appears to save the day, although the Covenant’s own android Walter (also played by Fassbender) quickly begins to suspect that David harbours an ulterior motive. I won’t detail any more plot details here, just in case there are some readers who have yet to watch the film, suffice to say that David’s arrival brings with it a ton of Prometheus related exposition and xenomorph related mayhem.

There is no doubt that Alien: Covenant is a visual treat. This is a Ridley Scott film after all, and he has always been a much better production designer than a storyteller in this humble scribe’s opinion. The film also features solid performances from the cast, particularly from Waterston, who is competing for screen time with the intense Fassbender, and also under the long shadow cast by Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley.

The problem is bigger than that, and it begins with the approach taken in Prometheus and clearly intended to run through the intended prequel trilogy; that is, the intention to explore the origin of the Alien, and to tie this in with both the ‘space jockey’ glimpsed in Alien and an origin of humanity backstory that would make Eric von Daniken blush. It is a classic example of storytellers failing to heed the maxim ‘show, don’t tell’. The unknown is scary in itself, and all the unanswered questions concerning the Alien should have been left at just that; unanswered. To explore the origin of the Alien inevitably strips away part of its mystique, and thus its ability to scare the bejeezus out of audiences. Another problem here is that layering ever more detail about the origin of the creatures risks disrupting or outright contradicting the internal logic of the Alien universe. A good example of this is the amount of time between the implanting of an embryo into a host, and the chestburster erupting. It seems to be different in every film. This makes the audience’s suspension of disbelief ( a prerequisite for good storytelling) much harder.

Instead of the lean, tight, menace of Alien, Aliens, and yes, Alien 3, we get a load of philosophical guff from Fassbender’s David, some admittedly decent creature effects and some inventive death scenes (the shower sex death scene has to be the stand out for me.) None of these elements add up to anything more than yet another mediocre offering in the series though. Fassbender handles this hokum like the professional he is, yet making an android with a God complex the centre of the narrative just isn’t as compelling as an everywoman like Ripley dealing with the indescribable. In the end Alien: Covenant just ends up a pale facsimile of the 1979 original.

What might have been…
If only Fox had been bolder with the creative decision making, and gone in the direction of exploring the wider Alien universe, rather than the origin of the Xenomorph. One is reminded here of the original William Gibson screenplay for Alien 3, which saw the introduction of the Union of Progressive Peoples (UPP)  to the background, a power bloc locked in a cold war with the corporate entity of Weyland Yutani, with both seeking to capture a live xenomorph to turn into a bioweapon. Gibson’s script went to two drafts before Fox passed on cost grounds. A lost opportunity, but one of many along the tortuous journey out of development hell that finally resulted in David Fincher’s flawed but still interesting Alien 3.

A more recent attempt to reboot the series came with Neill Blomkamp’s bid to make a direct sequel to Aliens that saw both Hicks and Newt survive along with Ripley. This sounds a lot like the story arc published in the early nineties in the Dark Horse comics license. Sadly Fox weren’t interested, and it looks like Blomkamp’s proposal has bitten the dust. Shame.

Ironically, Alien: Covenant, while not being a flop, hasn’t met Fox’s expectations at the box office, and word around the campfire is that the studio is planning a ‘soft reboot’ of the franchise, which probably means that while previous films will remain canon, any reboot movies will feature an all new cast and setting. In the meantime the studio looks to be still going ahead with the third film  the prequel trilogy, provisionally titled Alien: Awakening, so we have one more installment of this tripe to endure before Fox begins afresh. Although at this rate one wonders if they should bother. Should’ve gone with Blomkamp.

So is Ridley to blame?
“Ridley Scott on terrific form”, exclaims Brian Viner of the the British tabloid the Daily Mail on the Alien: Covenant DVD cover. After reading my review above you can probably surmise that I regard this statement as a brazen lie. Now I like Ridley Scott, and his films always look beautiful regardless of whether they succeed or not. But has he made a truly great film since Blade Runner in 1982?  I would contend not, although I haven’t seen The Martian yet (I’m put off  by anything starring the pompous and preachy Matt Damon). The fact is, Ridley Scott peaked early, and it’s been a gentle downward slope since then. GI Jane anyone?

Before anyone starts shouting ‘Black Hawk Down!’ at me I’ll go on the record that I’m not a fan. Without meaning any disrespect to those men who fought and died in the real life events depicted in the film, the Battle of Mogadishu just doesn’t make for an interesting event from a storytelling point of view. Two hours of explosions and men shouting at each other does not a  good film make, unless Gene Hackman is in it.

I don’t mind Gladiator (1999), and it is probably ego on legs Russell Crowe’s only other good film apart from his stellar turn in the excellent LA Confidential (1997). Still, it is marred by probably one of the most flat, anticlimactic endings ever. I did enjoy Kingdom of Heaven (2005), though a judgement of greatness is snatched away by the inexplicable decision to have Orlando Bloom as the leading man.

Which brings us to the Alien prequels. While it’s probably unfair to lay all the blame at Scott’s door (Damon Lindelof wrote the Prometheus screenplay), it’s inconceivable that he didn’t have some input and creative control over the narrative direction of the prequels. Thus a large portion of the responsibility for the direction the films have gone in must lie with the boy from South Shields. A shame, as there has long been better ideas out there for expanding the Alien mythos without compromising some of the factors which made the series great in the first place.

And finally…

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