Digital Digressions: Alien: Covenant
Alien: Covenant is a movie I really enjoyed and Hank REALLY hated, so we’re going to try to suss out how each of us came to our respective conclusion
Nathan: Alien: Covenant is a movie I really enjoyed and Hank REALLY hated, so we’re going to try to suss out how each of us came to our respective conclusion on this latest entry in the thirty-eight year old franchise and see if we can’t find some scrap of common ground by asking each other questions about our respective viewing experiences. Fair warning, we intend to talk in detail about Ridley Scott’s latest so if you haven’t seen Alien: Covenant yet and want to formulate your own opinion before sampling ours, read no further. It is hard to say where to begin with a film franchise with this much history behind it but it seems likely to play a big role in our expectations for this new one. Is it fair to start with our feelings on Prometheus or do you want to jump all the way back to 1979?
Hank: Quickly I’ll just say that I really like the first four Alien movies. I prefer Aliens to Alien, I’ve always liked Alien 3, and I love Alien: Resurrection for the ridiculous shlock that it is. I also thought that movie was such a treat since it was another Sigourney Weaver Alien movie I never thought we’d get. I really didn’t like Alien vs Predator when I first watched it, but I’ve softened on it in hindsight, though I never watched Alien vs PredatorRequiem because of that distaste. That Alien vs. Predator arcade game from the mid-90s was pretty good.
Okay enough stalling, here’s where I admit I never watched Prometheus. I’ve read a lot about it, heard plenty of people’s thoughts and seen clips, but nothing from that ever grabbed me enough to get me to watch it. I also went into this movie not aware of the extent to which it would be a Prometheus sequel. Honestly I was more expecting it to fall into the same category as something like The Thing from 2011 and be a prequel that is really kind of a remake. My expectations going in were optimistic but I was also aware that this could go bad for me. As for other recent Ridley Scott movies I have seen, I really liked The Martian and I really hated The Counselor. I never felt like I was lost or missing something while watching Alien: Covenant, but what do you think? Is Prometheus essential for seeing Alien: Covenant? And should I go watch it now for the sake of this conversation?
Nathan: That is an interesting position to be in. I haven’t seen Prometheus since 2012, so my memories are a bit hazy, but I do remember leaving that movie feeling very positively about Michael Fassbender’s character David, so him reappearing in this film was a positive moment for me because of that and the malevolent direction they go with his character was probably my favourite thing about this film. I would say Covenant is a very direct companion film to Prometheus, so watching it if you don’t enjoy Covenant might be doubling down on something you hate, turning two hours of un-enjoyment into four and a half. Prometheus was somewhat divisive when it came out five years ago, and Covenant seems similarly divisive, both amongst critics and imdb voters. I went into this movie somewhat pessimistic as a result, which can put me in a forgiving mood if I find myself enjoying the film in question. What would you say you most strongly objected to in Covenant? Were you enjoying it for a time and it lost you at a specific point or were you just never on-board with any aspect of it? Also curious if you object to the core premise of it being a prequel and concerning itself with where the xenomorphs came from. I felt a bit conflicted about how that impacts the lore, shall we say, of the franchise but I found something very appealing about a big budget sci-fi film where the villain wins. I like atypical endings and I found this to fit that description, though I suppose within the horror genre that has a higher chance of happening.
Hank: Covenant basically lost me from the jump. I really don’t like the opening scene with David and I immediately felt like it should have been cut from the final film. There’s a pretentiousness to it that I really don’t like, the way it throws out references makes the movie feel like it was written by someone who’d read a collection of quotes rather than an actual book. (And this goes on throughout the movie and is a whole other thing we’ll need to talk about) For me it felt like a scene that’s specifically there for someone who hadn’t seen Prometheus, so that they’d have some context for who David is when he shows up. However, it also completely telegraphs that he’s going to be evil (and to a lesser extent his eventual victory, just because the movie is more interested in him than anyone else). While on the human side of the movie James Franco is dead before we even know it’s James Franco. And that’s actually where the movie loses me, with its characters.
In one of the trailers there’s a hopeful speech Daniels (Katherine Waterson) is giving about how the crew is made up of couples and how they’re so courageous and whatnot; I mention it because it’s not actually in the movie. We get no room to get to know this crew and who they are. Daniels’ defining characteristic is being sad James Franco is dead. Her opinion that they shouldn’t change course for this new world they get a message from doesn’t feel grounded in anything other than that she’s the heroine so she’s gotta be the only one with foresight. Billy Crudup’s character Oram is terrible, but he felt the most fleshed out in that he was pointlessly petulant. He says that the company didn’t trust him because of his religious nature, but I felt like it was because he’s just an unlikeable jerk. I also have no idea what he did on the ship previously and why he was next in line to command since no one seems to like him other than his wife. Danny McBride is Danny McBride and I recognize Demián Bichir from Weeds and stuff, but none of the other Humans stand out as anything other than fodder. My eventual point with this is just going to be that if the Humans don’t matter they should have started dying off sooner and faster.
As far as David and the premise of an Alien Prequel goes, I’m certainly not very interested in explaining where the xenomorphs came from, particularly when that story only starts like 30 years before the first movie. (That’s why I didn’t see Prometheus) I think that story is more potent depicted as ancient myths going back to the start of the universe. Tying a human face (even if he is a robot) to the xenomorphs is inherently lame to me. However, I’m also a firm believer that a bad idea executed well can still make for a great story. Any of my nitpicks about what this means for the franchise and the lore come entirely secondary to not enjoying this movie as a viewing experience. I just didn’t care about these people at all. We can get back into the lore stuff later though. How did you feel about the characters and how the movie handled them?
Nathan: Well, you bring up something that is truly odd about this film in regards to Daniels speech. There is a finished scene that includes that speech which could be considered part of the canonical story but, oddly, it was released online along with two or three more such scenes on YouTube as opposed to being part of the finished film. Scott did something similar with The Martian and I guess it is a means around his bad habit of shooting far more stuff than any studio wants to include. Of all major directors he is who I think of first when it comes to “Director’s Cuts”. You could say he is an undisciplined filmmaker in a sense, but he is an old veteran at this point so I just kind of find it interesting that he found a workaround by working within the confines of marketing a new film. When I returned from watching Covenant I watched these scenes and kind of incorporated them into my experience of the film. I’m sure they’d be included in any home media release, so in Scott’s head, that scene and all it does for the characters IS in the movie. That opening scene with David could also have joined those scenes, but this may be a case where I perceived that scene as being a follow-up to a big climactic moment in Prometheus between Weyland and David. And I absolutely agree the movie treats David, and to a lesser extent Walter, with a great deal more interest than its Human cast but I was definitely on the same wavelength with the filmmakers in that respect. If you have ten characters in a room and one of them is a robot, I immediately am most interested in the robot. Doesn’t matter if he is an emotionally distant, poetry mis-quoting, genocidal maniac, give me more robot. As much as you can. A scene with one robot teaching another robot how to play the flute? Amazing! What else you got? That was kind of where I was at with his character.
As for the human characters, I went in with some concerns that I’d just find Danny McBride distracting because of all his comedy work, but I found he fit in very well and was happy to have him onboard. I kind of agree about Crudup, but I found his awkward team-building speech early in the film authentic. I have a deep-seated sympathy for characters who lack confidence and leadership abilities, probably because of an early fascination with Charlie Brown, so I found him true to life, in a sense. There was also a very specific line-read that made me smile. It is an old chest-nut, “Oh ye of little faith”, but he puts an awkward laugh into it that seemed kind of perfect to me as well, helping bring that character to life. I had no idea James Franco was in the movie until my friend tapped me on the shoulder and said “Franco just died” in what was essentially the opening scene. I have no idea why he was in such a small part but to his and the studio’s credit, they didn’t market or even credit his appearance in the movie. I found it kind of an amusing choice, to be honest, to cast an Oscar-nominated, marquee star as the very first person to die. So I had the opposite reaction. Speaking more broadly about the characters, I felt they mostly fit in with what I expect from characters in a horror film. Most of them are here to die, you got a hero, a conflicted person who is supposed to be the leader, a sidekick with a cowboy hat and an easy-to-remember nickname, and a mad scientist, essentially. I will give full propers to James Cameron for making the most of his supporting cast. To this day I can remember most of those marines by name because he invests time wisely in making them seem like a team that has seen it all together in the opening chapters of that movie.
Scott has felt more removed from his characters, dating back to the first film where Ripley kind of organically emerges from the line-up of supporting players to be the hero because everyone else is dead. Positioning Daniels as the hero in this film seems a bit forced in comparison, but it’s hard to pull any surprises in the eighth entry in a series, so I wasn’t really affronted by them getting a bit trope-y with most of their characters.
Getting back to the opening scene, what was it about the particulars of it that made it seem pretentious to you?
Hank: At a base level I think that everything that scene gives you is already covered by the fact that you have a robot named David in your movie, I didn’t need the actual Statue of David there to hammer that into my head. Referencing Wagner, talking about the origin of the universe briefly; I can’t see it as anything other than an affect for a movie that’s ultimately about weird scorpion monsters murdering people. Part of why if felt so instantly pretentious is that I knew where the movie was going.
This movie uses “culture” the way bad comedy uses references. It’s not there to say anything new it’s there as something to be recognized. The worst example to me in the movie is when David quotes Paradise Lost to go “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” because that line just doesn’t fit with his situation at all and I find it really weird that someone so focused on creation is so caught up on old human shit. There’s a part where I’m almost ready to forgive the movie, when Walter points out that David is misattributing a quote, except that David still wins.
For me the pretentiousness of this movie really just ties back into the movie deciding that David matters more than the xenomorphs. And his position as weird Alien craftsman means he feels like a weird writer self-insert character. Instead of this just being a trashy horror movie, David makes it feel like Ridley Scott saying “I made the Aliens, they are mine!” And that feels like such an overreach to me because I didn’t like this movie.
There’s an extent to which there is an interesting story in the David and Walter stuff, but it’s also a story I’ve seen done better before. It’s the story of Lore and Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. It also has the problem of sitting on top of this Alien movie I’m trying to watch. When we do get some Alien violence it’s real trashy and gory, full of idiot characters we don’t care about. The sequence where two ladies slip on the same pool of blood on the floor is one of my highlights, and I really like that that sequence ends with one of them blowing herself up accidentally. That’s dumb in a way I like. There’s a shower scene kill that would be perfectly acceptable if it didn’t come in the last 20 min of this film; that’s a first act kill. If this had been an hour and a half murderfest I wouldn’t mind that the characters are all so disposable, but the movie is so bloated with David that stuff that should work doesn’t. The final sequence with the Alien where they funnel it through specific doors for example. It’s a complete retread of the end of Alien 3 (The best part of that movie) except I felt no sense of tension. There’s a variety of reasons for that (Like that I don’t care if these people live) but the fact that it was already super clear that Walter had been replaced with David and that twist was gonna hit afterwards was not insignificant.
To me this movie felt like two plants trying to live in the same pot strangling the life out of each other, but how did you feel about the overall pacing and how the parts of the film worked together?
Nathan: I found the pacing got rather brisk early. When the shockwave hit the ship and all that chaos took place in the opening five minutes I was a bit annoyed that it wasn’t easing into the proceedings a bit more gradually, but they follow that up with the section where they were just patching up the damage and then the message disrupts their plans and I found that a fairly airtight explanation for why they would divert from their prior plan to pursue an unknown. Really, the middle hour of the film is probably my favourite section. Things descend into chaos very quickly. I too enjoyed the slipping with the shotgun scene and the arrival of David into the proceedings was capitalizing on some threads left loose by Prometheus. I still don’t know that I can recommend Prometheus to someone who didn’t like its sequel, but it has a very similar blend of “low” and “high” culture within it, so perhaps I was just used to it. I tend to feel alluding to classical architecture and poetry in your bloody Alien movies is a playful move, meant to kind of highlight some kind of conflict in our nature between savage and sage. Maybe that is a pretentious thing to enjoy, but it seems to kind of mock high culture by putting it next to schlocky B-horror. If anything, I found that kind of tone shifting to make the final section where David has very obviously infiltrated the crew murky in terms of intent. I don’t think you need to be a sharp viewer to interpret that Walter surely lost his fight with David because there is a clear shot of him grabbing the knife, so was that final reveal meant to be a twist at all or simply a tragic little moment for our main human character? I’ve been profoundly annoyed by obvious twists in films, but I didn’t read this movie as doing that. It felt like they wanted you to intently watch “Walter” past that point to see how and when the penny would drop and if it would be too late for anything to be done.
As for David architecting the xenomorph, I am a bit conflicted about that as it does kind of rob the iconic Alien of its mystique. Despite chronologically taking place before Scott’s own 1979 film and the subsequent sequels, I would recommend audiences watch the films in order of release so as to preserve the mystery surrounding the Alien in those films. That question of lore is perhaps my only major misgiving about this movie. As you said, having humanity, even in android form, having a direct hand in the creation of the xenomorph, is kind of a lame contribution to the grander story. I found it an enjoyable employment of sinister robots, which have been part of this franchise since the beginning as well, but if I was new to this whole story, knowing Fassbender was somehow behind the curtain the whole time might dampen and dilute the threat the Alien poses in the previous films. I’m glad I watched them how I did, and I found this movie a generally fun ride with occasional moments of ingenuity, but I definitely feel this and Prometheus are very direct attempts by Scott to assert his ownership over the franchise and I’m not sure why he feels the need to do that after other filmmakers have made good to great contributions over the years. That Neill Blomkamp seems to have essentially been bullied out of taking a crack at the franchise is a bit troubling to me as it seems against how this series has grown over the years. But I think this series will outlive Scott and I would entertain him telling another story or two in this universe before others inherit it.
Looking forward, what would you hope for from future Alien films? Should they just stop? Should Scott’s attempt to take back the series be dismissed and the story pick up elsewhere in the series? If Scott has his way and releases two more films, will you see them or wait until someone else is allowed to tell a story in this framework?
Hank: It would take something real special looking to rope me into a direct follow-up to this movie, but I’m a pretty easy target so I can’t rule it out. They just need to do something to make me curious again. Or poney up the money to get Sigourney Weaver to do another one of these movies, that I would feel compelled to watch. One of the things that I think really worked for the first four Alien movies was how different they were from each other despite having the same basic monster and heroine, and ideally I’d like the franchise to get back to that kind of variety (Although hopefully also without the kind of studio interference that made the production of Alien 3 such a mess). Giving talented artists who have an Alien story in them the opportunity to tell that story, that’s the dream.
One of the parts that gets lost with making the xenomorphs a recently engineered thing is the idea that they assimilate traits of the beings they birth from. It’s something the movies have still only scratched the surface of. I would love to see a movie where they introduce an alien world with crazy and diverse creatures on it and show how the xenomorphs consume and appropriate that ecosystem. Really tap into that toy-line aspect of them. Or tell smaller scale stories with well written characters. Or 90 minute slasher trash movies, I’m flexible.
I just don’t want a movie about how awesome David is. There are plenty of other little nitpicks I could get into but I think we’ve covered enough, so what are your final thoughts on the movie and how the franchise movies forward from here?
Nathan: Well, I intend to see how it holds up after a second viewing, but I liked it as a follow-up to Prometheusand a big studio movie with a bleak ending. If Scott gets his way and intends to make two more films, I could see this being the chapter that establishes David as a clear villain for some hero or heroine to take down. A kind of personification of everything demented and heartless about Weyland-Yutani. This would give the Aliens an increasingly supporting role though, but I’m not sure how else to clearly define a threat that needs dealing with other than having an invasion of Earth. Bringing Ripley, well, clone Ripley, back into things would be a nice capper to the whole thing, but the centuries between this timeline of films and Resurrection makes that difficult, and I’m not sure Scott would want to pick up from another filmmaker’s work. I’m not sure I NEED another entry, but I like some R-rated science fiction and Dan O’ Bannon had a really good idea nearly forty years ago, so that it continues to expand is intriguing to me. In the meantime I’ll probably give Alien Isolationanother try and fervently hope Shane Black’s Predator film is as excellent as it should be.
I hope everyone enjoyed this long ramble about Alien: Covenant and I think we can both agree you should probably check out those first two movies and then see how you feel about going forward. And check out the Lore and Data arc from Star Trek TNG while you’re at it… and maybe give AVP another try.
Hank: I can agree with that.