Fresh out of the theatre, pushing against the brisk L.A. night air and the nausea of one unit of popcorn, my mind was abuzz with warm feelings and gruesome images. Alien: Covenant was a rare triumph, a scifi-horror film bleaker than Alien 3 and which actually provided “Horrible Things Pouncing on People.” It began in a characteristically Prometheus way, slow and borderline idiotic, but pivoted into pure monster schlock invaded intermittently by a pesky android.
As I furthered my journey back home, however, needled by the aura of discussion surrounding the latest to underwhelm in the misbegotten Alien cycle, I felt myself returning, reluctantly, to a confounding space of other people’s opinions. One that, fair enough, begins with Ridley Scott.
Covenant underperformed at the box office and did middling with critics, leading fans to derisive conclusions: it tried to have it both ways, be both Prometheus and creature feature, it didn’t actually answer any of the questions set up by Prometheus — because yes, indeed, Prometheus had sat long enough to curry bizarre retro-favor among some adherents. I, however, seem to remember 2012, when Ridley Scott returned to the Alien but did so with the grace and clarity of a modern politician seeking office in America.
He was evasive on the subject of whether or not forthcoming Prometheus truly was an Alien movie, and watching the film finally provided our disappointing answer. It turned out to be an Alien movie after all, but of a new breed: one where the Alien can make cameos and tease itself as environmental elements.
Prometheus was, while entertaining in spurts and featuring truly gorgeous art design, the world’s longest trailer. So I can concede some that Covenant was not the movie lengthily advertised, but I hoped for a fresh start. The Engineers were my Jar-Jar Binks. I wanted nothing to do with them, not what they were or what they represented: non-answers to non-questions about existence. Paul W.S. Anderson, too, looked to Erich von Däniken for help in shaping his revisionist mythos.
And that’s the crux of it — the new prequel movies too are non-answers to a question nobody asked, which is the snoozer of “what happened before Alien?” Scott, to his credit, didn’t simply answer the question, but sought to answer all questions: “where have we as humans come from?” And while he didn’t manage to answer the first question, the effective tease was also an outsized setup. I joined everyone else in making faraway wishes for what the future of the past of Alien would look like, because suddenly, thanks to the unfortunate intervention of Prometheus, the field was wide open.
Alien wasn’t just about… whatever it was always about, it can be about paradise and artificial intelligence and ancient civilizations and, honestly, what the hell? Because here’s the problem evinced by Covenant’s alleged identity crisis: what is it we anticipate, or expect at all, from an Alien film? What were all four plus two about?
The original four make for such a fascinating set because they’re each unique. Helmed by different directors with different sensibilities, somehow Ripley’s adventure contained Gothic horror, military action, apocalyptic nihilism, and revival from the dead. But while other horror movies instantly suggest a premise for their respective installments: Halloween and Friday the 13th require a slasher slashing teenagers, Alien never did.
As I understand it, though stories conflict with this bit of history, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett sat down and tried to imagine the most horrible alien creature possible, taking advantage of their greatest fears. The result was not the xenomorph, but the facehugger, of course. The xenomorph may be dangerouser, but its penchant to face-rape sluggish passersby ends with an imploded skull. Visceral, but not violating. O’Bannon and Shusett offered rape by a freaky, slimy spider crab, and that’s the true foundation of the series.
As a result, my memories of Alien: Resurrection slightly betrayed me. It holds up, but the premise of “people on a spaceship fighting Aliens” only partially represented. And yet, this is what I, personally, like to see from Alien movies, but is so rarely the case. The xenomorph is not interesting, not to seasoned moviegoers expecting a reasonable follow up to Alien and Aliens, and certainly not to Ridley Scott.
The facehugger/chestburster combo compelled us initially, but that can’t sustain a series of films. Instead, it was the xenomorph which inspired all my favorite video games about shooting aliens, and so, Alien’s translation through popular culture whet my appetite for the real thing which was no longer there, and in fact, never existed to begin with.
I’ll always have Aliens, but the monster violence in Covenant excited an ancient part of me I thought had been turned to stone by Prometheus. So imagine my disheartenment at even Alien fans disappointed there wasn’t more Prometheus, and then my silent space scream upon learning that Ridley Scott felt the star beast’s story had been sufficiently told.
To be real, while frustrated, Ridley Scott had already made some remarks about a now unlikely Alien: Awakening, a film set between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. It’s literally two steps forward, one step back, and without the powerful draw of the similarly now unlikely The Raid 3, which may have gone backwards in time but would’ve at least showcased more brutal pencak silat. Going backwards in time for Alien just seems to mean less Alien, but if the franchise is no longer in Scott’s hands, its identity is anybody’s guess — again.
Clearly, the only answer is Aliens vs. Predator 3, and I’d say I’m not joking this time, but I’ve never joked. That’d be rad.