Having original opinions can be lonely sometimes. That’s especially true now that we live in the era of the bandwagon and the pile-on when it comes to the popular opinion on movies. Maybe I’m just being wrongly nostalgic but I feel like there was a time when opinions about movies used to spread a bit more organically whereas today it seems like consensuses are basically built by instantly posted reviews by critics two days before a movie comes out and are then either confirmed or slightly tweaked after a weekend of tweets. There might be a backlash sometime around a week after the film comes out and maybe a backlash to the backlash the next week but for the most part the die seems to be cast for a movie pretty fast and if you’re on the outside of the consensus you can easily find yourself in a pretty lonely place. One movie that got pretty cruelly shot down in this environment was Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, a prequel to the 1979 classic Alien which sought to expand the series beyond its horror roots and use it as a platform to examine scientific and philosophical ideas. It also had a couple of plot holes and script problems, and as such it was quickly torn apart by the consensus. Personally, I rather liked it. I could recognize its problems but felt like they were more than outweighed by its visual grandeur and ambitious storytelling and while the film does have other defenders they’ve been pretty well drowned out too by the sometimes kind of nasty wave of negativity that hit the film. Now four years later Ridley Scott has come out with a follow-up called Alien: Covenant and it may well rekindle all the arguments that raged around the previous prequel.
Despite what the title may suggest, this is very much a sequel to Prometheus and picks up about 15 years after that movie’s conclusion. We are once again following a rather ill-fated space voyage, this time of a colonization ship called The Covenant which is headed for an uninhabited planet which could serve as a base for a new society. At the film’s start everyone on board except for the android Walter (Michael Fassbender, playing a different robot from the one he played in Prometheus) is in stasis when a sudden accident hits the ship killing a handful of the sleeping colonists including the captain. The rest of the crew is woken up and needs to immediately stabilize the ship. With that done they suddenly realize that they are actually close to another planet that may well be an inhabitable alternative to the planet they were initially headed to. Deciding that they need to explore this world before they think about waking up the rest of the colonists the new acting captain Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to lead a landing party despite the objections of his second in command Dany Branson (Katherine Waterson). When they land they suddenly realize that this planet has had other visitors previously and strange things happen when they run into a mysterious black substance on the ground.
Prometheus was in many ways a pretty bold movie. It was Ridley Scott rather defiantly making the statement that Alien was a series that wasn’t defined by Xenomorphs so much as it was defined by an aesthetic, at least when Ridley Scott was making it. Scott proceeded to use that world and aesthetic to explore what humanity is willing to do in order to find the meaning of life. While doing that, it also proved to be kind of clumsy when it sought to also be something of a monster movie. Critics certainly seized on the movie’s questionable moments and used them to dismiss it, which is a reaction that was on one hand understandable and yet on the other hand a bit dismissive. In many ways it felt like the film was being punished for its pretension and for the raised expectations that it had elicited with its promising trailer and highbrow title. For the sequel Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox seem to have realized that and done everything they could to signal that this is in fact a very much a monster movie. It’s put the word “Alien” in the title and it has a xenomorph front and center in in pretty much every advertisement for the movie. However, despite what the title would have you believe this is still very much a sequel to Prometheus in terms of storyline and also tries to retains many of its sensibilities while also functioning as a monster movie and the results can be rather schizophrenic in terms of tone.
Prometheus ended with what appeared to be the creation of the first xenomorph through the combination of an Engineer and a squid-like monster that was implanted into the Noomi Rapace character and removed using a medical station. This is pretty much ignored if not re-coned out of existence by Alien: Covenant and we are instead given a new interpretation of how the xenomorph came to be. This is the most Prometheus-like element of the movie. I don’t want to give too much about this away but let’s just say that it involves a mad scientist, interesting imagery and Percy Shelly quotes. Prometheus was also plenty pretentious but it seemed a little more earnest about it, here it almost kind of just feels like the new writing staff is a lot less interested and are just doing their best to throw a few philosophical ideas because that’s considered to be part of the franchise now. That isn’t to say that a couple of these ideas aren’t without interest, but they seem weaker and they sometimes clash with some of the more base genre elements that are here as well. These genre elements are… alright. There’s certainly some nicely gooey looking gore here and a few interesting set-pieces, but a lot of them seem like they should be a lot more exciting in theory than they actually are.
The movie certainly isn’t as suspenseful as Alien, not by a long shot, and it also isn’t anywhere near as thrilling and action packed as Aliens. In fact the Alien movie is most reminds me of might actually be Alien 3. Like that movie this tries to go back to the “one or two aliens versus multiple humans” but less effectively than the original, and like that movie it does have a few decent kill scenes, and like that movie it has a slightly undercooked but potentially interesting element of character study. Needless to say, that isn’t the Alien movie you want to be compared to but to be fair it is better than being compared to Alien: Resurrection or one of the Alien Vs. Predator movies. Ridley Scott does remain a solid craftsman and the movie does share a lot of the solid design work and cinematography that made Prometheus work as well as it did even if they don’t seem as fresh and interesting this time around, but it also carries over that movie’s tendency to have its characters do remarkably stupid things to get themselves killed, and frankly I think this movie is way worse in that regard. In many ways it’s a movie that just carries over a lot of its predecessor’s flaws while also minimizing a lot of its strengths to almost be the worst of both worlds and it’s only through Ridley Scott’s skill and hutzpah that it isn’t a much bigger disaster than it is.