Stuffed inside a few of the crew members of the Covenant is an alien, an acid-blooded, mouth-within-the-mouth creature with a head shaped like an oversized oblong balloon. And stuffed inside the new Alien film, there is an interesting movie that never quite bursts out of the film’s guts. Instead, the movie takes standard tropes and dresses them up with a $100 million budget. There are a few bumps, a few scares, but mostly, it’s one terribly expensive missed opportunity.
The case can be made that the titular alien is really not the alien at all. That toothy looking thing that’s constantly dripping goo provides the occasional fright, but the lingering sense of unease always stems from the synthetics. From Ash to Walter, the androids in the Alien universe have always had a difficult relationship with the humans. The idea of a synthetic as an interactive machine that runs point is perfectly practical. But like virtually all fictional AI, problems ensue when the machine takes on human qualities. And that’s the ironic wrinkle with fictional AI: we distrust them when they are too much like us, which is to say, we don’t trust our own kind. When we allow ourselves to see too much of us in them, we create obstacles. For our peace of mind, we create psychological, social and cultural barriers so that even those that may seem the same can be comfortably classified according to perceived differences. In the film’s universe, the aliens are the disruptive force that threaten human lives in the short term, but the synthetics are the greater alien threat because they are a destabilizing force that threatens humanity in the long term.
(There is, actually, a third alien in these films: humans. When the human crew of Nostromo lands on LV-426 in the first film, it becomes, in effect, the alien life force, just as it is in this new film. But even when we see humans in outer space, traversing different galaxies, there’s a natural pull to think that wherever we are, that place is ours. It’s partly a remnant of post-colonial thinking, but this warped idea of manifest destiny is stronger in some cultures more than others. But all this is for another day.)
In Alien: Covenant, it felt like Ridley Scott, the director, wanted to make a film that was different than the one he made. There are two main strands of plot. The A plot is a movie that we’ve seen at least three times before: humans land on foreign planet, encounter aliens, try to get back to ship, fight the big baddie one more time, ambiguously end story so that a sequel (or prequel) can be made. Scott has done that movie twice before and frankly, he’s not all that interested in recycling it again. There is one sequence in which a character is running to and away from the same sick bay three different times. All three times, Scott uses the same low angle shot and each time that it’s used, it severely mitigates the tension of the sequence because it feels like the movie, for that short period, is on repeat. The dullest part of this Alien movie is when it feels like an Alien movie. But then, there’s the B plot that brings the movie to life.
When Scott breaks away from these tiresome tropes and explores something different, the movie finally finds the right notes. The B plot is the interplay between David, the synthetic of the previous film, Promethus, and Walter, the synthetic deployed with the crew of the Covenant. (Both played by Michael Fassbender.) When Scott explores the relationship of these two, you can feel the movie squinting to concentrate. The heart of the movie is when these two characters engage. The seamless composite shots of David and Walter are carefully designed and shot. And in their conversations, we recognize the seeds of some serious thought that could have been developed into something deeper: the essence of living versus just existing, processing thoughts versus executing orders, creating and not just making widgets. There’s a really thoughtful movie in here somewhere, but Scott or perhaps a committee of data specialists, accountants and Moneyball execs boxed those ambitions. Or maybe, I’m just a fool for not being more cynical and pessimistic when I go to see a movie.
If there is one bright side, Covenant is much better than its predecessor. I believe that Prometheus is essentially a cinematic golden shower that wet our heads with its nastiness. It then punched our sister on the nose, spat in our eye and flipped over our dog’s water bowl. I hated it. So much. May a plague visit the house of Damon Lindelof.
In the meantime, it seems that Covenant is coming in way below expectation at the US box office. International numbers are kind of anemic, too. Scott apparently has a third prequel in the works though I’m guessing the aforementioned committee might start to pump the brakes on that one. If Scott does have one more left in the franchise, I hope he brings Fassbender with him and finish what was only hinted at in Covenant.