Over the past few years, movie franchises long left dormant are being brought out of stasis on a fairly regular basis. While the overarching reasons for this are certainly important when looking at a macro view of our film universe, on an individual film level they are less important. There, one of the biggest questions we should be asking is this: is this story worth telling within this universe.
It is possible to tell a story about a couple and their children and their extended family without putting it into the “Big Fat Greek Wedding” universe. It is possible to tell the story of an aging professor going on an adventure with mandating that the character be Indiana Jones. A movie can be about a boxer without having to feature Rocky.
I don’t wish to denigrate any of these particular franchises (or any others) that have offered a belated sequel, there may very well be a good (or great) reason for having a film take place within an established universe. In fact, that’s the point – if there is a compelling reason it should be done.
This is the question that needs to be asked when something like “Prometheus” or, now, “Alien: Covenant” comes along – is there a good reason to have this movie exist within that established “Alien” framework.
Certainly “Alien: Covenant” is a direct follow-up to “Prometheus,” it has to exist within that world, but the franchise’s current trajectory doesn’t seem to necessitate a connection between these new films and Ellen Ripley & her saga. Yes, there are more of the classic alien creatures here in “Covenant,” but they feel shoehorned in, an unnecessary connection which exists in order to prove these movies part of the franchise rather than something intrinsic within the new films that bursts forth, declaring itself vital. In fact, “Alien: Covenant” feels somewhat more weak for having to acknowledge that which has come before (or is still to come, depending on whether you’re in-universe or not).
At the heart of this new movie is the ship Covenant, which is on a Weyland-Yutani sponsored venture, sending colonists off to some planet in the far reaches of space. No, it isn’t LV-426, but it is close enough to where David (Michael Fassbender) and Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) headed after “Prometheus” that when there’s a problem with the Covenant and they go outside to fix it, the crew gets a distress signal and decide to divert to this great-looking other planet instead of their intended destination. They do this not just to follow the signal, but because it’s a potential new home, throwing away years of research about the planet for which they were originally headed. Sadly for the people on the Covenant, there is evil afoot at this alternate destination.
As with “Prometheus” before it, “Covenant” does give some of the history of how the aliens in “Alien” come about and offers another quick look at the Engineers. However, every time the movie heads down that road it feels all the more hollow. Director Ridley Scott never truly seems interested in those moments. Instead, they feel like a way to serve the audience faux-lofty discussions about what man can create, what robots can create, at what point robots need to have rights, and what each group’s responsibility is to the other.
Some of this plays out in a discussion between David and a robot on this mission named Walter (also Fassbender). As good as Fassbender may be playing two different characters in one movie and acting opposite himself, it’s all more than a little silly. The big scene in question would be far more impressive if it was better lit rather than regularly having at least one Fassbender at least partially in shadow. It would also be more impressive if either Walter or David had taken a moment to read Isaac Asimov and his Laws of Robotics.
When Scott and company leave the deep thoughts behind and get down to the business of evil creatures doing a number on a small group of humans on a foreign planet, “Alien: Covenant” is rather more enjoyable. Because the movie is within the “Alien” franchise, everyone knows exactly what to expect and a lot of how to expect it, which undercuts some of the moments in the movie, but there are several new, disgusting, bits to make sure the audience isn’t too complacent.
If nothing else, these moments prove that Scott can still gross us out. The audience isn’t going to jump at any of it, but some of it is still impressive.
While David and Walter get the best moments in the movie (even if they’re not great scenes), the humans are, by and large, not terribly memorable. Front and center in the group is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, who takes on the Ripley/Shaw role (and it seems distressingly easy to put it down as such), while Billy Crudup’s Oram finds himself in charge of a crew that doesn’t believe in him as he believes in a higher power… at least that’s why he thinks he has trouble with the crew. That particular tale never feels like it develops properly in the movie, perhaps because “Covenant” is full of so many other actors and characters including Danny McBride (in a solid semi-dramatic turn), Demian Bichir, Amy Seimetz, Callie Hernandez, Carmen Ejogo, and more.
One of the reasons “Covenant” may not feel like an essential “Alien” tale is that in order to make it one, too much of the film is built on coincidence. It just happens to be another Weyland/Weyland-Yutani trip. The planet with David just happens to be near where the Covenant encounters trouble. Oram just happens to be the guy in charge at the time (he isn’t the original captain of the Covenant) to make the decision to divert from the original intended destination. There just happens to be a storm that affects communication when people are on the planet. Some of it, just as with the alien attacks, makes “Covenant” feel as though it is simply recycling plot points from earlier entries in the franchise.
And here’s the thing, I am invested in knowing how the Xenomorphs came to be, how humanity came to be, and how this all eventually ties into Ripley. I will go see the next one, if there is a next one, hoping that we finally get more of it and have that stuff wrapped around a tale that is interesting in and of itself.
Bilbo getting the ring may be a small component of “The Hobbit,” but the story Tolkien tells in the prequel novel is great. I’m not yet convinced that the “Prometheus”-“Alien: Covenant” tale is remotely as interesting.
photo credit: 20th Century Fox