WARNING: SPOILERS FOR ALIEN: COVENANT AHEAD
Following the release of Alien: Covenant and Ridley Scott’s assertion that he’d like to continue building this franchise, it would seem to take precedence, to discuss the future of said film series and its direction. For those who have not read my review, I believe Scott is taking the Alien brand in the right direction: injecting the philosophical notions of Prometheus into a science-fiction horror akin to Alien has reinvigorated my interest in a franchise that seemed to lose its way following the action-thriller rejig of Cameron’s Aliens. However, despite its success, I think what is most important is how Alien: Covenant shows a director working with real ambition, in a time where repetition appears to be the status quo for all studio cinematic input.
And yet, while this delivery of originality is refreshing, it has still yet to match the behemoth that is the Star Wars saga. From The Force Awakens’ record-breaking release, to Rogue One’s standalone thrills, Kathleen Kennedy and co. have seemingly quarantined off the megabucks from any competing franchise: how could Scott’s mind-boggling space-horror odyssey compete with lightsabres and light side/dark side dialectics?
Now what I am about to say will seem like blasphemy to the majority of filmgoers out there, and as a fan of Star Wars myself, I do struggle to fully assert my dictations. However, I must speak my mind: I believe Ridley Scott and his Alien have more to offer spectators than that beloved franchise borne from the mind of George Lucas.
Hear me out. At the end of the day, Star Wars will never stop being a beloved property. Starting from sweet nothings, Lucas’ original space opera took the world by storm, even as far as to garner that very rare of things: a Best Picture nomination. From there, it blossomed into a multi-million dollar mass of entertainment, spawning off a vast array of merchandise, from figurines to spin-off novellas.
However, I believe with the recent deposal of Lucas from his supreme position as head of Lucasfilm, Star Wars is taking a step in the wrong direction: it has only taken the ‘multi-million dollar’ into consideration, all but ignoring the original space opera, except for the purposes of filling out more dollar notes.
This is where Ridley Scott enters into the fray, as a figurehead for how universe building should be done. As the original director of the primary film of the Alien franchise, Scott knows the property more than anyone else. Furthermore, he is not a director who has a keen sense of developing films purely for the purposes of profit: one need only look at his more diverse and subversive films such as Thelma & Louise and G.I. Jane to realise this.
In contrast to Star Wars, through conventions and interviews, and even the productions themselves, one can gain a strong sense of the studio tinkering behind closed doors. Nowadays, Kathleen Kennedy is the dominant voice on all things Star Wars. I believe this is a fundamental mistake. As a result of this display, brilliant talents such as Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson would appear to be nothing more than lackeys for the ultimate productive principle: selling the film to a mass market, in order to procure a gross profit worthy of the film’s production value.
From this, I’d like to return to the oft-derided prequels. While they were financially successful, and in spite of their scriptwriting and visual flaws, one cannot argue that Lucas’ passion shone through these films. He wanted to tell his tale and took the opportunity to do so, with the help of his production company, Lucasfilm, and the likes of Kennedy. But he, as the director, writer and co-producer, had the last say.
This is the circumstance that Ridley Scott finds himself in, but Kennedy lacks with Star Wars. With Alien, Scott now has the ability to shape his mythology, craft new characters, dare to answer long lingering questions. Many will debate the effectiveness of his conclusions (I, myself, love what he has chosen to do). And yet, one cannot rightfully argue against the pure enjoyment of watching a filmmaker such as Scott, take something he once produced and flesh out far more than he probably ever imagined, exercising his abilities and boundaries, in order to produce something wholly unique. This is exactly what one will find with Alien: Covenant, a film that is wildly inventive, weird and haunting.
One cannot say the same for The Force Awakens. I enjoy the film, do not get me wrong; there is nothing inherently wrong with it. But the safety of its screenwriting, the familiarity of its structure, and the lack of real directorial identity, really dissipate any lasting impact for the film. I do struggle to remember some of its initially memorable moments, only really appreciating the portrayal of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in the long run. Again, I reiterate, I enjoy the film, yet I cannot sugar coat its inherent conventionality.
One could not possibly say the same for Alien: Covenant. Sure, the set-up is remarkably reminiscent to its predecessor: a rogue distress signal ropes in a rag-tag group of individuals to investigate. However, with the arrival of Michael Fassbender’s David and his subsequent antics, one enters an entirely different world. With the revelations that he is responsible for the creation of the Xenomorphs, his interactions with fellow android Walter (also played by Fassbender) and his toiling with and psychological manipulation of the Covenant crew, David rises above standard Hollywood characterisation to become something truly terrifying and complex. And he’s a robot. The other characters, such as Daniels (Katherine Waterston) and Oram (Billy Crudup), also have real character moments: struggling with loss and fighting with the abhorrence of the violence occurring in front of them. Of course there are some logical lapses. But their motivations and reactions to events really reel you into the action and provide a more relatable contrast to David.
With this minor summary, I’m trying to convey to you how broad Scott’s scope is, with what he is trying to cover for us. The scope and aspiration is indicative of Kubrick, or even an Eisenstein, in terms of producing imagery that you really wouldn’t expect, but keeps you guessing or fascinates you in its purity. None could have imagined a scene where David and Walter kiss, an almost helpless attempt on David’s part to pass on his newfound theology, to be a significant moment within an Alien film. And yet, it is a poignant and intellectually stimulating moment within Scott’s picture, a daring expression of metaphor and meaning that challenges our comfort zone.
Star Wars has yet to explore these regions. While Rogue One successfully transitioned into a war-torn version of Lucas’ glossy space opera, it did not necessarily reinvent the wheel of its franchise: it was a Monster energy drink to the Star Wars universe, a short-lasting effect that undoubtedly left a mark, but ultimately won’t alter the trajectory of the Star Wars chain.
Scott, however, listens to the fans and has seemingly altered the fabric of what he attempted with Prometheus, for the purposes of reconciling his audience, as well as satisfying his needs to return to the film that started it all. The Xenomorph returns, as well as those grand questions, and it raises eyebrows and keeps us perplexed. How does this all play out? Ultimately, I have an idea with The Force Awakens, because it plays very similarly to A New Hope. However, Scott has truly confused all expectations with his particular vision, and this should be commended. The gumption to produce a film such as Alien: Covenant, that refuses easy answers and presents us with difficult dilemmas, is remarkable.
I think for Star Wars to return to its true quality, it needs Lucas. Of course, his writing was not the strongest (he would be the first to admit so). However, his ingenuity and spontaneity are apparent in the prequel trilogy, and if only this could be harnessed to tell a more cohesive tale, the results would mark a stand-out for science-fiction filmmaking. As it stands, we are party to solid entries, but films that ultimately refuse to stand out from their predecessors, surviving off of their success. This is hardly an accusation that could be thrown in the way of Scott and his franchise. While reactions have been mixed, I think this is ultimately a benefit and a positive. Alien: Covenant is entirely fresh and different from the previous instalments, treading philosophical/psychological ground that was not touched by the likes of Cameron and Fincher. Scott is building a world that is ever more curious, the more we discover about it. This is a rarity among contemporary blockbuster filmmaking, such as with Star Wars. If it returned to the more obscure roots, with the likes of the Old Republic, and brought Lucas on board as producer, perhaps Star Wars would follow in Scott’s footsteps. As it stands, we stand amidst the prospect of an annual Star Wars release, something that may well spoil the beauty of the franchise’s magic. Scott at least has the patience to release with a slower pace, teasing us with new details, inciting debate for days on end. This level of excitement for discussion needs to be harnessed. And Ridley Scott is the one to spearhead this new, experimental path for science-fiction filmmaking.