There used to be a time when science fiction wasn’t for popcorn. It was a genre that prompted audiences to think, meditate, and wrestle with concepts, themes, and conflicts that were beyond our own reality. The movies didn’t need big, jarring explosions, visceral gore, or gluttonous effects to become a spectacle as long as they had something revelatory to say about our culture at large. Naturally, as time has passed and moviegoers have evolved, there have been countless filmmakers who have infamously toed the line between smart and savage, curious and crazy, bizarre and ballsy. Sir Ridley Scott was one of them, and his 1979 sci-fi horror thriller, Alien, remains the type of masterpiece that critics use as one such subversion.
Well, not all of them. The late Pauline Kael was one of the very few who lambasted the film, writing: “It would be very convincing to say that there’s no hope for movies — that audiences have been so corrupted by television and have become so jaded that all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level. And there’s plenty of evidence, such as the success of Alien.” At the time, this achingly cynical take was likely seen as both conceited and pretentious by many filmgoers, especially those who were already weary of critics. After all, Alien is fantastic, and its success is separate of its quality, which is very, very high.
Today, her words read like a haunting premonition, because we now know that said success is what has essentially spawned three sequels, two spin-offs, and, now, two prequels, all of which offer mostly the same thing: humans stumble, aliens burst, humans die, and a space hatch is opened. But this is business as usual for Hollywood, and much like Kael feared, it’s become the norm: IP is king, and millions aren’t cool anymore. Even worse, nostalgia has subbed in for ingenuity, if only because it’s a safer bet, a guarantee that, come Monday, their film will be No. 1 at the box office. As such, we’re getting prequels, sequels, and reboots every other week, and nobody is calling them what they really are: remakes.
Alien: Covenant is the latest bastard in a basket, albeit a complicated one: It’s a sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and yet a prequel to Alien. Granted, yes, Prometheus was always conceived as a prequel to Alien, but you’ll notice there isn’t an Alien tag ahead of it. Simply put, a lot has changed in five years, and the idea of creating an alternate story in the same universe isn’t as lucrative as, say, another story in the same universe. Now, Prometheus is far from a good film — in fact, it’s actually downright awful — but the conceit of the film was sound. Scott’s fascinating obsession with creation and our own makers is the type of heady science fiction that the genre could use right now … the issue was in the execution.
Blame it on the rogue’s gallery of moron characters, the baffling narrative choices, the shoehorned callbacks to the original, or the fact that one of the two screenwriters loves asking questions even he doesn’t know how to answer, but Prometheus was a depressing stumble for Scott. Yet, it was gorgeous and the framework was there — it just needed some clarity. Sorry, Alien: Covenant isn’t the answer; in fact, it’s another derailment, a transparent example of two heads working against one another. In one corner, you have Scott, fighting to tell an existential thriller about gods, creators, and evolution, and in the other, you have this obvious insistence to pay an ungodly amount of fan service to the past.
It’s exhausting, too, because, unlike Prometheus, the echoes to yesteryear are aplenty. There’s Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic score tugging at your heart strings, the same credit sequence to elicit oohs and ahs, reprints of fan-favorite portraits like gathering around the commissary or using power loader-esque technology to fight Xenomorphs, and, of course, the manic chest bursting. You can’t not have that, right? Wrong. If there’s anything to take away from Covenant, which is what it might have been called if Hollywood had a spine worth cracking, is that the most intriguing facets have zero to do with anything from the original series. Instead, the whispers of a more legitimate Prometheus sequel are far more riveting, namely the Romanesque terror involving our favorite evil android not named Ian Holm. Sadly, even he gets too smarmy for his own good.
(List: Ridley Scott’s Top 10 Films)
Instead, the new Hollywood system has brought Scott down to their level. Yes, after a long, storied career of engaging, thought-provoking films, Scott has succumbed to the gutless predictability that Kael initially envisioned, and Alien: Covenant is precisely the carnival fare she saw in the 1979 original. Sure, there are a few juicy eggs dropped every so often — and yes, the ending’s somewhat gutsy (even if it’s subdued by some piss-poor lines) — but there’s nothing here to suggest that it’s anything more than a boisterous con job. The real irony, however, is that it’s about a bunch of colonists who consider themselves pioneers trekking upon new land. Ha! It’s almost cruel watching another outstanding cast — this time around: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, and Demián Bichir — tread such familiar ground. But, hey, this is what people want.
Because in 2017, no one can hear you scream for an existential sci-fi thriller.