Movie Postmortem #9: ALIEN: COVENANT

by John S.

Movie Postmortem is a series that reviews certain films which showed promise but misfired, critically and/or commercially, upon release. Join us in our attempt to find out exactly what the hell happened.

THE CASUALTY: Alien: Covenant

THE CASE HISTORY: June 2012. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the much-anticipated prequel-turned-sidequel to his 1979 classic Alien, opens to big box-office in North America. Nabbing around $51 million in its first weekend of release, the flick is praised for its stunning visuals and Scott’s usual sleek craftsmanship. Less praised is the film’s plot, which doesn’t quite deliver on all the promise the memorably visceral trailers hinted at. Indeed, after that massive opening (a franchise best) Prometheus’ box-office slopes down sharply and stops at around $126 million, domestically. Fortunately, the movie pulls in around $275 million overseas, bringing its global total to just north of $400 million. Good enough for a sequel.

This time, however, Scott pays attention to some of the gripes hurled at the divisive Prometheus. Specifically, its lack of actual Xenomorphs. He reportedly responds colorfully to this complaint: something allegedly along the lines of “They want aliens? I’ll give them $%#@&*# aliens!” Further proof the sequel to Prometheus will be more Xenomorph-centric comes with the announcement of the its working title: Alien: Paradise. Eventually, this becomes Alien: Covenant. Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, the writers of Prometheus, are conspicuously missing from the writing team. The sequel will be penned by John Logan (Gladiator, Skyfall, Spectre) and Dante Harper in his first screenwriting credit, from a story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen.

Gradually, details of the story and production are revealed. Set ten years after the events of Prometheus, Alien: Covenant will chronicle the ordeal of an ill-fated group of colonists who make a detour to an uncharted, seemingly idyllic planet to trace a distress call, only to discover it’s basically the worst place in the Universe to call home. Vets like James Franco, Danny McBride, Aimee Seimetz, Billy Crudup, Demian Bichir, and Michael Fassbender (returning as David from Prometheus and also playing a new android, Walter) join rising talents including Katherine Waterston, Callie Hernandez, Carmen Ejogo, and Tess Haubrich to form an interesting crew that, for once, has nearly as many women as it does men. The release of the trailers further stokes anticipation. While not quite as punchy as those of Prometheus, they promise a couple of fun hours getting to know old friends, er, foes: those pesky Xenomorphs and pals.

May 2017. Alien: Covenant is released in North America and pulls in approximately $36 million in its first three days. This is considerably less than Prometheus’ opening take back in 2012, and is noted a disappointment. While critical response is somewhat positive overall, most mainstream audiences take the gloves off and less-than-favorable word-of-mouth spreads fast. Indeed, in the weeks following Alien: Covenant’s release, it faces an even steeper decline in ticket sales than Prometheus did five years prior. As of this writing, it looks to finish its North American run just under $74 million – barely over twice its opening weekend bow. Overseas it pulls in another $157 million, for an international total of about $231 million. This is a marked drop from Prometheus’ reception and business.

So… what the hell happened?

THE AUTOPSY DETAILS:  Alien: Covenant is a flawed film but it has many merits to recommend it. It is an old-fashioned sci-fi/horror-thriller that harkens back in many ways to the moody, slow burn of the original 1979 classic. Given that both are directed by the Ridley Scott and there are no attempts to downplay the connection between them this time, this is isn’t surprising. The question then becomes: does what worked back in 1979 with audiences  still work for audiences today?

That depends on who you ask. I’ve heard a variety of complaints lobbed at Alien: Covenant. It’s too slow. It’s too fast. It’s too familiar. It’s not scary enough. It’s too gross. There weren’t enough aliens. And more. The truth is there are kernels of truth in most of these complaints. There are parts where I did kind of shift impatiently in my seat and thought “where the hell are the aliens?” – especially during the Walter/David exchanges in the City of the Dead.  Then there were moments I thought should have been drawn-out and “savored” more (the somewhat rushed  final confrontation back onboard the Covenant). Then there are moments that feel straight out of a slasher flick (Rosenthal wandering off alone, Upworth and Ricks’ shower scene).

In the end, though, I didn’t really mind any of these too much because it made Alien: Covenant a varied experience. One minute, we have scenes that are moody and brooding, then we have battles-for-survival, then more atmosphere-building passages, then some slasher gimmicks, then back to more to-the-death takedowns between androids, humans, and Xenomorphs. I would have liked, though, to have seen the face-off between the Xenomorph and Neomorph that is in the novelization and original script, but missing from the actual film (reportedly due to budgetary reasons). It would have also been nice to see some of the supporting characters fleshed out more and better-utilized. Demian Bichir as security team lead Lope, in particular, is wasted.

The major thing I did have to get used to (and this may have been the deal-breaker for many folks) but gets better upon repeat viewings, is the ending – which I will not spoil. I will state it’s pretty daring of Ridley Scott to unleash that kind of conclusion in a franchise known for somewhat copacetic endings. All I’ll say is this: it ain’t over until it’s over, folks – and we know that Sir Ridley is working next on Alien: Awakening wherein all threads will undoubtedly dovetail and set the stage for the events of Alien. Think of Alien: Covenant as the daring middle flick in a planned trilogy, much like The Dark Knight and The Empire Strikes Back. Put into that perspective, the ending makes total sense.

LIKELY CAUSE OF DEATH: Ultimately, Alien: Covenant is a film that will likely be appreciated by hard-core fans of the original Alien more than anyone else. Some dismiss it as nothing more than an outer-space slasher flick, but I actually found it to be a much more satisfying romp than Prometheus. While it may not have its predecessor’s sense of mystery and grandeur (Prometheus had a higher budget, after all), Alien: Covenant is still the third best film in the franchise after Alien and  Aliens. Let’s hope Sir Ridley Scott gets to tie up everything properly in Alien: Awakening.

NEXT CASUALTY: Curtains – “Behind Every Curtain, Someone is Waiting, Something is Watching.”

Speaking of slasher flicks, in the wake of Halloween and Friday the 13th’s mega success in 1978 and 1980, you couldn’t toss a popcorn bucket without hitting at least a dozen knock-offs featuring teens terrorized by masked menaces. This underrated Canadian gem attempted to infuse some adult elegance and Ten Little Indians-style class to the usual slasher formula. Unfortunately, reported clashes between its producer and director over differing visions led to extensive rewrites and reshoots that made the making of Curtains almost as harrowing as the film itself.

 

John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.

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