When Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler retired recently, he put out a statement that baffled a lot of people in the sports media — he quoted Henry Rollins at the end of it, and that was sure to draw eyeballs from the start in the occasionally hyper-conservative world of pro-football, but it made sense coming from the grumpy yet entertaining Cutler. Here’s the quote: “I did that, I gave everything I had to give to that. Now, if I returned to that it would be repetition — it might be fun repetition, but it wouldn’t be meaningful repetition.”
Watching Sir Ridley Scott’s latest, Alien: Covenant, I couldn’t help but think of that quote throughout the whole runtime of the movie; not that Cutty and Sir Ridley are anything alike, far from it (if masterpieces were Super Bowl rings, Scott could easily slip one on each finger). But the idea of “meaningless repetition” seemed to hang over every frame of Covenant. There’s echoes of the original Alien all around, in shot selection and story beats, but little of the intelligence or nuance. And boy, is it a huge disappointment.
Alien: Covenant picks up 10 years after Prometheus, where the crew of the starship Covenant, safeguarding a group of colonists on their way to a new home far away from Earth, are awoken from their slumber by android Walter (Michael Fassbender) in the midst of a ship-wide emergency. A rogue neutrino burst (yeah, I know) has damaged the ship, and the essential personnel are required to leave hypersleep in order to make the necessary repairs. While Tennessee (Danny McBride) is out space-walkin’, he gets an odd transmission from something in void, and Acting Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides it’s a good idea to go investigate, given that the planet seems habitable. Who knows, Oram thinks, they could even start colonizing it! His second-in-command, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) disagrees with him, and the next 105 minutes of the film proves her right. Almost immediately after the away team touches down on the planet’s surface, people start getting sick, and a giant alien craft (bet you can’t guess what it is) looms large, crashed on a mountainside.
After two big-budget movies in which she was tragically miscast, it might be good for Waterston to go back and do a couple of indie flicks for a year or two. She’s just so fucking good when given something to really chew on (her work in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice was astonishing), but, like in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, she spends the entire runtime looking 20 seconds away from tears. This makes sense at the start of the film, when she suffers a personal tragedy, but as the movie goes on, it doesn’t abate, right until the screenplay forces her to be a safety-be-damned badass so we can spend a section of this review talking about her in comparison to Ripley. To be frank, there isn’t one. We’re supposed to think that one scene of her bitching at Crudup, about how horribly irresponsible it is to veer off course and chase a distress signal when over two thousand lives are at stake, is the same as Ripley’s dogged adherence to the quarantine policy at the start of the first Alien, even when John Hurt’s life is on the line. Waterston just isn’t able to exist — she just reacts and talks a lot about her husband — and the one scene in which we get a glimpse of her in a more dynamic role has been cut from the final film.
Fassbender does some great work here, though, playing two characters: David, the franchise’s prim Caliban who has been up to quite a bit in the 10 in-continuity years since Prometheus, and Walter, the hilariously terse and frumpy android on board the Covenant. He has the ability to significantly elevate the material, even when it’s actively trying to fail him at any given turn. The scenes the two characters share is fraught with brilliantly homoerotic comedy, in which Fassbender teaches his other self how to play the recorder (“I’ll do the fingering,” David says to Walter, drawing my audience’s only laugh), and it’s the only time Scott’s ever come close to a full embrace of camp. David’s significantly diminished here (now having entered the “let’s cut up animals” stage of his childlike sociopathy), and it’s to Fassbender’s credit that he’s able to pull off half of the dumb shit his character does, from drawing Geiger-meets-Goya fan art in his spare time to, well, genocide, and still come away from it as compelling as he left Prometheus.
In Alien: Covenant, the only thing scarier than Ridley Scott’s Xenomorph is the stupidity of humans.
But all in all, the script (written by the quality-schizophrenic John Logan and Dante Harper, with story credits for Jack Paglen and Michael Green) uniformly fails the rest of the cast. James Franco and Noomi Rapace somehow still get credit for their roles in this movie, even though all of their work was excised into YouTube prologues (which are actually required viewing if you really want to understand this movie), and prosthetics-free Guy Pearce makes an unasked-for but alright return to the series in the film’s prologue.
Crudup is given hints of an interesting arc, as a newly-appointed Captain who is significantly out of his element and who also believes he’s a target of faith-based discrimination, but those are dropped midway through so that he can get face-fucked and killed, a fate that seems to happen to each of the film’s characters right when they get interesting. Similar fates befall cast members like McBride and Amy Seimetz, though the film gives them absolutely jack-shit to do for much of its length. At least McBride gets to have a big ol’ CGI bonanza near the end of the movie involving a Xenomorph and a spacecraft, but Seimetz just gets to be scared for a few minutes and then kill herself in the dumbest possible way. No one comes out of this in a memorable fashion, unless you’re talking about the fetishized deaths of the female cast members — one’s head floats in a basin of water for minutes, another is slashed to death by a young back-bursting Alien — which aren’t memorable for the right reasons (one wonders how Dan O’Bannon must feel about this).
Those hoping that Covenant keeps the good things about its red-headed older brother, Prometheus, such as its gorgeous visuals and decently innovative design, might want to lower their expectations. Scott’s traded in much of the empty beauty of the previous film for generic horror locales; crumbling and close-to-candle-lit castle rooms, grey skies over muted forests full of fog and rock. If an Alien movie’s success is quite literally defined by its environment, this is the weakest by far (even Jeunet managed to craft a unique vision in Resurrection). The only effect that ever comes close to being as interesting as anything in the prior picture are the particle effects; one scene, in particular, involves a character stepping on a plant and having a swarm of spores embed themselves in their ear canal, and it’s stunning to watch unfold. Yet every other sequence could have been lifted wholesale from another slasher film, such as the advertised scene in which the Xenomorph sneaks up to a couple enjoying some shower-action and murders the both of them. The kills are startlingly dull and tension-free, and the most interesting sequence of blood-and-guts stuff has been outdone by the VR tie-in (which is actually worth your while if you own an Oculus Rift or a Vive), which might be a first in modern cinema.
Those hoping that Covenant corrects Prometheus’s most tragic flaw, the bone-chilling stupidity of its characters, might want to lower their expectations. Once again, we are placed with the best and brightest that humanity has to offer: A crew full of reasonably intelligent astronauts, who, this time, are responsible for the lives of 2,000 people and an unknown number of embryos to be carried to term once they arrive at their new world. And, once again, they make some seriously horrible fucking decisions that wind up costing them their lives.
It’s possible Scott might not be convinced that his monster is scary enough anymore, and that the deep and vast reservoir of human stupidity is significantly more upsetting than what lurks out in the night sky. Such as, say, firing a shotgun aimlessly around a hanger near walls covered in fuel tanks, or letting a sick crew member vomit all over you, or trusting a random humanoid who you come across on a bizarrely lifeless planet, or, hell, even deciding to alter course in the first place to go check out a planet based solely on the fact that weird radio waves coming from its surface sound like “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It’s odd too, because I could imagine a different group of space-truckers, much like the ones in the first Alien, being intrigued by this signal. But not this crew, a group of specialists entrusted with thousands of lives, who aren’t being stealthily manipulated by a fucking robot acting at the whims of a giant corporation.
There’s one other filmmaker who fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of his science-fiction franchise in the same way that Scott does, and that’s George Lucas. Seriously, there are elements in Alien: Covenant that will make some hardcore fans of the series screaming in the aisle, chief among those being the origins of the Xenomorph. Some will undoubtedly be glad to see them back after a 10-year screen absence, but it’s hard to like how they’re used here, especially with all of the extra details about their creation that the movie offers up. They’re answers to a question that nobody ever asked, and the explanation that’s given to us is on the same level as the “midichlorians” explanation that Qui-Gon Jinn offers young Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace, which is to say that it’s absolutely terrible. Both have similar effects: In addition to being completely unnecessary and unwanted, they are absolutely reductive to vast and mysterious elements of their universes. While midichlorians destroyed the mystique about how Jedi use the Force, the Xenomorph’s origins here totally fuck up the Lovecraftian vibes of the first film, and remove their otherworldliness. That’s something that all of the sequels and spin-offs never managed to do, and even at their nadir, the aliens were at least still cool and scary, but Scott has delivered the final blow to his own masterwork.
Scott still plans to make two or three more Alien films, but it might just be wise to do what he did with his other science-fiction masterpiece, Blade Runner, and what he did following the initial Alien film: bring in young talent and give them the reigns. He’s still an impressive visual stylist and is occasionally quite good at finding thematic resonance in places where you wouldn’t expect it, but you’ve got to wonder what a modern horror director or, perhaps more importantly, talented writers would have been able to do with such a concept. The title character’s long-standing enemy, The Predator, is currently being reworked by writer and director Shane Black, which is a gutsy decision on a number of levels. Perhaps the Alien franchise deserves similar treatment: After this next Scott film (given simply to fulfill the arcs that this film sets up for the sequel), let’s give it to a young director. Maybe Jordan Peele or Julia Ducournau, for starters, but I’m open to a number of suggestions. Because Alien: Covenant is showing the wear and tear of a franchise in dire need of reinvention, and after two false starts by the old master, it might be time to pass it along to someone new.
Follow Nick Johnson on Twitter @onlysaysficus.