When I was twelve years old, all I wanted for my birthday was the Alien: Quadrilogy boxset on DVD. It intrigued me, knowing absolutely nothing of the franchise, its iconic monster, its groundbreaking heroine, its thrills, chills, or its gore. The very first image I saw was the very first audiences were introduced to 30 years before me – an unnatural, fleshy egg and that glowing light emanating through the cracks. Alien, for me, was the mark of adolescence. There was little interest in Harry Potter, Star Wars, even less so with Lord of the Rings, but horror movies were my childhood and the Xenomorph became the centre figure of that upbringing.
So, as impartial as I try to be in my approach to every new experience cinema has to offer me, Alien is a franchise I simply cannot hate. It’s impossible. I’ve tried. People tell me that Alien3 or Alien Resurrection are terrible movies but I’d watch them endlessly, finding new things I like or find interesting additions to the original premise. As a young teen, Aliens and Resurrection were bosom-buddies, a perfect double feature to sate my adrenaline needs, while Alien and Alien3 gave me a greater satisfaction creatively as I grew older and more aware of the mechanics of cinema. I even liked “the sleigh ride of friendship” from Alien Vs. Predator and as for AVP: Requiem… well, nobody likes that one anyway.
When Prometheus was announced, I was nearly finishing high school and my incredulity that such an event would occur in my lifetime was indefatigable. A new Alien movie? Ridley Scott returning in the director’s chair? Returning to its horror roots? I gushed, and I talked about Prometheus for months in the lead up (even to my teachers because that’s how excited I was) until finally the big day arrived. It came to cinemas, I sat down, I took a deep breath, and loved every minute of it. That is, until the walk home, when suddenly all my adoration turned quickly into indignation, feeling cheated that what I witnessed was a hollow film that was obnoxiously smug and deluded into thinking it was ‘smart’ cinema.
It finally happened – the first Alien movie I ever hated.
Looking back, I still dislike Prometheus despite its finer points. My issues stem from its conflicted desire to divest all association with any of the franchise’s recognizable elements while also maintaining them to ensure fans won’t get irritated by the lack of Xeno. In interviews, Scott has lauded himself as having elevated a B movie premise into a A+ film, which indicated a clear disdain for the source material that could almost be felt every minute Prometheus explored creationism. Ironically, by self-aggrandizing itself as a sophisticated piece of cinema, the prequel somehow came across as the far more vapid and asinine film.
Alien: Covenant has had a comparably low-key marketing campaign to the cinematic event of the year that Prometheus promised to be. It’s hard not to enter the film immediately aware of the previous disappointment, hoping that the same mistakes won’t be repeated. Then Guy Pearce shows up and Michael Fassbender’s David, and the warning signs flash their lights.
However, something feels different. Yes, they’re still spouting the same bollocks about who created who and why. But with its minimal, unorthodox scenery and sharper dialogue, a genuine intrigue starts to develop. Genuine characters begin to peak through and suddenly the very issues with Prometheus are no longer such. Scott has insisted that his intrigue with the franchise derives primarily from the Space Jockeys (a tall mysterious alien figure found crashlanded in the original film) and where the Xenomorphs originate from.
It was the biggest detriment to Prometheus, where the answers were simply not as compelling as the question. However the myth-making and world-building in Covenant actually works. This might be the result of so much intertextuality and cinematic universes coincidentally shaping the Hollywood landscape of today, but for whatever reason, Covenant has a story that feels as big as it attempts to be.
Ridley Scott essentially has made his answer to Aliens, the James Cameron war movie that launched the director’s career to bigger heights. It’s certainly an action film with horror elements rather than the other way round, as scenes of gunfire, explosions, and death-defying stunts are a constant throughout. Anyone looking for scares will certainly miss them here, as Covenant loses its anxious mood soon after it’s begun. Instead, it becomes a companion piece to its predecessor, but in a way that manages to improve both.
Of course, spoilers will be avoided. And there are problems which cannot. Covenant clearly suffers from heavy editing with many scenes incongruous or excessive without their original context. Especially in the opening minutes, when an appearance from James Franco differs greatly from the preview footage shown before release. Likewise, as much as it tries to stay closer to the Xenomorph mythos it tries to create… it doesn’t make much sense. How exactly they’re created is near-incomprehensible to consider and how the film gets from Covenant to Alien still remains a mystery, if not more so given certain events.
But, did I have fun? Almost entirely. To see the Xenomorph done in interesting, new ways while they attack a cast that I actually grew to care for gave me that jolt I had loved the franchise to give me. It’s a flawed film, perhaps even a bad one, but as a universe-building sequel, it works and I frankly hope that more will still come. And apparently it will, with another prequel for production next year.
Revered critic Robbie Collins has claimed that Alien: Covenant is the third best in the franchise, preceded by the first two films of the franchise. Whether or not this is true is a personal opinion, but it’s certainly the most compelling and intentionally entertaining films of the “bad ones.” I’m probably going to go see it again, just to relax and enjoy. I think I’ll do that right now actually.