May 20, 2017

Review: "Alien: Covenant" is a Fine Popcorn Flick, But a Lousy Franchise Movie

Scene from Alien: Covenant
Anyone who has seen the marketing for Alien: Covenant will know a few things. The first is that the movie is going to be intense, and it's largely thanks to the drooling Xenomorph who crack open the windshield as Danny McBride looks on in terror. It's the kind of imagery that is welcomed, especially after the maligned and heady Prometheus failed to produce any iconic imagery until the literal last minute of the movie. With director Ridley Scott also admitting the flaws of his previous journey into space, it feels like a chance to start anew with some Hard R action that calls back to the glory days of 1979 when audiences first met the chest-burster. It's all there. The only issue is that what's missing, as was evident in the marketing, is any semblance of interesting characters.
The story of Alien: Covenant is pretty familiar to anyone who has seen most of the prior movies. This time it stars a group of couples wishing to depart from Earth to colonize another planet on a spaceship called Covenant. Their journey goes astray when a rogue signal leads them to a habitable planet that would save them at least seven years of travel. It seems like a blessing, but like all Alien movies, there's a catch. This planet is populated with peril that will give audiences seeking familiar blood lust plenty to enjoy. Scott populates the planet with violence the way that Oliver Stone populated Platoon with gunfire. It's true that the Alien franchise has already done a war allegory (that would be Aliens), but Scott has decided to push it to the extreme with more of everything, and maybe literal overkill.
If judged on menace, Alien: Covenant is a genuinely fun summer blockbuster. It fulfills the basic needs for this franchise. However, it also feels a little lacking in parts because this journey lacks something greater. While it has dual Michael Fassbender performances as synthetics giving philosophy and instrument lessons, it doesn't have much else going for it. Even with the proposed "2000" members aboard the Covenant, few if any get a chance to have much of a deeper character. It's one of the trademarks of any Alien movie, whether it be Ripley and Newt, or Prometheus' Shaw. Even the proposed female bad-ass Daniels (Katherine Waterston) feels void of having a great and memorable scene. 
Scott has essentially moved beyond caring about characters and is now obsessed with the horrors of creation. The film opens with a tangential scene between Fassbender's David and his creator (Guy Pearce) that attempts to set up themes for the rest of the movie. What good is creating something if it will not only outlive you, but may destroy you? These are fine points, but it's nothing that Prometheus did clumsily in a textbook fashion, leaning heavily onto philosophy. By the hour mark of Alien: Covenant, the intellectual side has taken a backseat to devious, conventional plot points about surviving in a rogue environment. While Fassbender glues together the inaccuracies of Prometheus through long-winded monologues, it's not enough to make this more than a fun film. Shame it had to be part of a franchise that would thrust towering achievements over it, resulting in it being inferior by comparison. 
It's comparing Alien: Covenant to the classic formula of the franchise that inspires its undoing. This film is obsessed with mythology and understanding the world that in 1979 was unknown. It raises a new question: are the aliens scary knowing how they were created? Is it scary that Fassbender's impeccable and charismatic performances overshadow any new character? Despite having little in common, Fassbender has become the Ripley of the rebooted franchise, for better or worse. Nobody else matters, and Scott revels in cynically tossing every other character into a death trap. Where some could argue that Alien ends on a hopeful note, the tone of Alien: Covenant is nevertheless more bitter.
It's difficult to explain why this movie suffers without getting into spoilers. However, it is easy to understand why it fails compared to the franchise's basic set-up. It isn't that the crew are once again dimwits who will join internet culture's pantheon of needless dissection. It is that there's no great character in this movie. Because of this, the exciting action that follows has no base to stand on. The climax is full of brilliant haunted house imagery, but by that point it's more out of obligation. Those expecting jump scares and tension will be pleased. Anyone expecting this to be a return to form for the Alien franchise need not apply. It's conventional in the right ways, but should've been more character driven than what it ends up being. 

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