Alien: Covenant Takes The Mystery And Horror From Alien Franchise
The Rise of the Franchise
If you've been to the cinema at all in the last 10 years, then you can't have failed to notice how many movies being released are sequels, prequels, or spin-offs of different movies, TV shows, games, or other pop culture reference points. With the huge success of blockbuster franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Transformers, it seems that studios want every new movie to be part of a recognizable franchise. The latest evidence of this is the recently-released Alien: Covenant, which is the eighth (!) movie in the Alien franchise.
The Making of a Successful Franchise
Given that, as movie-goers, we're much more likely to choose to see a film if we recognize the property it's from, this franchise-ation of Hollywood isn't surprising. It can even be fun to see favorite characters in new settings or new characters in old settings. The enthusiasm for franchises really kicked into high gear thanks to the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which managed to link together films of different styles into a coherent universe.
The style of movies in the MCU franchise includes everything from a traditional action movie like The Avengers, to a spy-thriller like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to a comedy like Ant-Man. Similarly, the Harry Potter franchise moved from fun, cute films suitable for children with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to darker, more serious films suitable for an older audience like the two parts of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Just like the books, the films got more dark and adult with time, so they could age alongside their audience.
What these successful franchises have in common is the ability to bring together different styles of movies, made by different directors with their own particular vision, and to link them into one overarching narrative. Rather than sequels, in which one movie follows another using typically the same style, characters, and genre of the original, an adaptive franchise can appeal to a broader audience by offering them a wider range of film styles to choose from.
The Different Genre Styles of the Alien Franchise
The Alien franchise is similar to these other franchises in that each film has its own tone and style. The second movie, Aliens, was the dumb, fun, exciting action sequel to the more horror-based classic Alien, and both of these films are beloved by fans and critics. The third Alien film was divisive, the fourth universally panned, and the less said about the disastrous Alien vs. Predator films, the better. Prometheus showed a desire to move the franchise in a new, more philosophical direction, but its intellectual reach exceeded its film-making grasp.
While the ambitions of the Alien franchise are impressive, the realization has been patchy. This is partly because the central conceit of the franchise, the xenomorph being itself, is suited to only a limited number of settings and story styles. You can make a horror film or an action film about the xenomorph, but obviously, you couldn’t use it to make a comedy or a romance.
Directors keep trying to make a character-based drama based in this universe, like Prometheus’ attempt to tell a story about religion and faith in a sci-fi age or Alien vs. Predator’s inexplicable focus on the motivations of the human explorers who find the ancient temple in which the aliens live. But this attempt to turn the franchise towards a drama style was fraught with difficulty, as the biggest appeal of an Alien movie is the alien itself, not the supporting human characters’ experiences.
The ups and downs of this franchise over the years are clear, but Alien: Covenant was clearly trying to bridge the gap between the action/horror of the early years and the high-minded philosophy of the later films. It had moments of both exciting action and philosophical dialogue, but neither of these aspects landed convincingly. Why was this? What went wrong with Covenant?
Covenant Was Too Familiar
One issue with Covenant was that the film leaned too hard on nostalgia and replaying recognizable moments from the previous movies, and wasn't confident enough to develop its own characters and style. For example, the main character in Covenant is a quiet, tough but caring, highly practical woman with short curly hair. There's an evil android with a nefarious plan and an obsession with xenomorphs. There's a bit where an alien sneaks on board the ship as it's taking off and the crew ends up blasting it out of an air lock.
If this all sounds familiar, it's because it already happened in the previous Alien movies. These were not subtle call-backs or little Easter eggs for the fans to pick apart and enjoy – it was wholesale recycling of previously established plot elements. This suggests to me a lack of confidence in both the new material and in the audience's attention span; it feels like the producers thought that the audience might not like their new ideas, so they had better throw some crowd-pleasing scenes in to placate the fans.
But fans don't want reruns of previous movies – if we did, we would stay at home and rewatch those classic films. Prometheus may have been messy, and at times incomprehensible, but at least it made an effort to create a new and distinctive piece of mythology which hadn't been covered before. Covenant lacks this ambition, being content to roll out well-worn set pieces and call it a day.
Covenant Failed as a Horror Movie
The thing that people sometimes forget about the Alien franchise in general, and about Alien in particular, is that it isn't really science fiction. Sure, it's set in space, and it's about humans interacting with aliens, but the fundamental core of the story isn't about classic sci-fi themes like the development of technology or understanding different ways of living or looking at the nature of humanity. Alien is a horror movie – it's about the thing that hides in the dark and goes bump in the night, and the terrible things that we humans will do to each other when we're scared.
Alien famously included very few shots of the actual xenomorph. According to estimates, the alien only had four minutes of screen time in an 117-minute long film, and it didn't appear on screen at all for the first hour of the film's runtime. This meant that the film was tightly focused on the humans attempting to survive; the unknown factor of the alien is what made it scary. In the rare moments that the audience does see the alien, it is terrifying and impactful because the tension has been building up throughout the movie.
Covenant didn't have that restraint. Within the opening act, the audience sees little baby aliens and big grown aliens, there's an attack on the crew, there are proto-face huggers, along with some complicated and self-contradictory explanation of the aliens' life cycle. It's too much. The aliens are still scary, sure – they're big death machines with sharp claws and two sets of teeth – but every time you see a monster on screen it becomes less impactful. Even worse, the film tried too hard to explain the evolution and development of the aliens as a species, and this over-explanation doesn't make them scarier or more interesting as monsters. There was no mystery or tension in this film, and most importantly, no horror.
This illustrates the difficulty of making a coherent franchise: rather than making a film which had its own style and approach to the source material, it tried to be all things to all men. It wanted to be a horror movie and an action movie and a philosophical piece all in one, and in fact, it succeeded at none of these. You can have all of these different styles within a franchise, but not within a single film.
To be fair, Covenant wasn't all bad. There were some genuinely creepy moments with David, the evil android, acting as the manipulator and power-mad scientist. Having Michael Fassbender play both this part and the part of Walter, the good android, was fun. However, as a film that hewed so closely to the plot, style, and tone of the original Alien, its inadequacies when held up next to the classic are glaring. When it comes to the horror genre, often times, less really is more.