It's difficult to go wrong with a burger, but there are burgers and there are burgers — which, in a way that makes me hungry, is pretty much an exact reflection of how I feel about Alien.
Just like even the trashiest burger isn't without its guilty pleasures, there's no truly irredeemable Alien movie — but it's also true that not every film in the franchise which fashioned itself as the anti-Star Wars (don't go into space, ever) is a gourmet burger.
When #AlienCovenant rampages murderously through a theater near you this May, Ridley Scott's movie has two goals: To deliver the kinds of thrills and critical acclaim that remind the world of why the Alien series has lasted 38 years, and to create a sequel to Prometheus which also expands the mythology in such a way that Scott's decision to make an entire series of prequels is justified.
With that enormous challenge in mind, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how the critics' reactions to Covenant compare to early reviews of Prometheus, by far the most controversial Alien movie to date.
Is Covenant Uncharted Territory Or A Deadly Deja-Vu?
While the premise of Covenant differs in some ways — the ship is on a colony mission which takes a detour to an uncharted moon — it also hits the familiar beats. There's a synthetic android (two, actually), a ballsy heroine, an (evolution of the) xenomorph and a ship full of people who are probably all screwed.
Currently, Covenant has 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and 65/100 on Metacritic. That's a mild improvement on Prometheus, which had 72% on Rotten Tomatoes and an equal Metacritic score, although many of the reviews point out that Covenant is a major improvement from its predecessor. The Playlist's review sums things up nicely:
"Come for the chestbursters, the movie says, and stay for the deeper meditation on cruel gods, mere mortals, and creators gone mad.
There’s enough visceral terror and action in 'Covenant' that should appease (plus a horrific shower scene to end all shower scenes). But it’s clear Scott’s interests lay in a much bigger picture than aliens decapitating unwitting humans, and arguably one that hasn’t been fully revealed yet.
'Covenant' isn’t so much the sequel to 'Prometheus' as it is the second chapter in a meatier book — chapter one makes a lot more sense once you’ve turned the page and read on."
In other words, if your idea of the perfect Alien movie lies in the straight-up, tongue-in-cheek action thrills and gory kills of James Cameron's Aliens, or the violent last hour of Alien, you might be disappointed by how much time Covenant spends expanding the mythology of the universe. But if you've always wanted to learn more, the execution this time is much more satisfying than Prometheus.
How Did Critics Respond To Prometheus?
Since 2012, Prometheus has come to earn a decidedly mixed reputation. A proper Alien sequel with Sigourney Weaver would've been preferred to a sequel by many, but even so the imperfections and frequent stupidity of Scott's prequel were on display right from the beginning, with Empire's review observing that:
"If you were eagerly awaiting a reinvigoration of the Alien franchise, some 3D chestbursting, facehuggers popping out of succulent eggs, some fresh psychosexual strand of xenomorphology ready to haunt our lives ... you’re in for a colossal let-down. This most definitely isn’t an Alien movie in that sense at all."
While the New Yorker's positive review described that birthing scene with Dr. Shaw as an instant classic horror moment, many reviews noted that the characters were paper-thin and/or downright stupid, and the plot holes vast. And that's fair — this is a movie in which a man designs a 3D map of a cave, and then gets lost inside the very same cave he'd just mapped.
When it comes to franchises it's often said that the original is rarely topped, and Alien (1979) has an almost perfect score of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes. Clearly Covenant is not universally loved in that way, but it'll be interesting to see whether this movie's attempt to expand on the bigger ideas of Prometheus and marry them with the more horrifying aspects of Alien results in a film which is more widely liked.
Ultimately, the Alien franchise needs to work out what it wants to be. Is it a story about creation, artificial intelligence and what happens when people play God? Is it a horror movie, and if so, how can it remain fresh when we've seen what happens when humans encounter an alien hell-bent on survival so many times already? Or can Scott package all of the above into something mysterious, coherent and satisfying?
Hopefully Alien: Covenant has at least some of the answers. It hits theaters May 19.
Do you believe Covenant will fix the mistakes of Prometheus, or have the Alien movies got lost in stasis?