The residing theme for Alien: Covenant is that the film will return to the roots of the Alien franchise. All the footage and trailers released thus far have communicated very directly that director Ridley Scott is using the prequel to take the series back to basics, with the simple, familiar premise of a lone, isolated spaceship crew being hunted by a xenomorph. As far as ideas for a soft relaunch of the universe go, it’s hardly a bad one, starting once again from the same building blocks that made the first Alien so intriguing and exciting. At the very least, Covenant already looks more succinct and gratifying than 2012’s overtly-ambitious misfire Prometheus, another prequel Scott also directed.
As we get closer and closer to Covenant, a growing concern is that the film will bear too much similarity to the 1979’s Alien. Each of the teasers so far have been sure to highlight the classic motifs from the seminal original that are being recycled – the discovery of alien life via an exploration mission gone slightly awry; a crew-member incidentally getting attacked by a face-hugger; the victims being stalked through their ship; another suspicious humanoid robot. It’s beginning to seem that Covenant may function closer to a remake than any kind of distinctive instalment in its own right.
This in itself isn’t surprising. From a marketing perspective, Alien is on the same fleeting ground as Terminator and Predator as a treasured property that’s been without a complete box office win in years. The more time these classics spend dwelling in cult must-watch lists and film history discussion as their newer sequels dwindle in quality and return, the more they become relics with only a niche following. The xenomorphs need a real chest-buster of a success if they’re to maintain full relevance. An assured way to achieve that is to ostensibly retread what people most fondly remember about the original movies, even if only doing so for the trailers to get people into theaters. One need only check the numbers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens to see what a hearty dose of nostalgia can achieve.
Alien, and Aliens, were both great movies and revisiting some of their themes and ideas is wise as a guideline for getting the series back on track, but Alien: Covenant needs to be more than its own tribute act. A soft reboot is good for a quick burst of renewed fan interest, relying on it too strongly, however, doesn’t help breed greater longevity. Covenant needs to be a strong sci-fi horror on its own terms, while also standing up to standards of the franchise’s earlier entries. There are only so many different ways a space-crew can be hunted down and eviscerated by another variation on H. R. Giger’s xenomorph design before it becomes tedious.
Alien 3 or Alien: Resurrection, for all their sins, were at least different and acknowledged the surrounding universe the movies are set in. They asked and answered questions about what the aliens are, how they may behave in different environments and, most crucially, what other humans have been up to in the interim. Neither are particularly great, but at least they stick to their guns as sequels that tell their own story and push the mythology forward. How many times must fans watch a hapless explorer peer into an alien egg, be attacked by a face-hugger and have their surrounding shipmates not know how to handle it? Somewhere along the line the setup will need to be altered, lest we be led to believe nobody in this universe read the brief on avoiding alien impregnation or questioned the amount of ships and crews disappearing around LV-426.
It’s not helpful that the last Alien universe production helmed by Ridley Scott was the aforementioned Prometheus, an unnecessarily muddled and obtuse attempt at explaining the history of the xenomorphs and their creators, the architects. Filled with evocative imagery (if a touch overtly phallic) the prequel amounted to little beyond hollow aggrandising and the proliferation of yet more questions. Lots of style, very little substance and a lot of the criticism was centred on whether Scott was still the right storyteller for the role. Always visually captivating, Scott’s work on Prometheus, and some other ill-received works like his Robin Hood adaptation in 2010 and the disastrous Exodus: Gods and Kings, demonstrated that his ability to set a scene was no longer complimented quite so well by his abilities in narrative construction.
Questions over Scott’s adequacy for Alien were swept aside briefly when it looked like District 9 mastermind Neill Blomkamp had managed to fanboy his way into a new Alien movie via Instagram. Blomkamp shared concept ideas he had for a new third Alien that would pick-up after Aliens with a living Ripley, Hicks and Newt and would explore the universe in a new way, and the ensuing buzz seemed to give him a greenlight. He and fans alike were elated – a bold new filmmaker was injecting new blood into the Alien universe and finally erasing some of the mistakes of the past. Meanwhile Scott was working on adapting Andy Weir’s The Martian, a movie he was lauded for. All seemed well. That was, until Scott’s idea for another new Alien prequel basically superseded Blomkamp’s Alien at Fox, causing Scott’s to take priority and leading us to now with the impending release of Alien: Covenant.
Nobody can begrudge Scott wanting to steer the Alien series as much as he can. We’ve all seen where the property has gone under more spurious leadership. There’s little doubt that Alien: Covenant will have some authentically creepy and disturbing moments between the xenomorph and the poor crew of the USS Covenant. But if the xenomorphs are to survive and proliferate once again, they must have more to work with than hunting down another set of fresh-faced explorers in a rehash of their glories old.