Out of all the franchises, the Alien movies have managed to make some of the worst films while at the same time cultivating a rabid fan base. The first two films in the series, Alien and Aliens, are two of the greatest science fiction films of all time, but beyond 1986, everything in the series has been questionable at best. Every few years fans debate about the worst Alien movie – some say Alien 3, others point at the Alien Vs. Predator series – but Ridley Scott, the director behind the original film, has come back to deliver the most disappointing film in the series yet.
How good was Alien: Covenant? Well, it wasn't terrible. Ridley Scott’s most recent foray into the world of Xenomorphs would have been better if it was absolute garbage, but instead it was just okay; a film obsessed with explaining what never needed to be explained. It may have looked lovely, but it was anything but a return to form for the Alien franchise. Keep reading to find out why Alien: Covenant was not good.
**Warning: Spoilers Ahead**
Something that separates the original Alien films from the rest of that era's science fiction is the visual aesthetic of a "used future," an era that was obviously far away from our present, but seemed like people were actually living in. The look of the first two films weren't of worlds and ships with pristine corridors or clean apartments with robo-butlers, it was constructed into a junk heap architecture that immediately told the audience what kind of world the characters were living in. Covenant undoes much of that visual texture by presenting spaces that are stark and clean. The color white is the most present throughout the film, from the lovingly shot tubular hallways of the ship, to the hypersleep suits the crew wears and never seems to soil.
Everything in the film, from the ship's control room to David's mountain home on Origae-6 feels put together in a way that suggests a steam punk neat freak did their best to make the sets look Alien-ish, but it's never enough to suggest that Covenant has anything to do with the other films. The wide open spaces presented in Covenant are beautiful, but the original Alien films are not about beauty, they're about the fear of your body turning against you, and the rats in the walls deciding that you are their next meal. How could you be blamed for thinking something is off about the original Alien films if you watched Covenant first and then decided to go back to Scott's original see what all the hype was about?
The main rule of film is "show don't tell," but Ridley Scott seems to have forgotten all about that in his pursuit to reign in a franchise that was never meant to be. Prometheus, Covenant's predecessor, explains Xenomorphs (the titular alien) are nothing more than a hybridization of a collection of spores that bond with whatever they come in contact with to form an eating and killing machine. "Fine," audiences said. "That's already too much exposition, but whatever."
But Ridley Scott wasn't done explaining in explicit detail how the Xenomorphs came to be created by an evil robot who was set on wiping out humanity. The middle third of Covenant gives the audience an almost step by step walkthrough on how the Fassbender's David created the Xenomorph we would meet in the original film, stripping away the terror and mystery of the creature.
Do you remember the first time you saw the Xenomorph? You probably didn't even know it had a name, it was just a squirming black creature coming out of the dark to rip some poor ancillary character to shreds. Seeing the beast rise out of a small body of water where Newt is helplessly standing can still send a shudder through your spine. Did you need to know the Xenomorph began as a series of spores invented by giant grey aliens as a way to mutate life? And they were weaponized after a sad robot realized their potential for quickly wiping out humans? And it took a decade of research and hybridizations to get the creature that we meet in the original film? Does that make the creature more frightening, or do you only think of inane questions when you see the alien queen squirting out eggs as Ripley blasts it with a flame thrower?
That question seems silly because the main hero in Alien - Scott's opening salvo into the world of science fiction - is Ripley, a character played by Sigourney Weaver. She's smart, she cares about people, and she puts up with a lot of sh*t from the men in her life (across four films) while saving their lives on a consistent basis, but was that an accident? The script for the original film was written by Dan O'Bannon (a frequent collaborator of John Carpenter and Alejandro Jodorowsky), and the sequel was written by James Cameron, so it's entirely possible Scott viewed Weaver's character as a secondary necessity rather a character who was creating an important archetypal role. Ripley is more than just the quintessential "final girl," she's a figure that begins that way, and over the course of her four films in the series becomes a god-like leader.
Scott knows one of the tropes of the Alien series is having a short-haired female protagonist. It seems like that's as far as Scott went with the character. Katherine Waterston's Dany is just a woman with short hair, and while she's definitely the main character, and she sort of defeats the Xenomorph, it doesn't seem like any work is done on Scott's part to imbue her with the essence of a hero. She just kind of rolls with stuff until the film ends. Doing this to your main character makes it seem like Ridley was just a fluke, which is disappointing because you want to think that the people making the films you love care about inspiring people to be the best versions of themselves no matter how they identify, instead it seems like Scott was just trying to get the job done.
You wouldn't know it from Alien: Covenant, but the first two films in the franchise are interesting character studies showing people from different backgrounds trying to grapple with the terrifying realities of the unknown. Covenant sort of does that, but without giving any of the ancillary characters any kind of personality beyond "pilot," "lady in spaceship," or "guy from Empire who is also a pilot maybe."
The original films gave the audience characters they could care about, and even Aliens - a film with 15 characters who aren't named Ripley - gives you side characters who you can root for. But when you put those films in the new context of Covenant it's hard to watch them without realizing Scott was just trying to give people more of what they wanted. It feels like he thought, "People like space marines? I'll give them space marines." And that was that.