Monday, May 29, 2017

Alien: Covenant – A Litany of Reasons Why It Is Just the Worst

Alien: Covenant is the most disappointing thing since my father’s son.


In an ideal universe, I would be able to go to sleep and wake up in a world where Ridley Scott had discretion and gentility enough not to go ahead with its script, a rare breed of prequel/sequel that by its very existence manages to lessen the merits of its titanic forebears. As with Prometheus, its title refers to thinly concealed religious themes, and while Covenant certainly sustains that film’s concern with creation and epistemology, there’s not a single covenant made or broken in the movie aside from the one between Scott and all his viewers who thought his films bore some seal of quality. I would call it an unmitigated disaster if not for the involvement of Michael Fassbender, who plays his unkillable android David with malicious glee but can’t save him from the sheer stupidity or audacity of Oscar-nominee John Logan’s writing.

Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb both currently show Covenant sitting pretty around 70% or 7/10, a figure I expect to plummet in time as the true consensus emerges. Or maybe IQ levels dropped sharply while I was sleeping. With that exigency in mind, the following review will consist more of disparate, jumbled reactions to the film, which were probably shared by a great many people, than of a structured, focused case against it, which would take even longer to write and of which it isn’t really deserving.

* It’s stunning how much one can induce about the evolution of the Alien series, the evolution of film in general, and the downfall of Covenant just from its opening titles. In 1979, the logo slowly faded in over a minute and twenty seconds of mysterious music and a mostly empty shot of outer space. In 2017, the title similarly materializes line by line but in a third of the time, serving as a microcosm for all the rushed, frenetic storytelling and shameless fan service to follow (that Jerry Goldsmith theme, do you recognize it?). Big-budget science-fiction in the 21st century has no patience for the long hallway crawls and purposely restrained reveals that typified Scott and Dan O’Bannon’s classic. Everything in Covenant is accelerated to an absurd degree, from the lettering to the cascade of animalistic bloodletting in the second half.

* The movie opens upon the most chilling and ominous of Alien locales, a sunny, white, and glass-walled room on earth that’s decorated with a piano and Michelangelo’s David, solely in order that David can remember (or determine) that he’s David. This prelude clumsily draws attention to the theme of creation and subcreation that Scott will ram through the rest of the picture, and does so with such devices as Pierro Della Francesca’s “The Nativity” and David playing his favorite Wagner piece, “The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla”. Later on, when David escorts one of the marooned crew through his laboratory, the camera passes over a xenomorph miniature crucified on a stick. “What do you believe in, David?” asks the hapless wayfarer. “Creation,” he answers wistfully, and further on poses a question of his own: “The choice is yours, brother. Serve in heaven, or reign in hell?” The message is anything but clear, though if I had to hazard a guess, it might be: Man creates his own gods, but can’t make them benevolent to him. Those “gods” in turn go looking for their own, arrogantly try to duplicate the process of creation, and eventually turn into the demons of their worshippers.

It goes without saying that Covenant’s philosophical pretensions are about as translucent as the alien’s curved dome, and as deep. Prometheus got a lot of flack for its overbearing philosophizing, right down to its mythological title, but at least that movie had something resembling a thesis and didn’t try to force-feed symbolism to audiences. Alien, by contrast, is a pedantic and blustery retelling of Noah’s Ark that’s all flood, no covenant, listlessly dropping references to Biblical, Catholic, and Norse heritage without a care to anything besides fooling gullible, insecure teenagers that Horror is finally an intellectual genre worth taking seriously.

* Apparently James Franco dies in a fire mere seconds after he’s introduced, something my brain didn’t even take note of until several Youtube comments informed me – so crucial was his role to the plot and heroine Daniels’ development. For anyone who mistakenly wandered into the theater expecting a classy horror film, Franco’s incineration sets the standard of treatment for many other victims whom Scott will gift with increasingly gruesome ends but nary a distinguishing line or trait.

* Doing my best to re-watch Alien in a vacuum as people would have in theaters, one of the most suspenseful things I notice about the original is how it withholds a clear protagonist for the first 40 minutes or so. Screen time and lines are divided pretty evenly between all the crew members, and Ripley only comes out as the most collected character later. From the very start of Covenant, Scott tries to recreate his own table banter scenes, but immediately props up Katherine Waterston as a blatant stand-in for Ripley, this time contending with the cheesy chauvinism of Billy Crudup’s interim captain. Feminism, or girl power at least, has always been lightly woven into the series – especially after James Cameron’s involvement –, to the extent that knowing audiences have been trained to look for male-female antagonism and expect the female to triumph over social adversity. Instead of anticipating that, subverting it, and taking advantage of their brand new cast of characters, Scott and his writers play directly into the formula of Ripley facing off against arrogant men.

As a result, the only tension one can feel throughout the entire movie is whether one will be able to stomach the next gore effect. Boring Ripley-lite is secure. All other considerations secondary. Crew expendable.

* Why are so many of the personnel aboard this monumental, high-risk colonization vessel with 2000 passengers married to each other? Watching it a second time with a keener eye to the minutia, I gleaned that every single one of the crew members is married to someone else aboard the mission, including two gay men, for reasons of modernizing the series, I guess. For what purpose could Weyland Corp. possibly have approved this as the best arrangement? In the event that unforeseen complications might ensue during space travel, as they do in Covenant, wouldn’t a rational company seek to minimize chances of failure by removing personal attachments from the equation altogether, picking workers who don’t stand to be compromised, as they are in Covenant? I seem to recall another space exploration movie which provided that very rationale for the lack of couples on the ship; alas, the name of it eludes me.

The primal dangers of sexuality or physical invasion have been a subtextual element throughout the series, mostly in the first and third films, so maybe the marital unions here are supposed to extend that. Two of the characters are even punished by the alien for having steamy shower sex, but punishing hot young adults for having sex is a cliché in horror generally, so perhaps I’m giving Scott too much credit. Even if all the couples do add up to some symbolic significance, their presence on a multitrillion dollar expedition doesn’t make much practical sense.

* Billy Crudup’s character, referred to once or twice as Chris, happens to be a man of faith, which doesn’t impact the story whatsoever but gives him the excuse to deliver lines like, “I have to go collect my strayed flock.” In one of the few scenes to illuminate anybody’s personality, he complains to his subordinate Daniels that no one in corporate trusts a believer like him to make rational decisions. No more than five minutes later, he suggests diverting the ship from its current course to go investigate another planet because they heard a transmission of a singing voice and “none of the crew want to get back in the pods”. Heaven forbid they complete their journey to the planet they’ve thoroughly mapped out and prepared for if it means getting back in those damned cryogenic pods!

As Prometheus did with Elizabeth Shaw, Covenant begs the question of why Chris’ religiosity even comes up at all, but even more so, since this crew never aspired to find some cosmic deity who engineered them. Is Scott just trying to voice his disdain for religion by assigning all the dumbest choices to the stubborn religious man who won’t take advice from a woman? Yet the villain of the film is a power-hungry eugenicist who doesn’t seem to believe in God and delights in playing out his godlike fantasies, so what is the point of demonizing the token religious character?

* After 30 minutes or so of uninvolving space scenes that retread the beginning of Alien, the ship finally touches down on the shore of a lake. Detractors of Prometheus will no doubt recall one of the most common complaints against it, namely the scientists’ decision to take off their helmets because the atmosphere seems safe. In Covenant, the scientists see fit to one-up this stupidity by not putting their helmets on at all, either for reasons of saving time or as a giant middle finger to those who hated Prometheus.

* One of the most persistent talking points about Alien: Covenant is how beautiful it is. This is grasping at straws, and not even all that honest. Completely barren of life for some reason, the Engineer homeworld doesn’t look that far removed from real-life valleys, unlike LV-426, which artists on Alien and Aliens painstakingly crafted to look like a craggy, inhospitable, storm-battered moon. Covenant was shot in New Zealand for the sake of redeeming tax credits, and while the setting has certainly been modified to some extent, the effort put into differentiating this world seems dwarfed by the effects work on Prometheus. On top of that, the whole movie is gray and dim and dull except for a few torch-lit scenes in the middle.

Some may argue that the similarity to an earth environment is intentional and a non-issue, but the aesthetics of Covenant’s landscapes still don’t lend themselves functionally to a terrifying Alien film. The original Alien trilogy owed as much of its horror to incredible, claustrophobic set design as it did to the aliens. The series followed the same conventional wisdom that applies to any haunted house movie: the home must look interesting before victims can go wandering around in it, and people tend to feel more dread when they don’t know where the monster’s lurking. The Nostromo corridors, underground hive, and lice-ridden correctional facility of Covenant’s predecessors provided no end of nooks and crannies to conceal the xenomorph, which put the audience in the same heightened state of alertness as the characters. I will never forget the first appearance of the creature in Aliens, when it lunges out of a seemingly natural wall formation, or the lengthy evacuation scene in the original that merely consists of Ripley creeping through a bunch of darkened hallways.

The CG aliens also look really bad, especially the white ones with no articulated jaw. Some of the shots look blatantly unfinished; e.g., one clip that Fox is using to promote the movie shows the aliens’ spinal tubes either vanishing through the floor or bending back at a right angle in a couple frames, an ability none of the prior films established. This shot, it happens, is one of the lesser ways the movie disrespects its source material, but more on that later. The point is that the monster which is the movie’s namesake looks worse than it did 38 years ago, and the most memorable scene in Covenant is a possibly homoerotic flute lesson given by Fassbender to Fassbender. The issue doesn’t lie with computers inherently; Prometheus used CGI to beautiful effect, and the facehugger could conceivably benefit from not being a puppet. The issue lies with laziness or apathy.

What image in Covenant can compare to the holographic star map, crash sequence, or birth of the deacon in Prometheus? I suppose it can boast of having the single bloodiest shot in the entire series, for whatever that matters. So when people say, “Ridley Scott has made yet another gorgeous film,” I have to ask not only, “How?” but also, “How are you letting him get away with this?”

* Alien: Covenant considers itself a successor to the movie that started it all, and won’t let anyone forget it through numerous aural and visual references. The soundtrack frequently tributes the series’ roots, the bobbing bird prop gets a cameo, David recycles the “perfect organism” or “magnificent specimen” canard that drove other Weyland-Yutani villains, and Scott recreates several of his scenes from the original – the first facehugger attack, the snaking of the creature’s tail between a girl’s legs, the discovery of Parker and Lambert’s bodies, etc. The allusions get even more offensive when one goes on Youtube and finds the deleted “Prologue”, wherein a character swallows something down the wrong pipe and starts to reenact Alien’s dinner table disaster to, ahem, hilarious results. Covenant shows as much dedication to milking fans’ memories for unearned commendation as Rogue One obscenely did back in December.

The structure of the plot itself is nothing new, but this isn’t ruinous in itself. I recently listened to Red Letter Media’s commentary on the series, in which Mike and Jay shrewdly pointed out that every Alien movie is virtually identical plot-wise but filtered through another director’s unique vision. Even Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection has an eccentric style entirely its own, if not a good style. Covenant’s undoing is that Scott ambivalently mashes together the gunfire and chases of Aliens, the extravagant gore of Alien 3, and the theological babble of Prometheus, but does none of those things as well as the artists who did them first. To watch the fifth film in the series is to see a 79-year-old Ridley Scott mimicking the work of his younger self in wholly superficial ways and failing miserably to capture the tone that set Alien apart.

* Around the 50-minute mark, two of the crew who aren’t wearing their helmets get infected by airborne black goo, and before long we have ourselves a severely dumbed-down slasher in the vein of Prometheus. The camera dwells on the swirling particles as if to imply that they are visible to the naked eye, but apparently they aren’t, and so the guys are made unwilling hosts. This is also the mark where Covenant devolves from merely derivative and confused into downright farcical and obnoxious.

Every character in the movie is a disposable idiot whose actions beg a barrage of unanswerable questions. First up is the lady who quarantines her friend with a gyrating infected man only to open the door later after a vicious monster has burst out of his back, completely nullifying the purpose of sacrificing her friend in the first place. Then there’s the chick who walks off by herself shortly after being attacked by a ruthless monkey creature because she “needs to wash up”. When the captain told her, “Don’t go too far,” I whispered to my friend, “She’s going to go too far,” which she did, but characters did seldom split up in the original Alien, so I’ll give Scott a pass on that part.

What I’m not willing to forgive, and where the movie backslides into pure comedy, is the egg scene. As stated earlier, Captain Crudup has gone looking for his missing sheep and comes across a sight that would strike any reasonable person as somewhat suspicious: the synthetic which helped rescue them a few hours ago appears to be pacifying the now-gaunt albinomorph, the pair of them locked in an intimate staring match. As the captain raises his firearm to shoot the blasted hellspawn which ripped his pal’s head off, David cautions him, “Don’t shoot,” then protests wildly when he does indeed shoot (the only sensible action that he takes). “It trusted me!” he screams, which doesn’t abate the captain’s desire to know what the hell is happening.

David promptly gives him a tour of his experimentation chamber, monologuing about all the imperfect iterations of the alien he’s engineered over the years, apparently from local fauna, in spite of a character in the trailer making a point of there being “no birds, no animals, nothing”. David confesses that all his efforts have failed by the lack of “one key ingredient”, but declines to name what it is. From there, the two descend into a damp and creepy-looking cave, where the strange and patently untrustworthy robot urges Crudup to stick his head into a creepy-looking egg that clearly encases another wiggling life form. “What are they waiting for, David?” asks the captain skeptically. “Mother,” the sinister android smiles. “Take a look. It’s perfectly safe, I assure you.”

With that, the captain wastes no more time and leans over the egg to take a look.

* And yet Alien: Covenant keeps finding new paths to slide downhill, mainly in its treatment of the xenomorph’s development and behavior, which defies and significantly reverses all past precedent. The rest of this section will probably bore or bemuse anyone who isn’t that avid an Alien fan, but for me this constituted one of the movie’s worst transgressions.

Because the Alien movies aren’t real-time documentaries of the species’ life cycle, it’s impossible to say with certainty how long each phase of the alien is supposed to last, but one can make certain assumptions about the timeline based on the films’ editing. In the original Alien, it took around 20 minutes between Kane falling victim to the egg and the eruption of the chestburster. Over this period, we see the team trek back to the Nostromo, attempt to sever the facehugger from Kane (back in space), run down several levels to observe the dripping acid, look for the missing creature, and do some other things, implying the passage of several hours. Other subtle signs suggest it takes a while for the facehugger to plant its larva and for the alien to gestate. When someone tries to loosen its grasp on the host, the alien wraps its tail tighter around Kane’s neck, which seems like an evolutionary trait designed to prevent premature detachment.

Alien: Covenant takes a torch to all of that by turning the alien, presumably in its first and least perfected generation, into a risible sex machine capable of reproducing at hyper-speed. The film presents at least two types of alien generation, one through black goo infection, the other through the traditional method, and somehow makes a mockery of both. Laying aside the writers’ total disregard for how the black goo works in Prometheus, it takes 2-3 minutes of film time for people who contract the goo to start displaying symptoms of deathly illness and 9-10.5 minutes for the albinomorrphs to burst from them. Later, when David lures the captain to the eggs he’s somehow created without a queen, it takes approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds of film time between the facehugger springing on him and the alien pushing out of his chest. Overall, then, in movie-minutes the monsters of Covenant take anywhere from half to a tenth of the time to materialize as those in Scott’s original, Alien 3, or Resurrection.

This isn’t just an illusion caused by editing, though, as a second facehugger later attacks another human and finishes its work in 14 real-time seconds. Hence we can deduce by Covenant that the facehugger in Alien had either regressed substantially, liked to take its time, or suffered from erectile dysfunction, none of which are options I am willing to entertain. This second victim, however, doesn’t explode until several hours later, after they’ve returned to the main ship. In other words, even if one is able to pardon Covenant for breaking continuity with the other films, one still must overlook how carelessly it shatters continuity with itself.

But the alien’s problems don’t stop at biological technicalities. On a more fundamental level, Scott has fallen out of touch with what made his monster so monstrous. Alien, it’s no mystery, is teeming with sexual overtones, uncomfortable forced perspective, and implications of rape. Being a parasitical hybrid, the xenomorph endures on a different level than other movie monsters because it represents the most savage and predatory things man is capable of committing. The more I rewatch the film’s most controversial scene, the more convinced I get that Veronica Cartwright’s hyperventilating gasps are meant to evoke more than simply death, especially taking into account the shot of her dangling, bare feet. Nor is Ripley undressing meant to be a bit of exploitive pleasure; rather, it’s a projection of the carnal thoughts rushing through the head of the alien, which seems to be spying on her from the darkness.

The various aliens of Covenant have no such sexual urgings, nor do they act upon the self-preserving hive mentality that took over in Aliens (foreshadowed in a deleted cocoon scene by Scott). They’ve been tragically reduced to the intricacy of dumb animals, senselessly biting and stabbing every organic thing in sight to service the morbid demands of general horror moviegoers who think that better and more abundant gore intrinsically leads to better horror stories.

* In retrospect, I may have been too harsh when I called the alien a dumb animal. It’s really a dumb cartoon. Witness the scene that someone apparently approved where the newly-born xenomorph (which looks like a miniature version of the adult one instead of a snake with tiny T-rex arms) raises its limbs and chirps excitedly in imitation of its creator, David, whom it can somehow see well enough to copy despite not having eyes. Awwhhhh. This is easily the cutest thing the franchise has seen since Newt.

* I used to tell myself that while this movie vastly weakened the later stories, it actually strengthened Prometheus by explaining one of David’s more irrational decisions. Then I revisited Prometheus with the screenwriters’ commentary, realized there was already a perfectly rational reason for David to spike Holloway’s drink with black goo, and lent myself yet another reason to hate Alien: Covenant. While the movie does derive some philosophical tension from David’s creative passion (making him more human, he argues) and Walter’s mechanical sense of duty, Covenant woefully perverts its most interesting and enigmatic character into a mad scientist archetype with a god complex.

The film conveniently ignores dialogue that previously characterized David as subservient or unemotional. “I was designed like this you are more comfortable interacting with your own kind,” he tells one of the crew before they disembark from the Prometheus. “If I didn't wear a suit, it would defeat the purpose.” Yet the David of the Covenant script appears to take pleasure in making people uncomfortable, viz. the captain, Walter, and Daniels, whom he tries to force himself upon for no reason.

In Prometheus, several people call attention to the robot’s inability to feel emotions, since he has no soul. Talking about the reason for his creation, Holloway tells David, “I guess it’s good you can’t be disappointed.” In Covenant, David walks away from his deactivated younger “brother” whom he met a couple hours ago and murmurs, “You were so disappointing to me.”

In Prometheus, Vickers pushes the android roughly against the wall and he doesn’t resist, because that would contradict his programming. In Covenant, David eventually turns into a superpowered brute who throws people around and has a kung fu punching match with his likeness. All of this asinine, inconsistent stuff occurs so that the film can have a standout antagonist in the absence of intimidating monsters, or perhaps it’s just another gratuitous callback to evil Ian Holm in Alien. Either way, making David a genocidal and oversexed robot gone wild undercuts the mystery and intellect that made him such a powerful force in the first film. Why does David need to physically assault one of his enemies if he can manipulate someone into drinking poison or walking straight into an alien? One of my literature teachers in high-school once criticized a movie I liked for relying so much on violence to advance the plot, essentially describing violence as a tool of lazy storytellers.  If anything good has come of my experience with Alien: Covenant, I think I finally understand what Dr. McMenomy was saying.

* To briefly throw in a good word about this movie, the score is fantastic per usual. Jed Kurzel reincorporates a lot of music from Alien and Prometheus, now stirringly performed on the flute, while providing menacing new themes that rely heavily on otherworldly electronics. It kind of sounds like Johann Johansson’s Sicario score mixed with industrial ambience from the first Alien, and it flows surprisingly well as an album for a soundtrack.


* Now that that’s out of the way, Alien: Covenant closes out on possibly the worst climax I’ve ever seen; making matters worse, it has two of them. What really appalls me about it is how easily a simple rewrite or couple altered shots could have fixed the whole thing.

After the shlock-tacular robot fistfight, Walter rushes away from the broken corpse of David to board the ship that Danny McBride is piloting, except that Walter isn’t Walter any more. Scott edits this scene to hide the victor of the duel, cutting right after David gets his hand on a knife. The intention, I suppose, is to keep the audience guessing which android really prevailed, but in so doing, it basically communicates to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before that the opposite of what the characters think is true. A real twist in this situation would be that Walter is actually Walter, and David didn’t miraculously manage to change his clothes, cut off his hand, and trim his hair (without a mirror) in less than a minute of film time.

The only purpose that withholding this information could possibly serve is to create a shock “twist ending”, one which every person I’ve talked to about Covenant predicted the moment the camera cut away. How much more suspenseful could Scott have made the finale if he hadn’t taken his audience for cinematic illiterates and just shown David killing Walter? Doesn’t it stand to reason that a viewer who knows Daniels is effectively facing two threats at once would feel more concern than a viewer who only knows about the alien and is scratching his head over the motives of the robot? Moreover, what sense does it make for David to aid the two survivors when his goal is to exterminate the human race and replace it with something he deems superior? Scott has already established that David enjoys godly sway over the aliens, and he’s also a non-organic being, so the xenomorph shouldn’t pose a threat to him. Basically the only reason he does anything heroic in the final act is to throw Katherine Waterston off his scent, so he can then lean over her in the cryo pod and sneer, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite. I’ll tuck in the children.” I can’t emphasize enough how John Logan takes a formerly cryptic, fascinating character and reforms him into a total cornball.

On a secondary level, including two xenomorphs in the climactic showdown adds nothing to the story and just symbolizes reversion to more-is-better sequel ideology. Considering the manifold other parallels this movie forces in to the original, culminating in a woman calling the alien a son of a bitch and blowing it out an airlock, the natural course for Scott would be to terrorize the crew with one alien, which seems to be defeated yet miraculously resurfaces for one last battle. This is the formula set by Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, a formula that works because it makes the hero’s triumph seem greater and the alien more formidable. So why doesn’t Covenant follow this formula, if it’s already making such an effort to ape its source material? On one hand, it would have done away with the 14-second impregnation detailed earlier, on another it would have lessened the absurdity of the alien growing to full size in a couple minutes without the computers detecting it. I know the xenomorphs are essentially giant space bugs with abbreviated lifespans, but Covenant abuses suspension of disbelief the most of any film in the franchise.

Moreover, why do alarms have to sound everywhere in the ship except for the shower, or go off at all? I don’t recall the MUTHER intelligence in Alien or Aliens (both occurring later chronologically) detecting unknown passengers and making a lot of noise to alert the crew, but purely on a storytelling level, how much more intense could the ending have been if Daniels just happened upon the bloodied corpses and had to adapt on the fly, instead of being rudely awoken, finding the guy with his chest exploded, running around with a gun for a while, happening upon two more dead people, and finally finding the alien? In a $97 million film, one would think the easiest and least expensive thing to get right would be the script.

But who am I objecting to nothing in this movie making sense? They don’t let me write these scripts. If Scott had asked Logan to revise the thing until it felt more true to Alien, then he couldn’t have shot a sleazy shower scene or CG alien banging its head against a window. Neither of those things would have made it into the trailer, and Covenant might have crashed with something like $36 mil in its opening weekend.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

A collage of bloggers with better S.E.O. who think Covenant > Prometheus

To tell the truth, I probably wouldn’t have come this far if reactions to Covenant had been more tempered. It features some conventionally attractive people and enough intriguing platitudes that I’d normally just let it go. Yet the majority of critics and audiences genuinely seem to believe the film improves upon Prometheus, because it has an alien that murders people and it constantly echoes things they recognize. I don’t want to live in a society that thinks Alien: Covenant is better written, filmed, or conceived than Prometheus. It would be like living in a society that considers Gillian Flynn more important to its literary tradition than Flannery O’Connor, or a society where high-schoolers study Kendrick Lamar and Drake over Beethoven, or a society that spends more time watching Netflix original TV shows than it spends watching political affairs.

In the most intelligent dialogue of the film, Walter reprimands David for misidentifying the poet of “Ozymandias”. “When one note is off,” he warns, “it eventually destroys the whole symphony.” Would that Scott had heeded his character’s wisdom. Watching Alien: Covenant is alike to beholding a magnificent symphony gradually and excruciatingly destroying itself, again and again, into eternity, demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that sometimes to create, one must first destroy.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. I can't believe how much I hate this movie. I have enjoyed a lot of flawed movies that have positive or great moments, but there really is nothing that stands out or to love in this film.

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