Alien Covenant Review: Dear Ridley Scott
Dear Ridley Scott,
I take very little pleasure in writing this piece, nearly as little as you would in reading it. Let’s be clear: I’m a fan. You’re an enduring treasure of the cinema and will remain as much for as long as you’re here making movies. But today, you did it. After years of being in your corner, I’m diverging from my loyalties to tell you that you may have finally betrayed yourself.
Five years ago, you broke script from a decades-long formula of retreads and spin-offs by developing Prometheus. Your vision for a prequel to Alien set world’s hype machine into swift motion: gods, engineers, and a potential link between one of cinema’s most iconic creatures and human life as we know.
The film was released, and your audience turned against you, and what should have been your greatest asset was suddenly your biggest obstacle: you were strapped with delivering the narrative promises of Prometheus while providing disgruntled fans with a more conventional Alien fix in round 2.
Here’s what I think happened next: somebody in your ranks — I have no insight as to whom — got under your skin. They convinced you that to fair better in the court of public opinion; you must diligently cater to it. It was irrelevant that that was never your intention, that the entire inspiration for Prometheus was to move away from the stale anxiety of the xenomorph and into bolder, stranger, and altogether more imaginative territory; according to the world, you needed to stem the tides between your art and your commerce.
Things started off well. You and your writers begin with promise, following the crew of humankind’s first extraterrestrial colonization mission. The film opens with tragedy — a neutrino burst from a nearby star strikes their ship, the Covenant, causing damage and an early wake up for a crew in years-long cryosleep. Good thing, too: as the crew gathers themselves after the accident, they notice a strange signal that they quickly recognize as John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Road.” Say what? How? And could it have something to do with the disappearance of the Prometheus mission ten years earlier?
I’ll leave the details for readers to discover, but suffice it to say, sir, that in trying to be all things to all people, I feel you’ve chosen the road less disciplined. The ropey attempts you’ve made to bridge two contrasting ambitions have produced a script starved of the streamlined simplicity that made your original 1979 film so watchable. Alien was never meant to be a saga — it was a series of paranoid disasters. Prometheus retained that quality. What it lacked in dramatic consistency it more than apologized for with daring narrative trajectory and an air of aching exploratory wonder. I found no such pleasures here. You apply your eye and reliable precision to every frame but in service of what exactly? The movie’s primary sensation is of a painter still deciding on his subject mid-brushstroke
And the revolving door of writers including Michael Green, Jack Paglan, and Academy Ward nominee John Logan (The Aviator, Hugo, Spectre) go a certain distance towards explaining this. It’s a script with very large elements that feel oddly vestigial, left behind from a cobble of new and old drafts. An example: we learn what happened to both android David and Elizabeth Shaw in the events following the ending of Prometheus. How it’s revealed feels like such a cop-out that you feel silly for being intrigued in the first place.
You still leave so many things to savor that my criticisms can only stretch so far. It’s worth noting that you’re nearly 80 years old, Ridley, and your ability to still create effective, penetrating scenes of horror and violence that would intimate even the most prodigious young directors. Some of the images in this film rank with your most gorgeous, and your pension for getting nuanced performances from actors is no less on display here. As crew scientist Daniels, Katherine Waterston’s performance is a departure from the cold female antiheroes so ripe for this genre, creating a character who is vulnerable above almost everything else. Danny McBride also shatters expectations with a range of expression that was completely new to me.
Perhaps I’m an outlier. There’s a chance Alien: Covenant is precisely what audiences are thirsting for, and that I’m simply feeling curmudgeonly because the film didn’t cater to my admittedly unpopular expectations. I know that hardly anyone forgives Prometheus as I do, and I accept that. But what you’ve cooked up is something that has neither the substance nor the narrative integrity this series desperately needed at the moment. For the first time in a long while, your creative decisions feel focused-grouped. Your increasing economy of style appears to have dulled your imagination and attention to detail, with each one losing more craftsmanship and taking on more apathy. For a long time admirer, this is a tragic thing.
But I haven’t given up on you, Ridley. Call me a battered spouse, but despite the fact that only 3 of your eight films from the past ten years have been satisfying, I can still see all the films you’ve still got in you. If only they made their ways onto the screen more often.