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Though it boasts a cult of stubborn supporters, Ridley Scott's Alien prequel Prometheus is widely regarded a failure; yet another misstep in a franchise that hasn't offered us a thoroughly satisfying installment since the 1980s. Like Rob Zombie with his Halloween reboots and George Lucas with his Star Wars prequels, Scott decided the simple concept that made the initial movies such classics wasn't enough, and retro-fitted a mythology that explained the origins of the series' iconic extra-terrestrial terrors. It was a backstory most of us didn't need, nor cared for, and audiences were left checking their watches throughout, wondering when the bloody aliens might show up.
To be fair to Scott, he purposely avoided promoting Prometheus as an Alien movie, rather a sci-fi movie that happened to take place in the Alien universe. With the followup however he's forthright in assuring us this is indeed an Alien movie - it's right there in the title, and when that familiar font appears on the credit screen, you'll probably find yourself relaxing somewhat in your seat, safe in the assumption that Scott is returning back to basics. Don't get too comfortable, as that's far from the case.
Given all three movies were in production at roughly the same time, it can surely be no more than coincidence, but Alien: Covenant shares a remarkable number of similarities with this year's other two high profile sci-fi thrillers, the misjudged Passengers and the serviceable Life. Like the former, it opens with a gigantic spaceship, carrying thousands of colonists on a voyage to a new home galaxies away from Earth, running into trouble that leads to the premature opening of its crew's hibernation pods. Dozens of the sleeping colonists perish, along with the ship's captain (James Franco, earning the easiest pay-cheque of his career), leaving second in command Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) to assume command, much to the annoyance of the deceased's widow, Daniels (Katherine Waterston). The movie sets up an initially intriguing conflict between the pair - Oram is a man of faith, while Daniels is more practical and scientific - but beyond an early argument this dynamic is never returned to.
The crew learns that their ship is a full seven years away from their intended destination, and not wanting to get back into their treacherous pods, there's much excitement when a seemingly habitable planet appears mysteriously out of nowhere. Heading down to investigate, they find the planet hosts earth-like vegetation, along with some very familiar eggs, two of which are cracked open by a pair of red shirts who immediately find their bodies hosting minute black spores.
This early passage offers the strongest material we've seen in the franchise since David Fincher's flawed but interesting Alien 3, as Scott skillfully ratchets up the tension, using our knowledge of the series' lore, and his character's ignorance of same, to create some nail-biting suspense.
Once a returning character from Prometheus shows up in the second act it's all downhill sadly, as Scott once again finds himself bogged down in pointless and unnecessary world-building. The middle section of the film plays out like a riff on those mad scientist narratives that were so popular in the horror cinema of the '30s. You know the kind - a bunch of square-jawed dullards and shrieking bimbos are offered shelter in the isolated home of a well-spoken eccentric, happy to receive his hospitality until they learn of the hideous experiments he's conducting in his basement. The second act thus consists mostly of the villain explaining the wider plot and his evil plans to us, as though we're James Bond tied to a table by Blofeld. Yet despite their verbosity, we never really learn the motivations behind this character's villainous ways.
Perhaps the biggest of Alien: Covenant's many problems is how its antagonist isn't an alien, or aliens, but rather a Baron Frankenstein figure. The xenomorphs are little more than the villain's attack dogs, and lack little in the way of threat. It doesn't help that they're entirely computer generated creations here, lacking the tactile terror of previous installments. A repeat of the iconic chestburster incident is rendered lifeless this time by an effect that really doesn't hold up to modern standards. For such a high profile blockbuster, the CG is surprisingly poor at times, often on the level of those found in early Paul WS Anderson movies.
As with Life, the aliens here have a hyper-accelerated growth rate, and claim their first victim in a set-piece that's almost identical to the one that results in that movie's first casualty. The similarities continue right up to Covenant's downbeat denouement. And like Passengers, the final act revolves around surviving characters being unaware of the true nature of a fellow shipmate.
I use the term 'characters' loosely, as they're all barely conceived here. As with Rogue One, ironically, the character with the most personality here is a robot. There are three married couples among the central bunch, but this is a pointless detail that's only really referred to whenever someone is killed and the movie then cuts to their grieving spouse. By the third time this happens it's unintentionally amusing, bringing back memories of that running gag in Austin Powers of seeing the mourning buddies of every faceless henchman that meets their demise.
There are also far too many protagonists, and it becomes difficult to keep track of who exactly is still alive at any given time. One character simply disappears from the proceedings, as though his death was left on the cutting room floor, or the actor wandered off set and failed to return. I suspect quite a lot of material didn't make this cut, as the editing is often jarring, presenting us with characters suddenly appearing in new locations the film hasn't established.
One of the main gripes both critics and audiences had with Prometheus was how inexplicably dumb its protagonists were. You would think this would be something Scott would be keen to correct in his followup, yet while nobody pokes alien snakes with sticks this time out, the characters of Alien: Covenant make some truly nonsensical decisions. At times it's laughable - a couple makes out in the shower as romantic soul music plays, despite having just learned of the massacre of most of their friends - but it's usually just irritating, particularly in the case of the not so twist ending, which relies on the surviving crew members ignoring a possibility so glaringly obvious only an absolute moron could overlook it.
Prominent among the over-stuffed cast of Alien: Covenant is comic actor Danny McBride. Surprisingly, he's currently penning a screenplay for a reboot of another beleaguered franchise - Halloween. Fans of that series will be hoping McBride learns from Scott's mistakes.