At 79, Ridley Scott’s (The Martian, The Counselor, Gladiator, Blade Runner) talents as a visual stylist remain undiminished. For scale, scope, and spectacle, few filmmakers can match Scott’s eye for composition or world building, but give Scott a poor, middling, or underdeveloped script and the result looks a lot like Prometheus five years ago: A promising set-up, a shedload’s worth of ideas, and purposely obtuse, underwhelming execution that left most films of the Alien franchise ready to chuck Scott and his collaborators out of the nearest airlock. But in the “Age of the Franchise,” no studio, let alone Fox, would let a potentially lucrative property like Alien slip into suspended animation. In hindsight, they should have (a) given the franchise a break and maybe even start over (i.e., a full-on Alien reboot) and/or (b) politely asked Scott to serve as a producer in name only and give creative control of the franchise to someone, anyone with fresh, novel ideas.
***MILD SPOILERS BELOW***
That, of course, didn’t happen. The franchise had to be served and fans had to be serviced, leading inevitably to Alien: Covenant, a half-Prometheus sequel and half-Alien prequel that disappoints on practically every level (minus the visuals, as always). Prometheus promised an entirely new direction for the series, one filled with nine-foot tall, godlike beings, Engineers, who, in their finite wisdom, decided to muck around with evolution and as a result, created human life as we know it. We met our Makers and like Old Testament gods, they proved to be wholly indifferent to their children. By Prometheus’ final moments, the two surviving characters, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), a scientist with a faith fetish, and David (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic android with a god complex of his own, left the remains of their fellow crewmembers behind, with the stars – and their Makers – their eventual destination. Poor box-office numbers, however, scuttled Prometheus II, at least the Prometheus II Scott implicitly promised to deliver five years ago.
Alien: Covenant eventually reveals Shaw’s fate, but only as an afterthought (she gets more screen time in the prologue footage released online). It’s David who becomes central, once again, to the individual and collective fates of the colonists at the center of Alien: Covenant. Relying on an Act of Nature to bring the crew of the Covenant, a ship transporting 2,000 sleeping colonists, 1,140 embryos, and fifteen crew members, to a new planet, Origae-6. A neutrino storm prematurely awakens the slumbering crew, chief among them Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the sorta-but-not-really Ripley stand-in, Tennessee (Danny McBride), the ship’s pilot, Walter (Fassbender), a new model synthetic, and Oram (Billy Crudup), the Covenant’s acting captain after the original captain dies in a pod malfunction. Unsteady and reluctant to lead, the religious-minded Oram seems ill-suited for the captain’s chair, but the crew, including a doubting Daniels, fall in line when he argues for a course redirect to a nearby habitable planet to investigate a seemingly man- or woman-made distress signal.
The rest of the crew have names too, but John Logan and Dante Harper’s script barely bothers to introduce them. Outside of the superficially explored idea that the crew are, to a man or woman, part of a monogamous couple, there’s little to distinguish them from one another. What we know and they don’t is fairly simple: Most won’t live to see the end of Alien: Covenant. They’re alien fodder, meant to die in increasingly gruesome, bloody ways at the claws and double-mouths of the aliens they encounter on the nearby planet. Not to content to repeat Alien’s chestburster scene, Scott throws in back-burster and mouth-burster scenes. They’re every bit as gross and repulsive as anything in the Alien canon (or body-horror movies in general, but they lack any kind of visceral kick. Why? Because we’ve invested nothing or almost nothing in the characters before they expire. Alien wasn’t brilliant just because it melded science-fiction and horror tropes into something audiences had never seen before. It was brilliant because it mixed science fiction and horror with a slow-build, suspense-heavy plot that gave us characters we cared about on a basic, fundamental level.
While the trailers and ads have sold Daniels as the nominal lead, it’s David and – to a lesser extent – Walter, who really drive the story. David initially appears as a cloaked figure in the night, a potential savior to the remaining ground crew after multiple attacks leave several crew members dead and their ride home out of commission. He’s more (or less) than that, of course. David, not the proto-aliens, emerged as the real villain in Prometheus, an android made too perfectly in his creator’s narcissistic, egotistical image. He’s both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster or in another interpretation, a 22nd-century Satan (Lucifer) who takes his inspiration from Milton’s Paradise Lost (i.e., “better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven”). As the crew of the Covenant soon learns, however, ten years apparently stranded alone on an uncharted planet hasn’t done much to change David’s disposition or his place in the cosmos. For Fassbender, it’s another tour-de-force performance, especially when Walter, a newer model programmed with less independence, meets his “brother” face-to-face.
David’s attempt to involve Walter in a “Let’s get metaphysical” doesn’t exactly go anywhere (except where other science-fiction films and novels have gone countless times before), but Scott, keenly aware of the negative response to Prometheus, knows he’s on a two-hour timer and sets aside the cod- or philosophical discussions for the inevitable gore-splattered bloodletting as Daniels faces off against old-school Xenomorphs in semi-Ripley mode, but it’s far little and far too late. There’s no doubt the “more characters, more gruesome kills” will make a certain subset of Alien fans happy. They’ll get a steady, addictive dose of that nostalgia kick they’ve been wanting since news broke that Scott was returning to the franchise he started almost forty years ago. For everyone else, though, it feels like another bleak, nihilistic tale signifying nothing, except another shameless cash grab by Fox.