Alien: Covenant has a Very Simple Job that it Does Horribly Wrong (A VERY Timely Review)

To put it plainly: Alien: Covenant is crushed by the weight of its own self-importance. It’s strange to think that a franchise like Alien would find its demise seeking out the exact opposite of what attempted to accomplish at the outset. When Alien premiered nearly 40 years ago, it was lauded for being a simple concept, executed with precision: a haunted house in space. There is a crew on a spaceship and one by one they all get picked off by a stowaway alien. How did we end up here? Alien: Covenant is far more concerned with giving you a very on-the-nose Philosophy 101 lesson, that tries so hard to convince you it came right from the mouth of Dante. It trades scary aliens for god-complexes, a simple premise with unneeded backstory, and gore with philosophy. Those are all terrible trades.

 Coming in on the back of Prometheus, the cinematic equivalent of undercooked chicken, Alien: Covenant attempts to right its wrongs. In the title alone, it promises one thing: aliens. Initially it seems to make good on its promise; the major flaw in Prometheus was that it was all philosophy and asking big questions and then choosing to not only not answer them but actually go out if its way to not answer them, teasing you at the end that the sequel will give you the answers you crave. Covenant brings you some alien creatures in the first act, and it’s disappointing to see the bar is so low, that all you have to do to impress the audience is give us a small taste of what we came to see.

Yes, the characters (who are supposedly the top scientists from Earth) are obscenely stupid and make awful decisions, but that’s how a horror movie works: we need the dumb decisions to lead us to the scary. If the characters were smart, they would kill and capture all of the aliens as soon as they landed, but that isn’t fun for us to watch; we want to see no-name characters get ripped apart in the most disgusting fashion over and over again, rinse and repeat. It’s not hard.

For a while the movie rolls along nicely enough. We get some good deaths, some good flesh ripping, some gross aliens, who can complain? Then the movie decides once it has you hooked, it’s going to make a hard turn. Covenantis like starting to eat a pizza and having it replaced with vegetables after two slices. Once it gets going, it decides it’s going to re-introduce David, the robot character that made no sense in Prometheus, and still really makes no sense now. Apparently, Ridley Scott read a few more philosophy texts since the last go around, since David seems to be drawing inspiration from different thinkers this time.

Now, once again, we need to sit through Ridley Scott musing about what it means to be alive and the mysterious possibilities of a divine being existing. Anything you may have been able to classify as interesting about Prometheusis thrown away in a quick flashback scene that feels very tacked on. “Oh didn’t we tell them David was going to the Engineers’ planet to find out why and how they created humans? Shit. Just add a scene where they all die.”

The central problem is that Scott keeps insisting he has something to say about life but decides to never tell us, leading us to believe that he probably doesn’t have anything to say at all and he’s just as confused as the rest of us. He’s the guy that has a “girlfriend that goes to a different school.” Oh? Can we see a picture of her? “No.”

After what feels like hours of philosophy 101, we are rewarded for being good students and get to end with an alien, in an extended sequence that really wasn’t worth the wait. We sat through Professor Scott’s class for two hours, show us some alien cinematics that we’ve never seen before. Scott quickly tries to cram an entire Alien’s-worth of thrills into the last 15 minutes so we can leave the theater being tricked into satisfaction, but there’s nothing in this sequence you haven’t seen already seen in another Alien movie.

In the end, Scott doesn’t realize that no one really ever cared about the alien’s backstory. It doesn’t matter where it came from! I just want to watch it rip people apart. If you want to make a movie that mopes around, wondering what life is all about, go ahead and make that movie, but there is no reason to try to squeeze it into an Alien movie. They just don’t go together. They can both be great but not together. You’re trying to mix a filet mignon with ice cream and while separately they’re great, no one wants them together. Don’t merge your trashy space-horror movie with a middling attempt at profundity.

Best Picture Framing Breakdown

Each year most people divide their Best Picture Oscar breakdown into two categories: “what will win” and “what should win.” The meaning of “what will win” goes without saying but “what should win” typically means the person’s favorite movie of the year… the one they want to win.

For the first time (at least the first time I can think of), I have actually split “what should win” in two and now have three separate designations bouncing around in my mind: “what will win,” “what should win” and “what I want to win.”

The separation of the last two might be confusing. If you want a movie to win, wouldn’t that mean you think it should win? Most of the time yes, but it can vary based on what you think makes a movie the Best Picture of the year. Some define it simply as the best movie that came out in the given year, but sometimes I find the best isn’t always my favorite. Some see it as the movie that defined Hollywood in that given year; the movie that represents the cultural conversation of the time. For some, it can mean the movie that is most representative of the filmgoing experience: something that cannot be done in any medium other than film; a testament to what is possible in film alone.

In years past, the last two ideas usually coincide. I thought an air-tight, cinematic political thriller like “Argo” was not just something designed solely for the big screen that wouldn’t work as anything else than a movie but also represented a Hollywood shift back to prestige filmmaking with a beefier budget that was more prevalent that year along with other films such as “Django Unchained,” “Les Misesrables,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and even “The Avengers.” It spat in the faces of movies that felt like they were built for awards, like previous winners “The Artist” and “The King’s Speech.” It was a big screen achievement that also represented what Hollywood stood for that year.

This year isn’t so simple.

We know that in all likelihood, “The Shape of Water” will go home with the Best Picture trophy on Sunday. It will win. It shouldn’t win, because it isn’t a film that has permeated the culture in any significant way and I definitely don’t want it to win simply because I just didn’t really connect with it, but it will win. This is the type of movie that most people in the Academy can agree is pretty good. It will rank somewhere in the top 5 Best Picture contenders for most members and the because the new Best Picture preferential voting system awards the movie that finds the nicest medium consensus, it will take home the statue.

The movie that should win is “Get Out.” I saw “Get Out” a while after I had already heard the uproarious hype and adoration it received, so I went in with expectations that probably could not be met… and thus they were not met, though I still thoroughly enjoyed it. It is one of the best movies of the year and certainly better than “The Shape of Water.” The reason “Get Out” should win is because of what it represents in culture both in and out of Hollywood. Beyond the fact that it is a milestone for diverse filmmaking in Hollywood, it is also a movie that came out over a year ago that people are still talking about today. That simply does not happen anymore. Even movies that are supposedly a big deal don’t stay in the cultural conversation that long; no one is talking about “The Last Jedi” or “Thor: Ragnarok” anymore, and those came out just a few months ago. The culture exploded into conversation about those films and already that conversation has faded. People are still talking about “Get Out;” in that sense alone, how can you rob it of the top prize? Think of all the Best Picture winners that everyone forgot about just weeks later: no one was still thinking about “The Artist,” “Spotlight” or even something as idiosyncratic as “Birdman” after they took home the gold. “Get Out” is a horror movie, a genre that the Academy makes a point to eschew from consideration, that is nominated for Best Picture, that is still culturally relevant.

This obviously brings me to what I want to win. Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It operates on a plane high above anything we’ve seen in years, maybe ever. It can only exist in film. It wouldn’t work on paper or as a miniseries; the way in which the story is told can only function in a tight, 100-minute feature film. It is a soaring achievement, where not only the interweaving plotlines elevate each other but it is synced brilliantly with Hans Zimmer’s score to constantly ratchet up the tension. You cannot pause this movie. You cannot go to the bathroom during this movie. You cannot look at your phone during this movie. Any small fracture you put into your viewing experience would irrevocably disrupt the tension. The degree of difficulty is so high, you would imagine Nolan would at least pad it with bankable stars or at least some “Spielberg” moments of triumph and spectacle to rest on for a moment but he doesn’t. He is so confident in the lean muscle of his concept that he lets this juggernaut break all the rules, and thus rise to a triumph more impressive than anything else we’ve seen. “Dunkirk” is the pinnacle of what film can be, and that is why I want it to win. It makes it all the more criminal that he at least won’t win the Best Director statue either.

I loved “Lady Bird” and would be absolutely delighted to see it win. While I was initially taken with “Three Billboards,” I’ve soured on it since viewing it. I appreciated much of what “Call Me By Your Name” had to offer. I would still prefer any one of those films to be awarded Best Picture of “The Shape of Water,” which is still a pretty good movie, but wouldn’t it be nice if we could walk away from Hollywood’s night meant to award the best of its industry feeling better than just pretty good?