Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: May 12
Demystification is its own unique art form, even if it isn’t an especially enjoyable one. Less is so often more, particularly where movie boogeymen are concerned. Michael Myers, Leatherface, Pinhead, Freddy Kruger and Hannibal Lecter all suffered considerably as characters when afforded extended screen time – though in the case of the latter, it must be noted that Mads Mikkelsen and Bryan Fuller worked wonders on television in proving the exception to the rule. The long and the short of it, is pretty straightforward; evil creatures and their machinations are significantly scarier when left to the unknown. While Ridley Scott’s titular xenomorph can mercifully claw its way free of an abusive broken home-themed origin tale, the acid-blooded terror has fallen prey to overwriting, unjustified curiosity and a frustrating lack of imagination.
Such a path began with the concept for 2012’s Prometheus, which essentially boiled down to, ‘Hey, remember that cool visual from Alien with the giant space pilot? What was that all about, eh?’ The resulting picture was weighed down with ciphers who made dumb decisions in service to a plot that tangled itself up in unnecessary convolutions, before crashing and burning in the most predictable fashion possible. The one saving grace was David, an inquisitive and possibly homicidal android whose motivations remained a mystery.
Until now, that is. Alien: Covenant is here to provide answers to questions nobody ever really needed to ask, and boy is it ever proud of itself. Hubris should come as no surprise, for Scott is one of the great Hollywood egomaniacs. James Cameron is about to embark on a rake of Avatar sequels that no-one wants, so why not run the Alien franchise into the ground, too? The director’s desire to peel back every single layer of what made he and Dan O’Bannon’s original creation so intriguing and goddamn frightening brings us to this most grandiose moment, where Byron and Shelley quotes are tossed around with po-faced candour, while computer-generated nightmares tear faces off of doomed souls whose names you won’t recall, if you even managed to catch them in the first place.
Misdirection is another ugly sin in the world of motion pictures, and Alien: Covenant is guilty as charged on that score. Sure, it’s the job of the marketing department to conjure up materials that will entice you into forking over cash, but the promotion of Katherine Waterston as some sort of Ripley-esque protagonist is pretty shameful. Yes, she gets more to do than most of the crew who are simply present to up the body count, but not only is her Daniels nothing close to an analogue for the great Sigourney Weaver, she barely makes an impact. It’s a tremendous waste of an actress with one of the most mournfully expressive faces in the game and a clumsy illustration of this franchise’s increasing strange inability to craft meaningful people and thus, a sense of true peril.
Alien succeeded in this regard because the Nostromo consisted of a small crew with relatable goals and mundane problems. Aliens worked because Ripley was forced to lead a team of battle-hungry yet ultimately terrified and outmatched grunts. Alien3 dropped the ball in immediately killing off old and new faces of potential narrative power – Charles Dance, you really deserved better – and the less said about the risible Resurrection the better. Prometheus is lined with useless pale sketches that make nonsensical choices because of a bad script. Covenant at least makes an effort with Billy Crudup’s insecure and out-of-his-depth captain, raising mildly interesting questions of faith and associated workplace stigma in the process, but that’s eventually abandoned for The Michael Fassbender Show.
If you’re wondering why I’ve neglected to mention the thrust of the plot, it’s because there really isn’t one, at least nothing you’ve not seen before if you’ve ever watched a science-fiction film. The whole device of ‘Let’s investigate that distress signal, what could possibly go wrong?’ is as tried-and-tested as it gets, and thus, it’s totally acceptable for it to kick-start Covenant’s second act. However, it’s extreme join-the-dots territory from thereon out, begging the question of why Ridley Scott seems so determined to cling to this series and dole out further uninspired chapters.
But hey, I’m burying the lede; we’re all here for the robot.
Therein lies the rub as we’re treated to not just one robot wearing Michael Fassbender’s skin, but two. The searching, questioning eye of David opens proceedings before he and Guy Pearce – free of poor old man make-up this time – pontificate on the nature of things while planting seeds of resentment and rebellion. The next time we see Fassbender he inhabits Walter, an updated version of the flawed original. Walter proves as functional as his maker intended, which makes the inevitable mirror face-off relatively static. Fassbender has a great deal more fun as David, thanks entirely to the shifts in the character, but said direction is really rather silly and feels like an awkward method to tie needless binds together.
Alien: Covenant is a chore. It lacks scares, cohesion and a cogent point. Its eponymous monster is an effects-heavy irritant with a football hooligan penchant for head-butting glass. It really has no valid reason to exist, and we’re apparently getting one or two more. Somebody, please, take Ridley’s toys away from him.