Alien: Covenant (2017)

2017 #69
Ridley Scott | 122 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | USA, Australia, New Zealand & UK / English | 15 / R

Alien: Covenant

Following in the footsteps of half the other Alien movies (and “following in the footsteps” is definitely a theme when it comes to this movie), Alien: Covenant introduces us to a group of people who are the crew of a spaceship. This particular lot are on their way to establish a colony when a mid-flight disaster awakens them to deal with the damage. At the same time they detect a distress call from a nearby planet — a planet that looks even more suited to supporting human life than the one they were headed for. Changing course, they find suspiciously human vegetation growing on the planet, but are soon beset by terrible things. Well, it’s an Alien movie — I’m sure you can guess where most of this is going.

I say it’s an Alien movie, but really it’s a Prometheus movie. I don’t think that counts as a spoiler, does it? It’s no secret that Michael Fassbender is back. Sure, he starts the film playing a new robot, but did anyone really think that meant his old character wouldn’t be rocking up too? Sorry if I’ve spoiled it for anyone, but, c’mon. Besides, it’s clear that — despite the initial set dressing — Ridley Scott is far more interested in the concepts that launched Prometheus than he is in creating another Alien movie. The franchise-friendly stuff powers the slow-burn opening and the final act adrenaline rushes, but in between Scott reconnects to themes leftover from the apparently-aborted Prometheus trilogy.

Fit to burst

Now, I’ve already professed to be avoiding spoilers, but suffice to say that if you put Prometheus, Aliens (as opposed to Alien), Blade Runner (yep), and Frankenstein into a blender, then poured the resulting mixture into a novelty tie-in glass from the Star Wars prequels, you’d get Alien: Covenant. Weirdly, it’s the Prometheus stuff in that blend that tastes finer than the Aliens stuff. In fairness, that’s because it’s complemented by the notes of Blade Runner and Frankenstein.

Still, it’s a mixed bag. The scenes of characters chatting hold more interest than the action sequences, which feel a little perfunctory, remixing bits of previous movies with little impact, and are too dark to really appreciate (though I should withhold judgement on that last point, because they looked gloomier in the film than they did in the trailer, so perhaps it was just my cinema?) There’d be no shame in Covenant working as just an action and/or horror movie, if well made — that’s what the films that originated this franchise are, after all — but Scott is interested in exploring something more profound. The problem is that the attempted profundity comes from characters standing around and explaining the plot and/or themes to each other. It’s further undermined by slightly sloppy construction, one that places a key flashback at entirely the wrong moment (coming much earlier than it should, thereby spoiling a later reveal), and a last-minute twist that will be easily guessable to anyone who’s ever seen another movie.

In space, no one can see you look worried...

Worst of all, however, is that this film just didn’t need to be made. As with Prometheus before it, do we want to know where the eponymous beasties come from? It ruins some of their mystique, especially as the answers feel oddly mundane. This is not something further films are going to fix, either; though at this point they may as well keep going until things join up properly to the original Alien, because hey, why not?

Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because at least the character don’t act like total imbeciles who should know better. On the other hand, it’s worse than Prometheus because it scrubs out any ambiguity that film left about the Xenomorphs’ origins. Sometimes a mystery is better than an answer.

3 out of 5

Alien: Covenant is out in the half the world (including the UK) now, and is released in the other half (including the US) from tomorrow.

Alien (1979)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #2

In space, no one can hear you scream.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 117 minutes | 116 minutes (director’s cut)
BBFC: X (1979) | 18 (1987) | 15 (director’s cut, 2003)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th May 1979 (USA)
UK Release: September 1979
First Seen: TV, c.2002

Stars
Tom Skerritt (Top Gun, Poison Ivy)
Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters, Galaxy Quest)
John Hurt (The Elephant Man, Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Ian Holm (Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring)

Director
Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Prometheus)

Screenwriter
Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Total Recall)

Story by
Dan O’Bannon (see above)
Ronald Shusett (King Kong Lives, Total Recall)

The Story
The crew of the deep-space towing vessel Nostromo receive a distress call from an unexplored planet. Contractually obliged to respond, they find a derelict alien spaceship and a field of strange eggs. With one of the crew taken ill they return to their ship, but it soon becomes apparent something else has come with them…

Our Hero
Sigourney Weaver is second-billed as second-in-command Ellen Ripley, but it’s she who’s the voice of reason and, when ignored, the most capable to stand up to the alien threat.

Our Villain
The Alien, aka the Xenomorph, an ugly, dripping, phallic nightmare, that lurks in the shadows, strikes without warning, has the perfect defence system, and is nigh-on unbeatable.

Best Supporting Character
Ian Holm’s Ash is not all he appears to be… Holm made sacrifices for his art: he hates milk, but had to sit dribbling it from his mouth for take after take.

Memorable Quote
“I admire its purity. A survivor… unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” — Ash

Memorable Scene
Dinner table. John Hurt not feeling well. You know the rest. And if you don’t, you don’t want me spoiling it for you.

Technical Wizardry
The Nostromo’s industrial-style production design is a world away from the slick, shiny spaceships of contemporary sci-fi like Star Trek. A lived-in sci-fi world wasn’t something new (Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon were two years earlier, for instance), but the notion of a spaceship that looks like a factory or an oil-rig or somesuch, and that is populated by the kind of people who would work in such an environment, continues to influence the genre today.

Truly Special Effect
The Alien, designed by H.R. Giger, built by Giger and Carlo Rambaldi, performed by Bolaji Badejo, is one of the most genuinely alien creatures the movies have ever generated. It’s terrifying, too, even after the initial disgust has been neutered by decades of over-exposure in increasingly-poor sequels and tie-ins.

Making of
The name of Weyland-Yutani, “the company” the crew work for, is actually “Weylan-Yutani”, as seen on monitors and Dallas’ beer can. It was changed to “Weyland-Yutani” for Aliens (and all subsequent films and media) because James Cameron thought it looked better with the D. It’s the little things, eh.

Next time…
Three direct sequels, two “vs Predator” spin-offs, a prequel (and a prequel-sequel), and a massive array of novels, comics, video games, and the rest. A new sequel is also in development.

Awards
1 Oscar (Visual Effects)
1 Oscar nomination (Art Direction-Set Decoration)
2 BAFTAs (Production Design, Sound Track)
5 BAFTA nominations (Supporting Actor (John Hurt), Film Music, Costume Design, Editing, Most Promising Newcomer to Leading Film Roles (Sigourney Weaver))
3 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Veronica Cartwright))
4 Saturn nominations (Actress (Sigourney Weaver), Writing, Make-Up, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“It’s tempting to describe the brilliantly staged scenes of horror and surprise but it would be a shame not to allow the film to reveal its own secrets. Enough to say that the tension is savage and you are held in suspense right up to the end frames.” — Ted Whitehead, The Spectator

Score: 97%

What the Public Say
“in some ways it doesn’t betray its age, and it does indeed largely still hold up, but in other ways its utterly unlike contemporary films. Its middle-aged cast, its slow, deliberate pace, the ‘real’ sets grounded in reality, how it leaves so many things unexplained — in these respects it’s obviously an older movie, and better for it.” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Ridley Scott’s 2003 Director’s Cut back in 2009, summarising that “to fans intimately familiar with the film, the number of trims (there are rather a lot apparently) and new scenes (just four) make a huge difference, but for a more casual viewer they don’t significantly change how it feels. That said… I’d call the original as the superior cut.”

Verdict

Ridley Scott’s “haunted house movie in space” is one of those works that an awful lot of what follows in the genre owes a debt to, from the production design to one of cinema’s most iconic heroines. “Iconic” is a good word for the film as a whole, be it the realisation of the creature or scenes like the chestburster. Quite beyond that, however, it’s a terrifying horror movie in its own right, where slowly-built tension gives way to proper scares. Being a great of one genre is an achievement, but to be great in two at the same time (horror and sci-fi, of course) is something else.

#3 is not about Vietnam… it is Vietnam.