Thursday, June 1, 2017

Gods & Monsters – Alien: Covenant & the Enigma of Ridley Scott

Michael Fassbender in Alien: Covenant.

I find Ridley Scott’s career as a filmmaker endlessly fascinating, and endlessly confusing. Who else in popular cinema has made such a name for himself yet squandered that artistic reputation with as many misfires and disappointments? I don’t think the man has made a really good movie since Black Hawk Down in 2001, and even that endorsement comes with its own list of qualifications and asterisks. It’s gotten to the point where I’m viewing his back catalogue, full of films that were personal touchstones in my cinematic education, with sudden suspicion. Has he ever actually made a truly great movie?

There’s only one Ridley Scott film that, no matter how many times I put it through the ringer, always comes out clean on the other side. So if he can be said to have made a perfect movie, an unassailable jewel of form and function, it’s Alien. It can be incredibly frustrating to face down yet another entry in the Alien franchise when it’s still unclear why exactly we would want or need one, after the purity and simplicity of that slasher flick in space from 1979. With the benefit of hindsight, I guess it’s easy to identify Scott’s insistence on returning to this material as a fervent need to recapture the magic that launched his career in the first place (not to mention a need to cash in on his prior success and good will after so many failed attempts at trying something different). But I believe Scott’s capable of much more than that, and his refusal – even at this late-career stage – to capitalize on that potential has worn very thin indeed.

I struggled so much with Alien: Covenant. I could keenly sense the story that Scott wanted to tell, the one that’s been plucking at his heart for over thirty years, and it was painful to watch that story fade into the background while he obediently went through the motions of what studios and audiences expect from him. I have to give the man props – in many ways he’s still hungry, still swinging for the fences at 71, and we should all be so driven and hard-working – but as much as I want that to be enough to excuse the final result, it’s just not. It’s not enough. If the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s racked up over his career aren’t sufficient to buy him the right (or the ability) to explore the material that most interests him, free of studio oversight, then maybe my expectations are completely misplaced. Maybe there never really was that much potential there to begin with.

Amy Seimetz, Benjamin Rigby and Carmen Ejogo in Alien: Covenant.

There’s an intriguing parallel between the hubris of the android David (Michael Fassbender) and the ego of his own creator, Scott. Both are seemingly blinded by a destructive need to explore the idea of origins, of genesis, of creation. Scott tried it with Blade Runner, then with Kingdom of Heaven, then again with Prometheus, and finally gave up on subtlety and went blatantly Biblical with Exodus: Gods & Kings. None of these experiments really worked (the fact that each exists in at least two different cuts should be evidence enough of that). David rains death down upon the Engineers, perhaps simply out of a twisted and self-centered curiosity about how it might make him feel to do it – if he can create, then he must also be able to destroy – and it’s tough not to see Scott’s cinematic flailing as a similar self-examination in which we, his dutiful filmgoing audience, are the unseen victims. What is the result of these cruel investigations? What has Scott learned about himself, or about cinema, or about telling stories that ask big questions? It’s only natural, after all, for the lab rat to want to know that at least it’s dying for a good cause.

Covenant is not that cause. It’s two films smashed inelegantly together: a high concept gods-and-monsters story about an AI gone mad with hubris, and the same slice-‘em-up sci-fi creature feature we’ve seen many times before. One of these stories feels tired and loose, and the other rings with truthful, passionate intent. No points for guessing which is which. The half-movie with David and Walter (also Fassbender) is bizarre and wonderful – watching Fassbender kiss himself and teach himself how to play the flute made me desperately crave more of that type of weirdness from Scott – but is never given enough time or focus to become anything more than half-baked. Ditto for the monster-movie half, which is sufficiently gnarly but completely divorced from any sympathy or tension. On the whole, the film just feels frustrating. I’m mad that Scott couldn’t or wouldn’t give himself permission to fully flesh out the David story the way he clearly wants to, and I’m mad that if he wasn’t going to do that, he couldn’t at least lean into the alien slasher stuff instead. That it’s all executed with such luscious cinematography, detailed production design, great music, strong effects, and committed performances is like salt in the wound. You can make it as pretty as you like, Ridley. It still rings as false as the notes Walter struggles to play on his recorder.

And maybe that’s why I still come back to Scott’s work. Maybe he sees himself in Walter: the android who cannot create. He can be taught to play the notes, but he cannot write the tune. Maybe there’s a hidden admission in that, a desperate craving for someone to finally notice that for all the sound and fury of Scott’s films, they all lack the true creative spark that he captured only once, maybe even by chance. Maybe his career is more like a confessional, a detailed self-diagnosis of impostor syndrome, than the work of a genius. I don’t often enjoy his films, but God, do I ever understand where he’s coming from. It feels like, in this tug-of-war between creator and creation, between filmmaker and audience, we’re actually arriving at a larger commentary that might resemble something like the masterpiece we all think Scott is capable of.

David would be proud.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.


  1. "If he can be said to have made a perfect movie, an unassailable jewel of form and function, it’s Alien – forever his first and his finest."

    Scott's first feature film was The Duellists (1977).

    1. Good point, Peter. I still think ALIEN is his finest work, but it was erroneous to call it his "first", even though it's definitely the movie that really put him on the map. We've modified the article.