Despite the admittedly hyperbolic, click-bait title, I want to start by saying that this isn’t going to be a “Worst Movie Ever! Irredeemable!” article. Compared to Ghost in the Shell and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Alien: Covenant isn’t even the worst movie so far this year. (Compared to those two, it’s borderline passable.) However, it does provide a decent checklist of some of the worst trends of the modern blockbusters – faux intelligence, effects over characters, and over reliance on fan service as both prequel and soft reboot. And, as the highly disappointing 71% second weekend drop off shows, I’m not alone in this assessment. (Full spoilers for Alien: Covenant below.)
1) DON’T BE STUPID ABOUT BEING SMART
As I discussed this in my previous article (Don’t Blame the Marketing, Blame The Movie), the problem with “headier” blockbusters isn’t that they’re too smart for the audience, but rather they’re stupid movies masquerading as intelligent. A movie’s intelligence doesn’t come from lofty dialogue and speechifying; it comes from following an internal logic within the narrative. Surprisingly often, audiences can see through the pretentious facade and find this hornswoggling condescending.
Alien and Aliens weren’t smart movies because they had discussions on the nature of humanity and the whole of creation. They were smart movies because the characters acted realistically. Prometheus tried to add an extra layer of depth to this franchise by posing the question of “where do we come from?” It failed at answering it (or by not answering it, to be more accurate), but it deserves some credit for posing it. Unfortunately, an Alien (capital A) movie is not the place to be debating the existence of God; it’s not what the series was set up for and trying to be both a monster movie and metaphysical treatise leads to disaster.
Covenant handled this aspect even worse than Prometheus by considering its slapdash theology to be the biggest problem with the previous film, and awkwardly tried to sweep it under the rug as much as possible. The most interesting concepts of Prometheus – the Engineers and the question of ‘what if the people who made us want to destroy us’ – were wiped out entirely in a 10-second flashback in exchange for yet another retread of Alien.
Covenant’s attempts at deeper concepts were relegated to a Mad Scientist cyborg David (Michael Fassbender, reprising his role from Prometheus) waxing poetic on the nature of creation (and the pleasures of fingering) to a newer, less insane cyborg model, Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender). While Fassbender is a good enough actor to make the dialogue sound significant, the dialogue itself contained little actual substance – as also seen in Ghost in the Shell, Transcendence, The Matrix sequels, and many others. If written well, the David/Walter stuff could have been a movie in and of itself, some . As executed, it feels perfunctory, a poor attempt to pay lip service to the heady stink of Prometheus but keeping it as surface as possible so the film could just get to remaking Alien. If it was meant to be more, then the film wouldn’t have ended in a robot fight and a twist so obvious it could barely be called a twist.
This type of faux intelligence satisfies no one. If filmmakers don’t trust the general audience to wrestle with weighty concepts, dumbing it down for them won’t make it more palatable; it’ll just be the stuff they fast forward through until they can get to the action. Similarly, ‘smarter’ audience members won’t feel engaged by low brow discussions about complex topics; it’ll just be the stuff they fast forward through until they can get to the action.
2) OUR CONNECTION IS CHARACTERS, NOT CGI
This tired complaint again, but it doesn’t make it any less apt. Going through the most successful movies of the past several years, a major thing that stuck out for me is that most successful franchises live and die by their characters. There are some exceptions (Transformers), but for the most part it’s a constant. Sure, most Marvel leads are rip-offs of Tony Stark now, but it’s a character type many find enjoyable. The poorly edited mess Suicide Squad is probably going to end up doing overall better than the overall mess for many other reasons Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice because people actually like Harley and Deadshot and even Captain Boomerang, over a mass murdering Batman and a Superman who responds to being accused of mass murder with complete apathy followed immediately by bathtub sex For as much mockery as the Fast and Furious movies get for their overuse of the word “family,” it’s obvious that the cast, more than the cars, have become the key to its success.
The Alien movies were no different. Characters like Ripley, Hicks, Dallas, etc. stick with us. Even the crew from Prometheus had a couple of stand-outs, particularly Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw. Disappointingly, Shaw is dead before Covenant starts, but she had way more going on as a character than this movie’s Ripley proxy (Katherine Waterston’s lifeless Daniels) or anyone else on board the Covenant. The viral online prologue material (like The Last Supper) ended up adding nothing to the characters; no one ever felt fleshed out in the film. The gimmick that everyone on board was married was irrelevant. There was a same-sex couple on the ship, but it’s a fool’s errand discerning who they were. With the exception of maybe two relationships, it’s hard to tell who was actually with whom. In the previous film, Shaw’s religion was a key driving force for her (and her reconciling that with meeting the people who actually made mankind would have been a great premise for an actual Prometheus sequel…). We’re told that Billy Crudup’s character is religious, which might have cost him the promotion to ship’s captain, but it has zero baring on the movie or the character’s decisions.
But Alien: Covenant isn’t alone in this. At least it had the remarkable Michael Fassbender (and a decent Danny McBride) to pick up slack that the writing couldn’t provide; other movies are not as lucky. Most of the biggest bombs of the past several years failed in large part because they lack characters with whom we share an emotional connection – the aforementioned Ghost in the Shell and King Arthur, Assassin’s Creed (also starring Fassbender), Pan, Fan4stic, Jupiter Ascending, are just some recent high profile examples. These movies spend millions upon millions of dollars on effects, but when you don’t care about the people standing in front of the green screen, they are falling on blind eyes. July’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is probably going to be among the next ones to fall victim to this.
(Plus, the effects in Covenant were actually not that good. Prometheus is still a fantastic looking film, but Covenant spends most of its time in a dimly lit cave and a dark ship. This makes it a victim of yet another horrible trend – the dark grey color palette to indicate seriousness. Also, the CGI is more miss than hit a lot of the time, particularly during the Alien-infused climax.)
If you’re not bored by this yet, I ramble about the devils on both shoulders of Fan Service – PREQUELS and SOFT REBOOTS – on the next page.