Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2017

Alien: Covenant

On the origin of xenomorphs

On creator-gods, artificial intelligence, franchise boredom, and the strange disconnect between Alien: Covenant and itself

Alien: Covenant
20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan and Dante Harper, based on characters created by Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Amy Seimetz, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Demián Bichir and Callie Hernandez
Rated R / 2 hours, 2 minutes / 2.35:1
May 19, 2017
(out of four)

It was once a perfect organism.

When it was just a movie, Ridley Scott's Alien was the very embodiment of its title figure, a lean and immaculate specimen of pure instinct: Survive and conquer. A ruthlessly efficient engine of cruelty and dread, its stealth predator a self-contained manifestation of war and sex, creation and evolution, fear and violence. It was cold, pure and perfect.

Only now the hostility belongs to the film's creator, toward his own creation*. Six installments in - or eight, if you're under the mistaken impression that Alien vs. Predator and AvP: Requiem are real movies that exist - and it's no longer a primal saga but an entire tedious mythology, an exhaustively muddled piece of anthropological history, and scripture, and philosophy. It's not the hostility I object to but the confused, misshapen jumble that has come of it. There's building and expanding on an existing concept, and then there's what Prometheus and Alien: Covenant have done - which amounts to a lot of clumsy rewriting, rethinking, retconning and retrofitting, stuffing new ideas wherever they can theoretically (if not smoothly) fit.

* The way the film itself touches on the relationship between creators and their creations, and the hostilities that develop from both directions, there's a meta quality that emerges here, only quite by accident. I won't belabor the point.

If a movie must be expanded into a long-running franchise at all (and Covenant is, among other things, a thorough argument against doing so), experimentation is unequivocally the way to go. With few exceptions, only through regularly reinventing itself - to one degree or another - can an ongoing series keep itself alive and vital. And yet Covenant - a movie ostensibly about intertwining cycles of creation and destruction - is an experiment, and a reinvention, gone horribly, fascinatingly wrong. It's half a rehash of the original Alien (but with significantly worse characters), half a movie that wants virtually nothing to do with Alien, and is bored to death with this same familiar scenario. I know the feeling. And so, like the android who emerges as the film's central figure, Scott and his writers John Logan and Dante Harper go about trying to manufacture an entirely new organism out of antecedent parts. A splice here, a splice there. Alien was a thoroughbred; Aliens was that same thoroughbred on steroids; Covenant is an ugly-ass centaur whose halves don't fit together.

If the only way Scott can get bankrolled to explore the ideas he wants to explore - gods, and the godlike ways one civilization or one intelligence creates the next - is to absorb those ideas into an existing, marketable property, a film like this makes a kind of sense. Problem is, not only is it blatantly obvious what he cares about and what he doesn't, the bread-buttering requirements of the latter don't do his real preoccupations any favors. The film noticeably springs to life when Michael Fassbender's David - having regained his body since being beheaded in Prometheus - shows up to greet the colonization crew that's decided to make a detour through David's adopted home planet. He essentially shifts the film out of Alien slasher mode and into biophilosophical territory, emerging as something of a synthetic mad-scientist god. That this particular crew landed on his turf is a stroke of good luck for his sense of narcissism: they have their own, nearly identical David ... only his name is Walter, his Midwestern inflection and its hard Rs are a vulgar affront to David's posh English, and his programming is absolutely dead set against hurting anyone. (The newer models are missing out on all the fun, it seems.) Their differences in personality do nothing to quell David's attraction to his own mirror image, culminating in a piccolo-seduction sequence that is as mischievously overt as it is anachronistic, being one of the only scenes in the movie with any sense of fun. (Fassbender playing with himself has far more chemistry than the interactions between any other set of characters.)

But sooner or later, the film has to shift back to its default franchise settings, so we get an obligatory procession of increasingly tedious deaths. As if intended as an object lesson to prove how quickly novelty can wear off and turn the spectacular and shocking utterly dull, Covenant gives us all kinds of aliens bursting out of all kinds of places. Not just chests, but spines and mouths and ... I don't know, butts maybe? I hope butts. At a certain point, the bursting all blends together and you just tune out. Ever see a character in a TV show that delivers a good line, and then that line is turned into a catchphrase that gets obnoxiously overused for the rest of the series? Yeah, that is what has become of Alien's chestburster. You had a good run, friend.

Bottom line is, most of this is just distraction from the Fassbender show, which is where Scott has placed all of his chips. It's potentially fruitful material that the still remarkably prolific 79-year-old director clearly has a vested interest in, especially considering that his recent output includes not only Prometheus but the Showtime pilot for The Vatican and a pair of religious epics in Exodus: Gods and Kings and Kingdom of Heaven (the director's cut of which is one of Scott's finest achievements). But his big questions aren't afforded the time to be fleshed out the way they could be; to his palpable chagrin, he has to spend too much time on slasher duty. And so those ideas never get too far below the surface, if at all. Scott gets a ton out of the mood and lighting and set design - and of course Fassbender's dual/duelling performances - all of which evokes more about those ideas than the ideas can say about themselves, and that's with a script that is constantly trying to articulate them.

Scott peppers the film with references and allusions to thematically relevant art and literature - Byron and Shelley (both of them!), Wagner and Michelangelo, among various others, many of which I'm sure eluded me. He goes out of his way to show his work, but when all's said and done those come across as contextual shortcuts, standing in for the more in-depth treatment the subject matter is capable of offering.

Between Prometheus and Covenant, we've been given a more detailed outline of where everything and everyone came from. The Engineers created humans, humans created androids, androids created xenomorphs, xenomorphs started killing humans. In future entries, perhaps the xenomorphs will finally get into the lab and create a new race of their own. Or better yet, we'll have prequels to the prequels and discover who created the Engineers.

There are interesting angles here - for one, that the creative impulse seems to lead inexorably to self-destruction (some on longer timelines than others). But as far as this movie and its linear relationship to other movies in the series go, by Covenant's logic the aliens have apparently devolved by the time they show up to ambush Ripley, Kane and Friends in the original, early-22nd-Century-set Alien. In Covenant, crew members are infected by air, stepping on spores that release ash-like drops that float up from the ground and into whatever open cavity they can find. The newly infected become violently ill within minutes. A few minutes after that, aliens are bursting out of their bodies. Not long after that, those bursters are close to full-size. My question for David, the engineer of the xenomorphs' direct ancestors: How and why did the gestation and growth process slow down so precipitously in the few years between Covenant and Alien? Because in the latter, the facehugger has its way with John Hurt, stays there for a while, dies, and only some time after that - including a period when our unknowingly impregnated pal thinks he's perfectly fine - does that alien fetus launch itself out of Hurt's body and into the dark corners of the ship. For a film that presents David as a biological mastermind, he certainly seems to have made a grave error sometime between the events of this movie and the first one. I assume Alien: Crucifixion - or whatever the hell they call the next installment, should it happen - will answer this deeply important question.

Whatever their current rate of development, these aliens still spring out of their makeshift wombs more fully formed than any other non-Fassbender character in this film. This is not a knock on the cast, which is roundly excellent, at least on paper - but they hardly have anything to do, and what personalities they are permitted to have are generally discarded after the first act. Katherine Waterson - a revelation in Inherent Vice, continually impressive in Queen of Earth and Steve Jobs, very solid in her first blockbuster starring role in last year's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them - becomes our de-facto lead. As the inevitable mayhem unfolds, we see her perpetually looking around in a panic, as if desperate to locate a better script to which she can offer her services. Or a better version of this one, maybe. But the movie can't find a single way to define her beyond the fact that her husband (Captain James Franco, in a very James Franco-y cameo) is dead. Indeed, a particular disappointment - considering the legacy of Ripley in this franchise - the women here are defined largely by their husbands, which means the severely underrated Carmen Ejogo is unfortunately handed a nothing role. (Her husband - the reluctant new captain whose religious faith, as he sees it, is secretly held against him by this crew of scientists - is played by Billy Crudup in a much meatier part, but even his character doesn't fulfil the potential we see early on.) Ditto Amy Seimetz (Upstream Color) as Maggie, a pilot whose most dramatic plot point involves a rescue mission by her husband, Tennessee (Danny McBride), a 20th-Century-country-music-lovin', cowboy-hat-wearin' shitkicker who I'm pretty sure doesn't play by the rules, except the character work is too thin to even nail those kinds of cliches.

Bigger than any of that, though, is the overall failure of the prequel strategy that began with Prometheus and continues here. When the previous movie came out, its writer Damon Lindelof talked about how the best way to do a prequel was simply to find a story that can exist in the same world but isn't directly beholden to what we know comes later. Something that works as its own story, rather than being mere supplemental material for an existing film. Essentially, to cite his example, the opposite of the George Lucas strategy, which was to use prequels to connect dots that we already know got connected. The disappointment, then, is that's almost exactly what these prequels are now doing - putting together a timeline and filling in gaps of backstory that lead right to the front steps of Alien. Both prequels have done very much their own thing thematically, but that's only muddied their relationship to the franchise as a whole. I'm reminded of TV critic Alan Sepinwall's reaction to the American Bitch episode of the final season of Girls. He argued that it was surely a great episode of television, but questioned whether it was a great episode of Girls, sensing too much of a disconnect between it and the six seasons of narrative and style that came before and after it. I won't argue that Covenant is a good movie on its own, but to whatever extent it does work (again: the Fassbender scenes), it does so almost completely independent of what it has to do with, or say about, Alien. In fact, in its focus on David/Walter and artificial intelligence in general, it's more in line with Scott's Blade Runner than any Ripley adventures. Which is great and all, except that it's so half-thought, and so lethargically executed, in almost everything involving this ship and these characters, not to mention the sequences in which its two disparate worlds awkwardly coexist.

Confused and unnecessary mythology notwithstanding, Covenant of course won't diminish any of the previous movies - you can't blame one film for the sins of its descendants, nor for the later missteps of its maker. But you can certainly question the wisdom of trying to make two wildly different movies at once. The best of this movie, there's not enough of; Alien-wise, it just doesn't work at all. Whatever its impressive ambitions, the sensible response to a movie should never be, as it is with Covenant, to simply ignore it.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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