‘Alien: Covenant’ Proves the Franchise Can’t Build a Mythology Around Xenomorphs
Xenomorphs are one of the all-time great movie monsters. H.R. Giger created an iconic design that’s instantly horrifying and recognizable. If you were to create a list of the all-time great movie monsters, the xenomorph would easily be in the Top 10, and that’s before you get to all of it’s great little tricks like having a spear for a tail or acid for blood.
But the xenomorph is not a character. It’s not like Frankenstein or Dracula. It doesn’t have complicated needs or desires. It exists to kill. That’s all it wants to do. There aren’t a bunch of deleted scenes out there showing the xenomorphs picking up racquetball or taking cooking classes. They exist to slaughter humans, and even people who don’t want to kill the xenomorph know that’s the creature’s purpose (they just foolishly think they can harness that power).
And yet we’ve now gotten not one but two movies that are trying to tell us where the xenomorphs came from, and I couldn’t care less. I don’t even think Ridley Scott particularly cares. He’s said from day one he’s more fascinated by the “Space Jockey”, and he’s used that as a springboard to tell a story about the Engineers and the murderous android David (Michael Fassbender). However, he’s still tied to the Alien franchise, and he’s trying to make that franchise work by resting on the xenomorphs.
On the one hand, this makes sound financial sense. Xenomorphs do not argue for bigger paychecks. They do not have diva-ish demands. For all of their murderous ways, they’re incredibly easy to work with, and they’re incredibly easy to sell to audiences who have loved the Alien franchise for almost forty years. It also helps (at least on paper) if the guy making the new Alien movies, is the guy who helped launch the franchise back in 1979.
But the more Scott shows us about the origins of the xenomorphs, the less interesting and fearsome they become. They’ll never develop into compelling characters because they’re not characters. They’re monsters, and monsters exists to kill of interesting characters. Scott has tried to solve this problem by making David the real star of the prequels, but at that point you have a character who is kind of in conflict with his own creatures.
Alien: Covenant tries to bridge the gap by turning David into a bit of a Satan figure, someone angry at his creator (man), and thus comes across a way to rebel by creating a race of monsters bred from a bioweapon devised by his creator’s creator (the engineers). It’s an admirable attempt, but it’s drowned out by lousy storytelling, weak supporting characters, and muddled thematics.
I can’t help but wonder how much better these Alien prequels would be if they weren’t Alien prequels at all, or if the xenomorph angle was just dropped entirely so that we could focus on David. Scott seems to have misinterpreted the blowback from Prometheus, assuming that audiences were unhappy that the xenomorph played such a small role in the overall story. But the problem with Prometheus wasn’t that the xenomorph was missing. The problem was that the characters, a team comprised largely of scientists, were dumb as dishwater so the movie lacked compelling stakes.
So Scott has engaged in a bit of fanservice by explaining how xenomorphs came about, but it doesn’t change anything. I don’t feel any differently about xenomorphs now than I did before I saw Alien: Covenant. I guess there’s now an element of irony that in the Alien movies featuring Ripley, a creature that was created by an android is killing off humans, so humans are kind of responsible for their own demise, but that’s a bit of a stretch. And I’m not exactly sure how much further Scott can push the origins of the xenomorph since they don’t talk, don’t change, and have only one goal.
Scott says he has one or two more Alien prequels in mind, and I assume they will eventually take us to how the engineer got to LV-426, but is that really a pressing question for anyone but Scott? Do I need to know how the egg that had the facehugger that killed Kane got onto the planetoid? Do I lay awake at night wondering who was in the engineer’s flight suit and why there’s a chest-burster wound? Either Scott’s got one hell of a reveal up his sleeve that’s going to make us rethink 1979’s Alien, or he’s run into the same problem most prequels have: you lose tension when you know how things will eventually unfold. You’ve essentially made an entire movie out of exposition. Scott’s problem is compounded by the fact that his prequels have only one character, David, and he has to share time with a bunch of xenomorphs. As Ash described them in Alien, “Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility.” That can make the xenomorphs terrifying, but it doesn’t make them compelling.