Why did Alien: Covenant fail?
It’s a legitimate question. Alien itself is such an iconic horror film that, 38 years after it was first released, blatant rip-offs like Life are still being produced and, in many case, are still doing pretty well at the box office. When John Hurt died earlier this year, he left behind a long and distinguished filmography but almost every obituary opened by discussing his role in Alien.
Alien: Covenant received a good deal of pre-release publicity, mostly centering on the fact that Ridley Scott was not only the filming the latest installment of the franchise but that this was going to be a true Alien film, as opposed to a strange hybrid like Prometheus. Personally, when I first saw the trailer, I thought it looked like something was a little off about it. The spaceship looked way too clean and, for that matter, so did all the humans. Whereas Alien and Aliens were all about sweaty, profane men and women stuck in dark and cramped locations, the humans in Alien: Covenant just looked too damn perky. In at least one of the trailers, they were all smiling. No one smiles in space, at least not in an Alien movie. Still, everyone else seemed to be super excited about the trailer so I figured that maybe I was just being overly critical.
Then the movie came out. It got some respectful but somewhat restrained reviews, though it did seem like quite a few critics were more interested in praising the longevity of the series as opposed to actually talking about the film itself. At the box office, it performed a bit below expectations during the first week but then again, that’s pretty much been the story for almost every film that’s been released in 2017. But then, during the second week, it plunged from being the number one movie in America to being the number four movie in America. In the third week, it plunged again and, in the fourth week, it left first-run theaters and headed for the dollar cinemas. When a widely anticipated film like that — especially one that is part of a historically popular franchise — heads to purgatory after only four weeks, the only thing you can blame is word of mouth.
Why did Alien: Covenant fail?
Well, there’s several reasons why this film failed to connect with audiences.
First off, the plot is rather familiar. In the future, the crew of a spaceship picks up a radio transmission for a nearby planet and the captain (played, in this case, by Billy Crudup) sends down an expedition to investigate. Of course, it turns out that the planet is full of facehuggers and xenomorphs and all the other stuff that audiences typically expect from an Alien film. Also on the planet is David (Michael Fassbender), the replicant who is the sole survivor from Prometheus. (Fassbender actually plays two roles in Covenant. He also plays Walter, another replicant. One is bad and one is good.) Basically, Covenant takes the plots of Alien and Aliens and mashes them together. But it never answers the question of why audiences wouldn’t be better off just watching the originals.
The humans themselves are rather blandly written and somewhat interchangeable. There’s no one who is memorably quirky like Bill Paxton or Harry Dean Stanton. Katherine Waterston makes for a bland substitute for both Sigourney Weaver and Noomi Rapace. Usually, I like Danny McBride but he seems out of place in an Alien film. Genuinely interesting actors, like James Franco, Amy Seimetz, and Carmen Ejogo, are all dispatched far too early. Probably the best performance in the film comes from Michael Fassbender but, for anyone who has any knowledge of what usually happens with replicants in the Alien franchise, there’s no surprises to be found in either of his characters.
But ultimately, the main problem with Alien: Covenant is that it just wasn’t scary. Some might say that this is due to the fact that we’re no longer shocked by the sight of aliens bursting out of people’s chests. However, I recently watched Alien. I watched it with the full knowledge that, as soon as John Hurt sat down to eat, that little bugger was going to burst out of his chest and that blood and bones were going to fly everywhere. I also knew that Harry Dean Stanton was going to end up walking right underneath the alien. I knew that Tom Skerritt’s radio was going to go dead. I knew that the alien would be waiting for Sigourney Weaver in the escape pod. I knew all of this and Alien still scared the Hell out of me, as it has every time that I’ve watched it.
And I also had the same reaction when I recently watched Aliens. Yes, I knew that the space marines weren’t going to be able to fight the aliens. I knew what was going to happen to Paul Reiser. I knew that Bill Paxton was going to end up chanting, “Game over, man!” I knew that aliens were going to be bursting off of chests all over the place. I knew it was all going to happen and yet, turning out all the lights and watching Aliens still left me feeling shaken.
The difference between those two films and Alien: Covenant is that the first two films felt authentic. The ships felt lived in. The characters felt real. Both films were full of rough edges and small details that invited you to try to look closer. You could watch those films and imagine yourself on those ships and talking to those characters. You got scared because you knew that there was no way you’d be one of the survivors. Everyone pretends that they would be Sigourney Weaver but most of us know that, in reality, we’re going to be Veronica Cartwright, sobbing and useless.
Alien: Covenant, on the other hand, is a very slick movie. Nothing about it feels real and there’s no real emotional impact when the aliens show up and start killing people. You never feel as if you know the characters, beyond whatever feelings you may have toward the actors involved. “Oh,” you say, “the alien just burst out of Billy Crudup’s chest. Well, he’s got another movie coming out so he’ll be fine…”
For all of the technical skill that went into making it, Alien: Covenant has no soul. And, for that reason, it’s never scary. (Sadly, Life felt like a better Alien movie than Covenant did.) Hopefully, if there is another Alien film, that soul will be rediscovered.