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Seasoned genre film critic John Kenneth Muir once suggested that Ridley Scott’s much maligned 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus had suffered a “death by a thousand nitpicks.” There is no doubt that Prometheus suffered the full wrath of a certain tendency that had emerged in online film criticism and message board debate – the kind of snarky, literal-minded plot-hole-hunting mania best exemplified by Red Letter Media, Honest Trailers and IMDb flame-threads.
Of course, Prometheus did have flaws aplenty – the casting was uneven, and the script was about as far you could get from the clean, seamless story-telling brilliance of the original Alien. Movies, however, do not live and die by the smooth mechanics and plausibility of their scripts alone. Movies are dreamlike and experiential. Stanley Kubrick likened this more abstract quality of film to music:
“A film is – or should be – more like music than fiction. It should be a progression of moods and feelings. The theme, what’s behind the emotion, the meaning, all that comes later.”
Alfred Hitchcock would have reserved a special place in hell for the type of literal-minded critic that became so prominent on the internet. He even gave them a name – the Plausibles:
“There’s quite a difference, you see, between the creation of a film and the making of a documentary. In the documentary the basic material has been created by God, whereas in the fiction film the director is the god; he must create life. And in the process of that creation, there are lots of feelings, forms of expression, and viewpoints that have to be juxtaposed. We should have total freedom to do as we like, just so long as it’s not dull. A critic who talks to me about plausibility is a dull fellow.” – In conversation with Francois Truffaut.
This is not to place Scott’s film in the company of Kubrick and Hitchcock, but just to argue that, as ragged as it was on the literal or narrative level, Prometheus was fascinating as a “progression of moods and feelings.” What it lacked in story-telling finesse, it made up for as a creature of atmosphere, imagery and themes. In terms of atmosphere, Prometheus was the first legitimate sequel to Alien in that it revived that film’s particular tone – the sense of cosmic awe and terror which remains perhaps as close as we have come on film to the horror/sci-fi hybrid fictions of HP Lovecraft. Thematically, it was unusually rich and allusive for a contemporary blockbuster. Borrowing from Lovecraft (and Nigel Kneale’s later Quatermass and the Pit) the heretical notion that mankind is the creation of a race of space-faring aliens, Prometheus is too thick a stew to unpack in what is ostensibly an Alien: Covenant review: creation, sacrifice, Paradise Lost, Laurence of Arabia, 2001, Scott’s own Blade Runner and much else swirls around in its murky DNA.
Anyway, so much for trying to dispel the popular notion that Prometheus is the Worst Thing Ever; on to Alien: Covenant. The main problem with Covenant is that it was re-conceptualized based on reactions to Prometheus. Many people complained regarding the earlier film that its relationship with the Alien franchise wasn’t clear enough. It seems that somebody (perhaps Scott, although more likely at the production end) decided that rather than a Prometheus sequel, people really wanted to see a cosily familiar rehash of Alien (aka “the Force Awakens solution”). So Covenant basically juggles both responsibilities. Unfortunately, while the director remains energised by Prometheus’s Gnostic rumination on creation (and the beautiful, eccentric malevolence of Michael Fassbender’s David), he seems palpably bored by the familiar tropes of the Alien franchise.
Alien: Covenant starts promisingly enough. The new crew are far better cast and more engaging than those in Prometheus. The story-telling is more focused and assured. Yet so much of it feels like a direct reply to the bludgeoning critics of Prometheus; you can almost sense the film-makers yelling: “Look ma, no plot holes!” Covenant‘s narrative is cleaner and clearer, but it completely lacks the sense of mystery and awe, of cryptic motivations and undercurrents, that made its messier predecessor so immersive. One of Prometheus‘s great strengths lay in its use of landscape and sets. As in the classic video game Myst, the ruined architectures and abandoned technologies of Prometheus represented a vast puzzle that the characters have to decode. In Covenant, on the other hand, the landscape is just yet another planet with a crashed horse-shoe spacecraft on it. The characters move briskly and unreflectively through this landscape, because even fictional characters can’t be forced to feel any surprise or awe in the face of things we have seen so many times before.
The central mystery that remained unresolved at the end of Prometheus was the Engineers themselves. Why did they make us? Why did they try to destroy us? This left the film philosophically on a knife-edge between Elizabeth Shaw’s faith that finding our creators would bring some kind of meaning to humanity’s existence, and the film’s overall pessimistic suggestion that creators and their creations are invariably disappointed by one another. The natural next progression for the story was to explore these questions, but Covenant instead falls back on the predictable Alien redux the film-makers decided the audience really wanted. As such, the movie doesn’t advance the story or mythos one iota. It’s a peculiar case were a film’s primary selling point (its various callbacks to the Alien franchise) becomes its dead weight. The greatest special effect in Covenant is Michael Fassbender. The facehugger, chestburster and Xenomorph, on the other hand, have lost all their once prodigious power to shock. Since Alien 3, the Xenomorph has never been quite as formidable and terrifying when rendered in CGI. In Covenant, it possesses all the tangibility and menace of the Spiderman franchise’s Venom. We have domesticated one of the screen’s most fearsome monsters with computers and our seemingly endless appetite to see the same thing over and over again.
Scott is far too skilled at crafting this type of film for Covenant to be a total loss, but the abiding impression it leaves is frustration. One suspects that there was a much more original and interesting Prometheus sequel that got abandoned to pander to audience expectations. In a sense that frustration might be emblematic of a larger problem with Hollywood genre film-making at the present time. Shortly after I got out of Covenant, I saw the newly released trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Don’t get me wrong: considering the talent involved, it’s likely to be at the very least above average. But at this point there is something mortally dispiriting about all that talent being invested in an attempt to recapture the glory of a film made 30 years ago. This needs to be said: the reason we cherish films like Alien and Blade Runner is that they were fresh and unique and not like anything we had ever seen before. Nobody is making out in the long term on this time-loop, except for maybe Harrison Ford’s accountant. We need to discover today’s shocks of new, not strip my yesterday’s into the thud of the familiar.
Alien: Covenant is in cinemas now.
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