Hollywood may be more invested in making sequels now than ever before, but that doesn’t mean the industry has learned all the right lessons about maintaining franchises. Quite the opposite was proven true just five years ago, when one of Hollywood’s pre-eminent sci-fi franchises fell victim to a classic storytelling mistake in director Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.
Coming five years after Prometheus, Alien: Covenant is a quasi-continuation of its 2012 predecessor. The sequel to the prequel picks up around a decade later and follows the crew of a colony ship known as Covenant. When the crew stumbles across a transmission of a human voice coming from an alien planet, they decide to investigate.
Anyone familiar with the Alien franchise won’t be surprised to hear that the expedition doesn’t go according to plan. Shortly after arriving, the film’s characters are subjected to the kind of bloody attacks that the Alien franchise has thrived on. But things quickly go off the rails when the film brings back David (Michael Fassbender), the duplicitous android from Prometheus.
Over the course of its second half, Alien: Covenant explores what David has been up to in the years since Prometheus. Notably, he murdered and dissected Prometheus’ only other survivor, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), and used her body to experiment with advanced technology recovered from the Engineers, the alien race that created humans. David’s experiments eventually led to the creation of not only certain Xenomorph-esque creatures, but likely the Xenomorphs themselves.
This revelation robs the Xenomorph, which remains one of cinema’s weirdest and most terrifying creations, of what little mystery still surrounded it prior to Covenant’s release. After decades of watching these ruthless creatures hunt humanity, it’s underwhelming to learn that they were just created by some weird guy.
Covenant tells an almost Biblical story about how the downfall of humanity is, ironically, motivated by the need to understand and create. But while that does hold some weight, it still seems like an unnecessary addition to the Alien franchise.
What made the Xenomorphs so terrifying in Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens is that viewers had no idea where they came from or what their purpose was. That mystery made the Xenomorph feel like a creature that had been pulled straight out of a classic cosmic horror story, one that slays not because it wants to for personal reasons, but because it has to. Slaughter is simply in its nature.
To its credit, Alien: Covenant doesn’t rob the Xenomorph of its animalistic, instinctual brutality. However, the discovery that the species was created by an ambitious android named David diminishes the power that the Xenomorphs held.
Prior to Covenant’s release, the Xenomorphs felt like they were natural organisms that the humans who stumbled across them were unprepared to face. Covenant’s attempt to explain the species’ origins, however, totally redefines how viewers look at the creatures. Now the Xenomorphs aren’t horrific cosmic predators, just the pet creations of an insane android.
So while Alien: Covenant still has more than its fair share of terrifying body horror, the film also ends up doing a lot of harm to the Xenomorph’s status as one of cinema’s most terrifying monsters. To be blunt, Covenant makes the Xenomorph a lot less scary than they used to be.
It was a disappointing revelation, and it’s why Alien: Covenant stands as a perfect example of what can go wrong when a franchise attempts to address questions that didn’t need to be answered.