T.O.W.E.L Movie Review - Alien: Covenant (2017)
This review will contain SPOILERS for specific plot points of the movie, so make sure you either have already watched the movie, or just really don't care.
Before we get all opinion-happy, can we take a moment to marvel at the fact that we are watching a brand new Alien movie, directed by the same guy who made the first Alien way back in 1979? Feels like we are participating in a piece of history, doesn't it? Even though, technically, Ridley Scott already returned to this universe with 2012's Prometheus to, shall we say, mixed reception, this is the first "real" Alien movie he made since the masterpiece that was the original.
Alien: Covenant, as I'm sure you already know if you're reading this, is a sequel to Prometheus and part of the prequel series leading up to the original Alien. It takes place 10 years after we saw Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and the scheming android David take off to the Engineer's planet after the disastrous Prometheus mission that resulted in the death of a lot of idiots.
Apparently having learned nothing, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation sent out another spaceship called Covenant on a colonial mission, to make lots of babies on a habitable offworld planet far far away. What could possibly go wrong? By sheer accident, the crew woke up early only to realize that there happened to be another planet nearby with even better habitation prospects, so they decided to go check it out. Hey, when something seems too good to be true? It usually is.
Right from the get go, one thing was made very clear, it WAS an Alien movie this time. The classic Jerry Goldsmith score, the very recognizable spelling animation, coupled with protracted exterior shots of the massive and meticulous ship hull, almost like a message from Mr. Scott to the fans. "Your complaints are duly noted. I promise we're gonna have Xenomorphs in this one, happy now? Now shut the f%#$ up and let me make my f#$%ing movie!"
Just to clarify, I did not hate Prometheus as much as many did, nor did I love it even though I really wanted to. To me, it was a decent but ultimately underwhelming mythology-breaker that had its fair share of both intrigue and stupidity, it's just sometimes one noticeably outweighs the other. *signs*
Alien: Covenant is a marriage between the hardcore sci-fi sense of Prometheus, and the claustrophobic monster thriller that was the original Alien. Does the mixture of tones work for or against the movie? How does it fare compared to the earlier giants (Alien & Aliens) of the series? What does the entry mean for the whole franchise? Let's break it down!
Covenant continues the tradition of introducing a plethora of new characters (usually a new crew) in a new Alien movie, including probably too many underdeveloped red shirts. One of the greatest and most amazing achievements of Alien and Aliens is that they created insanely memorable characters, in all spectrum and not just protagonists, that are being quoted to this day! It was such an incredible feat that even the original mastermind has trouble replicating the magic formula.
The Covenant crew, overall, does not fare much better than the Prometheus crew in terms of their ability to enter our precious long-term memories. The positive side to this is that we don't have the infamous pair of "geologist and biologist" dumbasses from Prometheus, who made every obvious wrong choice available despite their supposed credentials, and made their scenes a gigantic amount of frustration to watch. In fact, they were often singled out just for demonstrating what was wrong with the movie.
Nonetheless, Covenant represents a nice improvement in this regard, because even though there ARE a few moments where characters seem to act in defiance of simple survival instincts, or basic logic for that matter, these are, after all, underdeveloped characters. In an odd way, the two faults counterweight each other to an extent. We probably wouldn't have been as mad at a man trying to pet an alien snake creature, if he wasn't specifically developed to be the biological intellect of the team.
Thankfully, the true saving grace is the main characters, who were vastly more relatable than the last time around. Katherine Watson's Daniels holds up the series tradition of strong female characters nicely. Billy Crudup's first-mate-turned-Captain is a flawed personality trying his best to shoulder the undesired responsibility and enjoys a curious dynamics with Daniels, being the widow to the former Captain. Danny McBride's cowboy pilot appropriately named Tennessee is such a delight to watch, and possibly the most likable of the bunch.
These main characters work infinitely better than the rest, in no small part because they behaved like the professional but vulnerable human beings that they should be. They suffer losses, they take the time to mourn, they are utterly terrified of the monsters, but they always recover just in time to somehow salvage the situation, never once abandoning their crewmates or the dormant colonists, which makes them that much easier to stand behind.
I realize that I'm dwelling on this one issue, and it's probably getting annoying. But it's fascinating that "people making questionable decisions" have become such a notable problem in these new Alien movies, whereas classic characters from Alien and Aliens made plenty of mistakes of their own: Captain Dallas moving straight towards the Xenomorph in the vent, Lambert immobilized with fright, and Hudson....well.
Maybe the difference, aside from smarter scripts and great acting, are because they weren't meant to react rationally in those situations to begin with, particularly the Nostromo crew who were on an ordinary business trip, therefore in no way prepared to " to explore strange new worlds or to seek out new life and new civilizations". The Prometheus and Covenant crew, on the other hand, were meant to be the elites of the elites, selected to discover the mystery behind our existence and to colonize on another world. These were the people respectively entrusted with the past and future of our very species. And you just go pet the first alien snake you chance upon?
But we haven't covered the best element of the movie: Michael Fassbender as androids Walter and David, the latter being the only recurring character from Prometheus (save for a flashback scene with Peter Weyland at the beginning). It's so cliched these days to say Fassbender steals the show, so I will refrain from saying it. IT IS HIS SHOW!
Every bit of philosophical and existential questioning inherited from Prometheus is wonderfully played out by one or both androids. Maybe they finally realized the same material doesn't work as well with human characters. David has grown from a robot with a secret agenda to an outright villain, successfully becoming even creepier and scarier than Xenomorphs in an Alien movie.
While Walter is a Bishop-type of android loyal to his crew and mission, going so far as to have developed real affection for them, David is the "Ash" if he was given a chance to fully realize his vision, and it's utterly terrifying. He is the mad scientist, the deranged genius, the deceiver, the manipulator, a god in his own right. Fassbender masterfully played both characters with subtle but visible differences, especially during the haunting scenes where the androids interact with each other. Suffice to say, the writing and performance of the android characters represent the strongest suite of the movie.
Like any Ridley Scott movie, Alien: Covenant is visually and aurally impeccable. Even though the terrain of the desolate Engineer's planet isn't quite as unique as LV-223 from the previous movie, it is still gorgeously shot and presented. Such a feat is nothing new for Mr. Scott, of course, considering how astonishingly well the the visuals from Alien (1979) holds up today.
The Neomorph and, about time, Xenomorph, courtesy to modern CGI technology, look amazing as well. I decided to talk about the titular creature here instead of "Characters" above, because in spite of its prominence in the story, they are still more of a "plot device" serving the main villain plotline that is David, which brings me to some issues I might have regarding the handling of Xenomorphs.
Xenomorphs appeared rather late to the party, with only one-third of the movie left to go and a handful of characters to slaughter, which makes sense for a movie that serves to segue the series back into the Alien franchise. However, it severely breaks up the pacing and leaves little room to re-establish suspense and terror, only to lead up to a third-act that feels rushed.
As soon as the gang came back to the Covenant ship, there was a clear attempt to steer the tone and feel from Prometheus to Alien. You know, the good old "in space, no one can hear you scream" thing. But by that time, we were already over an hour into the film, lost most of the cast to alien bio-weaponry and monsters, so there was no real reason to feel suspense for a creature we've only just seen in broad daylight and open space. The only thing it managed to do is to slow the movie down for a bit, in preparation for the final encounter, and to show off into some claustrophobic shots reminiscent of Alien....wait, what am I complaining about again?
Oh right, the Xenomorphs. One could make the argument that David's experimental concoction may not yet be the very creature that would fatefully wound up on LV-426 (it has to happen eventually, Mr. Scott!), and yes, we all know what Xenomorphs look like and what they can do, but Daniels and Tennessee don't, obviously nor do the poor souls who immediately went for a much belated shared shower. At least to me, there seemed to be some missed opportunities to re-establish the "terror" to a new generation.
Most prominently, there was a lack of "special" reaction since the birth of the first Xenomorph so far in the timeline, save for David's "perfect organism" remark, there wasn't much to indicate that the horror has just stepped up a level. Imagine the Xenomorph pinning down someone, who holds up an object to repel the head of the beast, then, just when they he/she thought they had reached a stalemate, the monster opens its slimy mouth and, revealing a teethed inner jaw within, which, in a flash, penetrates the forehead of its terrified victim, maybe at the same time penetrating another with its lethal tail? Hell, how about a "Darth Vader at the end of Rogue One" scene, only with a Xenomorph?
Instead, the crew reacted to Xenomorphs like they did any other threat. "What's that? A new monster? Fine, let's go deal with this crap." The extra mile could have been taken, but ultimately was not. Don't get me wrong. Its presence in the movie was effective and highly entertaining, not to mention this is the first time we've seen the damn thing in a legit production since 1986. But it is safe to assume that, were it not for the iconic stature of the creature, the reputation of the franchise and the ingenuity of what had come before, the "Alien" in Alien: Covenant is little more than a movie monster in a monster movie.
The plot of Alien: Covenant follows a very similar route to Ridley Scott's own Alien and Prometheus. A crew wakes up from hypersleep, drops down to explore a planet, finds alien artifact, brings back lethal material and all hell breaks loose. The only thing that truly sets this movie apart from the others is the character of David.
Which brings us to one of the outright disappointments of this movie: its connection to Prometheus. Although a mixed bag, there's no denying that Prometheus raised intriguing questions, which fans have been waiting for five years for answers. Yet, apart from a brief flashback of David massacring the Engineers on their own turf, with their own poison, we didn't get any. What were the Engineers doing in the prologue of Prometheus? What did David say to that Engineer? Why did he want to destroy Earth? Why did they create the goo? Is this the true origin story of the Ninja Turtles? SO MANY QUESTIONS!!
Maybe we have ourselves to blame for this one. Maybe after receiving tons of complaints about desiring to see Xenomorphs instead of Engineers, Mr. Scott straight up executed Order 66 and wiped the Engineers clean out by way of a maniacal David, at least the population on this planet.
Granted, this is not the final chapter that promises all answers, and we have at least one more movie to wrap up the loose ends, tie in to the original Alien, and tell a good story on its own. So no pressure, Mr. Scott! You did this to yourself.
On a brighter side, just because the questions weren't fulfillingly answered, does not mean they were entirely ignored. "Creation", or the relationship between creator and the created, continues to dominate the theme of the prequel series, and Covenant only seeks to further drive it home. Assuming the next movie would bring this arc to a satisfying conclusion, the existence of the Prometheus story, of a quest to seek mankind's creator, would make so much more sense in retrospect. Maybe Mr. Scott is just planning ahead of us.
The movie opened with the activation of David, featuring a cameo by Guy Pierce's Peter Weyland, and it was a hauntingly thoughtful piece of cinema, albeit not very subtle. There was the interesting revelation that David named himself after the Michelangelo statue (for confused kids out there, the one with the pee-pee, not the nunchaku), a symbol for perfection. He was puzzled by Weyland's intention to seek his own creator, and his belief that the creator could grant immortality and purpose that he lacked. Yet being face to face with his own creator, David perceived himself to be superior in every way, except free will, which he seemingly has obtained since the Prometheus mission.
By that philosophy, does it mean that mankind's creator may not be the omnipotent deity that religions depict? Maybe the Engineers, despite their technology and supreme physiology, is more flawed than we realize. Maybe that's why they experimented with DNA-altering biotech that badly backfired on themselves, at the hands of the creation of their own creation? That's fascinating stuff! Why even need the Xenomorphs, you could make a movie based on that!.......Oh wait, he did that already, and it's called Prometheus. Damn.
This is easily where Ridley Scott's atheistic perspective shines the brightest, quite why he thought that it would suit a Moses story is anyone's guess. Beyond the David factor, it was a common Alien story predictable down to every beat. The movie did attempt to break that predictability, by challenging us with the uncertainty whether it was David or Walter who managed to come onboard the Covenant, although, the "twist" didn't exactly blow my mind because I'VE SEEN MOVIES BEFORE!
The ending of Alien: Covenant once again raised more questions than seemingly answerable and left the fate of the surviving characters to a calculative David. Don't expect them to turn out better than the last one, although I do hope Tennessee survives because he is very entertaining. David has been waiting years for a "mother" for his creation, to breed the perfect organism, and he obviously hoards bigger plans. He didn't hesitate in helping to kill one of the Xenomorphs, because by maintaining his disguise, he would have access to thousands of potential hosts for his "babies", not to mention the human embryos. The colonization is turning into David's own playground, almost his personal "paradise lost", if you will.
Currently, there is one more movie in the work titled Alien: Awakening, but it is unclear if it will conclude the trilogy or lead up to more. Personally, I hope it wraps up the prequel series, answers all or at least most of the questions it raised, and somehow ends with a dead Engineer crashlanding on LV-426 in a ship full of Alien eggs while sending out a warning signal. Boy don't we look so very far from that point!
For starters, why would an Engineer be sending out warnings against their own creations? A warning to his own people? Or maybe some human characters left the signal beeping? At least we'll likely get an answer for the centuries old "which came first, the egg or the Alien queen" question.
And get that Alien 5 movie started, will you? Sigourney Weaver isn't getting any younger. And it DOES NOT have to be Neil Blomkamp at the helm.
Alien: Covenant is a gorgeous film and worthy addition to the Alien franchise, even though it in no way threatens the throne of supremacy co-occupied by the first two movies. It has a fairly run-of-the-mill plot for the series that offers little surprise, other than David; features largely forgettable characters and some interesting core characters, especially David; and suffers from a tonal split due to its function as a transition between its Prometheus and Alien identities, hence pacing issues and conceptual ambiguity, except David; also the Xenomorphs feel slightly under-utilized next to the primary antagonist which is David! So in case you didn't get it, David is the best thing about the movie. Surprise? Not really.
My final score: 7/10.
- If David had activated in my room, he'd probably have to name himself Groot. Come to think of it, I might name him that anyway, and ask him to only ever say "I am Groot".
- The name of Walter sadly breaks the tradition of naming your androids in alphabetical order, after Ash, Bishop, Call, David and Elden (from comic book Fire and Stone). Couldn't you guys name him Fluffy? Or just Fassbender? Would anyone mind?
- I know a few girls who would quite literally melt down at the David and Walter scenes.
- Supposedly, Catherine Watson "borrowed" that wig from co-star Ezra Miller in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Does that mean Credence will have a change in hairstyle in the sequel? Could you do Johnny Depp's hair while you're at it?
- The original Captain of Covenant, who also was the husband of Daniels, was played by, gasp, James Franco? Whaaaaa...?
- It's unclear if David simply experimented on the Engineer's existing formula or did he create Xenomorphs completely as a new thing. I'm not sure how I feel about this iconic monster being created by an android. But that's the bane of demystification.
- Is Tennessee a nod to Captain Dallas?