Ridley Scott sure does love his xenomorphs–but maybe he should have written about them in a book instead.
Before I dive into this review, I think it necessary to state that I am a huge fan of the “Alien” franchise–huge. I’ve been enamored with the series ever since my cinephilic father first introduced me to the creepy-crawly xenomorphs all those years ago. From the film’s slasher-cum-sci-fi approach to its percipient reliance on lighting (or lack thereof), “Alien” was a breath of fresh air for my (admittedly) young filmic sensibilities. Never had a film so adeptly walked a tightrope of reveal, teasing the viewer with disturbing flashes of violence and death that were seldom exposed long enough to be fully absorbed.
While other films like “The Thing” and “The Fly” count heavily on its special effects team to construct elaborate creatures and gloppy, visceral messes, “Alien” stuck to its lack of reveal and confrontation to build tension and unease. It was an astute way of keeping budgets down while using the mind’s inherent paranoia against itself. Ridley Scott depended on the viewer’s psyche to construct the image. In a Gestalt-like approach that relies on saccadic eye movement and optokinetic responses, Scott seemed to be incorporating perceptual psychology in his breakout film. It was a hallmark approach that soon signaled to the rest of the cinematic world that this was indeed how to construct a great sci-fi horror flick.
But perhaps the most fascinating and enchanting aspect of the “Alien” film series is it’s mysterious, yet richly detailed backstory. Ridley Scott had constructed a universe that lived and breathed on its own. Whether it is Peter Weyland, the trillionaire man-turned-god figure that was monomaniacal in his attempts at finding the origins of life or humanity’s ongoing space colonization missions and battle against extinction, “Alien” has a lot more going for it than a simple B-movie plot about monster(s) terrorizing spaceship crew members. Those underlying stories and the overarching universe is what Ridley Scott realizes are the meat and potatoes of this franchise. Now pushing eighty, it appears that the the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has a great deal more to say about where, what and how this all began nearly forty years ago.
Fresh off his Oscar-nominated sci-fi adaptation The Martian, Ridley Scott returns with Alien: Covenant, the sequel to the prequel “Prometheus.” Set ten years after the tragic Prometheus expedition, a colony mission is poised to begin life anew. With Earth deteriorating and overpopulation becoming an increasingly burdensome problem, colony missions have began exploring remote regions of the galaxy in the hopes of finding a new home. Bound for an Earth-like planet named Origae-6, the crew of the Covenant chances upon an untouched paradise that they predict could cut their trip down by several years. But upon further inspection, the planet becomes paradise lost. Soon, the Covenant crew is beleaguered with hybrid xenomorphs and an unhinged android from the derelict Prometheus named David.
With more sequels, reboots and tie-ins than a Peter Jackson project, Alien: Covenant continues Hollywood’s incessant need to add to a franchise’s long history. But while so many of the series’ expansions have focused on the future, the original film’s creator has instead looked to the past to develop Alien’s fascinating lore. Having already begun his new narrative journey five years ago with the release of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is the second film in what Scott imagines to be a three-part prequel trilogy that explains the xenomorph’s origin and how the Nostromo’s unfortunate crew came to be besieged by the terrifying creatures. Unfortunately as much as I love this series (and who seems to be one of a handful of people who thoroughly enjoyed “Prometheus”), this prequel sequel is a rather pallid addition to a much beloved franchise.
Which is really too bad for I was gleefully waiting to be blown away by the film. Ridley Scott originally conceived these prequels as a means of expanding on a mysterious backstory that has seldom been touched upon, save for the occasional hint. But it appears that Mr. Scott would have been better suited creating a series of tie-in novels to do so for “Alien: Covenant” does more to confuse than to elucidate. While “Prometheus” explores the origin of man and alien through the introduction of a higher-being race called The Engineers, the sequel rarely revisits this plot. Not wanting to spoil too much of the film, all I’ll say is that there appears to be a somewhat obtuse pivot in the narrative that is more mad scientist than creation versus creator.
It is a narrative jolt that is so frustrating and anti-climactic that one cannot help but feel robbed of a satisfactory origin story. Coupled with the film’s self-sabotaging one-dimensional characterizations, “Alien: Covenant” comes off as a jumbled mess that convolutes the already multi-threaded plot even further. And while many would point to the feminist overtones of the series, this film seldom showcases the same quality that it did all those years ago. Filmgoers and fans will be disappointed to see such a hyped feature fall flat of its promises to illuminate further the Alien franchise story.
Nonetheless, the film is not all bad. It does deliver on a few Scott-necessitated notes such as gorgeous set designs and an epic scope that will leave one gawking in awe. Furthermore, the series’ trademark use of lighting and menacing pace have a pronounced return, lending itself to being a demonstrative exercise in building tension and horror. It most certainly is an entertaining popcorn movie but one that regrettably cannot rest on its profilmic laurels to rescue itself from mediocrity.
Maybe this long-term narrative venture by Scott was ill-advised. Most fans were foaming at the mouth upon hearing Scott’s pronounced return to the series. After all, we’d all finally find out just what in the hell the xenomorphs are and where they came from. But perhaps not knowing the origin of the aliens and the infamous “space jockey” from the 1979 original is exactly what this series needed to remain fresh. Nothing terrifies one more than the unknown, the darkness, and the mysterious. Much like the original film’s reliance on not showing the monster, perhaps not showing the origins of the beast would have been more petrifying (and thus satisfying) to the viewer. Instead, Scott has dived face first into the increasingly pedantic world of xenomorphs, the Weyland Corporation and The Engineers. It is a tale that becomes progressively more labyrinthine as more is explained.
It’s an approach that comes off like a television filler episode in which plots, catalysts and events are set up to be explored more lucidly in future episodes. But perhaps that lack of direction is due to Ridley Scott’s ambitious trilogy approach. Maybe the next film will be the final piece to the narrative puzzle that Alien: Covenant desperately tries to unfold. In any case, my fandom for the series is seldom diminished by the addition of this tripe conceit of a film. Instead, one can only hope that the next picture of this prequel trilogy lives up to the lauded Alien name.
Alien: Covenant is slated to be released May 19.