Last night, I had the good fortune to see over 95% of Jordan Peele’s newest film, Us. I know what you’re wondering – the missing 0-5% came when I had to go let my brother into the theater. Luckily, it was in the beginning of the film, and I didn’t miss much from a narrative standpoint. I definitely saw enough to form an opinion. So – Us, is it good? Is it as good as Get Out?
It’s 2018 and American culture feels at war with itself. Some of this is no doubt a spilling over of the bitter partisan division currently ripping at the fabric of the country. I think another aspect, however, comes from the rapid pace of technological and social change. The world is not the same one it was ten years ago – and who knows what things will look like a decade into the future. This uncertainty is reflected in our art, namely in the incredible popularity of nostalgia.
Horror franchises age poorly. This is a general rule and there are few exceptions. While John Carpenter’s Halloween is hailed as a classic, not many outside of horror diehards await the next installment. Ditto with genre defining pieces like The Exorcist and Silence of the Lambs. Horror sequels suffer from one inherent problem: It is never as scary the second time you see it.
Now there are some ideas that are more open for exploration and can find new ways to frighten audiences. There are also some horror sequels that are carried by excellent casting, directing, and production design. Then there are some movies that abandon the horror in favor for fun, dumb or otherwise. The Alien franchise is a horror series that has done all three.
But it’s over now.
The lifespan of the alien as a horror icon has ended. Shortened by rampant commercialization and less-than-stellar sequels, the series showed a blip of life with Prometheus before flat-lining in Alien:Covenant. Director Ridley Scott, channeling George Lucas, has returned to murder the creation that he gave life to decades earlier. Spoiler alert: I f*cking hated watching Alien:Covenant.
The Alien is No Longer Threatening
It is true that the alien design has not been scary for years. That’s what happens with eight movies, video games, and a toy line. It is simply too familiar to be terrifying in the way it was in Alien. That said, solid film-making can overcome this deficiency. But in order to do so, the alien must remain the primary threat. This shouldn’t be hard. After all, it was billed as the “perfect organism” in the first film.
Yet the traditional alien is the least threatening aspect of Alien: Covenant. Sure it still kills ‘people’ and is fast and strong, but let’s examine the other antagonists that the film provides. First off: David, the android from Prometheus appears to have scrambled his circuits and gone insane. He is deceptive, strong, intelligent, manipulative, and can blend into the party of good guys by virtue of looking exactly like one of them.
Alien: Covenant goes further to strongly imply that David created and can control the entire alien race. So really, he is the head of the snake, as well as a much more calculating menace.
In addition to David, we have his weaponized diseases that he took from the Engineer aliens of Prometheus. For my money, this thing is the perfect organism. It is a microscopic disease that travels quickly and is lethal upon contact/penetration with human skin. Sure, it could probably be burned up but no one ever seems to see it coming. They’re just fine until they start spurting blood and hatching monsters.
The alien comes across as nothing but a servant of a larger evil – a minion that is replaceable and expendable and, frankly, nothing more than a work in progress. The perfect organism has fallen very far from grace. Remember that Family Guy sketch about “Bigger Jaws” – that is essentially what Alien: Covenant does. It has one-upped its monster to the point of obscurity.
Killing Prometheus and Originality
I will say this right now: Prometheus was far from a perfect movie. It suffered from a litany of problems that are very amusingly laid out in this video:
That said, Prometheus also represented a bold new direction for the Alien franchise. An attempt to distance the films from the repetitive slump they had fallen into – you know, an evil company trying to exploit the aliens for military gain. Sure we still had the evil company, but this time they’re looking into how humanity evolved and attempting to understand its origin.
Perhaps I am in the minority but I found it profoundly refreshing to not see a traditional alien in Prometheus. As I’ve said before, the design is tired. Exploring another alien race and its relationship to the aliens may be a flawed idea, but at least it was one that was open to originality.
Alien: Covenant murders this promise with the same disdain that the third Pirates of the Caribbean abandoned all ideas established in the second. The Engineers from Prometheus – they’re dead now. Any unanswered questions remain unanswered because, well they’re dead.
But the Engineers aren’t the only open-ended story path being squashed. Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw barely makes a cameo, being killed off-screen in a way reminiscent of Newt and Hicks in Alien 3. Dr. Shaw may have been a flawed character, but I spent all of Prometheus getting behind her and was genuinely curious to see where her character went.
After all, she is portrayed as an idealistic and naive scientist driven by her faith in Prometheus – a faith that is shattered by the horrific events she encounters. Logically, I could have seen her sliding into a homicidal streak more easily than the well-meaning but controlled David.
Killing her off would have been more acceptable if it was to make way for stronger characters but, well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
For all its flaws, Prometheus opened the Alien franchise to expansion. Alien: Covenant was a film very determined to close off every avenue of that expansion, hastily answer the un-asked question of alien origin, and slam the series back to its tired roots of traditional xenomorph murdering space colonists.
The Lazy Writing of Bad Horror
I have been dancing around this problem throughout my review. Alien: Covenant is bad horror filled with bad horror cliches. Its cast is made up of so many characters – most of whom named – who exist without characterization. They are simply there to die. They don’t feel like people, instead serving as plot mechanics or set dressing.
I’ll perform a test. The main protagonist of the film is Daniels (Katherine Waterson). She is our primary good guy. She is… a woman… who was a wife… and has short hair. I cannot name a single personality trait. She’s good? She kinda looks like a knock-off Sigourney Weaver?
She is the best developed of at least 13 named crew members. Even David cannot keep up with Ridley Scott’s disregard of humanity in this picture.
There is another character who I want to point out; Oram (Billy Crudup). Oram is a man of faith, someone who takes his religion very seriously. How do I know this? Not through his personality or meaningful plot action. Instead, I know this because the film tells me – over and over and over again. Literally every scene where someone says something about Oram, they mention his faith. And it is not important at all. Oram does nothing to contribute to the plot, eventually dying to face-hugger.
I’m going to say this as someone who is not particularly religious: If you’re going to write about religion, treat it with respect. Do not tack it on as some afterthought. Perhaps Oram mattered in some version of the script but it just feels like his faith is there to take digs at. It is tacked on. If you want a better written religions figure – maybe try Elizabeth Shaw (whoops – too late for that).
The lack of characterization could have worked in a movie that was only interested in having fun, but Alien: Covenant takes itself too seriously. This is a film clearly far up its own ass with half-baked ideas of Paradise Lost and artificial intelligence. It postures and uses words, the best words, to sound smarter and inflate itself over all the other slasher films on the market.
Oh, one other character to mention – David. I loved Michael Fassbender‘s David in Prometheus. He is complex; a seemingly well-meaning creation who is disregarded by others and abused by his creator. Mary Shelly would have been proud by how well her creation was adapted into a futuristic setting.
In Alien: Covenant, David has ‘gone insane.’ This is the rationale used to justify his behavior. It is also lazy writing 101. Going insane is the overused excuse to get a character to do something that goes against earlier characteristics/motives. In Iron Man, the villain goes insane to switch from scheming business tycoon to rock ’em sock ’em robo-fighter.
It does not add to David’s character to make him pure evil – it detracts from it. He is no longer complex, he is just crazy. He hates humanity but loves its art and creation? Sure?
Alien: Covenant is a perfect example of how not to write an effective horror movie. If people don’t care about the characters then none of the horror can be particularly effective. I don’t care that the alien tore off a woman’s head – I’m still trying to recall who exactly she was.
Ridley Scott is clearly bored with the alien concept and using it to explore other ideas. The problem is that he seems to have no qualms trashing a universe that has evolved past him. Yes, he directed the first film (and kudos for that) but the series has grown so much since then. If he truly wants to explore AI – then by all means make a film exploring that concept, but leave Alien out of it.
Perhaps he just wants people to see his movies but doesn’t trust his name anymore. Exodus: Gods and Kings was one of the last ‘original’ projects he did and most people remain blessedly unaware/unaffected by the lifeless mediocrity that was that film. Regardless, I have only one request for Mr. Scott: Leave alien and don’t come back. Maybe someone else can give it life. This is what you’re doing to your franchise: