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« Box Office: The face huggers still got it! | Main | Ask Nathaniel »
Sunday
May212017

Review: "Alien: Covenant"

This review was originally published in Nathaniel's column at Towleroad

If the famed director Ridley Scott were in art school, his professor would be yanking the paintbrush out of his hand — “it’s perfect, stop adding brush strokes!” His wife probably has to pull spices from his hands as he cooks. If you’ve been playing along with this Hollywood giant’s career you know that he can never leave well enough alone. I’ve lost count of how many “versions” there now are of his early sci-fi masterpiece Blade Runner (1982) and, after years of threats, that film will have a sequel this October, Blade Runner 2049, though Scott opted to pass the directorial reigns over to Denis Villeneuve (Arrival).

Having exhausted returning to that particular sci-fi well, Ridley has moved back even earlier in his career to the film that made him famous, Alien (1979). He’s now directed two prequels to it (Prometheus and now Alien: Covenant) and more films are promised. (Perhaps the controversial ending of 1991’s Thelma & Louise is the only thing that’s kept that film, the third member of his holy trinity of masterworks, free of his tinkering!).

So how’s the new film?

If you need a quick refresher, Alien: Covenant (2017) is the sequel to the Alien (1979) prequel Prometheus (2012), the first official Alien film to brave the horrific thrills without Sigourney Weaver’s authoritative presence. Prometheus is set in 2090 so her iconic character Lt. Ellen Ripley hadn’t quite been born yet (Alien taking place 32 years later). Scott’s ultimately unnecessary ambition was to tell a backstory about the origin of life itself both human and alien (mostly alien). Despite the ill-advised idea — horror films are scary if they remain unknowable — at least Prometheus is a virtuosically crafted wonder. The unlucky crew discovered a strange planet where “the engineers,” who look like giant albino humanoids, lived. I’m summarizing and probably poorly, but the engineers created the original version of what would soon evolve into those face-hugging acid-blood xenomorphs that have become the ultimate sci-fi boogeymen.

Prometheus ends, as these films usually do, with its final girl (Noomi Rapace’s “Elizabeth Shaw”) escaping the trauma with the help of her suspicious android companion (Michael Fassbender as “David8”).

Alien Covenant takes place fourteen years or so later (which means Ripley is now a little tween somewhere out there in galaxy) and initially seems disconnected from Prometheus. Despite that it’s excessively familiar as the franchise entries share the same formula:

  • Ship full of a diverse grew of would be colonists and crew... ✔️
  • Some resourceful, some immensely stupid... ✔️
  • The camera is most interested in one brunette female ✔️
    (This time it’s neither Weaver nor Rapace but Katharine Waterston as “Daniels”) 
  • ...And one android, who may or may not be trustworthy ✔️
    (That's Fassbender again… this time as “Walter”). 
  • The crew receive an strange message from a distant inhabitable planet, where none should be, and they think “Hey, let’s investigate!” ✔️
  • Cue: scary music and alien mayhem ✔️ 

The Alien franchise is, at heart, a horror franchise set in outerspace so characters are required to do stupid things just as they do in slasher pictures. ‘Look there’s a bunch of blood. I think I’ll follow the trail into the dark basement / garage / woods!'

For reasons one can only presume are a market-driven olive branch to America’s noisy fundamentalist crowd the commander this time is a born again man named Oram (Billy Crudup) who complains to his wife Karin (Carmen Ejogo) that the crew doesn’t trust him because they fear he won’t make rational decisions due to his faith.

"Walter" (Michael Fassbender) arrives with the Covenant crew. What's going on on this weirdly empty planet?

Because it’s a colonization mission the crew is filled with married couples. We have to ask, though: do LGBT people really not exist in the 22nd century? And when you add the subtextually gay David8 into the mix (the film begins with a flashback to Fassbender’s shady Prometheus android) it only makes things more uncomfortable in terms of the heternormative sexual politics.

Character stupidity is a staple of the horror genre (who doesn’t make questionable choices when terrified?) but sometimes it goes too far. Alien Covenant‘s most disastrous move is the character of Oram. He’s given a more thorough character description than any other human member of the cast (in that he has one at all!) but his decisions are so dumb and muddled that you can’t tell if the film is trying to humiliate the faith-based audience who might be rooting for him or if he’s making the errors because he’s trying to make rational decisions that aren’t faith-based. Is this Hollywood trying to have it both ways or is this just poor screenwriting?

SOME SPOILERS AHEAD

Carmen Ejogo is stuck in the sick-bay. Uh-oh. This actress deserves bigger roles!

Oram’s stupidity is amply punished with a death you can see coming before he even takes the stairs into this film’s version of the scary basement.

Though Covenant lacks any action scene to rival that thrilling and sick abortion sequence in Prometheus, it’s still damn scary a couple of times. One of the best directed / acted / edited sequences is in the sick bay where doomed Karin is attending to a wounded coworker.

Consider it a missed opportunity that always reliable and beautiful Carmen Ejogo (last seen as the top American official in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t given the largest female role;  she feels much less like a Ripley hand-me-down and more like her own original character. Covenant‘s visual glories are by and large less pronounced than Prometheus‘s too, partially because we’ve returned to the same locale.

The movie nearly makes up for its narrative and visual disappointments with double the dose of the perpetually perfect Michael Fassbender. The first trailers wisely didn’t spoil the fact that David8 returns but as if placing a cherry on top of that sweet surprise, the film’s most gripping scenes are nearly all of the Fassbender vs Fassbender variety. Walter is a model descended from the David8 but with the bugs worked out so he’s no longer homicidally curious. The two androids argue, they play the flute (no, really… “I’ll do the fingering”), they kiss (Fassbender’s look of artificially intelligent befuddlement is choice), they fight. Fassbender + Fassbender is the reason to buy a ticket.

/SPOILERS

Even though we didn’t need another Alien film, particularly given how many imitators that franchise has already sparked (remember Life this spring with Jake Gyllenhaal? Practically a clone!), we have another. Whether or not you choose to see it there will always be another coming, for better and worse. Mostly worse though even the “bad” films in this franchise have great moments– yes, even the much-maligned Alien³ (1992) and the bizarre Alien: Resurrection (1997). I can’t particularly explain my loyalty given the redundancies but I guess I’ve married in for the long haul, in mysterious sickness and short lived health, ’til gory alien-bursting-from-chests death do us part.

 

Grade: B-/C+
Oscar Chances: Outside shot at Visual Effects. If Prometheus couldn't even manage craft nods beyond visual effects -- despite totally earning them -- I'm guessing they're finally done with the franchise.

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Reader Comments (24)

Nat did you think the shower scene deaths were a bit hokey or a nod to the Lambert/Parker death in the original.

I would have preferred Billy and Carmen as the leads too,now that would have been a shock.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I loved this as a nihilistic black joke on the audience. The humans are dumb because this movie isn't pro-human and the humans aren't the heroes. Ol' Ridders identifies with the psychopathic, gay-coded "creator" android. The entire last act isn't suspenseful/scary because of the xenomorph but because you're wondering when/if the humans are going to get theirs/figure out that David is on the ship.

One other note: there's been way too much simplistic "Fassbender makes out with Fassbender!" media takes and not enough takes (except Keith Uhlich in Reverse Shot) on how much this film reflects on/impacts his screen presence . How many "stars" would or could do this kind of part without batting an eye? The only major American actor I can imagine going for it is Franco, but he's horrible.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKate

Some similar issues though I enjoyed it more than you, it seems. Found it to be scary and well-crafted so I went along for the ride. One correction though: there is a gay couple in the group. Hard to tell (Demian Becher & partner) but they are there. Sadly, they cut an early scene (which they released as The Last Supper teaser clip) which introduces the couples more clearly. Hard to get worked up over cutting when all the couples suffer from not getting clear setups.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

The LGBT critique seems a bit off. Wait, how many couples in the film again?

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Tom M -- well, the fact that i missed their existence is telling. All the other characters have dialogue or scenes about them being couples.

Anonny -- almost every character with lines in the movies (save the Fassbenders) is part of a couple. They all explicitly state that they're married or in one case have a sex scene... so i think the LGBT critique is spot on considering the gay couple is hiding (i kept hearing after the fact that there was a gay couple and who...? It turns out you have to watch deleted scenes to know that so it doesn't count.

May 21, 2017 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I feel like that flute scene deserves an article of its own--and I think you could offer a particularly compelling one. It felt like fan fiction while I was watching it.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Watched it, enjoyed it! I've been so exhausted by my Java programming course that I pretty much needed something good-looking that's not too dumb.

Alien:Covenant was just that.

I loved Scott's depiction of space
I loved the score
That scene where David encounters the Promethean race and KILLS them? Epic!

The numskull moments were aplenty, I agree:

*The entire Promethean race lives in just one city on the planet?

*The virus invades all non-plant life? Okay, cool. So why isn't the planet infested with these deadly creatures? They can't fuck or have children? Not the perfect species after all, am I right?

*The moment of Demian Becher's spouse's death, is the moment we're told that they were a couple. That's it. That's the entire LGBT moment in the film. Literally 5 seconds. But I guess that's what you should expect from a director who said "Casting Mohammad So and So" is not going to get a film made.

Yes, should've been better.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterYavor

The gay couple only appears in the prologue which for some reason is not part of the actual movie- I was hoping for a sequel to "Prometheus" but what we get is another Alien sequel. The gay coded androids do steal the movie because they are the only ones with an interesting story. The humans are just there to scream and be eaten.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I definitely heard Bichir call the second guy who got chest-busted "My love" or something after the guy died, but that was literally the only line so. Meh. Not that great, but I at least appreciated he was cast in that part. I'm absolutely with you on Ejogo but I have nearly the same haircut as Waterston so I feel sympathy for her. And I'm totally with Kate, I love how the film made a case against humanity via the character's own amazing levels of stupidity. I can't even see it as *that* nasty towards Oram and religion in general, if only because the first guy who got infected did so by shitting on an alien planet. No one makes good decisions.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNick T

For humans who have been trained for space colonization the crew of the ship is amazingly stupid I agree with most of Yavor's points- the usual excuse why we don't see any gay people in sci-fi movies because in the future that will not matter- which is bullshit.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterjaragon

I don't get it still. When does every movie need a LGBT character and if not that's a valid critique of the overall film? Beyond bizzare. But haven't seen it yet so maybe the absense of such a couple hurts the narrative or world building.

May 21, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Yes, Damian Bichir is supposed to have a same-sex partner. But, by eliminating the 'last supper' sequence, you wouldn't know if from the finished film.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBenji

IMO worst Alien film so far. So bad and disappointing (SPOILER .... David created the original Alien) that it should not even bee canon.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKokolo

I thought it was pretty clear that it was his partner he was saying goodbye to, Demian Bichir I mean. He kneels down to the body and kisses the ring and says something like "You'll always be in my heart, my angel" and almost kisses him before someone's like "there's no time, we have to go"

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterpaco.

Why would a colonization mission meant to kick start a new population need a gay couple? They obviously can't reproduce so...it felt completely unnecessary.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTr

Aw come on TR, someone will have to consult on interior design choices and drink rose with bored colonist wives who need to bitch about their macho husbands (like can u imagine being married to Danny McBride?)

I believe that the gay couple in question were part of the crew and not among the hundreds (? Thousands) of colonists in cargo who remain in stasis throughout the film. Presumably they were selected for their skill in whatever role they have on the mission (it's never explained) and their inability to reproduce having no influence on the 'necessity' of their presence.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

I totally understand, N. I noticed the interaction that paco mentions...others in my party seeing the movie didn't. I'm not lauding the film for LGBT representation, just wanted to clarify your post.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom M

I liked it more than I thought I would mostly because Scott references one of my fave paintings, Böcklin´s Isle of the dead, with the garden where Shaw is buried. It´s an ambitious mess and I admire that.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterhaajen

Tr : The gay couple was part of the crew and perhaps in the future they manage to find a way for two men to reproduce-" thought it was pretty clear that it was his partner he was saying goodbye to, Demian Bichir I mean. He kneels down to the body and kisses the ring and says something like "You'll always be in my heart, my angel" and almost kisses him before someone's like "there's no time, we have to go"" Paco I missed all of this.

May 22, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Ok saw the movie now. I liked it quite a bit (it earns its jumps, is interesting and keeps things moving) but agree with many of the criticisms (Ejogo was compelling in a way that Waterston wasn't; in fact Waterston was a pretty awful/bland leading lady even when compared to Roopace last time, some dumb character choices, the feeling that we've seen this all before).


I find the criticism that there weren't enough gay couples in the film is ridiculous. One couple of the small crew is gay so I think it is safe to assume that some of the hibernating couples are as well. Silly and unfounded criticism imo; it's like bashing Room for not making the grandma a lesbian.


With that said, I liked the film overall and, as you mention, it gives Fassbender a huge role (He probably has the most screentime and most meaty character arc, no?) with all sorts of interesting things to do and benefits greatly. About 100x better than Prometheus.

May 23, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

It was very clear that there was a gay couple.

SPOILERS.

I'm surprised there have been 20 posts and no one has mentioned the rather grotesque discarding of the Dr. Shaw character. She was the heroine of Prometheus and yet the prologue with her character was completely cut from the movie. Also, the illustrations of how her sleeping body was used as a canvass for alien experiments--yuck.

And I agree with the posters here who noted that Scott seems very PRO-alien and anti-human lol. I had that thought many times while watching this. I will admit I was entertained and scared despite the film's flaws.

May 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I can understand all of the comments and agree/disagree, but one thing i can't accept is heatwaves coming off the engines of Covenant. In space you only need a short energy burn to get up to speed, and besides, they wouldn't be using "hot" engines, but plasma thrusters that electrify noble gas electrons (think neon), and accelerate it to 100 thousand kilometers / hour. The idea of engines burning hot and making roaring noises when sound doesn't carry in sci-fi is always irritating to me.

May 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark from Australia

I can understand all of the comments and agree/disagree, but one thing i can't accept is heatwaves coming off the engines of Covenant. In space you only need a short energy burn to get up to speed, and besides, they wouldn't be using "hot" engines, but plasma thrusters that electrify noble gas electrons (think neon), and accelerate it to 100 thousand kilometers / hour. The idea of engines burning hot and making roaring noises when sound doesn't carry in sci-fi is always irritating to me.

May 29, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMark from Australia

Awful movie.

This film and Prometheus are not real alien movies. They were meant to expand the alien universe, but only made it smaller and stupid.

The characters in this film are actually so bad that you want them to die, the sooner the better. You couldn't care less about them. Fassbender being the only exception, making a good performance as the gay android.

The alien is not scary at all.

In fact the gay android is more scary then the alien itself. Therefore, this movie should be called Prometheus II: The gay android.

There are of course some nice visuals in this movie, but so has the Transformers movie. The only suspense in this movie was watching the trailer and waiting for it to be released. They could not have made it worse, even if they tried.

If you want a dark alien movie, then watch alien III instead.

July 2, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterawful

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