When Prometheus was released back in 2012, a successful promotional campaign that managed to build up intense levels of hype proved to be the film’s eventual undoing. People wanted an Alien prequel; instead, they got a plot hole-ridden monster movie with pretensions to exploring the meaning of life and the next stage of human existence. It had no idea whether it wanted be a piece of B-movie schlock on a blockbuster budget, or an intelligent science fiction film that answered life’s biggest and most perennially unanswerable questions. As a result, the film proved largely divisive – yet the main problem was that it was a mere retread of the same story beats director Ridley Scott pioneered in Alien, but now with some added pseudo-intellectual nonsense courtesy of Damon Lindelof’s silly screenplay.
Alien: Covenant shares many of the same flaws as Scott’s prior film in the franchise, yet is infinitely more enjoyable due to recalibrated expectations. View this as an Alien prequel, then it confuses the effective simplicity of the 1978 original by retroactively making that part of a more convoluted timeline. However, if you view this as a Prometheus sequel, it basically delivers on the promise of the first; this is a silly monster movie with copious amounts of gore, that manages to expand on the universe established in 2012. It heads in a direction that may threaten the narrative of Alien when viewed in retrospect, but as a Prometheus tale, it manages to do the impossible and make the logical next step in the franchise seem entirely unthinkable. How many other prequels can claim to have that going for them?
The film will likely prove divisive due to the direction in which it heads; as interesting as it is, it does threaten to infringe on the enclosed effectiveness of the original movie, confusing the timeline in a manner that may prove head scratching (although with two sequels to these prequels ready to go, that may not be the case for long). Alien: Covenant at the very least doesn’t have anything other than nit-picky plot holes as a self-contained film, only leaving you screaming “what?” at the screen when viewed in the context of the entire franchise.
Sure, the film suffers from the same confused character motivations as Prometheus; but this is a horror movie, idiotic characters are a genre trope that won’t die out any time soon. It’s the pseudo-intellectual literary references (here, obvious references to Frankenstein and Ozymandias are thrown around repeatedly) that really detract from the film – in making you think it’s more clever than it is, it does itself a disservice by making you expect more believable character interactions and behaviour. Also, after Breaking Bad, quoting “look at my works ye mighty, and despair” acts only to take the audience out of the moment and back to the nail biting tension of that show’s final season.
Another way to view the film is as a grim counterpoint to Scott’s previous film, 2015’s The Martian. There, he posited an optimistic glance at humanity’s future in the stars that can be achieved by working together. In Alien: Covenant, he posits a bleaker ideology – that mankind will be threatened to extinction should we dare to colonise another planet in an indifferent, uncaring universe. It’s a Herzoggian ideology writ large over a mega budget blockbuster. I can’t remember the last time a major studio threw so much money at a film with such a despairing message, nor can I remember the last time a franchise tentpole had the courage of its convictions to take the story to its logical, uniquely strange endpoint (via the most obvious plot twist in history, it has to be said).
In the end, Alien: Covenant winds up feeling deliberately designed to be divisive. There are as many flaws as there strengths, but any issues I had with the film (and there are so many more to list; the lack of exploration surrounding a major character’s religious beliefs and a pointless 10 second celebrity cameo that proves ultimately distracting to name but two), feel like moot points due to how effective the film is on a visceral level.
Here, Scott makes the familiar gory set pieces, from chest-bursters to face huggers, all feel oddly fresh; a xenomorph appearing from within a character suddenly bursts in to a choreographed operatic dance. More so than with Alien, it feels like Scott is edging towards 2001: A Space Odyssey with details like this; the central narrative mission to colonise a new planet for nurture embryos seems specifically chosen to recall the “star child” imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece, but with a brand new pessimistic context.
The film is nowhere near touching any of the high watermarks of science fiction, but these details make more sense in this narrative than they do in the comparatively stripped down monster movie world of Prometheus. Five years after that film, Scott has finally built on the promise of an Alien prequel and delivered something delightfully odd, joyously gory and troublingly pessimistic. It may doom the entire franchise retroactively, but viewed as a self contained work, its ambition pays off – and if it wasn’t tied to the Alien franchise, there is no doubt in my mind that critics and audiences would be less divided and in more concrete approval of one of the strangest tentpole films in years.