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Feels much more like the original Alien in terms of design and aesthetic.

Alien: Covenant is getting positive reviews it just doesn’t deserve and that I didn’t expect. The negative reviews make more sense to me, though I don’t fully agree with them. I think it boils down to a collective sigh of relief that it is not nearly as bad or as stupid or as bewildering as Prometheus was. At the same time, it almost makes me miss that movie. Which, if you know me at all, would seem a completely fucking loony tunes thing for me to say. I hate Prometheus and though I tried many a time, I never made it through a rewatch. That movie just falls apart about 45 minutes into it and never, ever recovers. But, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, at least it had some ambition, misdirected and poorly executed though it was.

Covenant is not really a good movie. It isn’t terrible, though, it’s just kind of there. Like I was saying, I find myself aligned neither with the ridiculous positive reviews nor with the ridiculous negative reviews. They all make points, some solid and some not so much, but I feel squarely in the middle in terms of my critical response. This was a movie where I couldn’t summon up much ire over the parts where it did get stupid. Nor did I really feel much in those moments where something interesting, whether visually or narratively, happened.

I don’t know if Covenant could rightly be described as a boring movie, but like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it does feel like a pseudo-remake of the first one. A movie that arises not to put a bold new chapter in the Alien book, but to basically try and remind us why we liked these movies in the first place. This is a problem because it fails by playing it too safe, too conservative, and by splitting its priorities so distinctly and unimaginatively that you wind up feeling like you’re watching three different movies, stapled together so ineptly that it becomes distracting if not ruinous for the whole franchise.

IN SPACE, NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU *SPOILERS*

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This spaceship design is indelibly phallic. Like… more than most.

The Covenant (real subtle) is a colony ship on it’s way to a planet called Ogidae-6. Along the way it stops to recharge using giant and very cool solar sails. There’s a random stellar flare and the ship is briefly crippled by power outages and damage. The crew of 15 awakens to a hellscape of klaxons and dying or at risk crewmates. The captain, James Franco, is engulfed in flames as his cryo pod fails. His wife, one of the many married pairs in the crew is Daniels (Katherine Waterston in a breakout role, one of the few really bright spots in this movie). She becomes our lead point of view character whose closest friend seems to be the android Walter (Michael Fassbender).

After this, the new and fairly whiny captain is Oram (Billy Crudup) who isn’t really up to the job and thinks everybody is out to get him because he is Christian. Thankfully, though there’s Biblical allusions galore in this film, the ludicrous collective fiction of Christianity as a persecuted religion is quickly dropped and never emerges again. I honestly don’t think I could have sat through that.

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An early sign that this movie at least tries to improve on Prometheus is that bad decisions actually get challenged occasionally.

Because they understandably don’t want to go back into hibernation after seeing a few people die in that state, the crew opts to go looking for a rogue signal they pick up from a planet nearer to them than their destination. This planet was passed over in initial scans and the signal appears to have a human origin. Oooh. Space mystery. But! Sunshine used a very similar plot device and much better. Here, it seems like the facade is quickly going to crumble and they’re just going to go “oh good idea, let’s go” without pausing to think about it. Daniels, however, is smarter than anyone on the crew of the Prometheus (and the Covenant for that matter) and roundly questions the intelligence of going off on an adventure after what has happened. Oram caves to the pressure of the crew, probably in a misguided attempt to win some of the respect he feels he doesn’t have (we never see any evidence for this really, though Crudup wisely convinces us that Oram doesn’t deserve it anyway). So it’s off to Mystery Planet they go.

Once there, they are quickly assailed by a version of the space spores of Prometheus and aliens start hatching and all hell breaks loose. David (Michael Fassbender), long-haired, rebuilt, and hermit-crazy rescues a few of them and takes them to an alien city full of frozen dead bodies in horrific poses. No one comments on the evidence of an alien civilization. No one. It’s a very and deeply Prometheus thing to omit. It’s just too jarring for these people to simply roll with it. This also basically happens in Prometheus, where it’s even more egregious since finding aliens is the whole point of their mission. In Covenant, it’s distracting and silly but less integral to the plot or themes. Trying to be fair here.

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The aliens come out of the back this time, guys!

This is when the movie switches from being a rather generic, if nostalgic and therefore agreeable retread of the original Alien into being another pretentious fucking David movie. Once David shows up, his machinations take over the whole movie and everything else gets pushed to the side. There’s some nominal character development for Oram, Tenessee (Danny McBride, who is good here), and Daniels. But the main show is David. The movie does briefly come alive in a few David moments, particularly the flute scene with Walter (flutes have this inexplicable totemic power in these movies, I guess). But we quickly realize David is evil, he murdered Shaw (Noomi Rapace) brutally, and he plans to murder and experiment on all the assholes from the Covenant too. Yawn.

What’s worse is that Covenant decides to try its hand at yet another version of the aliens origin, this time that David actually designed them (right down to the colour and the iconic eggs and facehugger designs) iteratively after he wiped out this whole alien species and turned their planet into a very pretty graveyard. He even quotes Ozymandias in case you don’t get it. This is the worst because in the David scenes, you’re watching a movie that thinks it is very, very clever even when it is very, very not.

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I liked David better as a very archly performed head.

The thing with Shaw is pretty ugly. This is what the character is reduced to? I wonder if Rapace pissed Ridley Scott off somehow. It’s pointlessly and distractingly cruel. I know some people are going to think it fits because it shows just how evil and/or amoral David is, but it’s literally the most boring possible explanation for what happens to her.

Add to this that Covenant fails to follow up on the one interesting promise made in Prometheus: that in the inevitable sequel we’ll find out more about the Engineers, so that they stop being so dumb. Instead, they have one big city and no world-building besides a vaguely Biblical-era architectural and costuming style. We never know anything about them. They are less than a one-shot Star Trek species from the kind of underwritten episode that also rubs your face in the Biblical allegory of two androids, referring to each other as brothers, bashing each other’s heads in with a rock.

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This being a Scott movie, there are several visually stunning moments.

Inevitably, a third movie takes over from the David movie. This one is again a retread of Alien, with a bit more of Aliens thrown in to, I dunno, spice things up? There’s a big action finale, with ludicrous acrobatics that are just a tad less ludicrous than the spaceship evasion shenanigans of Prometheus. The crane arm and terraforming cargo bay seem intentionally reminiscent of Ripley’s showdown with the queen in Aliens, but at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if you’ve stopped caring. The movie tries very hard to convince you that Walter makes it off the planet, while the whole time you’re pretty sure David took his place. It tries so hard, in fact, for so long that I was briefly convinced Scott and his screenwriters had decided to fake out the fake out and end on a more positive note.

There is something interesting about the way the movie motivates it’s “gotchya” horror ending far more than most of those kinds of endings. There’s also something interesting about David floating around in the Covenant making ready to continue his experiments on the 2000 sleeping colonists. However, it’s such a hand-wavey shot to the continuity of the franchise that you just know Scott is planning 2-3 more movies in this storyline to bring us round again to the Nostromo. This means that the exercise feels pointless on its face: why bother doing these movies if you’re just going to leave people wondering how in fuck it’s supposed to fit in with Alien? Making people interested in the franchise to see where the continuity is going is absurd when what should really matter is where the fucking story is going. They are not the same thing.

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The aliens are glossy, CG, and boring. David is the “true alien”, a theme trying so hard to be clever and profound that it’s almost cute.

At the end of the day, the Alien franchise never needed these Prometheus era movies. The origin of the aliens is kind of boring and unnecessary. David made them! Oh how clever. But this is why Ridley Scott keeps putting David front and center, he’s far more interesting but still not as interesting as these guys seem to think. If they bothered to explore any of the philosophical and science fictional ideas they are alluding to, it might be something, but instead it’s always shallow and predictable and forced. It’s a great idea, a bigamist marriage between anxiety about artificial intelligence, psychological anxieties about creating new people that might suck, and the tropes and aesthetics of the Alien franchise. It’s a great idea, but it needs better authors.

AlienCovenant doesn’t save the franchise, it’s more like a quick patch job to hold the decaying bits together for just one more go round. It’s too average, and often feels like a generic also-ran, one of those movies like Pitch Black that tried to be sort of like Alien while adding its own spin. The spin here, though, is more of the shallow theological musings that were such a drag in Prometheus. These are movies that actively try to make dumb people feel smart by employing the philosophical rigor of an episode of Ancient Aliens and positing that “hey what if God is a dick?” is some kind of transcendental insight. I’m sorry, but no. And thus, Covenant trades the unpredictable and chaotic and insane stupidity of Prometheus into a boring and predictable stupidity that it only briefly holds at bay by trying to correct some mistakes, like unmotivated bad decisions and endlessly contrived events that feel like cardboard props to threaten the cardboard humans not played by famous people (with a few exceptions noted above).

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