In 1979 I was in college and dating my now husband of 35 years. We saw Alien at the movie theater and it made my unflappable husband yelp and startle out of his chair (first and last time I ever saw him do that) and terrified me to the point that in one still memorable scene involving a wet storage facility, a cat and dripping water I thought – “This is no longer fun, I am in pain I am so stark staring terrified.” Alien was, at that point, simply the scariest movie I had ever seen. Though I have been known to watch movies I liked, even Jaws, 4 or 5 times, it took me the full 17 years until the first sequel before I would even consider watching this gut clenching film again. (Note: Of course, my far more jaded kids saw it and went “Meh, I’ve seen scarier.” Repressing the urge to disinherit them, I realized I had hyped it so much and explained scenes to the extent that they were quite prepped for it – so that was not a fair evaluation.) I have seen every Alien movie since (aside from the Predator cross-breeds), including the iconically awful why-are-you-running-in-front-of-the-spaceship-that-is-about-to-squish-you Prometheus. Whenever Cinema Sins does a review and someone does an Indiana Jones fleeing the boulder run Jeremy, the narrator, always quips that they must have gone to the "Prometheus School of Running Away from Things". While Alien: Covenant is not as bad as Prometheus, it is no where near as good as the best of the franchise, Aliens, nor as roller coaster terrifying as the founder movie, Alien (though to be fair, over the last 38 years WE, like my kids, have all been prepped on these stories to the point that a lot of the raw suspense has been removed, replaced with its creepy cousin anticipatory suspense).
The premise to Covenant is that the titular colony ship on a 7 year trip with 2,000 passengers and over a thousand embryos is hit with an energy neutrino surge which overloads their systems, killing 47 passengers and burning their captain (James Franco in what has to be the shortest, most unnoticed cameo in the history of scary movies. Stan Lee gets more screen time in the Marvel movies) to death in his hypersleep chamber (see my article on the evils of hypersleep pods). Without their proper commander, the leadership of the vessel falls under the questionable control of a self-doubting, vacillating and weak but well meaning First Officer who unwisely agrees to take a detour from their assigned path to investigate —- a John Denver song. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but this is what happens. The song is being inadvertently transmitted, (or perhaps is part of a trap – we are never made clear on this point), by David, android and sole remaining survivor of the goofy crew Prometheus, who hijacked an alien spaceship and landed on the alien creators’ home world. David looks like the Covenant's android Walter. David and Walter are played by the reprising Michael Fassbender who seems to be condemned to star in the least worthy installments of some amazing franchises, like X-Men and now Aliens. (Although he was also in X-Men: Days of Future Past which WAS a good movie.)
I want to make a side note and mention that Fassbender does a good acting job here. He convincingly portrays David and Walter as two distinct characters with opposing motivations and personalities. Not a mean trick given both are androids with supposedly muted emotions. But Fassbender does a good job of making one clearly different from the other – one an easily recognizable good guy and the other a slick manipulative camoflaged bad guy
The homeworld of the alien creators is now a barren wasteland with no fauna of any kind but flora which includes a questionable, fungal looking and black pod. But our intrepid heroes continue to speculate about where they should put their summer homes on this bizarre choice to call home.
This is where things get REALLY dumb. Let me list just a few questions I have:
1. The crew, without testing for parasites, bacteria or anticipating the unexpected, opens the hatch without hazmat, protective gear or even a helmet. Haven’t they ever even HEARD of War of the Worlds? In this case we are the Martians as it turns out.
2. When on an uncharted mysterious planet, where there are no animals or even insects, is it wise to stick your face near a cluster of black bulbs which could either be fungus or poop?
3. When a crewman is inexplicably smitten with a sudden and debilitating illness, starts throwing up black blood and seizing, is it the most sensible course of action to bring them RIGHT into the transport ship?
4. When a crewman is locked in a room with an obviously dangerous creature that just blew its way out of another crew member, should you: let the other crewman out? Or run away to find a weapon with which you are unfamiliar while the creature EATS your fellow crewman? And contagion isn’t an issue because the rupturing crewman just sprayed blood all over you and you end up barging into the med chamber with your weapon anyway.
5. When shooting at an alien creature should you fire wildly in the direction of the rest of the ordnance?
6. What is THAT much ordnance doing on a transport ship which was originally onboard a colony ship? And why would you bring it ALL with you on an away mission? And why, when going to all the trouble to BRING this much firepower, would you then leave it behind in the transport ship instead of taking it with you to do the walkabout?
And that’s just one scene.
Not even the prologues they have released, one about the crossing made by David and Elizabeth from the Prometheus movie and the other about the last meal the crew has together before the ill fated entry into the hypersleep pods, really brings any light or aid to mending this swiss cheese script.
I skipped over the part about the captain burning to death. (And, BTW, how they got James Franco to play this barely-seen captain is more of a mystery than why they released this movie with all these plot holes in the first place.) During this particularly gruesome and pointless death scene the poor wretch is trying to get out from the inside and his crewmen are trying to get him out from the outside. Neither is successful and he burns to death in the pod. My simple question is: WHY wasn’t there an emergency release hatch? Inside? Outside? No? So we just lock them in like they were the Hope diamond and content ourselves with the belief there will never be an emergency during which they might need to escape? Such as the hypersleep pod catching FIRE!? OK Just thought I’d ask.
This is all not to say that Covenant isn’t a scary piece of work. It is. But the problem is two fold.
First, the plot has so many ridiculous holes that you should be able to read the script right through it even in the bad lighting and foggy mood mist in which they filmed the entire planet-side portion of the movie.
Secondly, and I’ve complained abut this before in movies…there is no humor. This is a flaw it shares with the original Alien, also directed by Ridley Scott. The original Alien was so tense that after a while your adrenal glands just shut down. There was no let up from one incredibly tense moment to the next. And Ridley Scott makes the same mistake here. One of the things that makes Aliens (plural) a far better film is that the suspense is relieved with legitimate bits of lightness. It doesn’t take much in a horror film. In Aliens, directed by James (Titanic) Cameron, after their rescue ship crashes, one of the soldier wails “What’ll we do now?” Paul Reiser (an actual comedian in real life) quips, “I don’t know, let’s make a campfire and sing songs.” You chuckle in surprise, the tension is released and you are now prepared to get the pants scared off you again in about another 5 minutes.
Without this emotional hill and valley your audience will just continue to rocket ship up and up the tension ladder until eventually, without oxygen it will burn out. By the end of the movie the scares just aren’t that scary any more. I’m sorry, but Cameron should have directed this venture. Scott makes the same mistakes in Covenant as he did in the original Alien, has not really brought us anything new and so Covenant just feels like a rehash of the same stuff. Only we, as an audience have had 38 years to ready ourselves for the adventure. It is still a thrill ride, but I really wish they had given more thought to the premise and plot.
The McGuffins are plentiful and too too obvious. And characters do things that are unbelievably stupid. In one case a young woman crewman goes off, on this extremely hostile and unknown planet, where she has just seen one of her fellow crewman ERUPT with a creature which turns around and rips into another crewman, to BATHE?! By herself!? Of course, one of the aliens gets her. Duh!
Going to investigate the first office/captain goes with their host, David, an increasingly untrustworthy android who looks like their good android, Walter, but who they have no reason to trust and a lot of reasons to question. David tries to protect the alien who ate the crewman from the captain. The captain kills the alien anyway. David objects. Now you’d think this would put the captain on guard as to where David’s allegiances lie, right? But no. The captain continues on BY HIMSELF with David, doesn’t even radio in as to where he’s going or with whom, down into a dungeon-like area where there are alien pods and is easily convinced to LOOK INSIDE ONE!!! In all the Alien movies, this is the first time I have ever thought – “OK, buddy you are about to get what you deserve.” What he did was so dumb I figured David was doing the rest of the crew a favor by getting rid of this bozo.
The kids in Nightmare on Elm Street make fewer boneheaded choices than this colony ship crew who are supposed to be trained to know better. I could go on with other inadvisable decisions made by various members of the good ship Covenant crew but I think you get the picture.
For some never adequately explained reason, but shown in flashback, David, upon arriving at the alien creator homeworld on which they now stand, unleashes cannisters of black goo from the hijacked ship to convert all animal life, including the alien creators, into variations of aliens. Further this conversion takes place with the instantaneous and explosive eruption of baking soda mixing with vinegar or sodium with water. This explosive and instantaneous conversion reaction is never seen again.
Covenant is about as scary as a haunted house but makes about as much logical sense as Gracie Allen. People do monumentally irrational things to further the plot and I suspect both Cinema Sins and How it Should Have Ended will have a field day with this one. The intent was to tie in the end of Prometheus with another step towards the beginning of the origin story, Alien. It does that adequately, I guess, but there was just no NEED for the plot to be this poor.
Perhaps, as Alfred Hitchcock once so memorably said of the Academy’s delay in giving him an Oscar, it was “a matter of carelessness.” Meanwhile, please give James Cameron back the directorial reins.<—-FROM ALIENS, A FAR FAR BETTER MOVIE
WARNINGS: Aside from the obvious, extreme and ubioquitous violence, there are also nude scenes – though with married couples, and a LOT of gratuitously used "F" bombs.