“Alien: Covenant” and the nuance of viewer perspective

I just walked out of an Alien: Covenant screening and felt compelled to write my thoughts. There will be no spoilers, so feel free to keep reading even if you have not yet seen the movie.

This will not be your typical movie review. A typical movie review isn’t my cup of tea because:

  1. A singular movie review is never going to convince you to watch or not watch a movie. Aggregate Rotten Tomatoes scores are great for that, and I’m under no pretense to be more than a tiny blip in the movie reviews blogosphere.
  2. Even if I possessed the power to persuade you to watch / not watch, I do not believe that my judgment of the movie should dramatically impact yours. I can give you my perspective and tell you to watch for certain things, but that is it. I believe that we can, and should, make individual viewing decisions without an overwhelming herd mentality.
  3. Any piece of film criticism assumes that the reader understands and agrees with the tastes of the reviewer. This is an unlikely event unless the reader is consuming the work of a critic with several years of work – which certainly does not apply in my case.

I believe that a singular point of view is insufficient in providing valuable film criticism. Instead, one should see the merits of the film through the lenses of multiple target audiences.

Let me provide a concrete example of this, and apply this to Covenant. There are three points of view that I choose to simultaneously adopt while watching. They are:

(A) The point of view of the hardened Alien franchise fan. This is the guy or gal who has seen every entry in the series, openly discusses the films with other fans, and looks at every film frame with an eye for continuity. The hardened fan understands the different challenges each film took to get made. As the studio, you will very likely alienate this demographic because your goal is to optimize for profits, and hence mainstream appeal. The hardened fan resembles the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons – picky, snooty, and hard to please. The studio needs to keep these guys moderately happy, but they will line up for the next incarnation without much prompting.

(B) The point of view of the casual movie-going fan, who has heard of the Alien franchise but has very little emotional investment. This guy or gal simply wants to be entertained and tell their friends that they’ve seen the latest Alien movie, too. As the studio, you are targeting this demographic because these are the folks who buy most of the box office tickets.

(C) The point of view of the completely-new-to-the-Alien-series viewer, who is not even a fan but sees the movie because of friends and/or significant other. As the studio, you care a great deal about this demographic because they can get converted into demographic (A) or (B). They will provide word-of-mouth if the movie was good. So long as the movie’s promotional material does not look utterly terrible, the studio can count on new fans to pay the price of admission to see it.

I belong firmly in category (A) – that of the hardened fan. I have been an Alien fanboy for a very long time. I have collected Alien action figures and played several of its video game adaptations. In 2011, I spent an entire week reading about Prometheus in hardcore online discussion forums before I even stepped into a movie theatre – an ill-fated attempt to hype myself up about the movie. Like an over-eager nerd, I have quoted lines from the movies and know most of the characters’ names by heart.

If I choose to look at Covenant purely from the hardened fanboy angle, then the movie is a failure. It is an homage to the first Alien film without the same creative elements. The foreshadowing with similar character types is obvious, and I pine for the days when monsters weren’t fabricated out of 200% CGI. I expected more from Ridley Scott, who directed both this entry and the original Alien. I liked the fact that elements of Kubrick’s 2001 were at play here, but the relationship of man to machine felt underexplored. I would say that the movie builds on the themes in Prometheus, but it is not worth a re-watch in the immediate future.

david

This is where I stop to think things through. Is there any possibility that I, as an Alien fanboy, would be pleased with the result? I would say that it is a nearly impossible task. Parts of the movie appeal greatly to the purist in me – I enjoyed the set design and a rock-solid performance from Michael Fassbender. But I cannot honestly believe, in good faith, that a big studio movie in 2017 is capable of blowing my mind. It is nearly impossible for franchise films to deliver this way except in extremely rare cases (see Mad Max: Fury Road). The Alien label raises my expectation several notches above that of a regular movie, and so I am resigned to go see it without much hope of it being transcendent.

If I were to aggregate the viewpoints of the casual movie-going fan AND the non-fan, however, I would be generally satisfied. Covenant does not attempt to be grandiose. It is a tightly plotted slasher film set in outer space that touches on some interesting themes of creation. It explains what happens to the characters in Prometheus. Covenant suffers from extended exposition – do we really need a man of faith to say out loud, “I am a man of faith”? – and tries its darnedest to make the audience care about the characters. The plot vehicle of having multiple characters set up as husband-and-wife teams does little to garner sympathy. There is one eye-rolling scene starring Billy Crudup that had the whole theater in dumbfounded disbelief. The length of the film, however, felt appropriate to me.

I was prepared to write an absolutely scathing review of the movie, based purely on the fanboy perspective. But what purpose would that serve? You would either not possess the same level of fanaticism and not understand my impossible-to-fulfill disappointment, or I would end up preaching my dissent to the choir. It is a losing battle.

I suppose that film critics innately understand this angle of approaching criticism from multiple perspectives. Certainly, many of them cater (pander?) to a specific type of readership. Nonetheless, it was a fun personal revelation for me that I wanted to share that with you. Perhaps it could help you in the future when it comes to your own amateur form of film criticism.

I suppose that I am already rambling for far too long. I suggest that you see the movie if you enjoy thriller or slasher flicks. My advice to you is to understand the difference between “this is a bad movie” and “this is the movie that did not personally appeal to me.” Covenant is competently constructed with enough cynicism/darkness to appeal to my tastes. It is flawed, though, in several plot-illogical ways. You may notice this, too, as you enter the closing thirty minutes.

What’s more, Covenant felt like two movies in one – one involving killer aliens, and one involving synthetic beings straight out of Blade Runner. The latter movie is more interesting, but we did not get enough of it. Call it a missed opportunity, but see it nonetheless. Keep the franchise alive and give Mr. Scott more chances to deliver.

Peace,

James

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2 Comments

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  1. James, I watched this movie and enjoyed it pretty thoroughly. Admittedly, however, I am not a self- professed Alien fanboy like yourself, so I didn’t find the future generational plot nuances too disturbing. That said, the movie reviews on IMDb tended to be pretty low, which kind of shocked me. Upon reviewing most of them, it appears many reviewers gave the same reasons you did for not liking the movie; namely, the plot ruined the longer-term story for them.

    So it is. Hypothetical: If you weren’t aware of what happened in the later Alien movies, do you think you would have enjoyed this movie more?

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    • A friend said it best – in the end, did you enjoy the movie? It’s a “yes” or “no” question. If the answer is “yes,” then the other things are not as important. So it’s hard to comment on a scale. But yes, I did enjoy it overall.

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