No real spoilers
So, I saw Alien Covenant last night. I’ve been waiting for this one for ages, so it’s fair to say my expectations were high. Here’s what I thought of the movie (note: not the screenplay), broken down in the two main questions script readers consider: ‘What’s working?’, plus ‘What needs more development?’. Enjoy!
It looks fantastic, but then that’s really a given. Ridley Scott has embraced the digital age whole-heartedly and I’d say that like most modern blockbuster directors, his movies are really meant for cinema. That works for me, since there’s nothing I like more than a big noisy ride in a screen fifty times bigger than my head.
Fassbender electrifies every scene he is in, obviously. I won’t go into detail about his character because – SPOILERS! – but let’s just say you won’t be disappointed with his performance (but then when are we?? He even managed to pull off Prometheus).
Additionally, there are some brilliant homages in there to the other movies, inc the nodding duck thing from the first film through to the Aliens drop ship and H.R Geiger’s Li II painting. There is some great tension; some fantastic dread moments; some brilliant panic and yes it’s gory as all hell. There is blood and fire and teeth EVERYWHERE. It’s definitely more Horror than Thriller, which is a welcome return to the franchise’s roots.
Overall, I’d wager it’s certainly more enjoyable than Prometheus, though it lacks some of the flair of that (car crash of a) movie. But though there’s refrigerator logic a-plenty in Alien Covenant there’s definitely none of the gigantically NOTICEABLE leaps in narrative logic here … For example, such as one drop of alien juice infecting Dr. Shaw’s boyfriend in Prometheus, yet her NOT getting reinfected when the alien abortion creature bursts all over her open C-section, WTAF?
What Needs More Development?
Aside from Fassbender, every other single character in this film is completely tissue-paper thin. Yes, even the ‘new’ Ripley, Daniels. In fact, the characters are SO flat, they have the male characters remind us who’s paired up with whom by referencing which ones are their wives! (Seriously??). I didn’t even know the vast majority of their names OR role functions. This even occurred when characters survived for the majority of the movie! What. The. Hell.
This is obviously a huge disappointment. The reason Alien is such a seminal work is not only because of the ground-breaking monster and plot (no one had seen anything like it, back in 1979), but because we empathised with the characters’ plights, both individually and as a crew. From Dallas’ overblown sense of responsibility; Kane’s curiosity and pompous self belief; Ash’s brooding menace; Parker and Brett’s comic relief, jester and straight man; through to Lambert’s hysteria and Ripley’s quiet resolve, we KNEW these characters and their place in the story world. We breathed their terror, panic and courage.
In comparison, the crew of Alien Covenant are for the most part, canon fodder. That’s okay as far as the genre AND franchise goes – remember the majority of marines in Aliens are picked off in the nest in Act 2? But even with a cast as large as that, we STILL know who is who and are at least freaked out as we see their heartbeats flatline on Gorman’s screen.
Hell, even in Prometheus, there’s still the fabulous scene in which secondaries Fifield and Millburn get lost in the bowels of the ship. We invest in their fear and gung ho pretence that’s ‘everything’s fine’ … Only for them to be attacked and end up killed by the ‘penis monster’ in the chamber, a truly great moment of real horror in that film that is backed up by some fair-to-middling characterisation.
In comparison, the characters of Alien Covenant are simply killed, one by one. Yes, it looks awesome. It’s even scary. But there is no investment in the characters’ fates whatsoever.
What Writers Can Learn
Alien was genre-busting, but Alien Covenant is not. Whilst the latter movie has some great spins on the original’s myth and storyworld, what we have here is the same type of thing, re-told. And why not? Audiences wanted “Alien:Origins” for Prometheus and were pissed off when they didn’t get it. It makes sense to give them what they want this time and it definitely works in terms of this storyworld. As far as reboots go, this element is successful.
But that’s not the real lesson, here.
Aside from our antagonist, the character motivation of ALL the characters here is obvious: survival. That’s not unusual, either in this franchise or the Horror genre in general. It’s what audiences want, but it’s also what the story needs.
What’s missing then, is character role function. Character role function is about what a character is DOING and WHY in the story; this then communicates to the audience WHO they are. Accents, races, jobs on the space ship, even names are not what differentiates characters, names don’t matter – hell, some movies don’t even bother naming their characters – it’s those role functions that make the communication to the audience on WHO IS WHO.
In comparison, on Alien Covenant, we only know Daniels is the protagonist because a) we’ve seen the actor doing the rounds of various interviews and b) we concentrate a bit on her at the beginning. The rest of the time, she’s warning everyone everything is a bad idea, or snooping through stuff to check various things out. That’s pretty much it.
Our captain? He’s got a crisis of faith – literally – but what that means and why, no one really knows. He also seems pretty dumb, walking into THAT space egg chamber voluntarily after seeing what he’s seen (in comparison to Kane in Alien, who is the epitome of ‘curiosity killed the cat’ and had seen nothing majorly untoward in terms of danger by that point of the movie).
Our third in command is a space cowboy, wears a hat and makes sexist jokes. We know he’s a good egg really.
Everyone else appears, says a few lines, worries a bit, maybe screams and THEN DIES.
Whether we’re writing a big blockbuster movie or something else, Alien Covenant demonstrates superbly how important character role function is. We have to know WHO IS WHO to invest in characterisation … and we can only do that if we know
WHO is doing WHAT and WHY
Because it’s character role function – NOT character motivation – that differentiates characters for audiences.