This article contains spoilers of Alien: Covenant, Prometheus, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. No amount of plugging your ears and “la la la” will save you.
Picture it: America, 2008. The country shook from an unprecedented event that rocks us to this very day. I’m speaking, of course, about the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Obama who? Stay focused.)
It was one of the first nostalgia wet dreams of movie fandom, the revival of a long ago and much beloved franchise bearing the panty-dropping smirk of Harrison Ford. The film bowed tremendously (as our orange overlord might eloquently put it), matching a 77% Rotten Tomatoes score with a $100 million box office opening. As we all know, it went down in history as a great example of how to continue an intellectual property (or “IP”), while staying true to the spirit of the original.
Ha! Just kidding. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is widely reviled and considered a huge misstep for the series – and that’s coming from fans who gave Kate Capshaw’s acting a pass. Its goofy, pedestrian treatment of Indy and pals (giant ants, anyone?) is so infamous that it’s actually best remembered by its treatment in South Park.
The analogy of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas raping Indiana Jones is perhaps a bit much, but the sentiment rings true nine years later. One would think that considering all the time that’s gone by, writers and studio execs would have learned the Crystal Skull lesson, that it takes more than familiar faces, winks to the past, and CGI action so extra it has Michael Bay telling you to simmer down, to make a good sequel.
Unfortunately, the minds behind Alien: Covenant missed the memo.
A few night ago, I found myself curious. The buzz behind the latest installment in Ridley Scott’s grim space opera was fairly good (73% on RT though it has since fallen to 71%) and the articles I read promised a return to form after Prometheus’ head-scratching departure. I was bored and craved the spacious leather recliners at the Burbank AMC. Why not? I’ll try anything once.
Little did I know I was about to be robbed blind by someone I considered a close friend. Well, maybe a friendly acquaintance. Okay, so I don’t really like the guy to begin with, but the dude has made four good movies. That’s good enough for the benefit of the doubt in my book. I certainly wasn’t prepared to be held down kicking and screaming by Ridley Scott while 20th Century Fox raided my pockets, booted me in the jaw, and left me bleeding, crying, and alone on the theater floor.
Here is an Alien movie directed by the man who created Alien that doesn’t understand how Alien works as a concept or a piece of science fiction horror. Where Alien is a quiet, operatic masterclass in tension-building, and Aliens expands on the universe while upping the stakes, Covenant does neither. It’s a loud, ugly, unwieldy beast of a movie that finds itself repeating history of a Crystal Skull variety.
Comparing movies almost isn’t fair. In a perfect world, a work of art stands on its own terms with merits and flaws undefined by the works surrounding it. But Hollywood is an industry, and the first rule of any industry is that money talks. As budgets balloon out of control and studios rely more and more on tentpole blockbuster gambles to pad their bottom lines, films start to homogenize. There is too much money at stake for true innovation to happen at the $100 or $200 million level. The proven IPs get green lit and stories gravitate toward the lowest common denominator. The main question becomes “what can we do to get asses in the seats?”
For a film like Indiana Jones, it’s about getting Harrison Ford into that khaki shirt and drilling the camera with that million-dollar smirk. It also means pumping it full of nauseating CGI action that fills out the runtime.
Since Crystal Skull’s release, the Marvel universe has taken up the mantel as CGI-overload poster boy, but those films are insipid by design. We go to watch the big, ‘splodey superhero movie because we know exactly what to expect. And for what it’s worth, Kevin Feige at Marvel Studios delivers the goods every time.
But start with an IP that reached loftier heights than a Marvel “flash, bang, and forget,” and the expectation shifts. Maybe it’s a bit absurd to hope for a movie that somehow lives up to Alien’s legacy, but the field isn’t without precedent. After all, Mad Max: Fury Road was only two years ago. It is perhaps fairer though to hope that a hypothetical Alien sequel (prequel, reboot, or whatever) would keep the original’s spirit intact.
That brings us to the first of Covenant’s many sins. It confuses cosmetic appearance with feel and tone. Yes, we go to Alien movies for the xenomorphs. We can’t wait for that blood fountain as the chest-burster emerges like a wet, squealing newborn from a hell mouth. But if you say the word “water” a bunch of times in a row, it starts to lose its meaning. Likewise, the aesthetic trappings of Alien–the sexual horrors cast in twisting black by H R Geiger – mean nothing on their own. They’re meant to be presented in a certain way and a certain context.
The xenomorph’s life cycle is based around rape phobias and loss of agency (it’s been documented ad nauseum elsewhere, so if you’re looking to submerge yourself in graphic imagery that will make you celibate longer than a night with Teeth, check that out here) and the terror it evokes is based on its ability to evoke these boogeymen. Its design lends itself to a man in a suit, draped mostly in shadow, lurking the darkened corridors of a spaceship. In broad daylight, moving like a coked-up cat on espresso suppositories, its ability to terrify vanishes.
The problem is that the Covenant xenomorph – in addition to being a ghastly, frenetic blur – falls into what I call the Lost World trap. Part of Alien’s brilliance was in the way it contextualized its monster’s behavior. It was an animal that mostly reacted on survival and reproductive instinct, same as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Flash forward to The Lost World or Covenant and the creatures no longer behave like animals, but as bloodthirsty forces with no other directive than killing every human in sight. That’s kind of scary I guess, but an indiscriminate force misses the point of these movies. They prey on our unconscious anxieties, serving up cautionary tales of unchecked exploration and the reality of what we may find there.
In this way, the original Alien is plenty philosophical on its own. The subtext doesn’t reach down your throat and choke you with its own bloated self-importance like Prometheus did. In he same way, Covenant’s “where do we come from” queries are less subtle than a face-hugger to the cranium.
The tiny glimmer of redemption in this Philosophy 101 circle jerk comes in the form of the series’ best antagonist yet. David the synthetic (Michael Fassbender gloriously reprising his role from Prometheus) shows us how the drive to create can lead to destruction. His ego-maniacal drive to (***SPOILER ALERT***) create the perfect organism strips away all his semblance of humanity (though to be fair, he wasn’t human to begin with). It might even have been terrifying had the story been more competently structured and less obsessed with its own mythology.
Though it clocks in at over two hours, Covenant feels oddly truncated and brief. Characters jump from one scenario to the next, giving lip-service to moments fans loved from the classic films and doing precious little else to raise themselves above their roles as Alien fodder. As it is, the cast of doomed crew members function as cardboard cutouts, too similar to tell apart, let alone care about. When they start getting picked off, it feels more like a countdown than an actual loss.
Characters drop in increasingly predictable ways until we are left with our Ripley stand-in, Daniels “Danny” Branson (Katherine Waterson). Continuing the tradition of painted-on features, Dany looks like she fills Sigourney Weaver’s shoes just fine, garbed as she is in a pixie cut and tank top. But that’s where the similarities end. She’s a caricature of a strong, female protagonist, inhabiting the role by narrative necessity if nothing else. She has no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever outside of her relationships with her doomed husband (an oddly placed James Franco) or Walter (Fassbender’s calculated yin to David’s yang) and spends most of the film in tears while performing workman-like tasks in service of the plot. I honestly don’t know what her job was supposed to be before she took over for Billy Crudup’s half-assed religious diversity hire.
The greatest sin in Dany’s creation though is that she isn’t even the hero of her own story. Like Shaw in Prometheus, she has no power to save herself from David. For a series that built a foundation on female agency, David’s shift to narrative dominance marks a depressing and perhaps troubling turn. It’s become another blockbuster assembly line with an Alien facelift, spitting back cliché tropes like “evil robots” and “scientists with God complexes,” while sidelining female protagonists in favor of powerful men (or at least male-looking androids). That’s an easier sell than stories that empower women, right? Someone at 20th Century Fox needs to watch Hidden Figures (a movie they distributed, mind you).
Why did Ridley Scott think this was the direction the series needed to go in? He began this franchise with a strong backbone, a refreshing take on the horror genre, and a female-positive streak then unheard of in both the horror and action genres. With Alien: Covenant, all that’s left is the smeared make-up of a once great series, coasting by on generic blockbuster fumes.
As the credits rolled, I sat dumbfounded in my seat, unsure whether to laugh, cry, or find an open bar to drown my disbelief in it. All I knew is that I had been robbed by a wolf in Alien’s clothing.