The best filmmakers in the world make mistakes. The best movies are filled with decisions that have the potential to derail the narrative. Executing two hours of completely airtight material is nearly impossible. The Alien saga is filled with missteps, even in the films now considered classics. Alien: Covenant is a film that seems to make the wrong decisions at nearly every crossroads it comes to, and it's a shame. It's a reactionary film, one that seems born out of criticism for director Ridley Scott's Prometheus as well as the shape the series took in its last few installments. Film flourishes with confidence behind the lens. Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet all delivered confident products in the first four Alien films regardless of the audience's opinion about the finished product. Prometheus was extremely flawed but it was supremely confident. It was also beautiful to look at, a showcase for a director still bringing exciting filmmaking in his seventh decade.
Alien: Covenant is a film that seems to make the wrong decisions at nearly every crossroads it comes to, and it's a shame.
Alien: Covenant is a reactionary film. It seems engineered to confront criticisms of Scott's first Alien prequel and create connective tissue to the existing films as well as whatever the director has planned for the future. It's as close to a fan film as the series has seen in how it tries to tie things together and jettison the bigger ideas Prometheus implied. Time has helped that film. It's not a very good movie but it reaches for greatness before succumbing to rushed third act set pieces and uninspired action. Better to reach too far than not at all. If Alien: Covenant continued to boldly push itself further towards mind-expanding science fiction rather than cheap alien attacks the flaws would be less glaring. As it stands, the film rushes the interesting ideas to serve the generic ones. Where Prometheus had a diverse cast of fantastic actors (Rafe Spall, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron) attempting carving out identities Covenant never escalates its very capable crew past their archetypes.
If Alien: Covenant continued to boldly push itself further towards mind-expanding science fiction rather than cheap alien attacks the flaws would be less glaring.
The film centers around a vessel carrying a payload of over two thousand colonists, crew, and human embryos. Tended to by Walter, an "improved" version of Prometheus's David (also played by Michael Fassbender), the vessel is damaged by a freak storm. It costs the life of its captain (a blink and you missed it cameo from James Franco) and several colonists. There is a silver lining. A new, potentially more habitable planet is discovered and the crew decides to check it out. This is the planet where the ship seen leaving the scene of Prometheus has wound up, presumably the home world of the Engineers introduced in that film. Once the decision is made to visit the new planet the film goes from being science fiction to a thriller that happens to be set in space. Along the way there are moments where it seems the larger mystery will be peeled back and at nearly every opportunity the filmmakers miss the mark.
A lot of the blame has to go to the script by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green. What it does with the leftover material from Prometheus is almost insulting. Whether it be the way they deal with Noomi Rapace's character from that film's fate or the laughable mad scientist subplot, it feels like how an overzealous fan would continue the saga. The story is not only undercooked but threatens to lessen the entire mystique of the Xenomorph as a movie monster. There are so many moments that don't reach their potential it's pointless to pinpoint them. Sadly, had the film embraced the tone of the excellent crew-centric prologue it would have been easier to provide leeway. Instead, Billy Crudup's character is a one-dimensional hook for faith-based plot points while Katherine Wasterston's character is an insult to the female-driven ethos of the saga. Her character is skeptical of her superiors' decisions but there's nothing there and her third act ascent to heroine is ridiculous. Especially considering the set piece she's given, hanging onto a wire on a careening spacecraft. Michael Fassbender, so captivating at times in Prometheus, plays two roles and while's he's good he's given a horrible shoehorned character arc that makes the whole endeavor ring hollow. The most glaring takeaway is just how epic it all could have been. There are seeds for some truly jaw-dropping moments and ideas. Ones about the origin of man and incredibly interesting civilizations that could exist in the cosmos. Instead, the Engineers are essentially turned into fodder and everything folds in order to accommodate visually stunning but intellectually bereft kill sequences.
The story is not only undercooked but threatens to lessen the entire mystique of the Xenomorph as a movie monster.
Another surprise about Alien: Covenant is that it's not up to snuff visually. If there's one thing Ridley Scott can do pretty much better than any mainstream filmmaker on the planet, it's create iconic moments. Where Prometheus embraced his vision and put all the money on the screen this film is a dark and uninspired affair. It's a bad movie. It just is. The weird thing is, at this point it almost doesn't matter. Any Alien film is a good one on some weird masochistic level. The fans are so starved for more of this world that even the worst films in the series are often revisited on a regular basis. It's a weird dichotomy because there is no way to recommend this film but like Prometheus and Alien Resurrection, both extremely unfulfilling installments, it's still part of a saga that has endured. Without the merchandising. Without the giant box office returns. It's no longer a haven for fresh visionary voices. Ridley Scott has apparently pumped the brakes on that future. But in a way it almost doesn't matter.
This time, though. It does matter. This wants to be Prometheus 2 and a prequel to Alien. It does neither well, and it cheapens both. It can't be forgiven for that.