20 May 2017

Alien: Covenant
2017 - 20th Century Fox

Alien: Covenant is a fine thing on a technical level. This makes the sloppy narrative especially frustrating.

I'm as prone to excitement as anyone when a dear franchise caws with life once again (just ask me how I really felt about this year’s Power Rangers movie), but Covenant’s flaws… well, they run deep.

It’s not just the characters making dumb decisions. That is frustrating, but I suppose Covenant is at least consistent with Prometheus — it is established Scott-canon that humans were still developing common sense through to the 22nd century.

But we’re here for a good time, so we take a deep breath and we try to ignore the trained astronaut poking their face into unknown extra-terrestrial flora without protection. Again.

While we’re on the subject, though, there was another space horror film that came out this year in which the characters did a lot of dumb things, and I don’t think Covenant comes out so well in the comparison. Life is by no means a great movie, but at least when Ryan Reynolds tries to kill the invulnerable baking sheet it’s because a) he doesn’t know any better, b) he’s angry, and c) he’s a bit of a bloke (hello, alien, let me mansplain fire to you using this blowtorch). When Hiroyuki Sanada’s character (who I can only think of as Hanzo, though his name is Sho) leaves the safety of the hypersleep pod, it’s because he’s crazy with desperation to see his daughter again.

I’ve heard the internet folk try to defend the decisions of Covenant’s characters as “human mistakes”, “character flaws”, and so on, which they inevitably follow up by pointing to a time a character in a great movie made a cock-up. But there are bad decisions that are coherent with the circumstances and the characters, the sort of thing that deepens your understanding of the character (even if you’re watching the scene through a facepalm) — and then there are characters acting like idiots. No, first mate Oram, it was not a good idea to follow the evil robot into his cave and then sniff his alien sacks. I hate to sound unsympathetic, but you brought that face-fucking on yourself.

Anyway, all that aside, let me say that I think there are two excellent, powerful moments in Alien: Covenant. The second of which is actually one of the darkest and most uncomfortable scenes I have experienced at the cinema for a good year or so. I'll get to those in a minute. In the meantime, I think I can best describe where the film went wrong by looking at it from two angles: the human side, and the monster side.


One of my favourite modern horror movies is last year’s Don't Breathe. That film only had three heroes, so it couldn't afford to waste them. And if they were going to be killed off, it couldn’t afford to waste that either — and it didn’t.

(Covenant, by contrast, has a ton of characters, a ton of deaths, and wastes almost all of them)

From start to end, Don’t Breathe felt like a struggle. Everyone worked their asses off to stay alive, and you were never sure if a scene was going to be lethal or not. When somebody did die, it wasn’t expected, and it rocketed the sense of danger to an awful new high for the survivors and the audience alike. I seriously feel my heartbeat rising just thinking about that movie.

In Covenant, the characters are on a conveyor belt towards evisceration. You might think "Well, that's just like any other horror movie, right?" Well, yeah, but you're not supposed to actually see the conveyor belt. The movie is supposed to trick you into thinking it isn't there, that anything could happen to any character. That's the art of a horror movie. The movie should be telling us that any of them could make it out alive, even when experience tells us that only one or two of them will. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just to see some movie kills? Well, that’s exactly what Covenant felt like to me: a series of expendable characters getting unceremoniously gibbed.

There is an exception. The first of the two excellent scenes in the film that I mentioned above is the first kill of the movie, and it’s intense. It builds up from what looks like a sick man (Ledward) needing medical attention, up to an otherworldly nightmare. Everyone is reacting, freaking out: Karine is just desperately trying to help a crew mate; Maggie doesn’t know whether to help or evoke quarantine; they’re all confused; Tennessee is calling in wanting to find out whether Maggie, his wife, is safe; Ledward is slowly dying, and you really feel everybody’s pain at this awful development — this was supposed to be a colonization missions — how did this happen; Ledward is dead for sure but we don’t know if Karine and Maggie can make it out alive — how will they react, what will their actions mean for the rest of the crew; then you think Maggie can take out the Neomorph with a shotgun but holy shit she slips on the blood oh god it’s coming for her —
It’s amazing. But there is no action scene in the rest of the film that comes to the stomach flipping intensity, and complexity, of that one.

From then on, it’s the conveyor belt. For the other ten-odd deaths, the other characters barely even react! The movie is telling us: "Don't bother caring, we're just thinning the herd now". Just a day in the monster movie offices. Six characters dead by home time. Chop chop. This isn’t “less is more” storytelling, it’s “nothing is nothing”.

Tess Haubrich pouts before her character is decapitated in an Engineer's bathroom. She’s found twice by colleagues who barely react to her detached head floating in a bath. Oram, the officer in charge, and the most prominent crew member after Daniels, is the first character to get head-cuddled. He’s not even mentioned again.

The humans in Alien Covenant aren’t only dense. They’re pure fodder.


People have said Covenant is a good Xenomorph origins story. To me, even the explanation in Alien vs. Predator was better. In that film, Xenomorphs were engineered by the most powerful warrior race in the universe, specifically to be strong enough to be able to kill those warriors (or at least the weaker ones). There's a backstory that makes the Xenomorphs scarier. If Predators can’t reliably handle them, what hope do humans have?

Covenant’s take: one angsty android creates the Xenomorphs because of daddy issues. Nope, that’s definitely lame.

Nevermind. More importantly, this film had a very poor… “continuity of horror”.

The monsters that are set-up in this film are the Neomorphs, and they are pretty nasty fucks. First of all, there are the Neomorph spores, a different method of alien infestation than we have seen in the other movies. While this ciagrette ash is hardly genre-icon material, the spores do have their own horror potential: this is an airborne, near invisible, lethal parasite, and that’s pretty terrifying.

Then, you see the Neomorph itself. Unlike the Xenomorph, the Neomorph is absolutely a threat even when newborn: it is more physically developed than a chestburster, it’s just as fast, and it’s aggressive from the moment it breaks skin. The Neomorphs can kill with every part of their body, extinguishing life in an instant, and guns don't seem to do must to them other than make them flinch or temporarily route.

By the middle of the movie we are all thinking these new aliens are pretty tough mofos. The only way they escape the first onslaught is when David reveals their weakness: light. No other alien in the series has had an easy weakness like that, but that opens the door for some nail-biting “stay out of the dark” scenes.

So, there are two cool ideas that are set-up… which are then never brought up again. Both the alien spores, and the Neomorph’s weakness to light, are used once, then ignored. If you just bring something up once, it’s an excuse, it’s a McGuffin, it’s an empty plot point, in some case it’s a deus-ex-machina. You have to develop that idea into something to get something meaningful out of it. They laid out all the pieces, then started looking for pieces for an entirely different puzzle!

To highlight this, the film then does something very bizarre. I’m sure it was justified in Scott’s mind for thematic reasons, but to me was a total stall in terms of development of tension. What happens is simply that first mate Oram kills a Neomorph… very easily. With, like, two bullets. And there are basically no repercussions. That's just the end of the story for that monster. Total anti-climax.

I get what the scene was trying to do for David’s character, and I liked that a lot, but it was absolutely not worth neutering the monster.

For the third act of the film, the Neomorph threat is dropped entirely in favour of Covenant’s version of the Xenomorph. You might think: well, that there is the development of the threat, so what’s the problem? It was just off to me. There wasn’t enough connective tissue there, I guess. The Xenomorph is a different species, and it wasn’t set-up. We rush through its completely different, complex lifecycle in about five minutes. All we get is David’s brief implication that this other alien is somehow more perfect than the Neomorph. What, like the one that was easily killed two minutes ago?

It’s less “Oh shit, this just got serious”, and more “Hey, you like the Xenomorph, right? Well, um, here he is!”.

As I said at the start, I get the enthusiasm, the excitement for seeing our favourite monster on screen again after ten years (and if you’re trying to forget some of those films don’t exist: excuse my mistake, I meant to say twenty years.  Twenty-five? More?). But that’s exactly why we should expect more. Not just the alien for fan service, but the alien for a good story. And this wasn’t it.


Now, you might say that the real monster of the film is not an alien at all, but David, and I would agree. I sincerely think David's story had the potential to glue this whole mess together.

The basis of David as a villain, and it's a pretty a great one as they go, is that he is an artificial intelligence that is having something of an existential breakdown about his creation, so decides to destroy everything that created him, and create a lifeform of his own that is better. It would be a bit heavy handed for a human villain, but allowing for an uncompromising computer logic that a malfunctioning sentient android might have, I think it's pretty great. In theory. 

Unfortunately, David’s motivations are not so much established or utilized for effect as they are muddied by absolutely everything that happens with him in this movie, which include, among other things, homoerotic twincest flute-fingering, and a Fassbot-on-Fassbot kickboxing match. Also, I have an unconscious reaction where my eyes roll dramatically whenever a villain quotes passages of classic literature.

But: all this nonsense is piss against a chilling wind when you consider the ending of the film, which is my second excellent moment of the movie.

To be clear, it’s not great because it;s a “twist” ending, and if you were busy dismissing it as an “obvious twist” then you missed the point. This was not a moment of revelation for the audience, but a moment of empathy. This was the moment Daniels realizes just how utterly and helplessly fucked she and Tennessee are, along with two thousand sleeping colonists and many unborn babies. She realizes this because she brings up her late husband's dream of building a house by a lake, wanting “Walter” to reassure her and sympathize with her — how heart-breaking is that! When you consider that moment alongside the earlier images of David’s laboratory of twisted horrors, and, more subtly, his pinning down and forced kissing of Daniels, and the power he now has over her and all the colonists… well, you can understand why it took me several seconds of rolling credits to fully and uncomfortably accept what had happened. For a film to pull that off is… well, I was impressed.

Now, if this scene also had been a twist ending, as in the writers had effectively hidden the truth about Walter until the end, it might have been the greatest horror ending ever, or it might have actually made the film worse. Because it was the dramatic irony of knowing that David was there, and knowing that Daniels and Tennessee didn’t know, and waiting for him to strike, that gave the otherwise damp climax just a little crackle.


Prometheus asked a lot of big questions — they were pretty much the driving force of the movie — and left a lot unanswered at the end. One was "Why did the Engineers create humans?". Another was “Why do these creator's want to destroy their creation now?”. Also "What happens to humans after they die?" — yeah, pretty big questions.

I was also wondering "What is the engineers home planet like, what is their culture, what are they all about?", and "What will a Xenomorph be like if it gestates in an Engineer instead of a human?".

I know a lot of people hated Prometheus, but when Shaw, along with David's detached android head, launching off into the unknown to seek out the home planet of their creators, I was pretty damn intrigued for the sequel. How would they answer all this? How could they answer all this?

Answer: they didn’t. I mean, Shaw is just pointlessly dead in this film, and the Engineer’s planet and city are totally boring. Along with the lame explanation of the origins of the Xenomorph I think that makes Covenant a possibly unique situation where a film, which is both a prequel and a sequel, has a negative effect on BOTH the film it was a prequel to and the film it was a sequel to.

Covenant felt stitched together, having to meet both the demands of being a Prometheus sequel and a proper Alien film, and not really doing either of them very well at all.


Tennesse is a good character. Just thought I should mention that before the end.

While we’re being positive, if there is one other thing that Alien: Covenant is not just competent at, but amazing at, it is the visuals. The sets, the environments, the camera work, the practical effects, and generally the CGI (with a few bits that stuck out), all build up a proper adult sci-fi movie atmosphere, just as as well as Rogue One did last year.

But, as I said at the top, it’s these small areas of excellence that makes the absolute belly flop of storytelling that takes up most of the movie doubly disappointing.

At the start of this review I mentioned Life, and it kind of baffles me that, of these highly similar movies (Life, by the way, also has a twist ending where you feel sorry for a helpless female stuck in a pod while the villain prepares to have his way with a human population — weird), it was the Alien revival directed by Sir Ridley Scott that turned out to be generally worse. Of course, Life had problems, and is a lot smaller in scope, but it had a monster that is a visceral threat from start to finish, and it had characters that made plans and cared when somebody died, and no amount of quoting Paradise Lost is going to match that.

It bums me out to say it, but right now I’d rather see "Life 2" than Alien: Awakening.


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