Alien: Covenant is a capably made film, with excellent visuals and decent casting, but fails in the script department. The story is a muddled mess of conflicting character motivations, religious overtones and comes off as an attempt to merge the original Alien with a much deeper film. Ridley Scott tries to present a moral tale about creation, paradise and a father’s failings in the eyes of his vengeful son. Instead what we get is an Alien movie with Paradise Lost shoehorned in. Although the majority of the film is capably made, the awful script weighs down what could have been a good film.
Before I get into this review, I have to tell you a little story. It’s a story that explains why I would even watch this train wreck of a movie, and what could’ve possibly caused me to think it might be good.
I have always been a fan of the Alien franchise. Although the xenomorphs gave me nightmares as a child when I saw action figures advertised on television, as a young adult I was enthralled by the powerful, seemingly immortal black bug creatures.
So when Prometheus was announced, I was very enthusiastic about the film. It was an utter disappointment. But Ridley Scott as a director has always been a little hit and miss for me. When Alien: Covenant received positive reviews I assumed that Scott had corrected the mistakes from Prometheus. After all, a film that had 71% on Rotten Tomatoes couldn’t be all that bad right?
Yes. Yes it can.
The film opens with a prologue, showing David’s first moments of life. It doesn’t bode well for a film when the prologue is its best scene. And this is a truly great scene. We see Guy Pearce in his glory, not covered in pounds of old man make up. The interplay between David and his creator is marvelous. And as a storytelling element it checks all the boxes: it telegraphs the struggle to come, it explains David’s motivation, and helps to remind the audience of the previous film. And most importantly, unlike the rest of the film, which has the subtlety of a sledgehammer, the prologue does not feel the need to spell everything out for the audience.
The most important part of the scene is when David makes an observation to Peter Weyland. In the same sentence he both reminds Weyland of his own mortality and of David’s superiority. This is a plot point that was left out of Prometheus, where earlier versions of the script had David explaining to his shipmates that he was superior to them. He said it without malice, just as he says it to Weyland, not as a reproach but as a clinical observation. But the moment that ties the scene together is what comes next. Weyland is visibly upset by David’s observation. His mentor becomes cold, and he orders David to bring him some tea with the air of a master to a servant. David complies, but the look on his face is one not of contempt but disappointment.
Thus begins the actual movie, and my utter disappointment with it. The real problem with this film is that it started good but increasingly became worse as time progressed.
We are next greeted with a scene of a colony ship traveling through space. Michael Fassbender appears, portraying Walter, an updated synthetic human. We watch Walter as he goes about his duties much in the same way that David went about his in opening of Prometheus. Michael Fassbender is a marvelous actor, and his portrayals both of Walter and of David in this film are very good. But I just can’t get over the American accent Fassbender uses when he plays Walter. While David speaks with a British accent clearly modeled after Peter O’Toole from Lawrence of Arabia, Walter uses a harsh tone of voice, gravelly and reminiscent of a southern truck driver. I have to assume that this accent was a conscious choice made by Fassbender. I can’t imagine that he’s that bad at portraying an American accent.
The first act of this film is clearly the best, which is alarming considering that the first acts of most film are typically the worst. When a film has a first act that outperforms the second and third there are two options. Either the first act is truly superb, or the second and third acts are truly awful. This is a case of the latter.
One of the things I realized about halfway through the film was that, aside from the script, it is truly an excellent film. The pacing is marvelous. Ridley Scott has always been an excellent director from a purely technical aspect, and the special effects are top notch. With one exception the cast is brilliant, and I wasn’t taken out of the film at all by their performances. The problem with this film, as with Prometheus, is the script.
An accident while the ship is recharging it’s fuel cells kills the ship’s captain while he is sleeping in his pod. The rest of the crew are awakened and begin making repairs under the leadership of the ship’s second in command. Christopher (Billy Crudup) laments to his wife Karine that the crew doesn’t trust him because he is a man of faith. He even believed that this was the reason he wasn’t chosen to lead, because “they” were afraid a man of faith would be prone to irrational decisions.
This is a bit on the nose, and didn’t work in this film just like the religiosity of Prometheus missed the mark. The character of Christopher is telegraphed as being an inefficient leader, right from the start. It would’ve been interesting if his doubt and insecurity had become a self fulfilling prophecy, but that would only have worked if an otherwise capable leader had let his insecurities take control of him. It would’ve showed some strong character development, perhaps even a challenge that he must overcome. But instead Christopher is a bad leader, and the crew doesn’t trust him not because of his religiosity but because of his poor decision-making skills.
Most of the decisions the new captain makes are the wrong ones. A perfect example arises in the crew’s first scene together, discussing the accident. Daniels “Dany” Branson (Katherine Waterston) wants to take time to bury her husband, the former captain, who died in the accident. Christopher rejects this idea, saying that the crew’s top priority is to secure the ship so that they can jump away from the star that nearly killed them. And I suppose this would make sense, except a few scenes later we see the crew disobeying orders and giving their former captain a funeral. The funeral which takes about five minutes. There’s no logical reason for Christopher to refuse the former captain the right of the funeral, except that the filmmakers needed to pit him against the crew and portray him as an ineffectual leader. Which is fine, except there are numerous ways for the film to do that. Refusing the crew the right to hold a five-minute funeral because it would “take too long” is just bad writing.
But speaking of bad writing, the worst writing in the first act comes in the form of a confrontation between Christopher and Walter. Christopher asks Walter for the source of the accident, which was a neutrino blast from a nearby star. Walter explained that it was a completely random occurrence, impossible to predict. Christopher is not satisfied with the answer, and demands that Walter run a full diagnostic on MUTHUR, so that he can find answers. Now the scene would only make sense from a script writing standpoint if the film wanted to telegraph some sinister motivation on the part of Walter. Spoiler alert: Walter is not a bad guy. From a character perspective this doesn’t make sense either. If Christopher had any reason to distrust Walter, then why would he allow himself to be placed in hibernation under Walter’s watch?
However, the rest of the first act moves along smoothly. The crew goes about making repairs to their ship, establishing their character traits and story arcs in standard three act format. Dany spend some important time mourning the death of her husband, who is inexplicably played by James Franco. Franco’s role in this film is rather similar to Guy Pearce’s in Prometheus. And it’s a bit of a fun diversion, to have a massive star like James Franco have less than a minute of screen time. Say what you will about ridley Scott, he’s not afraid to cast a list characters in bit parts.
The only major character that I haven’t written about yet is Danny McBride’s “Tennessee”. I love Danny McBride, he’s an excellent comedic actor, and I think he would’ve had the ability to branch out into a serious role. But not this one. The character of Tennessee seems completely misplaced here, his mannerisms are too strong, coming dangerously close to comic relief but not actually being funny. He’s a caricature of a southern man who happens also to be a trained pilot. This performance just didn’t work for me.
As the first act closes Tennessee receives a stray transmission in his helmet. While analyzing at the crew determines that it is of human origin, coming from a previously unknown planet in a nearby star system.
My next objection is a little bit nitpicky. The planet happens to be perfect for human life, even better than the cruise destination. Immediately when I heard this piece of dialogue, I had several questions. First, if the ship’s instruments are sensitive enough to gather so much data about this planet, how is it that they didn’t know the planet was there until after they received the rogue transmission? It was uncharted from Earth, which I can accept, but I have to think that any ship traveling through interstellar space would be scanning the nearby systems. It just doesn’t make sense to me that the transmission is what caused the crew to look for the planet and then they discovered that the planet was habitable. At least in the original Alien the crew were space truckers who didn’t much care about other planets. But, whatever, the script needs to move on so sure, hidden planet that is perfect for life. Fine.
Christopher wants to explore this planet. The source of the transmission is obviously human in origin, and they know that it can support life. It was only two weeks away at their current destination, rather than seven years. Danny doesn’t want to, she doesn’t trust this planet, she says it’s too good to be true.
Look, this is a major problem here. These people are scientists; one should expect them to think logically. The film takes place 10 years after Prometheus and interstellar travel is not a rare phenomenon. Yes, it’s a little odd that a human would be this far into space, but not impossible. The scientist should want to explore the planet, if for no other reason than to rescue a stranded human. Danny’s objections are not logical. The only reason to have Danny object here is to reinforce the idea that something is wrong about this planet. Of course we all know that this planet is the one that’s going to have the xenomorphs on it, because it’s about that time in the film. But the script uses Danny to bash the audience over the head with it, as well as to give Danny an air of always being right. In case you couldn’t tell, she is the hero of this film, the main star, and like Sigourney Weaver she’s the only one who makes sensible decisions. And because the planet turns out to be a death trap, Danny has to be against going there so that she can be right in the end. I get it, it’s just bad writing.
Over Danny’s objections Christopher orders the crew to head towards this rogue planet. The planet is experiencing a very bad ion storm, and against all logic or reason the crew decides to fly down toward the site of the transmission through the eye of the storm rather than, oh I don’t know, waiting for the storm to be over. They spent two weeks getting here, what’s a few more days? The second act really doesn’t start off very well with this plot hole. They can’t wait for the storm to pass because since the storm is going to block communications between the landing crew and the ship, which is necessary for the plot. Once again, the crew makes stupid decisions in order to further the plot. The storm is one of the worst problems with this film. It’s extremely necessary to the plot, blocking communication and causing confusion as well as preventing the crew from being rescued earlier in the film. The only reason why I can think that the writers decided to have the crew fly through the storm rather than wait for it to pass is because they wanted to establish the storm early on. For some reason they thought that the audience would be too dumb to understand the concept of a clear landing at the beginning of the first act and a looming storm that keeps getting closer and closer. Except the exact same thing happened in Prometheus.
The scenes on the planet were fine. Scott does a good job of racking up tension. To be perfectly honest, I do have a huge problem with the fact that no one was wearing space suits when they landed on the planet. Which to me would seem like a pretty standard precaution, considering that the crew has no idea what kind of pathogens or airborne diseases they could be inhaling. But to be perfectly honest, these are the same mistakes that Scott made in making Prometheus. I get the feeling they’re probably wasn’t even a science advisor for this film.
When the crew decides to split the party we know what is going to happen. When the black goo is aerosoled and invades a character’s ear we know he’s done for. My problem is the speed with which all of this occurs.
On one hand, I understand the temptation. This is an Alien film. The 8th one of you count everything. We know what happens when the goo touches a human. So why waste the time building it up?
But frankly the transformations happen too fast. In Prometheus it took several minutes of screen time and several hours within the film’s narrative for the transformations to occur. In Covenant the transformations occur within 2 minutes of both screen time and real time. Did the biology of the goo change? For that matter, why does the goo cause neomorphs to erupt from its victims’ backs in Covenant but not in Prometheus? Look, I get it. This is explained. I’m not stupid. It’s just not explained well.
It is here that the film truly starts to break down for me. Even though there were a few problems in the first act, the second act is where the trouble begins. It’s not a problem of pacing. Yes, I do have a problem with how quickly the transformations occur, but that’s only because the speed is not consistent with the other films in the series. But were this a standalone film, I would have no problem with it. Yes, I do think that the slower transformation we seen in previous films works better, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t work at all.
Now, some apologist for the film are going to say that the reason why the goo works so quickly in this film is that David experimented on it. And I suppose that works, except there isn’t really anything in the film to establish this. Yes, Walter does find David’s drawings, and we do see a flashback of the sinister David releasing the bio weapon when he lands on the planet, but these two scenes aren’t really enough for me.
This is kind of a paradoxical criticism for me to make though, because typically I complain about films bashing audiences over the head with ideas rather than not explaining them properly. I understand that the filmmakers we’re trying to imply that David had been experimenting upon the black goo and the xenomorphs. I get that. I just don’t find that to be a suitable explanation for why the black goo acts so quickly. Especially since, for a filmmaking standpoint, there’s no real reason why the black goo needed to act so quickly. Except of course for pacing, and Ridley Scott is a master of pacing.
If you think that my biggest beef with this film is the transformations, you’re wrong. I’ve only spent a lot of time on this because I’m a bit of a logic nerd and these things irk me.
My biggest problems with the film are these: that the film completely changed the character of David for no apparent reason and with no apparent explanation, and that the film failed to live up to the promises that were made at the end of Prometheus. Namely, to explain why the architects decided to kill us.
The character of David in this film is a complete mess, which is truly tragic considering he was the best character in Prometheus. In Prometheus David is a loyal servant of Peter Weyland. He’s not cruel, nor is he particularly kind. The things he does, such as poisoning Holloway, are done not out of malicious intent but rather on the orders of Weyland himself. But even though David is just a machine, one that has no choice but to follow orders and doesn’t seem to feel any regret for it, he is actually the most sympathetic character in Prometheus. I don’t know if that is a tribute to the skill of ridley Scott or a testament to how bad of a job he did with that film.
This version of David is the polar opposite of his previous self. (It should be noted that he is actually more in line with his original incarnation presented in Alien: Engineers, the first draft of Prometheus) He is cruel not even for the sake of scientific experiment, but cruel for cruelty’s sake. He admires the xenomorphs as being superior to their creators, just as he sees himself as being superior to his creator. But he takes this a step further when he begins to despise humans, seeing them as unworthy of their creations. Frankly speaking this isn’t in character with David from the previous film, and nothing in the film explains the shift in character. Was David always this incarnation of evil? Or has something happened in the last 10 years that caused this transformation? There was one throwaway line, when Walter confronts David, that probably was meant to explain this but is either missing pieces that were left on the cutting room floor or was never fleshed out to begin with. David earlier quoted Ozymandias and attributed it to Lord Byron. Walter corrects David, telling him that it was Shelly who wrote it and implies that David is far more flawed than he would like to admit.
Walter: Who Wrote Ozymandias
Walter: Shelly. When one note is off, it eventually destroys the whole symphony.
David (beat): When you close your eyes, do you dream of me?
Walter: I don’t dream at all.
David: No one understands the lonely perfection of my dreams. I’ve found perfection here and I created it. The perfect organism.
Lets analyze this scene for a moment. Walter points out to David that he is flawed (although it could be that Walter is mistaken, only the audience truly knows that Shelly wrote Ozymandias). David pauses and considers this for a moment, but is unable or unwilling to accept that he is a flawed creation. He believes himself to be perfect and the xenomorphs to be a biological perfection. Thus, he has set out to destroy humanity because it is (in his eyes) flawed.
But the true problem with this film is that ridley Scott wanted a villain. Unlike Alien, a film about space truckers who discover a biological killing machine, both Prometheus and Alien: Covenant aren’t really about aliens. They’re about God.
Prometheus was a film that was about humans trying to discover their creators, the Engineers. In Prometheus we learn that the Engineers are so far removed from humanity that they see us as something akin to ants. It’s a film about futility and disappointment, like someone reaching paradise and finding that it is more like hell.
But Covenant is more of a Paradise Lost tale, with David playing the role of Satan. His rebellion takes the form of releasing the bio weapon against the Engineers. David’s new philosophy is summed up perfectly when he asked Walter whether he wants to serve in heaven or rain in hell, a direct quote from Milton.
The real problem with this film is not that it completely diverges from the narrative tone of Prometheus, but rather it does so by trying to do too much. I get the feeling that Scott was trying to throw as much religiosity into this film as he could while still responding to the pressure he had from the studio to throw in a more xenomorphs. What we got was a mess of xenomorphs, facehuggers, Milton, Shelley, Christianity, and Egyptian and Norse mythology all wrapped in one.
Honestly, I found myself wishing this film was longer. Just like in Prometheus, I feel as though so much was left on the cutting room floor, and the pieces that were cut out where the necessary pieces to make the story sensible.
Let’s be honest here, Scott is never going to explain the origin of the Engineers. And I’m fine with that, or at least I would be if he had done these films right.
One minor criticism is that the basic plot is very close to the original alien. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just odd for a pre-quill to be so similar to the original in story content.
My last remaining major criticism is the eye roll inducing twin fight. When Walter and David face-off, anyone with half a brain should’ve known that David was going to win and impersonate Walter. Honestly I called it the second David started cutting his hair. After Dany returns to the ship and defeats the final xenomorph, the crew begins to prepare to go to sleep. The big non-reveal, although ably performed, was so painfully obvious that I was embarrassed for the film. This is another reason why I rank Covenant below Prometheus, because at least Prometheus has the feel of a standalone film. Yes, Ridley Scott had always intended to make sequels, but only if Prometheus was profitable. Alien Covenant on the other hand directly sets up the sequel with a sinister David now in complete control of the Covenant.
There’s so much more about this film that I could’ve broken down, a few minor plot holes and a few scenes that were actually very good. Alien Covenant isn’t an inherently bad film. In fact, just like Prometheus, it was almost a good one. But something in the script is missing, a few scenes of needed dialogue and exposition that would’ve made things a little bit more sensible. The failings of Alien Covenant are failings of omission rather than of commission. Covenant doesn’t do things that a film shouldn’t do, but rather it fails to do things that a good film should.