I don’t think anyone could legitimately create a “Best Directors of All-Time” list without including Ridley Scott on it, somewhere. Say what you want about his filmography (especially some of his more recent work), but this is the guy responsible for (in my opinion) 3 genuine classics – ALIEN, BLADE RUNNER, and GLADIATOR. Those 3 films alone should put Scott at least in the discussion of Best Directors. With ALIEN, I was a bit late to the party – I only saw it for the first time about six or seven years ago. And as you would imagine, I was completely blown away. The film’s sequel – ALIENS – which was helmed by James Cameron, was just as great (if not better, according to some) than the original. Sure, ALIEN 3 and ALIEN: RESURRECTION weren’t too well received (which may sound like a huge understatement for some), but at least the ALIEN franchise had two classics in its catalog. 2015’s PROMETHEUS saw Scott return to the franchise he started, and now we have the follow-up to that film, ALIEN: COVENANT. Now the question remains – does Scott have another classic on his hands, or is it something on par with the franchise’s later entries?
In a nutshell – he would’ve had a future classic had he not blatantly betrayed his own franchise.
In the year 2104 (15 years after the events of PROMETHEUS and 18 years before the original ALIEN), the colonization ship Covenant is on its way to a remote planet known as Origae-6. On board are two thousand colonists (all of which have been put into cryosleep) as well as a thousand embryos – the foundation of the first colony on the planet. A neutrino burst causes an explosive shockwave that kills some of the colonists as well as the ship’s captain Jake Benson (played by [SPOILER] – won’t reveal who it is but’s it’s a pretty cool cameo), widowing the Covenant’s terraforming expert Danny Daniels (played by Katherine Waterston); as a result, the ship’s first mate Christopher Oram (played by Billy Crudup) becomes the new captain. During the ship’s repair, a strange transmission is picked up by the Covenant from an unknown planet; seeing the need to investigate, Oram (despite the protests of Daniels) decides to reroute the Covenant in that direction in the hope that this new planet could be just as habitable as Origae-6. After landing, an expedition team, led by Oram and the ship’s android Walter (played by Michael Fassbender), the crew of the Covenant investigates the terrain of this strange new planet.
As I stated above, I truly think that Ridley Scott had a classic on his hands – it captures the spirit of the ALIEN franchise (particularly the first two films), in that the action is fairly split between the goings-on of the Covenant and the planet. The screenplay by Jack Logan and Dante Harper does a great job of nailing the ominous feeling that is trademark of the ALIEN films, creating an atmosphere right up there with the best that the sci-fi horror genre has to offer. I also thought the writing and characterization of Waterston’s character Daniels was also well-done; I can certainly see her as a precursor to Ripley, the franchise’s main heroine, with the similar writing and character traits that both characters have.
The argument I made on the latest episode of FORCED PERSPECTIVE (Episode 96) is that if you take the name “ALIEN” away from this film – just pretend that this is its own standalone film – and it’s actually a pretty great piece of filmmaking. Now granted, the big reveal at the end was fairly predictable (and that’s yet another understatement), and I mean predictability of the *eyeroll* quality. But everything before that I thought was very solid work – the film’s pacing was great, the acting was good (Michael Fassbender is absolutely amazing here, as usual), the atmosphere was terrific – it just felt like an ALIEN film, both in tone and execution. So kudos to Ridley Scott and crew for being able to deliver another exceptional effort in a genre that Scott himself helped define some forty years ago.
That being said – after you digest all the events of ALIEN: COVENANT, and realize that this indeed is now canon to the ALIEN franchise, that is the moment where this once-thought-to-be stellar film completely falls apart; and it all hinges on one word: mythology. It appears that Ridley Scott has decided to retcon a lot of the franchise’s mythology with some easily avoidable storytelling mistakes. The main issue with this film from a canon perspective is that, no matter what Scott was going for, it longer fits like a glove to the first ALIEN film. In fact – it makes the original ALIEN film no longer make sense. When you make a canon mistake so huge that it actually messes with and ruins your original film – the one that many consider a cultural landmark – that’s not good. At all. The result is you have ALIEN: COVENANT fit together with the original ALIEN like a square peg in a round hole. Now I’m the last one to question Scott on the decision-making on his film, but I just see a reason why he would purposely ruin his franchise’s mythology. But that is exactly what ALIEN: COVENANT has done, and when you realize the ramifications of that, it takes what was a well-executed piece of sci-fi horror and just sets it in flames.
(Cheap plug: if you want more specific details as to the canonical changes that ALIEN: COVENANT makes to the ALIEN mythology, listen to Episode 96 of THE FORCED PERSPECTIVE MOVIE PODCAST, now on ITunes!)
The tragedy in all this is that when fans of the ALIEN franchise think of this film, for the most part, they will look upon it with disdain. It really is a shame that a quality horror film like ALIEN: COVENANT will be tied to its creative decisions, but that’s how it goes sometimes; especially when dealing with not just a much beloved series, but a cultural landmark in motion pictures. To those fans of ALIEN that (for approximately 2 hours) can block out the fact that this is part of the ALIEN chronology, the underlying film is a great piece of work. For all others (especially those who have never watched an ALIEN film), I say dive right in, especially if you’re a horror fan. I have no doubts that you’ll enjoy the ride. Though I’m not sure you should watch any other ALIEN film after that – because all it will do is soil ALIEN: COVENANT for you forever. And sadly, it’s a soiling that’s very much deserved.
2017 • 122 Minutes • United States
Color • English • 20th Century FOX
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir