Some movies deserve to be R. This is one of them. You know, when a beast designed by H.R. Geiger explodes out of someone's back and murders everyone on screen? That's an R-rated movie.
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
I have a weird relationship with the Alien franchise. I don't know what I think about them, yet I keep coming back to see every entry in the series. With Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, I can go as far as to say that I was full on excited to see these movies. You see, Alien is one of my favorite horror movies of all time. It is absolutely terrifying. Finding out that Ridley Scott had come back to save a franchise that had lost its way is fantastic. I'm not in love with Ridley Scott or anything. I think Mr. Henson and myself are the only two nerds who don't worship at the feet of Blade Runner. But these movies are far from perfect. So what about these movies keeps me coming back and leaving slightly unsatisfied. Shy of the crossover films, which share a dubious continuity with the others in the franchise, none of the movies are full on awful. (I even have a soft spot for Alien: Resurrection.) I kind of need to examine that idea and I think Alien: Covenant might be the best movie to do that.
Alien: Covenant has so much going for it. I was one of the people who kind of liked Prometheus. It was one of those movies that I enjoyed enough once, but never felt the desire to revisit. Covenant is kind of the same thing. Both of these movies do something special with a lot of the philosophy. I know that there is depth to the original Alien. It wouldn't be considered a classic without some pretty heady stuff supporting it. However, at its core, it is a very scary monster movie. That movie is just the most terrifying. Covenant also has really good scary parts. There are moments in the movie that mirror the claustrophobia of the Nostromo and that's really nifty. But at heart, Covenant is complex. There is an examination of consciousness and parenthood that really caught my attention in Tom King's The Vision comic. Fassbender's portrayal and understanding of David makes the movie super watchable and transcends the original simple film in comparison. Alien introduced Bishop and that character was cool, but much like Walter in Covenant, he wasn't as self-aware as the terrifying David was. But as good and compelling as Fassbender's David is, he almost doesn't belong in a movie focusing on a super-space killer. There is a story there that should be told (holy crap, it's Blade Runner all over again), but it almost seems like the movie isn't sure what it is supposed to be. I don't know exactly what ratio works with this kind of storytelling. Looking at Jurassic Park and why it works is because it used the supernatural horror menace as a backdrop for character analysis. Covenant tries doing the same thing, but it doesn't carry as well. I said, David is a cool character and he's performed hauntingly by Fassbender, but something just doesn't click about the merging of the two stories. I don't know why, but the same thing happened in Prometheus.
Part of the problem is the problem that comes with many prequels. Prequels feel the need to explain the things that don't really need explanation. I remember seeing those early images of the space jockey from Alien appearing in Prometheus and getting really excited. We would finally get an explanation for the mystery that's been teased for however many years. But that mystery can't have a really great answer without indulging in insane worldbuilding complexity. What made the first Alien work was its simplicity. It had a built world, but none of that stuff really mattered in the long run. Then each additional movie added to the background of this corporate world (BLADE RUNNER!) and the story just became this ourobouros. These prequels had to become complex because that's what the stories built up to. The continuity became a nightmare and there wasn't much that could be done to ignore that. So this corporation that was the background of this world became the foreground. There became this mythos that just detracted from the simple genius of a crew of miners against an unstoppable creature. The odd thing is that many films copied the structure of the original Alien and haven't found that magic spark that makes it work. So what is the right answer? I don't know, and that's probably what pulls me back to the franchise time and again.
But if I had to simplify an analysis about what makes a scary movie, Alien: Covenant kind of works. I saw perhaps a few too many beats harkening back to original film. Katherine Waterstone's Daniels hits a few too many Ripley beats, down to hairstyles and physique. Ripley has always been a really interesting character to me because she isn't someone who wanted to be the protagonist in the story. Rather, she is the unlikely hero in the story and Daniels takes the same route. She is given a reason to mourn with the death of cameoing James Franco. (It's odd that this technically is another James Franco / Danny McBride vehicle.) From there, she doesn't become the captain, but rather someone who criticizes the captain. Her strength is shown through her constant suffering. Ripley had the same thing going. She is a survivor who can't catch a break. Daniels is kind of being groomed for the same thing. I suppose the same could be said for Prometheus's Elizabeth Shaw, which makes me question how Scott writes his characters. I think that the Alien movies should be driven by female protagonists. But there is a fine line between showing a strong woman and just making another Ripley clone. Also, the more trauma that these characters endure, the bell curve kind of takes them from "strong woman" to "horror movie starlet." That's where the character becomes problematic. I want the character to be strong and self-assured. I don't want them to become a victim of these things. The original story of Ripley is a woman solving a problem. Really, replace "alien" with "lumbering serial killer" and the part gets very cheap for the other films. That's no good. I don't know if Daniels really hits the actualization that Ripley does, but she is a strong protagonist still. I'm just worried if she is the new Ripley stand-in, will that feeling last?
I had a really good time in this movie. I was amazed that Danny McBride played the part of Tennessee without really cracking a joke. Sure, there were no appropriate times for jokes, but he played it pretty straight. The movie is entertaining, but again, lacks that greatness. Perhaps I have unreasonable expectations, especially for it being technically the eighth film in the franchise that has more misses than hits. (By the way, I don't particularly love Aliens, which is blasphemy to most.) I know I'll still get excited to see the next one. I know that Fassbender is super-fascinating. I just don't think it hits on all cylinders .
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.