Now that I’ve sucked you in with that deceptive, but convincing lie, welcome to a brief consideration of Ridley Scott’s 2017 Alien: Covenant, or How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Dumb as a fan, a whole fan, and nothing but a fan.
“But Sam,” you splutter, “why write as a fan and not as one of these ten-a-penny internet critics that choke the individuality out of science fiction and the Alien franchise?”
“Well,” I answer, sucking a pipe in my leather-backed armchair of self-righteous wisdom, “Do you remember 1979?”
In 1977 the trailblazing, unorthodox, hot young director Ridley Scott had torn through Cannes, sweeping up acclaim and impressionable young screenwriters with his roguish smile and commitment to making Really Good™ films. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, following his inability to make an audience laugh at an alien in sci-fi-comedy Dark Star famously remarked; “If I can’t make them laugh, then maybe I can make them scream”. A partnership with fellow writer Ronald Shusett and professional Freudian fanboy/artist H.R. Giger was only improved by the rakish maverick Scott, and the unforeseen tearaway success of Star Wars lead to the 20th Century Fox’s decision to approve Alien. Unprecedentedly, casting was totally gender-blind, and in addition to the already-acclaimed John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, and Ian Holm, new face Sigourney Weaver was invited to play the lead role.
Alien was a ridiculously-huge success, forever changing science-fiction and horror, but why? Dead simple; a perfect cast, elegantly-simplistic writing for characters and dialogue, tasteful directing, and the most terrifying non-human film antagonist ever.
The crew of the Nostromo are space-teamsters, and they are bored, grubby, funny, and human; they aren’t airbrushed techno-twats in skin-tight Lycra defecating exposition about the alliance with the Pylon Federation. The best part about their ship is how grungy it looks, so grimy and practical and cyber-punk, it’s got the look of a gothic genital-piercing, and it’s probably just as hygienic. It’s this naturalistic, super-realistic feel that defines Alien. One of the first scenes with the whole crew is for a post-hypersleep breakfast of horrible, plastic-looking prison food. The gang joke, chatter, and complain about the food, and the dialogue is neither clumsy nor over-written – these people seem like colleagues, tired and annoyed and glad to be finishing a long journey. So when 50 minutes later there’s another meal, this time slightly more on edge, noticeably tinged with relief, as the crew we’ve grown to love force the easy banter of the first meal, we’re unprepared for That Scene. You know That Scene. With John Hurt. And his chest. And the rain of blood and meaty chunks that accompany the chaos and horror that will haunt you forever. Now that’s bloody horror.
Now, you remember when Prometheus was announced? When everyone was ready for the masterpiece that would catapult the Alien franchise back to its deserved pinnacle-of-Olympic-greatness? If you remember that, you’ll remember the boring, infuriating, impersonal, senseless, bag of rehashed-chrome-and-scary-robots crap that was only saved by some pretty shots and an excellent performance by Michael Fassbender that it actually was. Thankfully, Ridley Scott heard the very last part of fan criticism, so prepare yourself for the boredom, confusion, steadily-rising-anger, and shameless, shameless reuse of Alien clichés, tempered only by twice the amount of Fassbender and some really very nice cinematography that makes comprises Covenant.
Remember the clunky, expressionistic, late ‘80s technological look of the Nostromo? The way everything on board was either backlit by flickering green monitors, or shrouded in hissing pipework, that reinvented the flawless, sleek varnish of classic sci-fi, that made the ship seem real? Or the chunky, unwieldy weapons and gear of Aliens, that set the artificially-tough Colonial Marines against the sleek, shadowy terror of the Xenomorphs?
Well forget it, the Covenant is made of chrome as shiny as baby-arse and run by fucking iPads. The ship has all the personality and likeability of a stainless-steel dildo, and the equipment and technology is as modern, stereotypical, and bland as the crew.
“But if our world is nothing but flagrant, ham-fisted corporate abuse of all that is good”, you ask, furrowing your brow, “and even original and nuanced directors eventually become stale and intellectually-bankrupt, is there nothing of meaning or worth in this futile existence of ours?”
I smile comfortingly; “Of course not, but Michael Fassbender’s really good at acting.”
A universal constant, first postulated by Doctor I. Kolurietev in 1893 as ‘Fassbender’s Law’ states that Michael Fassbender will always do Really Good™ acting, even when in something as awful and pretentious as 2013’s ‘The Counsellor’, Michael will bring a tear to your eye and a spring to your step. His performance as David 8, the enigmatic and decidedly creepy android operating on a level of morality so amazingly disturbed, it takes Fassbender’s twinned personality, the loyal, incurious, and barely-cognizant Walter to convince the audience that the actor doesn’t spend his weekends smilingly dissecting cats and wearing their skins. Without Fassbender’s performance as, ironically, the most human characters in the film, I would have no grudging praise to bestow.
An excellent, international, critically-acclaimed cast (from Billy Crudup to Amy Seimetz) is entirely wasted on one-note characters, hastily-written and unconvincingly acted, due not to any fault of the actors, but largely to the schizophrenic plot, requiring a series of implausible and senseless decisions, so that no character has either motivation or incentive for the stupidity of their actions. Bizarrely, Danny McBride’s performance is the strongest, or at least most memorable, of the crew (although as Ian Freer of Empire notes, that’s probably because he wears a cowboy hat).
Much like everyone else, I was thoroughly excited by the sound of Katherine Waterston as a new Ripley-esque character, and then thoroughly disappointed when that turned out to mean she would wear a singlet and have short hair, and that’s about it. Again, it would be unfair to blame Waterston for her character, as it seems one of the writers stuck in a Strong Woman™ placeholder and forgot to remove the unbelievably condescending “Girls can be tough too!” context. While Weaver’s Ellen Ripley managed to be simultaneously incisive, arch, and impossibly badass, Waterston’s Aileen Hipley just comes across as a played-out stereotype which might have seemed radical thirty years ago, but hardly today as just another straight, white, insipid non-character.
The story itself hardly deserves mention, as not only is it incredulously stupid, but almost equally terrifyingly unoriginal. Matt Goldberg does the best job of discussing the countless, idiotic decisions made throughout, but perhaps the most unbelievable part, is the brazen laziness with which some of the most dramatic and exciting parts of previous Alien films are casually torn out of their comfortable contexts, and cynically dumped at random into Covenant. Remember that amazing scene with the Power Loader in Aliens? Well you’ll love this low-tension shit-fest of a rehash involving a crane on top of a flying space ship, with albino not-Xenomorphs leaping all over the place like pissed fleas. I shit you not.
In Ridley Scott’s defence, he is trying desperately to get fans onboard with his Prometheus nonsense gods-creation-existentialism storyline, and his refusal to let that boring, unnecessary backstory die is a sign of genuine bravery and creative intent. In much the same way that George Lucas’ decision to keep Jar Jar Binks was brave; it takes real bravery to attempt something, fail, refuse to back down, and double-down with two middle fingers blazing the way. With overarching themes that are grandiose, pretentious, muddled, and never discussed or presented consistently, what could have been an interesting discussion of nature and instinct, or birth and death, or god and creation, becomes a horrifying, confusing, mutant abomination comprising all three, and really, for a fan that’s the worst part. Previous films kept the plot simple and discussed themes with political or gender-political subtext, psycho-sexual imagery, or even just selective lighting to highlight difference; at no point in Alien was there a fucking flashback to explain a character’s entire motivation, or in Aliens were stupid decisions presented as clear common sense from the Planet Twat.
But hey, such basic considerations are not to be, and instead of ending with further angry diatribe, let me instead leave you with an exact reconstruction of a conversation that took place in my head:
Studio Executive: “Mr Scott! How would you like to make another Prometheus?”
Ridley Scott: “Well I’ve just read a summary of Paradise Lost on Wikipedia while drunk, will that do for a plot?”
Exec: “Don’t care! Just stick ‘Alien’ in the title and it’ll shit gold!”
Scott: “I hate myself more every day.”
Exec: “Haha yeah great stuff, I’ll call Michael.”
Scott: “No, I must sabotage this, I can go on no longer. I am no corporate whore.”
Exec: “Great, Mike’s in, and the money-truck’ll be round in an hour!”
Scott: “Perhaps… yes, a subtle parody of the original films will truly kill it dead, no longer will I suffer under the obligation to direct these shitty sequels. I will destroy my own creation!”
Exec: “Perfect, Michael’ll eat that up!”