Alien: Covenant (2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott

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Alien: Covenant is like a series of greatest hits moments from Alien and Aliens and probably from any of the other hundreds of Alien spinoffs and sequels.  It’s a movie that, while featuring some nice action, effects and gore, feels completely pointless.  The plot is predictable, the twist is anything but, the characters act with no discernible intelligence, and the best parts of the movie are still far cries from the moments they’re ripping off in the first film of this franchise.  That film, Alien, came out almost 40 years ago, and despite the advances in VFX and other technical advancements, that film feels much more gripping, intense, frightening and even logical than this one.  The horror of Alien felt inescapable, and even if you rewind the story to the point before all hell broke loose, you can understand why the characters behaved the way they did.  With Alien: Covenant, none of that makes sense.  It’s a movie that betrays logic and doubts the audience’s intelligence in order to tell another simple slasher-esque story (the alien might as well be a knife-wielding horror villain), yet it’s a movie that pretends to aspire to something grand.  In the end, those aspirations feel cheap.  How can we ascribe any meaning to the idea of Gods, aliens, where we come from, etc. if the movie refuses to be anything original and instead jumps into the hamster wheel of recognizable faces and moments that appeal more to easy nostalgia than anything resembling entertainment, let alone philosophical musings.

Alien was meaningful because it was lean and horrifying, and it put us right there with Sigourney Weaver as she fought against this thing that would surely kill her.  It was simply terrifying, and every character served a purpose.  In that film, the android, Ash, becomes an antagonistic force because that’s what he’s programmed to do.  Ripley’s goal is to survive because that’s what any of us would try to do.  It’s simple, and simple can be good.

But Alien: Covenant tries to do and be so much more.  The antagonistic android, David (Michael Fassbender) wants to kill the humans because… he just doesn’t like them?  Sure he has his logic, but it doesn’t quite make sense.  It’s not hard to picture a murderous robot/android, after all we’ve seen it in movies countless times (Terminator), but this movie wastes time letting David explain (on multiple occasions) his reasons for being a villain.  It overexplains something that could be stated much more simply or not stated at all.  He’s the bad guy, we get it.  He doesn’t even need to say why he is, just show us that he’s bad and let us fill in the blanks as to why.

Like the alien, for example.  We don’t know why the alien wants to kill and consume the humans, but we don’t need to think too hard about it because that’s what murderous aliens do, they kill you.  So make David’s reasoning as unstated as the alien’s, and while we might understand that there is some deeper thought going on behind the madness, we’re still likely to go with it.

This movie is so unoriginal.  It’s stealing from itself, which, is that stealing?  It’s boring at least.  Hell, the alien bloodbath scenes are entertaining, but they pale in comparison to the original scenes which inspired them.  The alien bursting from the guy’s stomach in Alien?  That was crazy and creative and awesome.  When it happens multiple times here?  Not so much.  It’s just to be expected.  And what’s worse is that the events of this film occur before the events of Alien.  So even though the audience is very familiar with the alien-bursting-from-chest scene, the characters are not.  That means that when Billy Crudup wakes up, unaware that his stomach is impregnated with an alien, he has no idea what’s about to happen, but, again, we do.  We’re not in sync with these characters like we were with Ripley because we’ve experienced this before.

So one idea would be to give at least a few of these characters the knowledge of what’s about to happen.  When one character gets attacked by a face hugger, about he he or she has already seen what happens when you’re attacked by a face hugger?  Maybe Crudup knows he’s about to die, and then we’re left with the dread he feels before his stomach bursts?  At least then we would feel what he feels.

So the perspective in the movie for the audience is one of omniscience, like we’re one of the gods this film spends time pretending to talk about.  When David or Walter or whoever talks about where we come from and gods and civilizations, it feels like the kid who went to one seminar on ancient greek mythology and then pretends to know everything.  These characters spent a lot of time talking and quoting poems, but it felt like they didn’t actually say anything.

But back to our viewing perspective… we know that shit’s about to go down, and there is certainly fun to be had in that expectation.  I mean, I was looking forward to watching said shit go down.  But I realized that in many movies you get that same feeling, even if you’ve never seen the movie before and even if it’s a completely original film.  The first half of the story gives you a lot of information, and then at some point you use that preexisting information to develop expectations for something that is about to happen.

Alien: Covenant perhaps has a leg up, then.  There is so much work done in the other movies of this franchise for us to know what’s about to happen.  This might help make the movie more dramatic or suspenseful or something, but instead we’re just left waiting.  The first act is a little too quiet, giving us forced exposition and reasons to like these characters whom we never really like anyways, and then when it comes time for the aliens to attack, they do so quickly, without leaving time for the suspense.

Maybe I should go back to Alien and see how long it took between the face-hugger attack and the subsequent alien birthed from guy’s chest scene.  In my memory it feels like it might’ve been 15-20 minutes of screentime.  The guy is attacked, everything thinks he might be dead, then they surgically remove the alien, then the guy says he feels pretty good, then the alien emerges from his chest.  In this movie, Crudup is attacked by the face-hugger, and within only a few minutes he is killed when the alien emerges from his abdomen.  So sure, the movie has to move quickly in this regard because the audience already knows what’s going to happen since we’ve seen this before, but the effect of this scene feels a little dirty.  It’s like you take something beautiful and unique and truly grotesque and then recycle it, even watering it down a little, hoping for the same effect.

There is little point in recapping much of this story.  The point is that aliens wreak havoc, and there are two Michael Fassbender androids, David the devil and Walter the saint.  In one scene they fight to the death, and when we don’t see definitively who died, it becomes obvious that the man who claims to be Walter is really David.

So that’s some drama, huh?  The characters have to fight the remaining alien, and in the climactic act 3 moment, Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride fight the alien off in a way that feels completely copied from both Alien and Aliens.  Everything that happens is expected and lacks suspense.  Part of that is because the alien never felt like the real threat since it’s so obvious that Walter is really David, and David is the true villain.

But the movie acts like the alien fight is the fight which should tie up the film.  Then David never really shows up.  Right as Waterston is placed in the pod for hibernation, she suddenly realizes that this Walter is really David, but… she definitely should have known already.  Either that or she probably would never have noticed.  There’s so reason that she would suddenly understand who he is, why now?  Of course it’s meant to work dramatically, but this whole thing feels like the opposite of a cliff hanger.  We know what’s about to happen, but it doesn’t happen.

So I guess most of this movie deals with the audience having more knowledge than the characters, and the story dramatically suffers as a result.  If this is a story about gods and ancient civilizations and where humans come from, it feels like the movie should have more knowledge than we do, but instead it feels like we know more than the filmmakers.  The feeling is like that of going to a shaman who claims to know all of your past lives as well as what lies in your future, but then you end up telling them about their past and future as you realize that either they’re a fraud or you’re a god.  Holy shit, that’s what this is.  Alien: Covenant lets us have SO MUCH more knowledge than the characters that we really do feel omniscient, like we’re the gods who created these humans, because we are.  These humans are just characters in a story, created from a brain not too unlike mine or yours.  It makes sense that a God, were he to sit down and watch a story set among us humans, would be completely bored.  He’s a God.  What does our plight mean to him?

So that’s what this is.  We’re gods, and they’re not.  That’s not at all the intention of this movie.  It’s occasionally entertaining but more often infuriating.  It feels like a first draft outline of a story that should be so much more.

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