What Purpose Does ‘Alien: Covenant’ Actually Serve?
Like in the films, the quest for answers will most likely take us to the far reaches of both space and credibility.
The characters at the heart of Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s sci-fi exploration of faith, science, and (apparently) the dangers of asking too many questions, set out on an ill-fated expedition looking for meaning in this vast universe. Where do we come from? Who created humans, and why? While it’s open to debate as to whether that film was successful in articulating its lofty vision, there’s no question that it was a unique direction in which to take the Alien franchise (so much so that initially its involvement with that series was even underplayed). With the release of Prometheus‘ follow-up, the less-ambiguously-titled Alien: Covenant, similar questions about creation are raised, but not just by the megalomaniacal robot around which the story now seems to revolve, and not just about the events depicted on screen. With all the time, money, and effort put into its production, one would think that the film’s justification for being would be obvious, either from a story perspective or an artistic one, but even after seeing it the rationale still isn’t very clear. We know who made this supposed sequel, but why did they do so? To continue the story started in its predecessor? To execute a soft reboot on the franchise? Something else entirely? Forget humankind — what purpose does the existence of Alien: Covenant really serve?
It’s a Sequel to Prometheus
This would be the most obvious answer, as the events of Covenant take place roughly ten years after that ill-fated expedition to LV-223, and even heavily involve one of the principals of that doomed mission, the android/replicant/asshole David. However, for those who remember the ending of that silly but ambitious 2012 film, there was another more prominent survivor, one whose questions about faith and mankind loomed large and were left unanswered by a cliffhanger that would see her and her decapitated electric friend borrow an alien spaceship to set a course for the Engineers’ home planet, seeking adventure and a truth that surely seemed to be of far more importance than the dumb robot’s daddy issues.
Instead of fulfilling the potential of that cliffhanger, however, Alien: Covenant decides to pull an Alien 3 and kill off the passionately inquisitive Dr. Elizabeth Shaw without even giving her some last words (and no, a bit of garbled singing doesn’t count). Like how the two unceremonious deaths of 3 negated so much of the struggle that took place in Aliens, Shaw’s demise basically renders the entire ordeal of Prometheus moot (though she’s at least given a bit more lip service than the kid and space marine, I guess). This isn’t the only time Covenant borrows from another film in the Alien franchise, but it is the most disappointing example. Sure, Shaw was no Hicks or Newt, but she was the main character (someone we were clearly supposed to root for), survived a horrific experience despite tremendous stupidity, and left audiences with the implied promise that her story would be continued. With that thread cut off, it’s hard to look at Alien: Covenant as truly a sequel, part of a master plan leading up to the moment the Nostromo receives that fateful distress signal, when that continuation never really happens. On top of that, as if rubbing salt in the wound, by the time Covenant gets to David, he has already annihilated all the Engineers in a devastating biological weapon attack, thus making sure that the focus of Prometheus‘ last mystery, how those freaky weirdos were going to account for seemingly wanting to destroy the very humans they supposedly created, is potentially lost forever.
As a pure sequel to Prometheus then, Alien: Covenant is pretty much a bust. Storylines are essentially cut and disregarded, and there is no reason to continue to care about that first film anymore. What we get instead is more of a spiritual sequel, or even a reset of sorts that touches on many of the same themes, but takes a more half-assed approach. It lacks clarity of vision, but perhaps that’s because the filmmakers had another agenda they wanted to address.
It’s a Soft Reboot of Alien
The Alien franchise has been mired in mediocrity for some time now. Though Alien 3 was at least respected enough because of its serious approach to the subject matter (even if it was considered inferior to its predecessors), perception began to change when Alien: Resurrection took more of a Jaws: The Revenge route, embracing the campy potential of a killer monster and its bizarre connection to one person. This shift in tone from utter seriousness to an almost winking acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of it all, a willingness to “have fun” with the concept, opened the door to both filmmakers and audiences to begin actually mocking what was once considered highly regarded. And mock they did; suddenly the Alien franchise was a property to be treated like the Universal Monsters, with the fan-service crossovers Alien vs. Predator and its ill-advised sequel, Alien vs. Predator: Requiem, transitioning the property to a more comic side of the genre, with schlock reigning supreme over suspense. As James Cameron predicted, these spinoffs killed the validity of the franchise, or at least dealt it a near-fatal blow. No longer was this universe treated “realistically,” something a person could imagine out there in the dark reaches of space and be spooked by, and so audiences responded the way most would to awkward self-deprecation — by cringing in embarrassment.
This sullied reputation was obviously not lost on 20th Century Fox, and it’s no wonder that they originally announced Prometheus as a franchise reboot (it would later be changed to a prequel), with the director of the original Alien returning to the helm. This immediately associated the project with arguably the best entry in the franchise, surely meant to cleanse the cinematic palate and kickstart the Xenomorphs back into the good graces of the moviegoing public. It ultimately went off in a direction that had little to do with that 1979 haunted house film, more interested in a sprawling philosophy of the universe than focused genre scares, and after the fairly lukewarm response to both the ambiguity and idiocy on display, Alien: Covenant in many ways feels like a replacement for Prometheus‘ failures to give audiences that Alien feeling.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a small, ragtag crew on a long space voyage is awakened from stasis to discover a strange transmission coming from a nearby planet. Despite not knowing the true nature of the signal, they veer off course to investigate, resulting in the discovery of the remains of an ancient civilization and the “infection” of their crew by a horrific alien life form, to the delight of a sinister robot fascinated by the creature’s physiology. From the hauntingly familiar musical cues at the outset to imagery callbacks like a Xenomorph tail curling up a woman’s leg or the meticulous dissection of a lifeless organism by a lifeless machine, the influence of Alien permeates nearly every facet of Alien: Covenant. Guiding the alien through dark, winding hallways, a fight between Ripley Branson and her android nemesis, a curious guy leaning over a pulsing egg — even the dumb cowboy hat Danny McBride’s moron pilot wears is meant to signify his blue collar-ness, putting him much closer to the salvage crew of the Nostromo than the scientists of the Prometheus. Alien: Covenant wants so badly to be seen not only as an Alien film, but in many ways, as a new beginning for the franchise (with Scott already envisioning up to three more follow-up films).
Does Covenant really work as a “soft” reboot, though? Unlike more successful examples like Jurassic World or Episode VII, however, Alien: Covenant doesn’t seem to understand what made Alien so special, nor does it even really try. The film is peppered with similarities, yes, but they are all superficial, only serving as reminders instead of naturally functioning to support the story. The quiet foreboding is gone in favor of screams and explosions, the haunted house atmosphere is supplanted by slasher tropes, and the cold intelligence and logic under pressure is utterly absent, replaced by mind-boggling idiocy and hysteria. Remember in Alien when Ripley calmly wouldn’t allow Kane to be brought on board without going through quarantine? She instantly won us over with reason. Yes, she is eventually overridden by Ash in what at first looks like a foolish mistake, but that decision also ends up making perfect sense given his motivations. Characters in Alien behave like humans (or robots pretending to be) who have lived and learned in the universe to which they belong, each with their own agendas that guides the logic of their decision-making. Alien presents a realistic version of what might happen to regular folk who encounter an extraordinary situation, and that’s what makes it so frightening. We can recognize ourselves in them, and empathize.
By contrast, Alien: Covenant contains no evidence that its bozos aren’t just characters made up by a writer, no consistency or logic that would suggest they would ever qualify for the positions they are in — they’re not people so much as puppets for a director to place in harm’s way to elicit a cheap carnal thrill. From stomping around an unfamiliar planet with their life-giving space helmets off (just because there’s breathable air doesn’t mean there’s nothing dangerous in it), allowing someone sick on board without a second thought (the resulting explosion of which symbolizes an abandonment of subtlety that is very un-Alien), or continuing to wander off alone to take a relaxing shower despite witnessing half your shipmates be torn to shreds by some unknown beast that’s still lurking somewhere out there (when the crew in Alien first split up, they had yet to know how lethally terrifying the Xenomorph would become, and after Brett’s death, they wouldn’t make the mistake of letting their guard down again), Alien Covenant doesn’t bother with believable fear in its characters, and so elicits none from its audience.
A philosophically-muddled atmosphere reaches more for lofty sci-fi than haunted house horror, while uneven pacing bogged down by exposition never bothers trying for a building dread, and a CGI monster thing is less crafty hunter than unstoppable killing machine unbound by physics — for a reboot, the similarities between the two are just too surface, as the original’s beating heart is replaced with soulless parasitic filmmaking.
It’s a Stand-alone Horror Film
Hmm. I suppose a case could be made — like with any film — that Covenant should simply be judged on its own terms and nothing more, the beginning of a new story that simply steals from other, better stories (yes, I’m including Prometheus in the “better” qualification). If one knew nothing about the Alien franchise, had never seen the double jaws or fleshy egg of a xenomorph, would it still function as a coherent narrative? Frankly I’m not sure it works that way even if you’re a series scholar, but the many visual and spoken references aside, complete ignorance might just provide optimal viewing conditions. Sure, the prologue with Weyland and David would make absolutely no sense, and the numerous allusions to the Engineers might elicit even more confusion, but the plot basically hits the same beats as a B-grade slasher film, the story never really challenges the audience to think any more than the characters themselves actually do (which ain’t much), and the end could serve as a Twilight Zone-ish twist. As stated above, Covenant doesn’t really go for the whole straight sequel thing anyway, so…
Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t argue this with a straight face. Alien: Covenant needs a host to survive; it could never exist on its own. Every single frame, every single line seems desperate to recall or rework something that came before. It may not (really) continue the story of Prometheus, but it leans heavily on the ideas, world, and themes of that film, and it may not be a spiritual or “soft” reboot of Alien, but it sure goes a long ways trying to associate itself with that classic, oblivious though it is. Covenant is wholly dependent, which is unfortunate, because if it had the guts to be self-reliant, the franchise wouldn’t have to bear the burden of its surely continuing ridiculousness. Oh, well.
Part of the lure in the pursuit of meaning in this universe is that one will most likely never find the answers they seek; the satisfaction is in the search. Why does Alien: Covenant exist, and what lies ahead in the future? Like in the films, the quest will most likely take us to the far reaches of both space and credibility, to a truth known only by creators who clearly wish to destroy what was once so beautifully produced.
Douglas A.L. Smith
October 26, 2017 at 2:44 pm
Spot on. Personally, this film was a let down for me but I am also not an avid fan of the entire series. I could’ve spent more time investigating the visually stark planet with more mystery and smarter characters. You summed it up best with, “…uneven pacing bogged down by exposition never bothers trying for a building dread…” I suppose I was hoping for another Prometheus.
October 31, 2017 at 7:32 pm
Thanks! And in retrospect I would have been happier with another Prometheus. I had my problems with that film, but at least it was trying for something, and is far more interesting than what Covenant ended up as.