As a lifetime lover of science fiction and the “Alien” franchise in particular, I went to watch this one full of expectations, and with the loving adoration that old time friends and lovers deserve.
In short: for me, it was a terrible disappointment. And, as it happens when a love story ends, I was left to process the grief dealing with my own feelings of misplaced trust, violation, and lost sense of identity.
So I thought, “well let’s try to make it into a learning opportunity, at least”. And I figured that hidden inside this catastrophic disaster (yes, I think it’s that bad) there is something good. It’s such a bad movie that can serve as an example and case study on “how
not to tell a story”.
Let’s start then with my own personal 5 reasons why this is such a terrible movie. And, of course, before we go on – there will be loads of spoilers. So don’t read unless that’s exactly what you want.
1 – Really, really, really ridiculously lazy writing.
The bad news started from the very beginning. The “Covenant” is a colony ship, headed to a distant planet etc etc. Then a neutrino storm strikes, and seriously damages the ship. People die, it’s the classic call to adventure.
Wait, what? This rubbed against me in the wrong way, and in more than one sense. First, because “Passengers” begins basically in the same exact way. Not a great start already.
And then… neutrinos? I did my research and I found out that neutrinos are “ghostly particles that barely interact with the world at all. Look at your hand—there are about a trillion neutrinos from the Sun passing through it every second”.
And also “since neutrinos interact so rarely with matter (ie you) you would need an awful lot of them to have any significant effect. A supernova conveniently emits about 99% of its energy as neutrinos. So if you were standing quite close to a supernova when it went off then there could possibly be enough interactions to harm you”.
Which is really, really unlikely to happen “by chance”, given how big distances are in space travel.
Ok, let’s forgive and forget. It’s a movie after all. What happens then? Suddenly a new planet appears on the map, and since it’s broadcasting “Country Roads” (I am not joking), they all decide to go and check it.
Wait, what? (again)
It’s called “space”… well, because it’s big, and mostly empty. And in that vast emptiness, an object like a planet doesn’t just “appear”. Right now, without leaving Earth, we are mapping planets as far as 40 light years from us. Which means, a spaceship like the “Covenant” should have been informed about the existence of such a big space object at least YEARS in advance.
And this was just in the beginning of the film, barely 10 minutes in the story, while still setting the scene.
I know these reflections may sound really
nerdy specific, and many people watch a movie just to sit back and relax. Ok, fine.
But it’s a science fiction movie, guys. And such a gross lack of respect for science means that the writing hasn’t taken in consideration basic facts, and background research hasn’t been done.
If I am able to google (and understand) a few facts about neutrinos, everybody can.
In short, the writers didn’t do their homework. And this is not promising at all, because ultimately it reveals lack of respect for the audience’s intelligence (“these guys will buy anything, they just want to see the monster. Did we have asteroids already? Give them a radioactive storm, or something like that”), or at the very least a very hasty writing process. Either way, not great ways to start a relationship.
One could object: hey, but what if the planet had been concealed by some greater technology, and activated only when the “Covenant” was close enough?
Very well, but if that’s the case, why not mention it in the movie?
One of the basic principles of storytelling through images is “show, don’t tell”.
If you want something to be part of your story, show it, and it will be there. Having to rely on fan support and their theories is the last line of defense of a very lazy writer, who sits on the glory of past successes. Not good.
There are more examples like these. I will just move on by saying that once the “suspension of disbelief” (the implicit contract between a narrator and their audience, based on trust) is gone, it’s very hard to get back. I was literally kicked out from the story a couple of times, in the first half an hour of screen time. After which, I just couldn’t wait for it to end.
2 – no epic scale, no mystery, no party (and no continuity too).
I watched the first “Alien” on my parents’ old black-and-white tv, at home, in the early 80s. I was so scared I couldn’t watch it again for several years.
And I loved James Cameron’s “Aliens” to the bits: we had an old videotape of the movie taken directly from the tv broadcast, with commercial breaks and all, and with my brother we used to watch it again and again, learning all the lines by heart. Two, three times in a day.
This is how amazing and unforgettable were the first movies of the series. Very different movies, but they both cemented the franchise in the imagination of film and sci-fi lovers worldwide.
In “Covenant” there is nothing of that. Ridley Scott admitted in interviews that he wanted to go back to making a monster movie, because fans didn’t receive well the innovative character of “Prometheus” and instead, wanted more of that.
That a 80 years old director, with Scott’s experience and charisma, decides to bow to whatever rant people put on the internet, is weird already.
What is worse is that, in doing it, he apparently lost sight of all the great features that made the saga great in the first place.
The unforgettable sense of wonder of the giant navigator in the first “Alien”, which left the Nostromo crew with more questions than answers (plus, one killer space parasite) is missing here.
And the magic and wonder summoned by Prometheus (which I found flawed but ambitious and awe-inspiring)… nope, not here either.
In one sudden, drastic move Covenant wipes out the entire Engineer race (or at least a city), because… because David is angry at them, I guess? Or mad? Or bored? What a waste of an incredible narrative potential.
Also, the brief sequence showing the Engineer civilisation is just so underwhelming.
Here is an alien species that is capable of interstellar travel and, you know, CREATED US (= Gods) and… they live like ancient Romans, have no way to detect a hostile ship approaching, and no defense against their own biologic weapon.
Really, is that all?
3 – where are the monsters?
Well, it’s an Alien movie. At least it must be scary as hell. It must be good as a horror picture, right? RIGHT?
Because no monster is so scary when in plain sight. The word monster comes from the Latin “monere“, “to warn”. That’s where fear comes from. What is really scary about the Alien is not his looks, but his presence. The fact that we are aware it is there, and maybe it’s hunting us.
The original creature was made of seafood and butcher’s cuts, and still it was able to evoke authentic fear and repulsion.
Scott seems to have discarded a lot of continuity elements from the series – where is the Queen that laid the eggs? Ah no, now David does it. And the incubation time is drasticly accelerated… I don’t really want to start nit-picking, but this contributes to make the story feel confusing and incoherent.
In “Covenant”, obsessed by the need to explain how the embryos were formed, the creatures born, etc Scott gives us all the biology but takes away the magic. Which means, all we are left with is a dangerous animal.
Yeah, very dangerous, but “if it bleeds, we can kill it“.
(nothing, just a random quote from “Predator”, because THAT’S HOW YOU MAKE A GREAT MOVIE)
Or at least we could kill it, if only the characters were able to shoot straight.
Which tragically leads to the following point.
4 – the characters. From the ultimate badasses to the ultimate suckers.
There is a reason why after more than 30 years, fans can tell by heart the names of the Nostromo crew, or the colonial marines serving on the USS Sulaco.
BECAUSE THEY WERE COOL.
Ripley, Dallas, Parker in “Alien”: they were presented to us as brave, hardworking people who were doing their job. They were resourceful and competent. They made mistakes, but only when the circumstances pressed them too hard or the odds became too high against them.
I mean, look at when Dallas dies:
He is in those damned tunnels because there is a job to do, but “I wanna get the hell out of here” he says, seconds before disappearing.
The alien gets literally a fraction of a second of screen time, and still it’s creepy as hell. Shit, it’s still scaring me NOW as I watch it.
And even that pales in comparison with the colonial marines of “Aliens”. Look at how they took decisions:
Of course, it helped that in “Alien” were starring actors of the caliber of John Hurt, Ian Holm and Sigourney Weaver; and that in “Aliens” Al Matthews (the drill sergeant) was a real Vietnam veteran who suffered from post traumatic disorder, so his reactions to gunfire were authentic.
But even in episodes considered “minor” in the series (Alien cube, or Prometheus) – the characters are not that bad. The inmates on Fury are shown in their realistic (if not relatable) society, and some of the crew on the Prometheus show endearing qualities (well, at least so do Charlize Theron’s character and the captain, played by Idris Elba: certainly not the stupidest biologist in the galaxy).
In “Covenant”, the investment in each specific character is… what? Nothing.
The protagonist is clearly David (the android played by Michael Fassbender), despite the attempts to make it look as if it was Daniels (Katherine Waterston).
From this point of view the story has a clear narrative arc, if nothing else (David is, indeed, the only character who shows signs of personal development) while everybody else is just disposable.
And – what is worse – they act as if they knew it.
They act irrationally (does anybody know what the word “quarantine” means? Not on the Covenant apparently, where the medic HUGS the sick marine who is literally exploding, squirting alien black goo all over the place);
don’t show realistic and consistent emotions (people lose friends and spouses and seconds after they are smiling and joking as if nothing happened);
are incompetent beyond repair (the doctor ignores quarantine protocols, soldiers are goofy and can’t shoot and I swear, the next time I see a clueless idiot touching / tasting / smelling an ALIEN LOOKING CREATURE ON AN ALIEN PLANET, wondering “what is this?” I will have a seizure, there and then in the theatre).
No wonder the audience doesn’t develop a connection with them. We don’t tend to connect with incompetent fools who don’t know what they are doing and never seem to be able to take the right decision.
Just consider the sequence:
David – “Hey captain, have a look at this”.
Captain – “Are you sure? It really looks like… an alien egg and it’s filled with… alien, moving stuff”.
D – “Of course. Go ahead and just put your face close to it. Really close. You will love it”.
C – “Are you sure it’s safe? Because it really looks alieney and shit. Plus, I was watching all those old sci-fi movies and when people did something like that, it never ended well”.
D – “It’s completely safe. This is not a movie *wink wink*. I am a mysterious android from another planet and you just met me, 5 minutes ago. Just trust me”.
C – “Uh… Oook, I guess”.
I was frankly glad he died. Good riddance. Same for everybody else. “There is a killing alien parasite on the loose? I am gonna take a nap, I need to think” (actual quote from the film). Or a shower. A SHOWER!
Enough with this, already.
This stuff felt old and tropey already in the teenage horror movies from the 90s.
We are lightyears away from the memorable, living and breathing, heroic characters of the previous movies.
I mean, the only guy which is kinda likable is “that dude with the hat”, played by Danny McBride. To make him more recognizable (his character missing any other noticeable trait, besides being mildly concerned about his wife – and then forgetting about her in a moment), they gave him a hat.
At least that, for “character definition”. A cowboy hat. I bet it took weeks of discussion in the writing room.
5 – the movie is a huge, unresolved identity crisis.
The franchise started in 1979 as a horror slasher movie, set in space. The legend says that the script was actually ready and waiting for quite some time, and only after Star Wars’ sweeping success in 1977, more trust was given by studio executives to invest in science fiction stories.
Back then Ridley Scott was a relatively new name in the business, having realised only one full feature which received critics acclaim (“The Duellists“: watch it, if you haven’t yet).
He really put himself into the new task, creating a definite aesthetics, feel and narrative that pretty soon became iconic and globally acknowledged. But he wasn’t exactly starting from scratch: he could bring in the preliminary work done by Dan O’Bannon for Alejandro Jodorowksy in preparation for his gigantic Dune project (watch the documentary, if you can: it’s great), which included H. R. Giger’s unforgettable artwork.
The movie received mixed opinions at its release, but audience loved it, and started to build an amazing success.
Surprisingly (Scott didn’t take it well) another promising director was chosen, to give the sequel a less arty and more modern look.
And so we got “Aliens” (brilliant touch, adding the “s”) by James Cameron. Which pushed the bar even further, clearly moving to the action/sci-fi genre and delivering an endless supply of marine banter, cool quotable lines, big explosions and memorable deaths.
The franchise history moved on, with the third and fourth installments suffering similar fates: troubled productions, last minute changes, directors ending up disowning their own work. Each fan has their own opinions on these middle children of the franchise. I think each of them has something unique, but they are undeniably a few steps behind the greatness of the first two.
Years pass. Until Ridley Scott took back the helm to realise, in 2012, “Prometheus”. Back then he believed that “the alien was cooked, with an orange in his mouth. It was time to show something else”.
And so the whole Prometheus plot was set with the “Alien” universe as a backdrop, while in reality it told a very different, ambitious if convoluted story: about humans, faith, parenthood, the purpose of creation.
Again, the movie received mixed reviews and polarized audiences. But it had opened many questions that begged to be answered.
In the meantime, Visionary Neil Blomkamp (“District 9”, “Elysium”) said he was working on a new concept for the franchise, but the project was put on hold.
And Scott (maybe after the great success with “The Martian”) decided he would personally lead the new chapter. During the preparation work, apparently he had changed his mind a number of times on the direction to follow for the next episode.
Fans want the beasts? They will get the beasts, he seems to have argued. With less than flattering results.
Probably this is center of the problem: changing course so many times during the production inevitably affected the final outcome.
“Covenant” tries to take a bit from all the best in the series – but fails at delivering a coherent experience and first of all, a story.
People loved the claustrophobic horror? Check, let’s have it in the end. And the final battle with the alien jettisoned out in deep space? But of course, that too. Female protagonist in top tank? Sure, we have that one. The badass marines? People loved ’em! Ok, let’s put a cigar-chewing sergeant somewhere (the grunts will at least get the banter, never mind they can’t shoot). Audience loved Dallas? We will give them Tennessee, it’s even bigger.
Oh yeah, and messing up with genetics? There. Chest bursting? Now also from the back! Androids with a twisted secret plan? Not one, but two, twins! The conflict between faith and self determination? Here is your religious character (never mind he is confused all the time). Ah, and what about all the other big mind boggling questions we raised about life, the universe and everything? Well, let’s quickly get rid of those, we just need 2 minutes, here…
The list could be longer, but I think you got the point.
This movie suffers from a serious identity crisis, it was apparently born with the objective to do some fan service (bad idea to start from), and takes in random order different elements from the franchise, like when I go grocery shopping (cat food… there. Grated cheese… there. Fresh bread, over, I’ll have toast instead).
It lost touch with what made the franchise eternal, and forgot to include the elements that fan really loved, to the point that they were willing to forgive the (sometimes minor, sometimes not) faults of the different installments.
In space, no one can hear you scream “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE, RIDLEY SCOTT”.