glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | june 2017
Ridley Scott's return to the Alien franchise kicked off in divisive glory with the flawed and rather odd “Prometheus." The eagerly anticipated prequel marked a significantly different tone and style to the series that perked some people's interest and left others cold. To say it was a mixed bag would be understating it. Marred by conflict in the creative department and exhibiting some distracting eccentricities in both the plot and script, the film had significant cracks that put a strain on a film that takes a huge diversion from the track its predecessors strode. Sure it's Alien but this isn't the familiar action/horror series it was; Alien had actually become Sci-Fi.
For all its faults, “Prometheus" goes for a higher-minded story than the original series, one that explores elements of mankind, faith, origin and the god-like act of the creation of life. It didn't do it particularly coherently or satisfyingly, but it does throw up some interesting thoughts along the way. Part of the reason it didn't go down as well as the more notable episodes of the original series was, in part, its departure from the more easily enjoyable monster movie formula. The writing most certainly didn't help with the often unlikeable characters (or is that caricatures?) who do and say a lot of inexplicable things seemingly to force a scene to happen. It was most certainly a film of high peaks and deep troughs and even as one who rather enjoyed it, it'd be hard to sell it as being anywhere near fully successful.
“Alien Covenant" is very much in the same vein, though the most glaring writing issues have been toned down a bit … but far, oh so far from entirely. Taking place some years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant finds us in the company of a colonizing expedition who are diverted after an accident forces the crew out of cryo-sleep early. Detecting a distress signal, they decide to investigate only to discover the remains of the familiar alien craft and one survivor who's been very busy.
There's something about these films that I really want to like. I think the idea is a fairly neat one, one that offers many interesting avenues to explore, but once again we find these avenues meander through a fog of exposition and forced plot progression. While the theme is constantly pushed to the forefront, it often feels like it's uncomfortable with the attention, like a awkward child in a school play it delivers its lines as quickly as possible with little desire to be involved and then slinks into the wings until we need the next plot point, and its unfortunately getting its lines wrong. It's almost as if in the writing process the ideas looked great on paper but they didn't quite know how to make it into a flowing story and all too much of the end product is a bit of a mess.
You can see where it wants to go, it constantly tells you about where it wants to go, but it tries to take so many routes to get where it's going that it gets hopelessly lost along the way. Part of the problem seems to be the fact that this is set in the Alien universe, and once again, we see a prequel series that is faced with having to fit into something that it has very little need or apparent desire to fit into. The overarching themes seem to be constantly competing for screen time. Are we watching a film about the origins of the xenomorphs or are we watching an exploration of man vs. the creator with the extra level of artificial life vs. man? These are big things for the film; they clash for attention and don't feel entirely relevant to each other. The Aliens themselves are nothing more than weapons of mass destruction here, which would be fine if it played into the themes of the movie more successfully, but we still know very little about the guys who created them and have had very little discussion about why they exist or why the “Space Jockeys" have been trucking them around the universe.
The result is that Covenant struggles with the weight of what Ridley Scott apparently wants it to be and is hindered with the need to “tie things up" with the original film. And with what is apparently two movies left to go in this epic scale story it's likely to have underexplored most of what its set up by the end. In short, it's pulling in too many directions and as a result, so much has to be explained to us like instructions from an automotive repair manual.
While it is reasonably enjoyable, often exciting, rather spectacular and worth a watch (if you're a fan of Alien) it's a sad fact that ambition is not enough when it comes to the scale of what Covenant and Prometheus are pointing to. Such are the risks of the serialized movie model; it seems like all the time and resources in the world, but like with the Matrix sequels, we find the wealth of opportunities become a mill stone as efficiency and discipline go out of the window.
At least with the Matrix trilogy we had a single, stand alone film that can be watched in isolation. It's complete and didn't have half the problems its multi-part sequels had. With this series of films we don't have that, we have something that requires sitting through from start to finish to even begin to appreciate, even if you're a fan. Even with that in mind Covenant feels like a partial reboot for pointless reasons I can't go into without spoilers.
Covenant is awkward, clunky and feels like it ultimately goes nowhere important, at least nowhere that the film itself considers important. It's fun enough as long as you let a lot of the story go by without too many questions, but considering what it seems to want to say, that's a shame. But it is spectacular. There are a lot of great moments of horror, some fine action but everything else is either left wanting for clarity or is overblown. So close, but yet so far away.
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
For more of Glenn's work, visit cynicalcelluloid.com.