SPOILER WARNING: Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017)
Coming five years after Prometheus (Ridley Scott, 2012), Alien: Covenant (Ridley Scott, 2017) seeks to both improve from the first film in the Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) prequel trilogy, and also explain the 2012 entry. The latter task is not an enviable one, as while Prometheus contained numerous concepts and ideas that could draw interest, little of it was explained and the film left the audience with more questions than they came in with. Despite this, Alien: Covenant mostly succeeds in explaining its immediate predecessor, but in this process another host of issues emerges. Though the film does provide a definite beginning for the Xenomorphs of the franchise, ultimately Alien: Covenant falls into the prequel trap. The film does not sell any of its characters as people that should be cared about, as the audience knows that all of these people have a time limit on them as they are inevitably moving towards a reset point of sorts: the events of the 1979 film. Added to this is the fact that the film overcomplicates and over explains numerous aspects of the Alien canon, to the point that it dilutes the mystique of the creatures it is telling the origin of to the point that they and their history are no longer interesting. Alien: Covenant succeeds in streamlining its story compared to Prometheus, but in the process it underwhelms in its delivery as it falls into predictable territory and anti-climatic conclusions.
At the most simple of levels, Alien: Covenant is better than Prometheus because it manages to actually show its audience a Xenomorph. And while this is certainly satisfying, the events surrounding this reveal leave much to be desired. From the start of the film the cast is difficult to relate to. Tragedy immediately strikes as a random catastrophe results in the death of Covenant captain Branson (James Franco). Replacing him is the ambitious but ignorant Oram (Billie Crudup). Oram is at one moment rational and at the next unreasonable. And the film seeks to establish him as something as a secondary villain for actions that are nary explained, such as his insistence that the crew forgo all paying of respects to the dead. But this plotline is never followed through on, as Oram becomes just another corpse-in-waiting before long. This is true for most of the plotlines in the film, as three of its main characters, Oram, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), and Tennessee (Danny McBride), all lose their respective spouses relatively early-on in the film. But none of these characters are defined by their losses, with the exception of Oram being promoted to leadership as the result of the death of Branson. These deaths do not do anything else besides providing temporary moments of sadness for the ones who survive them, and this speaks to the larger issue of the film. Alien: Covenant does not ever manage to establish any sense of stakes both because of its lack of characterization for its characters and because it quickly falls into predictable horror film territory.
The original Alien film is starkly unique when it comes to its theme. While slasher films generally carry with them the idea of the older generation versus the younger generation and supernatural horror films almost always relate to faith, Alien argues that the universe does not care about anyone. The Xenormorph in the original film has unknown origins and soon proves itself to be the perfect killing machine, and those that it preys upon can hardly do anything against it. The humans are practically helpless and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) only manages to best the monster in the end by a combination of smarts, and a little bit of luck. Even when faced with superior firepower in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), the Xenomorphs still manage to amass a large body count. Their lethality comes into question in Alien: Covenant however, as the two actual Xenomorphs only manage to kill those whose chests they burst out of. But this is not a major issues, aside from the fact that Xenomorphs are seemingly only in the film to assuage the fan base. The true issue that Alien: Covenant creates is that is calls into question the theme of the first film.
As mentioned, Alien argues that the universe does not care about its human inhabitants. The monster that the crew of the USCSS Nostromo is mostly massacred by is a product of unknown origins, essentially an embodiment of the universe itself. It is implied to have killed a far more advanced life form, and also that this being may have been transporting it for some unknown reason. The overall ambiguity adds to the film, and it reinforces the overall sense of the universe versus the humans. But Alien: Covenant reveals that the Xenomorphs are not some random beast from the stars, or even a monster created by a species alien to humanity; but instead they are the result of genetic engineering by David (Michael Fassbender). David is a product of humanity himself as he is a synthetic created by them, so in a roundabout way the Xenomorphs are a product of humanity. Not only is this revelation underwhelming, as David’s motivation is barely explained outside of his general curiosity, but it changes everything that the Xenomorphs have always represented. The arrogance of humanity has always been on display in the Alien films as they attempt to control the monsters they have encountered. But this is seen as humanity fighting the universe, not humanity fighting itself. Alien: Covenant changes all of this as the blame for the creation of the Xenomorphs is placed squarely on the humans.
Alien: Covenant is a prequel that does nothing more than that is necessary for its story to be completed. It provides the needed number of gory deaths to keep the audience as engaged as they can be while also showcasing new and horrific creatures. The mystique of the planet that the humans find themselves on is present for a short while, but once people begin to be infected the correct conclusion to this mystery can be easily correctly inferred. In the same way, the character of David and his arc is nothing short of predictable, and this results in the final act of the film being essentially paint-by-numbers. But standing above all of these issues is the fact that the film attempts to retroactively change the prior, better films in its franchise for the sake of providing what amounts to be a subpar story. The Xenomorphs are now man-made creations and all of their actions are simply humans being killed by their own actions. But almost all of the prior films already had this is one way or another as many human characters were shown to make the mistake of trying to control the uncontrollable. This theme does not need to be reinforced or enhanced at all, but Alien: Covenant does just this as it essentially simplifies all of the films in the franchise by making them about only one conflict: humanity against itself. This turn by the film is its worst feature, and it does not bode well for the future of the franchise.