Alien: Covenant takes place years after Prometheus and concerns the crew of a colonization vessel bound for deep space. After a mid-flight disaster, they head for a new destination, one that has green grass (presumably, beneath the grey-ish filter), oxygen, water, and the eponymous phallic aliens that give this film franchise its title. It’s also home to Prometheus’s returning cyborg David (Michael Fassbender), formerly a severed head but now complete with a full body and a grungy 90s haircut. The film makes Prometheus look wildly successful.
Now to be fair, I kind of liked Prometheus, but it’s been canonized as a disappointment and I have few protests. I don’t insist it’s particularly great or secretly good all along, but I do believe it manages something that Alien: Covenant does not: it makes it fun to watch people die. Prometheus is like a decent slasher movie, albeit mostly sans slasher villain. You don’t sit down to a slasher looking for empathetic characters or displays of real ingenuity or the widespread triumph of the human survival instinct; no, you go to see idiotic teenagers die in absurd, creative ways.
While it’s an admittedly deserved point of contention that nobody in Prometheus is an idiot teenager under the influence of alcohol or marijuana, everyone dies quite creatively. Within the framework of a crew tripping over a different bio-weapon every few feet, Ridley Scott has free reign to throw in giant squids and mutants and a pale, bald, musclebound humanoid alien. The movie succeeds through the sheer amount of stuff it flings at the wall; the musings about faith and the place of humanity in the universe may not stick, but the horrifying C-section sure does.
That’s not to say Alien: Covenant actually needs variety to be any good, of course – Scott and James Cameron managed OK in earlier films with only the xenomorphs (Cameron did add a xenomorph queen, though that was late in the movie). But I left the theater with this palpable xenomorph fatigue. Unavoidable, maybe, when the creatures in question are over 30 years old and have, in various forms of media, tangled with the Predator, Batman, and the cast of Mortal Kombat. The bar for a creative xenomorph kill is perhaps unfairly high, but even when you correct for the raised expectations, Alien: Covenant swings low; three characters die while they’re washing up, on two separate occasions. Let me reiterate: this movie goes for a trite shower kill not once, but twice.
The Covenant’s crew is composed of thin sketches: the one in the cowboy hat (Danny McBride), the one who evokes Ripley if you squint hard enough (Katherine Waterston), the one who believes in his lord and savior Jesus Christ (Billy Crudup). This would be forgivable, as it often is in horror movies, if they didn’t meet an untimely demise with all the excitement of their number coming up at the DMV. Barring a scene with a crane that momentarily shakes Scott out of his malaise, the act of getting got in Alien: Covenant feels perfunctory, like even the film is bored of its title creatures.
The only thing Scott seems interested in is David, who’s positioned as a sort of tragic, lonely artist. He glides through the crypt-like interior of an empty city, masking contempt behind an eerie politeness. As played by Fassbender, he’s the cracked face of perfection, unpredictable and sinister and amusingly seductive when he encounters the Covenant’s resident cyborg Walter (also Fassbender). It’s David who provides the film’s core, a statement on the nature of creativity and the relationship between a work and its maker that goes down easier than Prometheus’s dead-end philosophical pretensions but nonetheless gets swallowed up when there are faces to hug and chests to burst. David and the xenomorphs wrestle for the film’s spotlight, and the ones who get it don’t seem like the ones Scott wants to indulge.
The carrot on a stick for Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien universe (xenoverse?) has been this promise of answers to its narrow mythos. In Prometheus, it was the question of just who that elephant-headed pilot was from the beginning of the original Alien, plus the motivation of the sinister Weyland-Utani corporation. For the sequel, it’s where, exactly, the xenomorphs come from. That answer may very well be the only takeaway from a film as mismatched and miscalculated as Alien: Covenant, but it’s an empty one, and not just because it’s dull and half-formed in order to leave room for more films. For all Prometheus’s troubles in asking the Big Questions about life, Scott uses them to smartly distance himself from Alien lore. The weakest parts of Prometheus are when it invokes the lingering questions of its universe, when it tells us the elephant-headed pilot isn’t elephant-headed after all and when it uses a xenomorph as a post-credits tease like it’s a Marvel character. By taking the other direction, Alien: Covenant ties itself up in lore whether we want it or not.
The strength of a fictional world is its scope, in how its bigness and mystery reflect the relationship we have with our own world. In giving us the answers, Alien: Covenant’s only essential contribution is the way it further flattens its universe into one that’s small, easy to explain, and as tiresome as the creatures that inhabit it.