Two GQ writers argue about whether the latest entry in the Alien franchise is good or not.
Scott Meslow, GQ.com culture critic: Let’s put our cards on the table upfront. You thought Alien: Covenant was pretty good; I thought it was dull, self-plagiarizing, and not even a little scary. Tell me why I’m wrong.
Tom Philip, GQ.com entertainment writer: Your use of “self-plagiarizing” is telling because, yes, there are retreads of the mythology (even from as recently as Prometheus). But I respect its total lack of reverence for its history, minus the perfect original film. It is also definitely scary. I jumped a few times and the creeping-dread-to-actual-monsters ratio was perfect.
Scott: “Scary” or “not scary” is pretty subjective, so I won’t try to talk you out of it (except to say that I’ve attended children’s birthday parties with more effective jump scares).
But let’s talk about what did work for both of us: Michael Fassbender. Fassbender plays a dual role in this: Walter, a new, short-haired robot with a passable American accent, and David, an old, long-haired robot with an actual British accent. (You might recall David from Prometheus.) Fassbender has a bunch of scenes playing against himself, more or less seamlessly, and they’re really weird and hammy and fun. On the whole, Covenant takes itself pretty seriously, but these scenes are basically high camp with a ton of blood spatter. If only the rest of the movie was set at the same pitch. Why stop at two Fassbenders? He’s a robot! Give us a whole ship of ’em!
Tom: It’s surprising to me, Scott, that you disliked the movie when the VAST MAJORITY of it is focused entirely on David, or Walter, or their relationship. It’s really wonderful acting from Fassbender on both counts. He turns from menacing to sad to naive to broadly sexual on a dime in both roles. It’s really something, and a braver, more bat-shit performance than I think he’s going to get credit for.
As for Planet of the Davids, we have another Alien movie shooting next year, apparently. So there’s still hope!
Covenant in no way feels like an Alien retread to me.
Scott: Yes, Fassbender vs. Fassbender is basically the whole second act, and I dug it. But then there’s that third act, in which a few underdeveloped survivors LARP the ending from Aliens. Maybe it would have landed with a little more impact if the movie had gotten me to care about the characters as much as I like the actors playing them. Prometheus gets a lot of shit, but man, did I wish Covenant had some of that movie’s nuttiness. Covenant badly needs supporting players like Charlize Theron and Idris Elba, who shored up the movie’s patchy writing on charisma alone. It needs a sequence as balls-to-the-wall original as Prometheus’ robotic pregnancy pod. And it needs an idea that’s as interesting as the one at the center of Prometheus: “Something created us, and we don’t know why, and now it wants to kill us, and we don’t know why.” The idea at the center of Alien: Covenant seems to be “Make Alien again, but not as good.”
Tom: I think this is where we really diverge. Covenant in no way feels like an Alien retread to me, and, having watched Alien almost immediately after seeing this movie, didn’t blunt my experience of either at all. With that said, the characters (apart from Fassbender’s sexy bot twins) do get short shrift, despite them all turning in great performances. Most criminally wasted is Amy Seimetz, who never turns in less than great performances in anything. As much as I love Katherine Waterston, Seimetz in the lead role here would have been a joy to see.
Scott: Seimetz is a tremendous talent. So is Waterston! But you can’t make bricks without clay. Covenant assembles a solid ensemble cast, and hints at some interesting stories to tell with them. I particularly liked the idea behind Billy Crudup’s Oram—a Christian in a future where religion is largely outmoded, whose unconventional beliefs have earned the skepticism of his crew. But after introducing this intriguing conflict, Covenant quickly abandons it. It ends up feeling like a vestigial tail from an earlier draft of the script—before a studio head scribbled “MORE ALIENS” or whatever all over it.
The idea at the center of Alien: Covenant seems to be “Make Alien again, but not as good.”
Tom: Oram’s an interesting character but… didn’t we already do him with Elizabeth Shaw? I don’t know what kind of “journey” they could have taken us on with him that’s in any way new. I’m still thankful for his arc which—spoiler alert—features David flickin’ little rocks at him like a petulant child, which I loved.
And yes there are “MORE ALIENS” than before but that was pretty intentionally the point of the beloved Aliens also. I was surprised at how many small, thoughtful asides there are in this movie, alongside the frequent attacks from monsters, old and new. (I actually really liked the creepy, slender, pale design of the first alien we see in the film.)
Scott: Covenant answers several questions from the original series that I never wanted to see answered. It’s sort of like the Star Wars prequels; whether you love or hate Covenant, it’s going to be hard to go back to the originals without Covenant whispering in your ear the whole time. Alien was about the fear of the unknown, and the more I learn from these prequels, the more I wish I could go back to not knowing.
Tom: Even for a film that, yes, gives us explicit answers to a lot of the mysterious, dark corners of Alien, it still doesn’t spell things out. I think we also have to be a bit mindful that the original is now nearly 40 years old (!). It holds up today, and the overtly sexual body horror is still some of the most affecting I’ve ever seen. But Covenant plays with those same themes in a wry way that was missing from Prometheus. I hope I’m not wading too close to spoiler territory here, but David’s experiments as a retcon of the Xenomorph origins work for me thematically. This is still a deeply intimate story about creation, and the terror of sex and reproduction played out in a fucking blockbuster studio movie. That’s insane.
Scott: I’m still not convinced the movie has thought as much about those themes as you have. But for all my problems with Alien: Covenant, you’re right about that. In the middle of summer blockbuster season, we’re getting a $100 million-plus sci-fi/horror blockbuster that undoubtedly earns its R rating. A disappointing Alien movie is a still a welcome anomaly in this particular moviemaking climate. I just hope the next Alien movie aims a little higher.
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