I have now sat through over four hours of Alien backstory between its 2012 prequel Prometheus and its prequel’s sequel Alien: Covenant (out May 18). I’m now a baby step closer to understanding how the alien of Alien came to be, and at this point, I’m really starting not to care.
Like a Marvel movie, Alien: Covenant nudges the storyline along just slightly, treading narrative water, which seems none too coincidental given that Ridley Scott (director of the unimpeachably classic 1979 first film, Prometheus, and Covenant) has more prequels in this franchise planned. Since those prequels have to be about something, this movie gets to be about virtually nothing. Perhaps over the course of eight or 10 hours of prequels, we’ll get something of a coherent story that would have made for one engaging film. If we’re lucky and/or still alive when all is said and done.
Alien is one of those movies that never fails to impress me—I am never not cognizant of its excellence, and yet when I watch it, I’m consistently blown away by just how good it is. It is then unfair to compare most movies to it, especially the follow-ups within the franchise’s universe that almost guarantee diminishing returns as a law of cinematic nature (1986's Aliens being among the most famous exceptions to the sequels law). And yet Covenant demands such a comparison for being so familiar to what we’ve seen so many times before. Once again, a crew of earthlings en route to one planet get shaken from their hypersleep and their journey is sidetracked when their ship (the Covenant) is rerouted to a nearby planet instead of their initial destination (“This is good judgment based on the data available” is the wooden way that Billy Crudup’s character Christopher Oram justifies his decision). Once again, the crew explores the strange new world and some members become hosts for the parasitic offspring of a hostile species they were not yet aware of (in one of Covenant’s most striking visuals, members of the crew are initially infected by spore-like particles that whip themselves in formation through the air and into human orifices like a squid in water). Once again, the Xenomorph (the alien) ends up on the crew’s ship and after it picks most of them off one by one, they figure their best bet is to blast it out into space. Once again, there’s a no-good droid.
Interspersed between what are at this point franchise cliches are narrative threads to tie the current action to Prometheus—the planet visited by the crew Covenant follows is where droid David (Michael Fassbender) headed with Noomi Rapace’s character at the conclusion of the 2012 film. Still on a god kick, David’s hellbent on engineering the destruction of humankind (or something)—“They don’t deserve to start again, and I’m not going to let them,” he says referring to humans (at least he gets away with being wooden, since he’s a droid). He encounters an updated version of himself, Walter (also played by Fassbender), and a weird homoeroticism between Fassbender droids ensues. I wasn’t sure if David teaching Walter to play a recorder-like wind instrument was meant to be funny—“Watch me, I’ll do the fingering”—but the screening audience I saw this movie with on Friday evening certainly found that line hilarious. You have to take your entertainment where you can find it, I suppose.
The crew, which, as is customary in this series, is eventually led by a resilient woman, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is virtually anonymous. There are just too many people doing not very much at all for the audience to emotionally invest in their well-being. Early in the movie, Daniels loses her husband in a fire onboard the covenant (he’s played by James Franco in a brief cameo, which also feels like a joke?) and that becomes the source of her pathos. Ho hum, she’s sad because her partner died, like every one else in every other movie whose partner has died (but just in case you can’t relate, syrupy sad music plays as she mourns his death). Even the ingenious comic that is Danny McBride, who plays... I don’t know, some guy who stands around one of those tables everyone is always standing around in these movies, is virtually devoid of character. The alien is basically the only one on screen with any chutzpah. Root against it and deprive yourself of the tiny bit of joy this movie offers.
In its final act, Alien: Covenant plays like a slasher movie, with the Xenomorph hiding and attacking to whittle the crew down, I suppose to give you some bang for your buck (at one point, the alien attacks two crew while they are fucking, which is very Jason Voorhees of it). The film also withholds a key scene in order to surprise you with a final twist that you know is coming because you noticed them withholding said key scene. This is not just bad storytelling, not just sloppy filmmaking, it is intelligence-insulting.
Even when they have ultimately missed the mark (Alien 3, Alien Resurrection), Alien movies tend to give you something to chew on. They have, up till now, managed to at least telegraph some far-out ideas so that you know exactly what they were going for while trying to push the story along even if they didn’t quite achieve their goals. Alien: Covenant is just another sequel just for the sake of making a pile of more money on which the next film’s pile of money can sit. It’s a repetitive slog, a piece of commerce in stark contrast to the 1979's art. It is likely that a ton of people worldwide will go to see this (Prometheus made $400 million worldwide without even having “Alien” in its title), so joke’s on all of us, I guess. Alien: Covenant is so crassly human in its greed and cynicism that it inadvertently begs you to relate to Fassbender’s David and his apocalyptic misanthropy.