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May 12, 2017

Alien: Covenant Crosses Into Familiar Territory

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Written by: Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider
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Ridley Scott must have faced a dilemma when planning Alien: Covenant — how to give fans what they want without being derivative or compromising his vision for the series. The Alien franchise is so well-established that it’s almost obligatory to include certain types of scenes, visuals, characters. Mess with the formula too much and fans will object (as Scott learned when he initially decided to leave the Xenomorphs out of Prometheus). Follow the formula too closely and the story becomes predictable.  

Guess which path Alien: Covenant takes.

The monsters are as intense as ever.  It doesn’t skimp on the gore. It largely earns its keep as a prequel, adding to the Alien mythos with revealing glimpses of the Xenomorphs’ origins. The visuals are frequently stunning; the opening scene in particular is visually arresting. It nails the iconic look-and-feel, especially of Aliens; there’s a lot of Nostromo DNA in the Covenant. And it does a masterful job of setting up its sequel.

So why does it feel like less than the sum of its parts?

Ripley's new hairstyle is cool. Oh wait...

Ripley’s new hairstyle is cool. Oh wait…

Largely because the story and characters hew so closely to the formula of Alien and Aliens. Something goes awry on a sparsely-crewed ship deep in uncharted space. The crew picks up a signal that seems human; they decide to investigate the source. Things quickly go from bad to worse. A synthetic human plays a major part in the outcome; a plucky female crew member deals with her fear and kicks ass. Heavy machinery is involved. Sound familiar?

It’s by no means a slavish remake, though it definitely has a been-there, done-that feel. It’s easy to imagine 20th Century Fox execs whispering in Scott’s ear “Wasn’t The Force Awakens really similar to A New Hope? Didn’t it make, like, a billion dollars?” 

The scenes that explore new terrain are interesting but not terribly compelling. Most of the characters feel disposable. Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is more than a little reminiscent of Ripley in Aliens. Waterston does a solid job, by turns terrified and take-charge. But Daniels feels like a lesser Baldwin compared to Ripley. That’s a little unfair, as Sigourney Weaver is such an accomplished actor and Ripley is such an iconic character; rather, Daniels would have been better served if Scott hadn’t handed her such a similar role which would draw the inevitable comparison.

Michael Fassbender’s synthetic humans, Walter and David, are far more compelling and challenging characters. Fassbender is the best actor on the screen by a wide margin. He’s often mesmerizing, able to convey a range of emotions with the barest expression while still convincing as a synthetic person. Walter is brilliantly subtle, full of internal conflict; David is severely monomaniacal. Unfortunately, Scott saddles Fassbender with several long, slow scenes discussing the nature of creating and serving, full of introspective ruminating better suited to indie films than to a movie about hungry aliens trying to kill people. It diverts the action and serves little purpose.

Dearth of dread
The defining hallmark of the first two
Alien movies is the slow, inexorable buildup of dread. Scott did a masterful job of trapping the audience on the Nostromo with its crew, sharing their inescapable, claustrophobic, existential terror. The brief, scattered glimpses of the Xenomorph are incredibly effective at relentlessly escalating the crew’s hysteria, scene by scene, en route to the terrifying reveal. Alien: Covenant strives to recreate that slow-building fear and anxiety, but rarely achieves any visceral, goosebump-inducing, lizard-brain terror. The claustrophobia of being chased through tight ship corridors is largely missing. Having a good idea of how the story will unfold minimizes the paralyzing fear and the effectiveness of jump scares. And more monster doesn’t always equal more scary.

Your take on Alien: Covenant will depend on your perspective. If you’re a fan of the Alien vs Predator series, if you like more monsters and more action, you’ll enjoy it; it’s a solidly watchable, frequently gorgeous movie that hits its marks for fan service. If your expectations are tempered by a deep reverence for the first two installments, chances are good you’ll find Alien: Covenant a tepid retread whose few highlights don’t add up to what made the originals so terrifyingly good.

Alien: Covenant (Twentieth Century Fox; rated R): C+

About the Author

Gregg "Wonderllama" Snider



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