Just saw ALIEN Covenant this afternoon, and from the title of this blog entry you can probably surmise that I was less-than-dazzled by the latest offering from Sir Ridley Scott. Being a huge fan of Scott’s brilliant 1979 original “ALIEN,” his visually immersive “Blade Runner” (1982) and his spirited epic “The Martian” (2015) I was a little unprepared for the hard crash that awaited me today at my local Regal cinema. It was akin to seeing Alfred Hitchcock go from directing 1960’s “Psycho” to directing the eighth or ninth installment in the “Friday the 13th” movie series.
Unlike my miserable experience of seeing “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” a few weeks ago, I had a near-perfect time seeing “Covenant” today; nice big RPX screen, great seat, quiet and respectful audience. Got to my assigned seat right after the trailers ended so I was just in time, too. I was fully prepared to immerse myself in the latest installment of this 38 year old sci-fi/horror franchise.
The only thing that failed?
The movie itself.
******** SPOILERS AHEAD ********
The main story of “ALIEN Covenant” picks up ten years after the events of the ambitious, but seriously muddled “Prometheus” (2012); but first, there was a prologue sequence showing the origins of the android David (played once again by the engaging Michael Fassbender) spending some quality time with his eccentric creator Peter Weyland (once again played by Guy Pearce, but without layers of age makeup). A nice enough moment, but it feels more like a deleted scene from “Prometheus” than an organic part of this film. We were already aware of the android David’s curiosity about both his human creators and the origins of his creator’s creators in the last movie. This scene felt like an unnecessary rehash of character motive that really wasn’t necessary (unless one fell asleep during “Prometheus,” of course….).
From there, we cut to the colony ship “Covenant” carrying 2,000 colonists, a whole lot of embryos, and a solitary watchdog android of the same type as David (named ‘Walter’), who oversees the ship’s functions while the crew sleeps during their long voyage (Walter is played by Fassbender with a flat American accent).
An accident with a solar wave damages the ship’s solar sails during deployment (a nice visual), and Walter is forced to awaken the crew early. During the emergency, 40-odd crewman are killed, including the CO, Captain Branson (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo by James Franco). The second-in-command Oram (Billy Crudup) is a nervous, indecisive man-of-faith who takes command reluctantly; with the late captain’s wife, Daniels ‘Dany’ Branson (Katherine Waterston) immediately challenging his decisions. Daniels is this movie’s Ripley, minus Sigourney Weaver’s memorable presence or sharpness of tongue.
One of Oram’s questionable decisions (there are many more later on) is to abandon their planned settlement of Aurigae 6 (which is now seven years out, unless the crew goes back to sleep in their untrustworthy cryo-capsules). Instead, the captain settles on an a deceptively promising prospect nearby; which is also the source of what appears to be a faded distress signal of Prometheus’ lone survivor, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), who is (for some reason?) singing a John Denver song for her SOS (“Country Road”). Oh yes, Oram, because it’s always a good idea to settle thousands of colonists on an uncharted planet that has never been tested or screened for hostile flora/fauna, bacteria, microbes or parasites. Good job…
Oram’s bright idea to investigate the source of the apparent distress call is almost beat-for-beat from the 1979 original movie, except this time the new ship is hauling colonists instead of mineral ore. At least the Nostromo’s crew of space truckers were motivated by the potential loss of their pay bonuses if they didn’t go. Covenant’s crew is motivated by the fact that the shiny, new planet looks awfully purdy, and it’s much closer. So help me, Oram’s decision reminds me of the idiot teenagers who always want to reopen Camp Crystal Lake in a new “Friday the 13th” movie…
So they take a scouting party in a large landing craft down to the surface, and without ANY biohazard gear, spacesuits or anything else that might offer them the slightest protection against airborne contaminants, they set out for the source of the call, as well as checking out terrain for their settlement. So help me, these guys should all be wearing Star Trek-style redshirts, they’re so damned stupid. It’s truly painful to watch.
They notice that there is cultivated grain growing and only one of them, Daniels (of course; ’cause she’s the ‘smart one‘), bothers to wonder who might’ve planted it. Once again, they don’t even consider that perhaps this alien wheat, grown on an alien planet, in an alien ecosphere, might be fatal to Earth-born humans, or that perhaps it only looks like Earth wheat (?). These guys shouldn’t be allowed to work the salad bar at Caltech JPL’s cafeteria, let alone colonize alien worlds. Watching these characters make one foolish blunder after another, I was wanting to jump out of my seat and scream at them, like Sam Rockwell’s “Guy” in the brilliant 1999 sci-fi parody “Galaxy Quest”…
Almost right off, two of the crew members stop their hike to take a piss and to smoke (I’m surprised one of them didn’t need to take a shit or masturbate as well), and immediately they step on mini-pods that release airborne pollens (don’t say I didn’t scream internally at you guys…). The pollen spore/organisms immediately go to work and impregnate these morons with a new variety of alien parasite. These parasites grow to become smoother, smaller, paler versions of the xenomorphs we’ve come to know in the earlier ALIEN movies. And, as before, the gestations and ‘births’ of the emergent creatures from their host bodies are typically violent and disturbing (echoing John Hurt’s infamous chestburster sequence from the still-shocking 1979 film).
These births, and the resultant panic-fire of the observers aboard the lander craft’s medical bay result (somehow?) in the COMPLETE DESTRUCTION of their lander craft with all aboard (including Oram’s medic-wife). It’s as though the entire lander craft’s hull was lined with tanks of gasoline. Admittedly, James Cameron had something similar happen in ALIENS (1986) when the colonial marine’s rescue ship crashed during an attempted rescue of the squad because the pilot was being inconveniently killed by a stowaway alien. At least that reason made sense. The Covenant’s ride is destroyed because… oops? They just started shooting up the entire place? Ugh…
The crew is now officially screwed. They are (for awhile, anyway) lacking a ride back up to the Covenant, because this giant colony ship apparently only comes with one landing craft. Aboard the orbiting mothership, itchy-trigger fingered southern pilot “Tennessee” (Danny McBride) wants to drop the entire mothership (and its thousands of sleeping colonists) deep into the planet’s stormy, dangerous atmosphere to rescue the handful of possible survivors (his now dead wife among them).
Yeah, sounds like a plan...
The character’s name of “Tennessee” is a bit silly. There was, of course, Captain “Dallas” in the 1979 original (played by Tom Skerritt), and the Covenant’s original captain (James Franco) was named “Branson” (as in Branson, Missouri). We have the distress call of Dr. Shaw inexplicably singing “Country Road” by John Denver (was Shaw even a fan of country music? Who knows…). The writers lay on the country connections a bit thick here. I’m surprised their onboard android wasn’t named Lubbock, Atlanta or Nashville. I don’t necessarily object to any of it, it’s just… a curiosity. Maybe it’s an homage to countless B sci-fi movies of the 1950s where you always had the overly proud Texan astronaut, or the guy from “da Bronx” or “New Joisey.” Who knows? Maybe it’ll be explained on a bonus feature of the ALIEN Covenant blu ray that I’m never going to buy…
Anyway, the remains of the landing party eventually make their way to the ruins of what appears to be the albino basketball team of ‘Engineers’ (the giant white guys we saw seeding primordial Earth in “Prometheus”, as well as the ‘space jockey’ of the 1979 ALIEN). These Engineers were also the same guys who woke up inexplicably angry at humans in “Prometheus” and tried to kill both Shaw and David at the climax of that movie. Their ruins look more like deserted Mayan temples than a sophisticated center of genetic engineering, but I’m guessing that was a deliberate choice to add to their ‘godlike’ mystique; a stone temple of worship rather than a sterile laboratory. Real “Chariots of the Gods”/ancient-astronauts stuff. I get it. I don’t believe in that kind of pseudoscientific claptrap, but I get it.
The robed, stone temple-dwelling culture of the Engineers just doesn’t seem consistent with a culture that built the massive ‘horse-shoe’ spaceships of the earlier movies and supposedly seeded life on Earth millions of years earlier. Just sayin’…
Outside of the ruins, the remaining members of the scouting party encounter a mysterious, robed, lone “Prometheus” survivor; the repaired android, David. David leads them to ‘safety’ inside of the ruins. Amid scores of Engineer corpses, David assures the survivors that they’re perfectly ‘safe.’
Yeah, because nothing screams ‘safety’ quite like thousands of tall, alien corpses lying about…
Inside the ruins, we see that David has been busy; experimenting with different xenomorphs and egg-pods and such. It seems David, like Star Trek’s Nomad, is another robot obsessed with ‘perfect’ organisms.
David is not content to just meet humanity’s makers, he seeks to best them. At this point, he turns into the cliched horror movie mad scientist who feels compelled to mansplain his evil schemes to anyone, because… you know, movie. He reveals to an ill-fated Oram (and later to Daniels) that the late Dr. Shaw (Rapace) repaired him and showed him kindness. And that he loved her. Yes, he loved Shaw… that is, until it was time to kill her in his xenomorph genetic experiments of course, because well… he’s mad, you know.
David also reveals (via the magic of plot-convenient flashbacks) that when he and Shaw arrived at the planet in their Engineer-built spaceship, he unleashed the ship’s cargo of bioweapons directly onto the waiting civilization of Engineers below, and essentially rendered them extinct in a day. Muaaahaaahaaa...
David then leads the not-long-for-this-world Oram (who’s already lost his wife in the lander mishap) down to a nice, dark, damp, mysterious, egg hatchery that is all-too-familiar to fans of the first movie. There, he somehow convinces Oram that the giant, throbbing eggs are benign. At his point, I’m thinking that Oram is just mightily stupid; even John Hurt’s ‘Kane’ approached these things with trepidation, and he was in a bulky spacesuit. So, Oram actually caresses one of the giant, leathery eggs. He was apparently born without primal survival instincts of ANY kind. He then leans in nice and close to one of the egg pods, and yeah, you know what happens next…
I mean, we’ve already been through six of these movies, right? Oram’s fate is about as much a surprise as watching the sun rise in the east. No one seated near me in the theater even jumped. Not even a gasp. And this was a quiet crowd, so I think I would’ve heard something.
From there, David’s chicanery jumps into high gear. He tries to kill Daniels, who during the fight, plunges a needle into his neck. She escapes, and David soon finds himself engaging in combat with his ‘good’ doppelgänger Walter (who already sacrificed his left hand earlier saving Daniels from an acid-blooded xenomorph). They get into some serious android-on-android fisticuffs (no ‘Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot’ jokes, please. Okay, maybe just one…).
And in yet another near-mummified movie cliche, we don’t see the outcome of the doppelgänger battle (of course). However, one of the two androids later emerges and rejoins the survivors as they escape. We are now officially being subjected to the old, fossilized, bait-and-switch twin technique; just like in “The Parent Trap” (yes, the 1961 Hayley Mills version). Star Trek fans have seen this old switcheroo on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (1987) with Data and his ‘evil twin’ android brother, Lore. In fact, David and Walter’s arc feels a lot like Star Trek’s Lore and Data rehashed, with the ‘innocent’ Walter/Data and the conniving David/Lore.
So, one of the two androids apparently emerges victorious (big, fat guess which one) and rejoins the others. No one is suspicious or even wonders aloud if it could be David. These are people who wish to settle new worlds, yet their innate curiosity is apparently set for level 0.
Meanwhile space cowboy Tennessee launches a conveniently forgotten cargo craft from the mothership down from the mothership to the surface (oh yeah, funny thing… they did have another other class of landing craft aboard; they just kinda forgot about it), and rescues “Walter” and Daniels, the apparent sole survivors. At this point, it was just maddening to me that Daniels wasn’t even vaguely suspicious that Walter may not have been Walter. Granted, the android had a severed hand but he could’ve done that to himself. Hell, she doesn’t even LOOK for the entry wound under his chin where she’d stabbed him earlier. The characters in this movie are truly “Friday the 13th” fodder-stupid.
During the slow ascent back to the mothership, David’s perfected version of the xenomorph, the one birthed from the late Capt. Oram (also the one which finally looks like the 1979 model) succeeds in latching itself to the outer hull of the cargo lander, and tries repeatedly to break through the cockpit glass.
Tennessee and Daniels try to blow it off the ship’s hull using rocket thrust and an external cargo loading crane (convenient, right?). Daniels climbs onto the outer hull and traps the creature in the external crane’s maw, shoots at it a bunch of times and (seemingly) kills it…
…. that is until they reach the mothership, dock, and are lulled into safety (just as Ripley, Newt and Bishop were at the climax of ALIENS in 1986). And soon, just like in ALIENS, we find there is now a live xenomorph loose onboard Covenant as well. Daniels, Tennessee and “Walter” (*ahem*) try to track the xenomorph’s movements and we see a lot of red alien-tracking doohickeys on LED readout screens; just like the scene in the 1979 movie where Capt. Dallas tried (unsuccessfully) to lure the creature out of the airshafts and into an airlock. Once again, the scene is nearly beat-for-beat; with Daniels even repeating Ripley’s old line about how she’s going to “blow this f–ker out into space.”
The movie’s single most embarrassing ’80s horror cliche happens at around this time, as the only other two awakened crew members onboard the Covenant mothership (besides Daniels and Tennessee) are conveniently having shower-sex (with LOUD music playing, so they can’t hear the ship’s claxon, warning them to evacuate their section… of course). The stowaway monster conveniently kills them both is a two-for-one carnage special that superficially attempts to recall the xenomorph’s ‘rape’ of navigator “Lambert” (played by Veronica Cartwright) with its sharply phallic tail in the 1979 movie.
This was the scene was literally had me face-palming in the theatre out of embarrassment. I wouldn’t have been even remotely surprised at that point to have seen Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask sneaking up behind the xenomorph and burying an axe in its head. This scene was right out of a bad ’80s/’90s Slasher Film-In-Space sequel, and worst of all, it was directed by Sir Ridley Freaking Scott and not some 24 year old recent USC film school graduate doing a horror movie to pad his resume. This was the same guy who gave us “Blade Runner” “Thelma and Louise” and “The Martian,” for goodness’ sake.
Anyway, after that twofer murder scene, the airlock plan partly succeeds in luring the creature to the cargo hold/terraforming bay (did I mention this hold looks an awful lot like the giant cargo hold of the Nostromo?).
Daniels is now in full ‘take charge’ mode; stripping down to her Ripley-esque tank top and shoulder-strap weapon, with the requisite grime and sweat. At this point, she looks like Ripley’s spunky lil’ kid sister; Dyna Girl to Sigourney Weaver’s Electra Woman.
Eventually, the xenomorph is driven out into space… The End.
Well, not so much. Because there is yet a third ending (seriously, feels like I’m watching “Return of the King”), and this is the ending I’d been waiting for ever since um, “Walter” (* AHEM! *) met up with Daniels and they returned to the mothership.
This ending has Daniels FINALLY putting two and two together and realizing that “Walter” is actually the ‘evil’ android David; but she comes to this realization just as David is tucking her into her cryogenics’ pod and locks her in. He even wishes her ‘sweet dreams’ as he plans to kill her in stasis (along with Tennessee; the only other survivor of the incident while the other colonists remained asleep). Last remaining heroes dead. David is now in complete control of the ship. And none of the sleeping colonists (who were never awakened during all of this) are aware of what’s happened…
David’s first action? To vomit a few xenomoph eggs from his stomach (or the android equivalent) and place them among the human embryos for cryogenic stasis to Aurigae 6. He then sends out a phony log as “Walter” assuring Earth that the mission to colonize the planet is back on track. Fassbender solidifies his status as the franchise’s equivalent of Freddy Kruger, presumably to return in a next installment as the ‘evil android/mad scientist in space.’ This ending reduces the ALIEN franchise from slick, top notch sci-fi/horror back to its B-movie roots; much like the brief detour it took with the “Alien Vs. Predator” movies. No thanks…
When I came home from seeing the movie, my wife told me she’d read that they were planning two more sequels that will (eventually) align with the events of the first ALIEN movie.
If true? Then count me officially OUT.
A bit ironic that the ending of “Covenant” has David vomiting up xenomorph eggs, since many of the sequences in this film feel like Sir Ridley vomiting up his own greatest moments of the ALIEN saga. The movie feels like some kind of cynical regurgitation, rather than an original movie that advances the overall mythology. Scott’s previous “Prometheus” may have been maddeningly obtuse, but at least it was ambitious enough to try to take things in new directions; even if it ultimately failed.
Perhaps Scott was so dismayed by the negative reviews of his loftier “Prometheus” that he decided to just make the next one a standard issue, by-the-numbers ALIEN movie with only a dash of the previous movie’s “Chariots of the Gods” flourishes. It’s like a chef whose labored-over soufflé collapses, so he decides to churn out a few of those thick, greasy burgers everyone seems to like instead.
Well, this time the ALIEN Covenant-burger failed to satisfy as well. Perhaps it’s because we remember a far superior version of this same, ‘monster-in-space’ movie formula done way back in 1979 by the same chef; who at this point, should perhaps throw out his tired old recipe book and make something new.
And who knows? Ridley Scott may yet have another “Martian” up his sleeve. If/when he does? I’d love to see it. But for me, the ALIEN saga is truly over now… killed by the director who first brought it to life.