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Alien: Covenant (2017)
~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)
In 1976, Ridley Scott made one of the greatest, scariest thrillers in film history with Alien, then immediately abdicated the throne, to watch from the sidelines as it spawned a franchise. The first sequel was arguably superior and one of the greatest action movies ever made, but subsequent entries were progressively less well received, leading up to the miserably disappointing Alien vs. Predator crossover movies. This apparently didn’t sit well with Scott, who, in his mid-70’s has embarked on an effort reinvigorate with series, first with the origin story Prometheus (2012) and now with another Alien story proper with Covenant.
It would seem, however, that Scott is learning himself what the directors of other Alien sequels already found out: namely, there are only so many ways to tell this story and only so many ways it can play out. It’s not totally clear if Covenant, like Prometheus before it is meant to be a true sequel, a reboot, or that odd bastard child of the two, the soft reboot, but whatever it is, it definitely shares a lot of similarities with prior films in the series. Elements from his own Alien are borrowed extensively, as well as from Aliens. I recognized ideas from an unused script by William Gibson for Alien 3, one of many rewrites from that notoriously troubled production. There were even a few ideas from 2010’s Predators. So, I’m not going to really discuss the plot, such as it is, here, if for no other reason than to avoid (with a bit more vigilance than usual) spoilers, such as they would be. Suffice it to say that when a lot of your tension requires characters to somehow contract a parasitic infection and your primary antagonists are nonverbal, there aren’t too many different ways for things to go.
A word about intellectual pretensions: I have absolutely no problem with sci-fi movies that have an agenda, want to make a point, or even just want to take a philosophical idea and play around with it. But filmmakers have to accept the facts that sometimes these attempts will fall flat, that maybe a big budget summer tentpole isn’t the ideal canvas, and that probably the worst way to achieve profundity is to actively attempt to cultivate it, especially if that wasn’t your original intention. The Matrix movies fell into this same trap. A few critical suggestions that the first Matrix was maybe not a completely braindead actioner and suddenly the Wachowski’s are chasing the intellectual validation dragon across two sequels, tossing in piles of out of context literary references, seemingly at random, when they should’ve just stuck to blowing things up.
If anybody should already know this, it’s Scott, because not only did he try the same trick with Prometheus – asking big questions, trying to get away with a wink and a smile for an answer, and then rightfully getting called out for it by viewers – he then did the exact opposite with The Martian, telling a relatively simple story of survival with intelligent characters making calculated, rational decisions against a well appreciated risk, as opposed, to give a purely hypothetical example, to having characters suffer baffling lapses in judgement to ultimately justify another tired “who made who?” discussion an hour later. I’d venture to say that, between the two, it was The Martian that started more post-viewing conversations. When Scott made the original Alien in 1976 he was trying to scare the crap out of people, pure and simple. That Alien later spawned its share of philosophical papers (Don’t believe me? Look it up yourself. All manner of treatises of sex, and rape and parenthood and men giving birth to monsters. It wasn’t unlike critical analyses of Frankenstein, a fact of which Scott is clearly well aware.) was merely a side effect of Scott trying to make the best movie he could with a solid script and earnest actors, not because he was consciously trying to make a highbrow statement.
The problem with Alien: Covenant isn’t that it’s a bad movie, because it’s not. It’s beautifully shot, well acted, and technically solid. The problem isn’t even that it’s largely unoriginal. The problem is that it doesn’t realize that it is. Going back to basics is a good strategy to rehabilitate a floundering franchise, but to do so means honestly evaluating what made the original great while hacking out the inessentials. Using the appearance of the original as a trojan horse to push dime store philosophy is not getting back to basics, it’s a dirty trick played on your loyal audience, burning their goodwill to take another bite at the legitimacy apple. Check out Alien: Covenant for the spectacle, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself experiencing a little déjà vu.
Final Score: B-
Scott tries to rewrite the book and instead just ends up reinventing the wheel. But it is a wheel he invented in the first place, so at least he has the basics locked down.
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