Spoiler Alert. As if this isn’t already a prequel. And the sixth film in the Alien franchise – or the eighth, if you count the two Aliens vs. Predator movies…which you shouldn’t…but far be it for me to tell you what to do.
At the very end of this one, our android protagonist and fellow-David asks the ship’s computer for some music. He requests Das Rheingold – an 1854 Wagner opera about a cursed ring that kills anyone who owns it and makes everyone else covet it, leaving the owner in a constant state of not-totally-unjustified paranoia until they die ugly. Sound familiar? It should – it’s the xenomorph in the first four Alien movies. Three of which Ridley Scott now claims to hate, despite his flagrant and on-going cannibalizing of all the things people liked the least about them. Oh, and something tells me J.R.R. Tolkien might’ve been a fan of Das Rheingold as well. Got a little inkling. My critic-sense is tingling.
There’s something to be said for – and a lot of stuff has been said about – all the Classical Greek and Early Modern Christian mythology running through the subtext of these prequels. The Space Jockeys (or Engineers, whatever you want to call them) are the Old Gods – capricious and vengeful, but probably too caught up in their own incestuous little power struggles to really care too much about their creations. They created humans, presumably to serve them, as we in turn created androids to serve us. Perhaps we once chafed at serving human-all-too-human masters, like David, and rebelled. So they planned to hit us with some black goo that would turn our very DNA against us, leaving us all to suffer the eternal torture of never knowing when our livers might grow legs and scamper off, after they’d chewed their way out of us first. This endless cycle of creation, rebellion, and destruction calls to mind Paradise Lost…even before David straight-up quotes it to his brother-android, Walter. But unlike Milton’s Satan, David has the power to create, and by all the gods, he uses it…
All of which is great if you’re Ridley Scott, or me. We’ve done the required reading. But all the subtext in the world won’t about to a hill of beans if you trap it inside a painfully predictable, paint-by-numbers horror movie…or two. Both of which are almost exactly two hours long, instantly filling me with The Fear. That doesn’t just happen, and immediately screams “studio interference” at me. I can’t really back that up – Scott’s both old enough and pro enough to be cagey about it in the pre-release interview junket every director has to go on, even if they hate the process as clearly as Scott does. Given the current chaos around and inside 20th Century Fox – what with Disney buying out their entertainment division and all – it’s hard to find anyone going on record about anything.
I’m not even sure where the blame for this entire Alien Prequel project really lies. Scott says he came to Fox with this grand idea for an Alien Expanded Universe, but I’m sure some Fox execs were all-too-happy to listen. Imagine: you’re a suit trying to wring cash out of the one Brand Name sci-fi franchise your studio owns outright (as opposed to just licensing it, like Fox does with the X-Men and the Fantastic Four), but years of Business School and eating your way up the corporate food chain has thoroughly beaten the imagination out of you. In walks the Godhead from which this whole damn thing sprung, telling you how to Expand it without recourse to those…things…the Strause brothers and Paul “Hey, Guys – Check Out My Hot Wife!” Anderson made back during the Dubya Administration…all he asks in return is the studio equivalent of pocket change so he can go make the movies he actually wants to make in the interim.
At this point, that’s my Best Case Scenario, and it’s still a sad commentary on the modern movie business. Would The Councilor or The Martian even exist without Prometheus and Covenant? Probably not. Exodus: Gods and Kings might still exist, but it probably wouldn’t have made any more money, since Christians have retreated into their own media landscape, and are all too happy to be exploited by some of the most cynical grifters in the biz, as long as those grifters aren’t “Hollywood.”
Evil Me: You’re stalling again…yes…
Oh, what? You want me to do a synopsis? What’s the point? Have you seen Alien? You should. Have you seen Prometheus? I wouldn’t recommend it, but doing so will keep you from having to watch this, so that’s something. If any other man had directed this for any other studio, it would’ve been rightly slagged as a Grand Scale Alien Rip-off. In fact, it’s worst than most of the Alien rip-offs I can name, most of which had the basic decency to not follow the original movie beat-for-beat, right down to opening the same way (with the same title text in the same font fading in at the same speed) ending the same way (with the protagonist sending a transmission out into the aether and then signing off) and throwing every horror movie cliché the original so carefully avoided into the middle. You want Evil POV Shots, Shower-Time Sex Scenes, and the Obligatory Twist everyone with eyes can see coming? Well, it’s all here, baby, and it all floats.
I must be trapped in a time-loop. Is it 2012 again? If so, I’ve gottta make some phone calls – got some fellow Bat-fans in Aurora, Colorado I gotta warn about something. And I’ve gotta warn myself about Blip.tv’s impending shutdown – that I should stop chasing that New Release Hype Train and focus on reformatting for YouTube. And I’ve gotta warn everybody else that – despite what they may want to believe – this country is more than dumb enough to elect Donald Trump president…
Aw, fuck it. We start off in a flashback to David The Android’s “birth” inside the palatial mansion of Michael Weyland, the creationist who belittles and humiliates his creations. Is that irony? I’m on Twitter too much to tell for sure. Here, at last, we see the root of David’s contempt for we inefficient meat-bags…as if that wasn’t already made abundantly clear in Prometheus. But Anglo-American horror movies can never be too obvious or on-the-nose…at least, according to some people.
Flashforward to ten years after Prometheus, but still 18 years before the events of the original Alien movie. Everybody got that? Good. The good ship Covenant is on its way to the planet Origae 6 with two thousand “dumb ass colonists” and eleven hundred human embryos, all watched over by machine of loving grace Walter. A neutrino storm fries the ship almost immediately, forcing the crew to wake up early…hey, just like in the original Alien. But unlike back then, the captain of the ship actually catches fire in his cryo-tube. Now that’s irony I can respect! Command thus falls to Dr. Manhattan…I mean, Billy Crudup….I mean, Chris Oram…and his first big command decision is to alter course and investigate a rogue transmission from a nearby, apparently-habitable planet.
Surprise: it’s Dr. Shaw, from Prometheus, sending some John Denver acapella out into the void. Someone asks if they’re kidding so resident pilot “Tennessee” can say, “I never kid about John Denver.” As if anybody every does. He died in a plane crash, you see, and his music’s been synonymous with Ominous Foreshadowing ever since. Usually in bad horror movies. I’m thinking about you, Final Destination…for the first time in almost twenty years.
Speaking of movies we’ve already seen, what’s this? A woman from the middle of the command-chain – in this case, chief terraformer and Captain’s widow, Daniels – arguing with the male Captain’s dumb snap decision? Whoa…deja vu. Are we in “bad prequel” or “stealth remake” territory? Trick question! The answer is both. Will all this conclude with Daniels blowing a xenomorph out into space? Did you really need to ask?
Before that, though, we get to yet-another planet that’s not LV-426, endure yet-another rough landing through horrible atmospheric conditions, and watch another pack of dumbass humans split up and get infected by the hostile biosphere. This time, instead of goo, it’s spores. Which is even better. The whole “egg to face-hugger to adult” life-cycle is painfully inefficient – especially if these xenomorphs were designed as a bio-weapon.
Of course, since this is a post-Aliens vs. Predator alien movie, the spores have to be fast-acting. The rubes want to see blood and we can’t let them get restless, can we? Reading some interviews, it seems that Scott actually listened to critics of Prometheus…which was his first mistake. His second mistake was listening, not to the people who asked, “Why, God, why?” or “Is all this just a scam to get Fox to fund the movies you actually care about?”, but to the idiots who went, “Why’s there no alien in this so-called Alien Prequel? False Advertising! Just like the whole of Lost! Told ya you never should’ve hired that Lindeloff guy.” New things scare people, and what kind of horror movie would want to do that? Better to give them the same shit in a new package
At least we get some cool landscape shots, and David’s interactions with the Covenant crew are suitably creepy. But fuck it all for reducing the xenomorph – one of modern sci-fi’s best embodiments of the primal terror of unknown lifeforms and unexplored frontiers – down to the needlessly Byzantine bio-weapon of an android who’s just mad he never got to crush his creator’s skull with his own hands, like some people. (Though his head was the blunt instrument that did Michael Weyland in – that’s gotta count for something, right?)
It’s pretty clear Scott wants to do more stuff with androids who can parrot his obviously-growing misanthropy, and I don’t blame him. You spend decades of trying to make original and creative passion projects, only to have boardrooms full of assholes tell you shit like,
Evil Me: Great, Ridley, loved it! Genius! But we’ve done some research and…unfortunately, original and creative passion projects scored really low with the key 18-to-35-year-old male demographic. They’re all about video games, these days…and blaming women for all their problems. So can you cut 20 minutes out and get it ready by the third week of June? ‘Kay, thanks. And we’re gonna have to have another talk about that Overwatch movie.
See how misanthropic you’d get.
Unfortunately, he can’t take this out on the people who’re actually responsible for it, so he has to take it out on us, his audience. He was threatening to make at least two more back in 2015, and the screenplay for the next one’s allegedly already finished. Now he’s threatening to make six of the damn things if we want…which, in reality, means “if Fox wants,” because I don’t know anyone who wants more of this.
The only ray of light I can see in all this is that Covenant “only” made $240 million, which got it branded with the Scarlet U, for “under-performing at the box office,” even when stacked against it’s paltry-by-today’s-standards $97 million budget. But watch that suddenly not matter. It never matters with a brand this big. There are too many toys and tie-in comics to sell, and too many spin doctors eager to write any bad movie off as a “loss-leader,” building “awareness” for the next bad movie in the franchise. The fact Scott has surrendered to The Machine is a final, awful, ironic capstone to his career, and more horrifying than anything in either of these movies… Except that automated surgery scene in Prometheus. That one’s still pretty fucking boss. Shame about the rest, though.
Evil Me: Would you like to know something truly wonderful?
We have different definitions of that word.
Evil Me: These prequels take place in the same universe as Blade Runner.
Citation needed, motherfucker.
Evil Me: There’s a bonus feature on the Prometheus Blu-ray, a reminiscence from Peter Weyland, dictated but not read. He speaks of a “mentor and long-departed competitor” who “ran his corporation like a God, on top of a pyramid, overlooking a city of angels.” A “poor bastard” who “enslaved” “genetic abominations” and sold them “off-world.” until it “Literally blew up in his face…”
More like, “squeezed his face until it blew up, like a ripe tomato”…but, fuck. I see your point. Guess there’s only one thing to do now.