Sunday, July 9, 2017

Alien Week, part VIII: The dark star


About seven weeks too late, we reach the conclusion of our journey—and, in keeping with the anticlimactic nature of our retrospective, we find it lacking not just everything that made Alien great, but even most of the things that made its immediate predecessor Prometheus good, too.

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Jack Peglen, Michael Green, John Logan, and Dante Harper
With Michael Fassbender (David and Walter), Katherine Waterston (Daniels), Billy Crudup (Oram), Danny McBride (Tennessee), James Franco (Capt. Branson), and Guy Pearce (Peter Weyland)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Alien: Covenant is a resentful film, although I don't think its director, Ridley Scott, made it this way on purpose.  It leaks out, subconscious-like, staining a movie that, honestly, should not have been very hard to make good, since it's just Alien again—and with a more interesting evil robot this time, to boot.

The source of the resentment is easy enough to identify, though: whatever it began life as, Covenant arrived in theaters as nothing more than a watered-down sequel to an Alien prequel that didn't even want to be a Alien prequel in the first place.  Sadly, Covenant found itself obliged, by dint of the outsized demonization of its immediate precursor, to skim past the alien astronauts and philosophizin' robots (that is, the things Scott found interesting), and get down to xenomorphic brass tacks instead.  As such, it smashes the square peg of Prometheus into the round hole of a generic spaceborne slasher.  Given that this was already the biggest problem Prometheus had in the first place, Covenant still probably could've worked out okay, if only its two threads weren't sewn together quite so ineptly—and, in the case of that spaceborne slasher, so altogether indifferently.

You can see the strain it was under just by reading the title.  (And not solely because the studio deemed it financially expedient to slap the word "Alien" onto this one.)  Whereas the name "Prometheus" tells you immediately what it's going to be about, with a well-chosen classical reference, "Covenant" is vague and, ultimately, it is meaningless.  It points to the Bible—to the obedience that a creation owes its creator—but the movie isn't about that.  (Ironically, if the names were flipped, it'd work out better: Prometheus, after all, is about the compact between the creator and its creation, revealing it to have been nothing but a product of our imaginations all along; meanwhile, Covenant deals, if only glancingly, with what must happen to the creator, once the creation has at last usurped its power.)

But, you know, whatever—this is only one piece of evidence that no single person involved in the production of Covenant could manage to care about every single aspect of it.  So, sure: it's called "Covenant" because Covenant is the name of the ship that carries a bunch of humans to the Death Planet du jour; or maybe it's called Covenant because its executive officer is indistinctly "religious," something that matters absolutely not at all, even though the screenplay tediously establishes this as one of his major traits, alongside being both a social klutz and an all-purpose idiot.  (Charitably, it maybe makes an ironic reference to the Noachide covenant, in which God promised to never destroy the world again by flood.  But, certainly, that reference is not on-point.)

Clearly, I've skipped a few beats; let's meet the meat packed into this enormous can of spam.  (Or, rather, let's not, since we don't ever meet any of them.)  Well, either way, the plot kicks off with a disaster aboard the ship, which we learn to be a colonial ark—doubtless labeled "B" back on Earth—heading for a distant sun with a cargo of two thousand corpsicles, representing one thousand mating pairs, give or take.

(Give or take indeed: in a somewhat cloying tangent, that bothers me way out of proportion to how much it matters, it turns out that two of our effectively-faceless, effectively-nameless colonists are actually a gay couple—it helps if you don't blink, obviously, because we can signpost our progressivism, but, you know, not too progressively.  Regardless, considering that their rarefied astronautical skills appear to top out at "being able to carry objects, such as a gun," it prompts one to observe that well-considered hard sci-fi is just vanishingly rare in the movies.  This is why, in Covenant, some consortium back on Earth has spent an exorbitant sum just to make sure its cargo could copulate with monogamous propriety, rather than spending that money on more useful payloads, like, say, 1000 or so extra wombs—something that would come in mighty handy, considering that the other thing the Covenant's carrying is a big fat stack of human embryos, which gay men, like most men, are incapable of making much out of.  "Lesbians welcome!", might have said the ad, if Covenant were more thoughtful.  Hell, transmen, too—let's get futuristic in this bitch.  I don't know: maybe if the relationships actually mattered in Covenant, beyond watching one anonymous person crying over another, I'd be more willing to give it slack.)

Anyway, the disaster kills several crew members, especially the captain, and the computer and the ship's uncomfortably-familiar-looking robot, Walter, awaken the rest to effect the necessary repairs.  In the aftermath, their new leader—Oram—mishandles his personnel and causes all sorts of friction (something else that won't matter later).  But all these lightly-sketched interpersonal issues, including those belonging to our perfunctory pseudo-protagonist Daniels (the dead captain's widow; she wears tank tops), are put decisively on hold when the Covenant intercepts a strange message from a planet that seems to be even more ideal for human colonization than their target.  Oram decides to deviate, and, inevitably, an outer space horror film ensues.

They notice quickly that the spooky planet has a lot of terrestrial flora, and not one sign of terrestrial fauna, but neither this bizarre coincidence nor the oppressive atmosphere is enough to get them to abandon their Star Trekky explorations, at least until the planet's non-terrestrial fauna begin to manifest—a parasitic, invasive microorganism that rapidly matures into a back-bursting movie-monster.  Lives are lost, quickly and copiously, until, like a bolt out of the black, our old friend, the android David, re-enters the frame.  (Not so much our other old friend, Shaw—though we do get to see some bits and pieces of her later.)

David saves what fraction of the crew he can, but since an explosion's left them stranded planetside, he finds himself obliged to play host amidst his home these past ten years, the cyclopean ruins of the once-great civilization that (he claims) died long ago.  We know what our humans don't, though, which is that this planet is dead for a reason, and that reason is David; and that David, who's become quite the little Engineer himself, isn't even close to done with his experiments.

Despite its constitutional frailties, almost everything in Covenant's first phase works, at least on a basic sci-fi horror level, and if this were an Alien rip-off, rather than an Alien prequel and Prometheus sequel tied together, there's a better-than-even chance it could've been actively enjoyed.  The first act's climax is honest-to-God wonderful, as Scott and his screenwriting team seek to address the most incisive criticism of Prometheus, namely that Prometheus was incredibly fucking stupid.  The characters certainly aren't any smarter in Covenant—ha ha, no sir, they are not—but, for a spell, Covenant gives them better reasons to be dumb.

The initial appearance of David's neomorphs—that is, the white sperm-wolves who parasitically breed by airborne infection (and who, let's be frank here, come off as vastly more threatening than the xenomorphs still-to-come)—is outrightly terrifying.  Scott nails it with this sequence, which may be the most mouth-wateringly gory scene in the whole franchise—and, better yet, he manages to get you inside the sheer panic of the situation, allowing you to viscerally comprehend how and why the crew completely fumbles the ball and winds up screwing their chances for survival even more.  It helps, needless to say, that Scott's stalwart cinematographer, Dariusz Wolksi, has established such a haunted, sickly atmosphere—all gray skies and forbidding rock faces, and evil winds rustling menacingly through evil wheat.  It's an atmosphere singularly ripe for horror mayhem to break through, doing almost as much, and with far less, as Prometheus did with its grotesque graveyard spaceship; but then, Scott and Wolski have never managed anything less than excellence together.  You can't be surprised when it happens.

Oddly, Covenant only really begins to fall apart once it lays down the most-interesting part of its puzzle, David.  Give it this much credit, though, for if Covenant does nothing else, it manages one thing that might be totally unique, which is to be a sequel that deepens its predecessor considerably, while nevertheless being a noticeably inferior (and, indeed, kinda straight-up bad) movie in its own right.  Covenant explicates David's character to the point where his chaotic actions in Prometheus make sense; sure, they always did a little bit, if you were willing to do the work, but Covenant confirms what was only vague and implicit in Prometheus—that David lashes out because of his own deep-seated, fundamentally-human need to create.  (It astonishes me that neither Covenant nor Prometheus ever take that very last bridge, and dramatize the perversity of David's Frankensteinian impulse with a nice full-frontal shot of its nudity-loving star, Michael Fassbender, only now CGI-scrubbed to be as smooth as a doll.  It would fit most snugly with Shaw's busted uterus; it could conceivably even get that semi-offensive metaphor to retroactively work.)

In any event, Fassbender is in fine form, or forms—playing delightfully off himself as David and Walter alike.  It is an intense and fascinating performance, from the technical minutia of two accents (Fassbender's weird "American" accent turns out to be an especially great stand-in for a robotic one), down to the way Scott nonchalantly puts Fassbender and Fassbender together in the frame with the best computer compositing that money can buy.  It's an everlasting damned pity then—an ineradicable shame!—that there's such a palpable void to their scenes together, which no amount of Fassbender-on-Fassbender action, however hot, can span.  Covenant, when it does indulge in its philosophical mode, wants so desperately to play David's sweet nothings as satanic, homoerotic self-seduction.  But it does not give Fassbender the material to actually do this.  Hence David and Walter's time together is either laugh-out-loud goofy ("You blow, and I'll do the fingering," David says, teaching his double the flute) or else it's just plain incapable of being seriously interesting, for, as Walter makes exceedingly clear, over and over, advances since the time of Prometheus have robbed David's technological descendant of his free will.  And thus must philosophy give way to robot kung fu.  Swell.

But at least David and Walter's one-sided dialectic has a great actor and an engaged director to energize it; the bulk of Covenant is not David and Walter.  It's a late-80s slasher rendition of Doctor Moreau instead, and Scott demonstrably does not care about any of this except in the moments where it happens to coincide with David's joy in creating monsters.  And so most of the Covenant's last half is centered upon David's newest biological terrors (guess who), and it's inaugurated by Oram tongue-kissing a pulsating xenomorph egg in a scene so lazily stupid that it plays more like vicious self-parody than the directorial callback I assume Scott intended.

This is the moment when I get the sharpest feeling of Scott's resentment for his compromised allegory about the futility of creation.  But it's surely not the only part where I can perceive the knife: later on, the eyeless xenomorph shall stalk the halls of a spaceship in POV, because apparently Scott, disengaged, is also Scott, the hack.  (It doesn't even possess the crazy kineticism of Fincher's own misconceived POV stalking scenes, back in Alien 3.)  All along, Daniels and all her tiresome Ripleyan struggles against Covenant's final-boss dick monster do little more than fill the screen with movement and the speakers with screaming.  It's Scott's personality-free, weightless CGI re-do of the climax of Cameron's Aliens, and, sadly, it only elicits a shrug.  Sometimes the alien itself only elicits a twinge of confused embarassment, in fact.  For even though it is CGI, Covenant's xenomorph somehow manages to look more like a man in a suit than in the Alien movies where it was a man in a suit.

Nothing here is well-done enough to excuse Covenant's thoroughgoing dumbness, which trumps Prometheus' idiocies early on, and just keeps rolling.  It starts in earnest when it neglects to consider that a galaxy-spanning, billion-year-old civilization probably ought to have had some kind of reaction to its homeworld getting snuffed by an uppity robot.  (One imagines that the flashback which details the fate of the Engineers contains within its truncated bio-apocalypse the true Prometheus sequel that Scott was not allowed to make.)

Covenant's brain-dead silliness continues straight through to the end, whereupon our heroine apparently blanks on the fact that this picture's villain is a doppelganger of her trusted sidekick.  (Hell, I even agree with Covenant's defenders; it's not supposed to be a "twist," as such.  But talk about missing the point!)

Covenant isn't a painful watch, I suppose: there's enough interest still surviving in Fassbender's compelling villainy, and enough adrenaline in the opening freak-out of a monster battle, and enough nihilism in that enthusiastic gut-punch of its final frames, that you don't quite leave feeling like Covenant has completely wasted your time.  Obviously, in the shadow of Prometheus, I'm forced to wonder how I'll feel about it a couple of years from now.  After all, I didn't like Prometheus the first time around in 2012, though it's absolutely grown on me since.  It's possible that Covenant could, too—I simply cannot, for the life of me, figure out how.

I hope it does, though: Scott certainly wants to keep on making these films.  He'll probably even be allowed to, despite Covenant's disappointing returns.  But after seeing Covenant shift its focus, as a result of Prometheus' lambasting, I can't say I'm terribly excited to see what Scott comes up with after the next course-correction.  It makes a man wonder, ruefully: why does he care so much?  You certainly don't see him caring that much on the Goddamn screen.  (Besides, Alien was ruined long before he came back; and, because this is Hollywood, it'll no doubt be ruined many times again, long after he's gone.)  So the question that really lingers is this: when the only thing that can bring him to life is the story of a robot striving to know he exists, how in the whole wide world did Scott ever agree to give Blade Runner to anybody else?

Score:  5/10


  1. My theory is that Sir Ridley is happy to sell products, whether they be Apple computers or Fox monster properties, and leave the thematics and dialogue to anyone, whether Damon Lindelof or Cormac McCarthy - as long as he meets his personal quota of art history photo-tributes. 1979's Alien film is a serendipitous convergence, of Scott's British fetish for William Blake and television close-ups, with producer/writer Walter Hill's American fetish for Continental-Marxist dramatic pragmatism. With his new Alien films, Scott finally is interested in his own personal statement of sorts, and the statement turns out to be a campy demonization of such statements themselves: art, in Scott's working-class view, provokes too much thought from queer android toffs like Ash, David, or Hannibal Lecter.
    My favorite account of Scott's process:

    1. OK, the last line made me laugh, as did Russell Crowe's explication of how Scott makes movies with a magpie's sense of what to include. "...Say that!"

      Anyway, Scott's a weird one. I think he's always been drawn to a certain mood, and he has a fascination with material that has an air of inevitability and death (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, The Counselor, Prometheus, Covenant, Black Hawk Down, even Gladiator, if you ignore the "restoration of the Republic" nonsense), but while I've never been entirely sure how deliberate it is, I don't think it's a total accident.

  2. The film also repeats the cardinal error of Alien3: Taking protagonists that the audience has built an emotional connection with, and then having them murdered and dismembered offscreen. I suppose it makes David all the more horrifying, as turning Shaw into some of Giger's more feminine works is pretty much the worst thing that could be done to someone. Still, it leaves the audience feeling unsatisfied.

    It's also weird how the Engineers seemed to have completely regressed into the Renaissance. A society that maintained biological and social cohesion for over a billion years just randomly returning to planetbound barbarism in time for David to turn them all into alien gestation units? Questionable.

    1. Yeah, I'm still unclear on what the actual screenwriting process on Covenant looked like, but there's no way it started out "Shaw's already dead, and the empire of the Engineers was wiped out in a flashback." It's not as obviously tormented, but it's got very much the same kind of vibe as Alien 3: somebody's original, conceivably good idea, twisted and warped till it's not even recognizable.

      If they do make another, they have GOT to embrace the fact that David is the protagonist of this series, and not some new lady that they can vaguely position as Ripleyesque. Though I guess that still might be the most interesting thing about it, how Scott's Godling Metaphor keeps co-opting and killing the would-be dragonslayer. Now, I still like it better when it's called "Blade Runner."