Review: 'Alien: Covenant' Is Just a Failed 'Prometheus' Hybrid

Monday, 22 May 2017 - 4:57PM
Alien: Covenant
Monday, 22 May 2017 - 4:57PM
Review:  'Alien: Covenant' Is Just a Failed 'Prometheus' Hybrid
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Image credit: 20th Century Fox
The one thing everyone heard about Alien: Covenant was that Ridley Scott had learned his lesson from Prometheus and had returned to the survival horror elements that made the original Alien a masterpiece of biomechanical nightmare-craft. And for the first 45 minutes of the movie, we could almost believe it: Covenant is a slow boil, taking its time introducing its crew and their mission, laying the groundwork for a mystery, and allowing its tension to build. When we finally see one of the new backbursters erupt from a man's back in an operating room, the movie hits its peak as you're forced to watch two screaming crewmembers try desperately try to kill it before it digs into their soft, warm guts with its tiny, ravenous teeth.

But no—the xenomorphs are just a sideshow in Covenant. After hitting the quota of old-school Alien horror, a little light goes on somewhere and the movie goes right back to the same things that everyone hated about Prometheus: Engineer lore, crews making incredibly stupid decisions, a lack of xenomorphs, and long, elaborate allegories for man becoming God.

Covenant was billed as the story of a colonization crew made up of couples exploring an Earth-like planet, apparently led by our new protagonist, Daniels—let's watch that 'Last Supper' trailer again:

Yeah, none of that is in the movie—after the scene with the backburster, the story stops being about the crew or their relationships. The android David is back, played by Michael Fassbender, and once he steps on screen the movie shifts from exploration and horror to long, drawn-out, slightly worrying musings on Man and the Divine that might as well have the words "DO NOT TRUST THIS PERSON" written on a marquee. Covenant is really about David's quest to be a sort of Dr. Moreau-like cultivator of xenomorphs, studying them and perfecting them like the Weyland Corporation perfected him. Because every white-knuckle survival horror movie needs at least three philosophical monologues peppered with references to classical art in it.

As for the xenomorphs, the movie makes one misstep after another: the creatures are more or less portrayed as David's demonic children, culminating in a scene where a terrifying, monstrous white neomorph tamely stands in front of him, apparently pacified by his presence. David even screams in anguish when it's killed, yelling "It trusted me!" For those who have forgotten, the entire point of the 'alien' in the title Alien is that the xenomorphs are foreign, unknowable, and ultimately uncontrollable—they cannot be reasoned with, pacified, or stoppedand that makes them frightening. Covenant, on the other hand, turns the aliens from a symbol of primal fear into something dangerous but manageable, like a vicious, misshapen dog. 

Nothing shows this better than when a xenomorph invades the Covenant itself and begins killing crewmembers: Daniels immediately requests that Walter, their pet android, locate the creature, which he does in about four seconds. They can see it crawling around in the halls, and gradually corral it by sealing off the doors. At no point are our heroes not in control of the situation, and being able to see the xenomorph every step of the way dissolves all the paranoia and tension that usually comes with being stalked by these black, glistening monsters. At that point, the film is already in action movie territory, not horror. In the end, it's not even about Daniels' survival—it's always about David and his high ideas, which remain bloodless and abstract.

It's obvious what happened here, especially when you look back on what Covenant was originally supposed to be: Scott tried to hybridize the worldbuilding of Prometheus with the classic Alien elements everyone demanded, but just couldn't help slipping back into making Prometheus 2. As our own Matthew Loffhagen puts it: "if there's anything wrong with the Alien franchise right now, it's that the movies we're getting aren't necessarily Alien films to begin with. They're Prometheus films wearing scary masks to try and fool audiences into buying more tickets."

Scott isn't getting tired of cranking these movies out, but we're sure getting tired of watching them.

Alien: Covenant is in theaters now.
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Alien: Covenant