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!

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What’s Working?

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.

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Concluding:

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.

LINKS:

What Is the Difference Between Horror & Thriller?

What Is The Difference Between A Remake & A Reboot?

The ONLY 2 Things You Need To Know About Characterisation

5 Problems With Characterisation

Top 7 Writing Tips For Great Characterisation

Top 8 Questions For Great Characterisation

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9 Responses to The Powerful Lesson ALIEN COVENANT teaches writers

  1. Rob says:

    Brilliant Review. I went to see the film last night. Fassbender is clever and cool and apart from the (obvious) twist is the only character with any depth (apart from our Alien friend). I mean, do Weyland Yutani just hire clowns for colonisation? Wouldn’t have this crew find the space lav for me.

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      LOL, I love the idea of a ‘space lav’. I must say, I was jealous of the epic shower room, that is mint (apart from the alien in it, natch)

  2. Mike Gibas says:

    Fantastic analysis of what makes this film such a disappointment. Yes, it totally delivers on visuals and Fassbender is always an electric presence, but it’s basically a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation of ‘bits’ that worked better in the earlier movies. I somehow think this whole prequel trilogy fails because of an even more fundamental flaw… In any good film it’s nice to have ‘gaps’ and omissions in details and story, so we can interact and imagine and make our own connections. By attempting to give the Aliens a ‘back story’ (and a pretty dumb one to boot) it’s almost like fan fiction or a rambling drunken geek conversation in the pub on a multi-million dollar budget. Only worth watching to heed all the points Lucy makes, methinks!

    • Lucy V Hay says:

      I dunno, I quite liked the back story, though it is a bit TOO ‘Frankenstein’. I loved where it left off though at the end (obvious or not), so perhaps this is just an apology for Prometheus and the next one will be REALLY good … I’m willing to give it a shot.

      • Mike Gibas says:

        No doubt I’ll be there, too, handing over my hard-earned cash! 🙂 I just feel that the first one was essentially a horror movie and having an Alien that is unknown, a mystery, something wholly inexplicable is far more terrifying than trying to create a mythology and a scientific rationale behind it. I thought we ended up in Mad Scientist realms in this one… I’ll always wipe it from my mind when I watch the original! 🙂

  3. D.C. Ambrose says:

    I agree with your assessment of the characters. To me, that is what makes a film truly horrifying – when you empathize with the characters – because, that is what makes the monster truly monstrous, killing characters with personalities; likes, loves, fears, etc. I also think in the next one, he should turn down the sci-fi and action a tad, and up the nightmare-fuel-type horror. People aren’t phased like they were in 1979. The Xenomorph should be made to feel like a more powerful entity; a larger, aesthetically further ‘exaggerated’ design whilst simultaneously keeping it hidden. For example: I like the way it looks kind of like its smiling, in the next film – design the mouth with prominent cheeks and more humanoid lips, so that it looks as though it is grinning from the shadows, as it reaches out to grab the unsuspecting cocky mechanic with its FOOT-LONG HAG FINGERS…

  4. Parkino says:

    Good point. Across the crew of the Nostromo was a range of contrasting attitudes, conflicts which expressed character. Not so on the Covenant. In ‘Aliens’ some meaningful relationships developed: the quasi-romantic partnership of Hicks and Ripley, Ripley’s maternal feelings for Noot. But not here. Despite all the marriages, the only meaningful relationship was between the synths, Walter and David. (I would also question the consistency of Oram’s behaviour as a ‘man of faith’, both in his attitude to holding a funeral for the departed and in his reaction to the blashpemy of David’s obscene project.)

  5. Pat Beardmore says:

    Thanks for the review. Aliens is very clever in building up the characters very quickly with some great dialogue so it actually means something when they all come to a nasty end. Clever chap, Mr Cameron. It will be interesting to see if the same thing happend with Bladerunner. Just goes to show how important character is.

  6. Phil says:

    I agree about the characters. For me the other thing wrong with the film is it takes itself far too seriously. It’s terribly po faced and portentous. I would be more interested in the whole “where did we come from?” theme if it were buried in the subtext and I didn’t have to endure a unbearably long philosophical treatise in the middle. Oh, and for all the great visuals, that white alien that faces up to David really does look like a guy in a Lycra fancy dress costume.

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