The Alien series is now officially on my list of franchises that must be humanely put down (along with the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers series, both cynical cash cows devoid of any artistic merit that will continue as long as people are stupid enough to go and see them). It is such a shame that Alien and Aliens, both stone cold classics, have had their hallowed reputations sullied with subsequent sequels. When Ridley Scott returned to the franchise to direct Prometheus, I had hoped for a Casino Royale or Batman Begins type rejuvenation, but that proved a crushing disappointment. Now, with Alien Covenant, the disappointment continues, and it’s time to draw a veil over the whole sorry business. Sorry Ridley, you’ve blown it once too often.
Even though there are a few superficial changes to the format (for example, this time the fresh alien meat is a group of colonists searching for a new world) the plot plays out like an Alien bingo sheet. Crew awakened from hypersleep early? Check. Mysterious distress call from an unknown planet? Check. Foolish blundering into said unknown planet? Check. Stupid disregard for quarantine procedure? Check. Dodgy androids? Check. Bloody, body-ripping carnage ensues? Check. You get the idea.
All of which is fair enough in one sense, given that this is an Alien film. But the script is so painfully on-the-nose, with every plot turn so obvious, that what was once mysterious, unpredictable and terrifying is now merely bland, regardless of how much blood and guts is chucked onscreen (and there is plenty, believe me, along with strong language to turn off the faint of heart). Ostensibly we are meant to sympathise with recently bereaved Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and be intrigued by Michael Fassbender’s robotic duo (one of which is the same character from the previous film), but neither they nor any of the other characters develop beyond mere plot devices.
As with Prometheus, every so often the film threatens to evolve into meaning-of-life sci-fi. Certain cast members, such as the recently promoted Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), tease intriguing character arcs (Oram is set up as someone who worries he is not respected due to his religious faith). The very first scene, where Fassbender and corporate big cheese Weyland (Guy Pierce) ponder life’s big questions in a stark, white, minimalist room sparsely decorated with religious artworks and grand piano (all the better to pointedly play Wagner’s Entry of the Gods into Valhalla on), is more Blade Runner than Alien. But as with Prometheus, all such threads are lost once the carnage kicks in. Besides, quite honestly the Alien franchise has always been ill-suited to attempt the hoary old Who-made-God question. The more Ridley Scott insists on clumsily shoehorning existential musings into the franchise, and explaining the xenomorph backstory, the less I care.
On the plus side, Scott is far too talented to make a film that looks bad, and Alien Covenant is visually fabulous. The design, art direction and special effects are superb. Jed Kurzel’s music score neatly apes elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic original, and once again Scott is furnished with an overqualified cast, all of whom do pretty well with sorely underwritten roles. But not even a two-for-the-price-of-one Michael Fassbender can save this, and how I longed for the presence of Sigourney Weaver.
Quite honestly, if you really want a half-decent post 1986 Alien movie, try this year’s Life instead. It might be shamelessly derivative, but at least its slick, nasty, unpretentious and consistently gripping.