Reexamining the flawed film and anticipating Alien: Covenant
With the release of Alien: Covenant creeping up soon, there is both excitement and concern for what director Ridley Scott will bring to the beloved franchise that he began near-40 years ago, with 1979’s ‘Alien’. Scott’s original film is considered a sci fi and horror classic, and in many ways has been the structural map for a great deal of genre films since, but there’s a sense of trepidation leading up to Covenant due to Scott’s 2012 return to the franchise with one of the most confusing and divisive films of the series, Prometheus. Now, five years on, it’s interesting to look back and examine the effect the disappointment of Prometheus had, not just on fans of the Alien series, but more specifically with the cinephiles who anticipated it.
Straight off the bat, I’ll come clean: I wouldn’t call myself a big fan of the Alien series. Rather, I’d consider myself a fan of the first two Alien films specifically. This is probably true of most people, but there’s a specific point to that. Alien is, to this day, one of my favourite films. Rewatching it the other night, I still love it, as both a sci fi fan and a horror fan. The movie has such a perfect setup and pace for a horror film, and a brilliant aesthetic that has been mirrored and straight-up ripped off by so many other films since. Much the same can be said about James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, which I do thoroughly enjoy, but I have some issues with, notably I don’t particularly like how Newt was written, and I also think the Director’s Cut (which is now the generally accepted cut of the film) is a bit bloated. Aside from those films though, I can’t say I really care for the whole series much. I appreciate what Alien 3 was trying to do and David Fincher’s aesthetic, but the plot is far too imbalanced, and the less said about Resurrection (and the fucking awful AVP series) the better.
My point being, when Ridley Scott announced he was returning to the Alien franchise, it wasn’t so much the franchise I was excited about, but rather Scott’s involvement. And honestly, that excitement was amplified by the fact that it wasn’t going to be another xenomorph-centric film, but an exploration behind the ship the xenomorphs came from and why they came to be. To me, another generic Alien movie would be pointless; though Aliens did a great job setting up a purpose for Ripley to go back to LV-426 and fight the xenomorphs again, after that any further exploration of her character vs xenomorphs would just be contrived and redundant (and was).
And I don’t feel I was alone with this line of thinking. Though there were certainly those who were disappointed about the promise of no xenomorphs in Prometheus, Scott’s decision to return to the director’s chair with a new and particularly interesting premise exploring the lore of the xenomorphs’ creation excited fans. Maybe not so much the die-hard Alien fans who just wanted to see more Ripley vs. Aliens, but the fans who loved what made those original Alien films so damn good. It wasn’t just that we were getting a new pseudo-Alien film, it was that we were getting a film that expanded the Alien universe in a unique and interesting way, and from the universe’s fucking creator no less.
And that’s why Prometheus hurt so bad when it landed. The film just wasn’t very good. It wasn’t an utter trainwreck of a film (though some do think so). It was just kind of stupid. Scott did show that he still knew how to make a great-looking sci fi film, sure, and there were some truly impressive, intense moments of horror. But it was just such an utterly confused script, it left you to wonder which would’ve been better: a more straight-up-yet-boring story, or what we got?
Truthfully, the ambition of the story I actually love. Though there were red flags here and there in its first hour, I absolutely adored what it was setting up. The exploration of humanity and our beginnings… it felt like I was watching a new take on 2001: A Space Odyssey, only instead of tripping on acid in the second half, the film was going to deliver pure terror. For half the movie I was sitting there giddy with excitement, and that’s why it hurt so much… oh so very much… when Milburn went to pet the space-snake. Now, I didn’t care much about Milburn, and I certainly hated the Fifield character from the moment he first spoke, and them getting lost in the engineer ship already felt a little contrived… but I remember that space-snake sequence and it just being so painful to watch, because all of a sudden this seemingly grand film that was moving along so well and looked amazing turned from being the best set up to a fantastic new horror movie to being the best set up for some generic, cliched horror bullshit.
And how greatly disappointing it was. For me, this had to be one of my most anticipated films ever; a film that prior to it’s announcement I had no idea I wanted and then all of a sudden wanted so bad. And for it to turn out to be not all that great, it was such a let down. There have been those who wave its flag, claiming that the movie is genius and that it all makes sense, and I’ve heard all the theories of how it all works. But honestly, can anyone really get behind the decision making here? It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the film: I get that there are questions left unanswered purposefully, and that there’s subtext, and that sequels were always intended. But the biggest problem with Prometheus (beyond the stupidity of some of its characters and its “reveals”) is that it doesn’t have any driving force working against its protagonists. Sure, David does the thing with the black goo in Holloway’s drink, and the idiots in the ship fuck around with the space snake, and then Weyland comes into the picture and then they wake up a pissed off engineer… but who’s Shaw actually fighting against in this film? As much as David sort of instigates the events that take place, the reasons why are never explored and he’s not really used as the main antagonist. So shit just kind of… happens.
I’d like to briefly point out what I think was a missed opportunity regarding David in this film. In the blu-ray edition of the film, there is an easter egg that suggests that the Alien universe and Ridley Scott’s other seminal sci fi film Blade Runner’s universe are connected. It seems to me that this could’ve been explored with the character of David. While the humans are invested in discovering their beginnings and meeting their creators, David is aware of who created him, and is in many ways superior to humans, but remains a slave. Perhaps upon arrival on LV-223 David learns that the engineers were intent on destroying humanity, and maybe that triggers a response that leads him to manipulate events in favour of the engineers. Partner this with Holloway’s answer to David when asked why he was made, stating “We made you because we could,” maybe David (much like the replicants before him) has an ambition to be free. This would allow a more emotionally satisfying conclusion the film, as even without questions about the engineers intent answered, the resolution of the David plot would conclude the thematic purpose of the movie.
But unfortunately there was no emotional satisfaction to be had, and the excitement felt anticipating Prometheus was replaced with a feeling of deflation. And this excitement didn’t feel measured by the number of fans invested, but rather it was that the excitement of those invested just felt so dense. Marvel may draw bigger crowds, and nothing can match the volume of anticipation felt with the return of Star Wars, but those franchises are sold on their delivering more of the same. It’s fan servicing, and though that is exactly what people wanted, asked for and got, it also has been the most consistent bit of criticism against those films due to its lack of creativity. Prometheus on the other hand excited fans about the possibility of something beyond what we’d seen or imagined, and looking back now, for me personally (and I don’t think I’m alone here), this was bigger than just another entry to the franchise, this was an artistic exploration of an idea.
But now we’re getting Alien: Covenant, and though its trailers look promising and its initial reviews sound pretty okay-to-decent, it doesn’t feel quite as grand as what Prometheus felt like. I can’t help but wonder if maybe Ridley Scott should do to the Alien franchise what he did with Blade Runner 2049 and just hand it to someone else. Plenty of people were excited about a proposed new Ripley and Hicks sequel by Neill Blomkamp, but not me so much. Firstly, a lot of people had issues with Elysium, and most hated Chappie, so why is everyone so certain about his take on Aliens? And secondly, again, I don’t need another contrived Ripley vs. xenomorphs story. It’s been done.
Honestly, my hope is that Covenant does explore some of the ideas from Prometheus, but just with a bit more focus, and with a few less idiotic characters. Because I greatly appreciate what Scott has been trying to do, and it’s not without precedent; in recent years there have been a few really great alternate takes on established universe’s, such as this year’s’ Logan or (my personal favourite universe building film) 2015’s Creed. Expansion of a story and redirection of focus is a fantastic way to treat fans to something familiar while offering them something new, and it’s something that I think people are really beginning to hope to get more of from tentpoles such as Star Wars and Marvel. But it requires thought and restraint. We want these films to take chances, but they have to be respectful to their audiences. We don’t want any more stupid characters and dumb decisions in our Alien universe, just like we don’t want to the DC lore get completely shit on in the cinematic universe and then have it wipe its ass along the ground. Let’s hope Scott’s heard us, and that Alien: Covenant gets it right.