Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
ALIEN: COVENANT, 122 minutes, R
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby, Nathaniel Dean
Back in 1979, filmmaker Ridley Scott set us up for a tension-filled, horrific journey to a place where no one could hear us scream: outer space. From there on out, the franchise has been rocketing in orbit, passing from James Cameron (ALIENS), to David Fincher (ALI3N), to Jean-Pierre Jeunet (ALIEN: RESURRECTION) – most never equaling the critical acclaim of Scott and Cameron’s incarnations. Then Scott returned in 2012 with PROMETHEUS, and boy howdy did our love further wane. ALIEN: COVENANT is his attempt to merge the prequel ideas with his original masterpiece – and the result is astoundingly piss-poor.
It’s the year 2104 and the Covenant colony vessel is hit by solar flares, literally and figuratively knocking the wind out of their sails. During the repairs, de-facto Captain Chris Oram (Billy Crudup), his eco-botanist wife Karine (Carmen Ejogo), second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), ship pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), his electrical engineer wife Faris (Amy Seimetz), technician Ricks (Jussie Smollett), his wife co-pilot Upworth (Callie Hernandez) and android Walter (Michael Fassbender), intercept what sounds like a human distress transmission, directing them to a seemingly-habitable planet. They take a detour to check it out. With soldiers Lope (Demián Bichir), Hallett (Nathaniel Dean), Ledward (Benjamin Rigby), Cole (Uli Latukefu) and Rosenthal (Tess Haubrich) in tow, what could possibly go wrong? Everything could and does. At the center of this new mouth of madness stands a devilishly familiar face, android David (Fassbender) – and he’s just as slippery and mischievous as ever!
Let’s get this out of the way: COVENANT isn’t on par with ALIEN or ALIENS. It makes you wish for those glory days. The disease of stupidity that characters in the modern ALIEN cinematic universe suffer from is better parceled out here, rather than back loaded like in PROMETHEUS. The bad news is that some of the infuriating aspects of that prequel are carried over into the follow-up. Shaw’s ridiculous decision to fix David after he betrayed her crew to the Engineers functions as a major cornerstone of COVENANT. The stupidity onslaught begins with a dumb but understandable decision to pause the prearranged mission in favor of what’s convenient. The moment the splinter crew steps foot on the perceived paradise planet, they get cocky, clomping around, smoking cigars and cigarettes carelessly. Wouldn’t they be concerned about the eco-footprint they are leaving behind? One character who begins with the steely fortitude her job requires, unravels into hysterics and bad choices in no time flat. It’s flat-out insulting to see another character stick his face in an alien egg when goaded by a notoriously shifty character who nearly got him killed in the prior scene. It’s nearly as bad as the scientist playing with the alien snake creature in PROMETHEUS. Plus, you’ll see the obvious twist at the end coming from a mile away. Despite adding a few small tidbits to the mythology (like different alien creatures bursting from different places), Scott’s overwhelming lack of ingenuity in this chapter is truly disheartening.
Screenwriters John Logan (who should really know better) and Dante Harper, who work from a story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green, overstuff the film with characters, and don’t allot enough time to the major players. With the exception of Daniels and Oram, the remaining Covenant crew are barely one-dimensional. When you break down Daniels and Oram, they too suffer from the screenwriters’ lack of interest to be fully fleshed out. Oram’s “man of faith” business isn’t ever fully realized. Though Daniels’ physical and emotional challenges are evident, we don’t know how this story impacts her on a deeper, necessary level. And not for nuthin’, but it’s difficult to track who is married to whom. In an early scene involving crass nicknames , the guys vaguely mention they have wives, but not by their real names so it distractingly takes a while to piece it together.
The bigger questions I keep returning to are: “What are we even rooting for any more? What is the philosophical debate? What’s the deeper theme of Scott’s prequels?” This is something that has changed since the originals, and not for the better: ALIEN and ALIENS are infused with a strong, clear anti-corporate message, and the characters are the unwitting victims of corporate greed. Comparatively, PROMETHEUS and COVENANT seem to be about colonialism and imperialism… maybe? It’s not as defined or compelling, especially since the characters are the perpetrators of their own demise. The building blocks for anti-corporation are there in COVENANT, since this is still essentially a cinematic universe brought about by corporate malfeasance and capitalist thirst, but the drive becomes less about wanting to see this group of smug-marrieds survive, and more about rooting for them to die. What’s more is that we don’t even care if a final girl emerges. We’re that disengaged. Very little resonates.
The tangibly fascinating aspects of the narrative deal with the intellectual thematic content. Ideas about free will, autonomy, identity and humanity all play a part – specifically when they explore differences and similarities between the two androids: David and Walter. The sentiment swirling around the dual Fassbender characters is interesting to dissect. In a way, this is tale about a spoiled rich child throwing a temper tantrum because he was told he couldn’t do something. Sounds like a story with fingers in the real world, no? Perhaps, then, these prequels are a cautionary tale about the domino effect of destruction wrought by man’s hubris.
Honestly, the only time I got a genuine surge of electricity (enough to make a Southern woman clutch her pearls) was when my Fassy utters the line, “Let me do the fingering,” as if he’s guided someone like this before. I’m convinced this was cut dialogue from his dirty talk in THE COUNSELOR.
Even though PROMETHEUS is frustrating on so many levels, I will give it the edge over COVENANT because at least it was unexpected and not trying to service the needs of franchise connective tissue or mythology. It had its own identity (well, until it didn’t). Here, there are obtuse reference drops reliant on contrivance. If they didn’t make stupid choices at point A, they can’t get to point B, where they make even worse choices. The third act strategy resembles what you’ve seen before in the stronger iterations. Even though a few bigger milestones need to be reached to bridge the gaps between the prequels and the original, we can see the outline forming. Let me just say that if you wanted to cut bait now, it’s a perfectly good time to do so. It will save you precious hours, as what you’ve imagined will happen, does. It’s predictable that way – and the filmmakers’ assumption that the audience just wants more of the same with little to no introspective reflection is not necessarily a good thing.
ALIEN: COVENANT opens on May 19.