By Jennie Orton
I’m just going to say it: what happened to Alien? A colleague recently reminisced, with the same wistful sigh usually attached to recollections of lost love still burning hot within the heart, about Ridley Scott’s shuddering fear salad that was Alien (1979). A true horror film, it combined the eerie neurosis of being stranded (with something that wants to tear your face off with its 2 mouths no less), the rapey nightmare that is parasite body-horror, the increasingly elusive thrill of groundbreaking violence, and one of the most relentlessly scary movie monsters in Hollywood history. It was not for everyone; an opera ode to silence and violence. It was a modern horror masterpiece.
Oh how the mighty have fallen.
Certainly if a franchise hopes to weather a 40 year lifespan, it must develop new ideas to stay alive. Some of these have succeeded (man’s fear of the unknown, man’s relationship to the natural world, evolution, politics, rape of the natural world, rape in general) but some have gone absolutely nowhere and exist because of the other challenge inherent in keeping a long run franchise alive: the bankability of its failures.
Alien: Covenant, the latest chapter of Hollywood’s favorite face hugger and the ongoing theses of how humans are lesser beings in a variety of ways, tries its hand at a few of these topics but it’s real angle is trying to explain the universally reviled dumpster fire that was 2012’s Prometheus. Which… is painful.
In this chapter, we prove our ineptitude as a species by scrapping a decades-long and presumably well-researched plan for colonization to explore a planet we know nothing about because our captain has inferiority issues. Sounds relatable, yes?
The Covenant is a ship chock fulla folks in stasis who are trusting a merry band of married…experts? Question mark? to take them to Origae-6, a planet that holds the promise of a new life full of log cabins and embryos. The lesson that immediately emerges is be careful who you trust to watch you while you sleep: and that lesson holds firm throughout.
As you can imagine, stepping foot on an alien landscape wearing only what you would wear to go foraging for mushrooms at a steam punk retreat might lead to some contamination problems. No one says you can’t explore and be curious, that is indeed what makes humans human…but if you’re gonna stick your face right in a nest of alien spores, you may want to don a space suit, homie. You have them on board!
The inevitable alien infection and subsequent outbreak are secondary in this tale, however; the real story is how they can manage to aggressively try to redeem Prometheus; to remind us all that it exists and it’s not going away. This is the most glaring of the many examples of how the franchise has lost sight of the desires of its target audience.
Bringing us back to David (Michael Fassbender), the synthetic from the aforementioned dumpster fire, we are forced to dive deep into his psyche as he appears on the scene to enlighten and seemingly rescue those from the Covenant away team who survived the prime directive disobedience. What follows is a sometimes homophobic, sometimes ham-handed “because: Nazis” story arch of over-wrought motivations and catastrophic decision-making with a tragically low number of gory scares. Sounds super enjoyable, yeah?
This movie misses the mark in many directions, but most startling is the attempt to philosophize the plight of man-made monsters while essentially downshifting into dystopic hopelessness and pretentious poetics. Which is fine if you own it, but considering the fact that the subject is examined to death in the upcoming sequels we have all already seen, it is almost like director Ridley Scott is trying to take back the mic at a reception that has already been ruined by the drunken groomsmen.
Covenant attempts to have high-brow opinions about human nature, creationism, eugenics, biology, psychopathy, and the art of survival, but much like a sophomore who has just learned about all these ideas in 101 classes, it can’t fully explain its thoughts on those ideas. So while the greatest living monster in science fiction and horror history tears apart a bunch of idiots, two machines argue the ideas of divine creation and humanism. Which sounds like a cool idea but it ends up just feeling like it doesn’t know what it wants to be and, in the process, loses the terrifying viscera of the franchise we have followed for almost 4 decades just for the sake of trying to get us to forgive its worst chapter.
Skip it. Watch Alien through Alien 3 and then you can legitimately call it a day.
Alien: Covenant opens everywhere May 19alien