CINEMA: Gods and Monsters

By on May 16, 2017

Alien: Covenant can’t decide whether to get philosophical or homicidal.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – If you’re befuddled by what the Alien movie franchise has become, the line forms behind me. What began nearly 40 years ago as a creepy extraterrestrial slasher movie kept finding new incarnations in subsequent installments. James Cameron turned it into the shoot-’em-up action of Aliens, Joss Whedon wrote a weird farewell to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien Resurrection and the whole thing degenerated into unapologetic genre cash-grab with two Alien vs. Predator movies. By the time 2012’s Prometheus rolled around, it was worth asking whether being part of the Alien franchise told an audience anything anymore about what they could expect. O Xenomorph, where art thou?

Alien: Covenant finds director Ridley Scott returning to many of the Big Ideas that were swirling around in Prometheus, but it grows increasingly confusing as to why he’s packaging those ideas in this particular cinematic world. While this might in many ways be more instantly recognizable as an Alien movie than Prometheus was, its themes clang against the delivery system so discordantly that it can be heard even in the vacuum of space.

Set in 2105, Covenant serves as more or less a direct follow-up to Prometheus, beginning with a vessel on a multi-year journey to colonize a distant planet. But, in the fine tradition of the original Alien, the crew of the Covenant is awakened early to deal with a crisis, at which time they discover a previously unknown planet with an earth-like atmosphere nearby. When they investigate that planet, they find… well, let’s just say it doesn’t take long before things are bursting out of people in vivid ways.

It should come as no spoiler that the reason for these events involves the fate of the ship seen heading off into the unknown at the end of Prometheus. A prologue reunites the “synthetic” David (Michael Fassbender) with his creator, Weyland (Guy Pearce) many years before the Prometheus events, engaged in a discussion about creators and their creations. Indeed, Covenant continues the existential musings launched in Prometheus, investigating the impulse to be godlike both through creation and destruction in potentially fascinating ways. Even the title of this new film hints at the theological shift from Prometheus, turning the ship into a kind of Noah’s ark with paired-off crew members and addressing the co-existing responsibilities of creator and created: What do we owe to God, and what does God owe to us?

That’s heady material, but the script—credited to veteran John Logan and first-time screenwriter Dante Harper—doesn’t feel nearly as serious about it as Prometheus did. Indeed, of all the post-1979 Alien installments, this feels like the one most determined to mimic its formula even beyond the premature awakening of the crew: landing party, face-huggers, tough female protagonist (Katherine Waterston as second-in-command Daniels), ineffectual captain (Billy Crudup), questions of quarantine, enigmatic android (Fassbender turning in a typically superb performance). Scott gets creatively grotesque in staging the emergences of his aliens, and delivers some moments of genuinely terrified people trying to wrap their heads around the horror of their situation. Then, for the finale, Scott shifts hard toward Aliens, as two solid action sequences find Daniels and the Covenant’s pilot (Danny McBride) fighting off a Xenomorph. If there was some uneasiness about Prometheus feeling at all like the Alien movies people loved first and best, there’s no such confusion here.

Instead, the confusion rests in why big ideas are jammed uncomfortably into this movie. It feels like a trick, an attempt by Scott to sneak in musings on mortality and hubris by wrapping it in a familiar franchise package. Ambitious though it may be, the elements never pull together, leaving only reminders that the original served up its own fascinating ideas—about dehumanization and domination—without ever underlining them. Like the monster at its center, this franchise keeps changing shape, but like most mutations, that doesn’t mean it’s an improvement. PJH

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