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I'm kind of at a loss for words about Alien: Covenant. There are plenty of things I could mention about the Alien series but, at this point, I’m pretty sure it’s all been said. We’ve all heard the analysis of how the first film is about rape and sexual terror, we’ve all praised Aliens as one of the truly greater horror sequels, we’ve all searched for quality in Alien 3, and shamefully hidden our enjoyment of Alien Resurrection.
We all struggled with Prometheus, a film whose failures and success seem to have most determined the path of Alien: Covenant, and we even enjoyed Alien v. Predator while also suffering through its sequel. We’ve bought the comics and the action figures and the video games, we’ve gorged ourselves fully at the buffet of Alien. So I guess my biggest question going into Alien: Covenant, the one thing I actually can say about it is…why do we need more, exactly?
That thought has hovered over me every since I first saw the trailer for Alien: Covenant, mainly because it basically looks like Alien all over again. I’ll get more into that as we go along but first let’s talk about our story. Alien: Covenant finds us following a new crew of the titular Covenant, a colony ship exploring a remote system.
That’s actually my first little niggle right there, the fact that “Covenant” here doesn’t seem to mean anything other than the ship. I’ll grant that Prometheus also named its movie after the ship but at least that movie was also full to the brim with themes of man meeting the divine and a quest for knowledge and the fire of creation.
Alien: Covenant seems to be a lot more grounded in the standard horror template Alien pioneered with very little of Prometheus’ consideration of the divine and man’s origin. I mean, “Covenant” is a fairly evocative word and the idea of a pact between man and God would fit perfectly into humanity’s complicated relationship with the Engineers, but maybe that’ll show up in the actual movie.
The movie we’re being presented with in the trailer is relatively straight forward and actually plays like even more of an Alien prequel than Prometheus, which probably isn’t a coincidence. Incidentally, before I go any further, let me just say that I really liked Prometheus. I thought the core concept was engaging, the characters were enjoyable to the point I actually liked David 8 and Dr. Shaw more than Bishop or Ripley, and the scary stuff was really scary.
So the fact that Alien: Covenant looks to be trampling all over that film, basically acquiescing to the backlash, is definitely disappointing. We’ve shed any mention of the Engineers short of finding ANOTHER crashed ship, Dr. Shaw and David 8 are MIA, and we’ve already jumped right to Xenomorphs and face-huggers.
The only thing Alien: Covenant seems to be taking from Prometheus is the black virus, at least overtly. This is actually one of those components of the Alien mythos that’s mired in disagreement and in-fighting so I’m not surprised Scott is taking a whole movie to mark his territory. See, in the original Alien there are deleted scenes that go into greater detail about how the Xenomorphs are meant to work.
There’s a lot of technical stuff in there but the gist of it was that they were a kind of genetic parasite that needed to use other organisms to reproduce. This was highlighted most disturbingly in a scene where some of the captured crew were being turned INTO face-hugger eggs, which eventually got cut from the finished film. However, that absence is what led to James Cameron creating the queen Xenomorph concept in Aliens, a decision Scott has never really gotten over.
As such, it would seem this installment is doubling down on Prometheus’ work to undo/betray Cameron’s vision of how the Xenomorphs work. We saw the beginning of the Xenomorphs at the end of Prometheus but here they fully walk among us, probably because of the black virus infecting that crewman. I’m not sure exactly why the virus exists now as a natural phenomena rather than something the Engineers created, maybe that was always the case and this planet is just where they were harvesting it from. It would explain the presence of the Xenomorph mural in the vase room of Prometheus. That actually could be a decent facet of this era to explore, the idea that the black virus might be a power even beyond the Engineers and that the Xenomorphs are its inevitable end result.
All of that is a very balanced and logical as far as finding another part of the Alien’s past to explore, but I wouldn’t call any of it scary or really engaging. That’s mainly because we’re hanging this adventure on another small team of unprepared colonists, cut off from all help on an alien world, with an untrustworthy Android and the promise of corporate scheming as the crew is picked off one by one by the creature.
This kind of storytelling was pretty transformative when Alien happened but that was nearly 40 years ago, now it just comes off like a very glossy Alien rip-off that happens to star the Xenomorph. Compare that to recent legacy sequels like Fury Road or Creed and its clear Alien is a franchise that’s given up trying to escape its own past in favor of cobbling together a greatest hits reel. I’m tempted in that respect to compare it to Force Awakens but that movie actually had bigger goals about diversity and franchise revival, this is more like Terminator Genisys or Into Darkness.
I admit this is a very negative tract to take and that’s certainly somewhat from being annoyed at how much of a rejection of Prometheus this movie seems to be. More than that, however, it’s that I’ve never held the original Alien in the same tremendous regard as everyone else. That it’s a classic is undeniable but not all classics are enjoyable to rewatch and I’ve always preferred Aliens as the better franchise installment.
So going back to the formula of Alien for a new installment feels like a regression, a chance to reiterate stuff that everyone already knows and agrees, like making a documentary about how 1+1=2. It could just be that I’m way off base and Alien: Covenant ends up the shot in the arm the franchise needed to come roaring back, I hope it is, there’s just nothing here to indicate that’s going to be the case.
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