Sunday, May 21, 2017


Alien: Covenant handily passes the “Is it better than Prometheus?” test, which to some ears may sound like damning with faint praise. I found the previous film insufferable in its dawdling pretense and so chock full of lousy acting, with Guy Pearce, Charlize Theron and especially Noomi Raapace leading the charge, that it might have turned into giddy camp had director Ridley Scott’s tone throughout not been so sullen. (It takes a special sort of talent to make even Idris Elba look bad.) But Alien: Covenant, the next phase in the prequel-ized advancement of the Alien xenomorph universe mythology (sigh), manages to carry through and even clarify the father-son/creator-created musings generated in Prometheus and make them considerably more compelling, all by embracing the considerably less philosophical pray-run-scream tactics that characterized the first three terrifying films in the series. When you think back on those movies, you may be struck, as I was, by how unimportant knowing the backstory details of those acid-blooded, perfect-organism killing machines seemed when you were immersed in all the strobe-lit screaming and chest-bursting terror they so effortlessly delivered-- we knew why we were scared. And indeed, though no Prometheus-style slog, Alien: Covenant does at times feel weighed down by its commitment to telling the tale of how the iconic helmet-headed monsters came into being, and what they’re purpose might be.

That said, the movie is scary and it moves at a respectable clip, building to a rousing climax that bears comparison to the early films, even if it sometimes feels a bit too familiar—for some reason, screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper find it necessary to have their Ripley stand-in, played with admirable, sorrowful intensity by Katherine Waterston, proclaim “Let’s blow this fucker out into space!” not once, but twice, deliberately inviting a comparison that the concept of Waterston’s character is not capable of withstanding. That invocation also invites the viewer realize how often, for all the criticism of the Alien movies as simple vehicles for turning human beings into ground meat, there were truly memorable characters on the menu—think not only Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, but of the contributions from the late Bill Paxton (“Game over, man!”), John Hurt, Veronica Cartwright, Jeanette Goldstein, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen, to name but a few. Covenant’s crew is considerably less remarkable, though Waterston does well stepping into Weaver’s shoes, Danny McBride displays unexpected gravitas as ship’s pilot Tennessee, and Michael Fassbender, effectively reprises his Prometheus turn as the inquisitive, creator/creation-obsessed synthetic David, whose motivations have become less mysterious and more terrifyingly defined than they were last time around, and also as Walter, another synthetic, with programming significantly upgraded (and downgraded) from David’s relatively primitive level of perfection. (You can tell them apart by comparing David’s refined British enunciations with Walter’s flattened Midwestern delivery.) David’s interrogation/seduction of Walter midway through the film rates as an auto/homoerotic filmmaking tour de force-- Fassbender gets to make eyes at himself, an actor’s dream come true!-- even though the allegedly sophisticated audience I saw it with wasn’t sure how to react. (So of course, default position: hooting and giggling.)  

The scene comes off as a curiously revealing and naturally self-reflexive investigation of creation remarking upon itself—as do David and Walter, so now do the Alien movies themselves. If Ridley Scott is merely marking time by returning to the well, then at least it is at the service of perhaps his own most universally well-regarded creation, and the 80-year-old filmmaker, whose career has been anything but artistically consistent, seems if not exactly vital and engaged, then most certainly amused in a “give ‘em what they want” sort of way. You can practically hear his nihilistic chuckle as the Covenant floats away from the camera toward deep space and the commencement of the end credits—if the fate of the colonists left aboard seems more uncertain than ever, then at the least the Alien series itself seems destined to try to find the right balance between its impulse to scare and its suddenly more urgent philosophical underpinnings. For all its shortcomings—apparently in space no one can craft elegant dialogue or avoid making fatal mistakes of judgment—Alien: Covenant suggests the series might be on the right track, with maybe a work to stand alongside the brilliance of the original entries yet to be discovered, along with another deadly colony of xenomorphs, on the next uninhabited world somewhere in the infinite dark.


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