On Alien: Covenant, and why canon is ultimately up to you

(Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)
(Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

Canon isn’t immovable. It isn’t rigid. It isn’t quarantined.

Sure, there are official declarations on behalf of the writers, directors, producers and the like that give birth to our favorite works of fiction. They’ll define what events you should take seriously across different mediums, and in the process tell you how to consume a story. Put tersely, they’ll tell you what counts.

You don’t have to accept it. You’re not wrong for how you enjoy something. And it’s just as important to remember they’re not wrong for telling you their story the way they want, even if you don’t like it.

All this haughty word bludgeoning (which I hate just as much as you) stems from my reaction to Alien: Covenant. I confess, it took me way too long to see it, and I also confess I was rooting for this movie to be great. Aliens is one of my 10 favorite films, and its predecessor isn’t far behind, one of the greatest science fiction films of all time.

It’s rather depressing to think, then, there hasn’t been a great Alien movie in 31 years, including Covenant. Alien 3 was David Fincher before he focused his ominous enlightenment, Alien: Resurrection was hollow high-mindedness, and Prometheus was a scrubbed-up mess. The xenomorphs also made an appearance in Alien vs. Predator, which was anemically PG-13 in every respect, and Requiem, which abandoned technical proficiency for something so cheap it didn’t cover the cost.

I’m not sure why I had such high hopes for Covenant. Maybe I thought Ridley Scott had learned his lesson from Prometheus, whose intrigue was exceeded by its untidiness. Maybe I welcomed a return to the expert simplicity of the original Alien without realizing there wasn’t a guaranteed return in the bargain.

And for most of Covenant, I didn’t get what I wanted. The criticism of excess exposition is way overblown; the film spends more time setting its stage than other entries, but it’s hardly a chore with such a likable cast. That said, there’s a feel of normalcy to everything that lingers and ultimately manifests itself in familiar beats and pace.

That’s where Alien and Aliens separated themselves, among other places. My dad still hates Alien to this day, in part because the chestburster scene caught him and the audience so off-guard it was hard for them to recover and appreciate what they were watching. They’re not alone, either. Leonard Maltin, who’s probably my favorite film critic, initially gave Alien two and half stars out of four thanks to its “stomach-churning violence, slime and shocks,” and after a couple decades of ruminating, he amended his review to three and a half stars.

There’s a thrilling construction to Alien, a cold procession of practical effects and sounds unencumbered by cliché. Aliens operates in largely the same way. While it’s louder and more explosive, the tension mined from the characters’ relationships is the kind of craft gifted only to filmmakers like James Cameron, whose sci-fi Vietnam allegory is nearly perfect in every way.

Which brings me back to my original point. Scott decided to return to his Alien universe after the collective shrug audiences gave Prometheus, and this time he put together an entire film trilogy’s worth of stories, starting with what happens in Covenant.

And again, most of it is depressingly akin to modern-day blockbusters. Prosthetic work and puppetry give way to CGI and inauthenticity. There’s an early incident that shoves the crew of the Covenant toward a mysterious planet; a nervy exploration of that planet, which is ideal in some senses and completely dead in others; an attack on the crew that provides us our first real moments of conflict; a savior who reveals his untrustworthiness in the middle of the film; and then a drawn-out escape with the gore and guns you’d expect a studio president to demand from a tentpole like this.

(20th Century Fox)
(20th Century Fox)

Scott’s story nakedly sketches the origin of the xenomorphs, which is something we didn’t ask for in the first place, and while clever in its own right, it saps a lot of the beloved conjecture that accompanies the first two films in the franchise. For better or worse, this is now canon. It’s branded on the franchise’s permanent record.

But something funny happens over the final half-hour. Scott remembers that the best resolutions are sometimes the ones where the protagonists don’t win, and he recovers his ability to scare the crap out of you.

The final few scenes, which take place after the crew leaves the planet, are decidedly unlike anything affixed to most blockbusters these days. It’s almost like an extended post-credits scene, one that ends on a genuine note of suspense not because of a cameo or broader reference, but because of a creative gambit that pays off in terrifying fashion.

David taunting Daniels as she goes back into cryosleep has stayed with me ever since I saw Alien: Covenant. (In truth, an entirely separate column could be written for how much Michael Fassbender dominates this film, because he’s my favorite actor working today and he dominates pretty much every project he accepts.) It was a blackened bow on top of the present, everything packaged up neatly, only with a horrifying lump of coal awaiting inside.

And you know what? I’ll take that as canon. I like that enough to add it to my own version of events in this universe. Do I need the banalities that preceded it? In a couple years, will I choose to emphasize the events on the planet with my friends? Probably not.

Which is perfectly fine. The idea of canon is a handy boundary so us nerds can start on a common ground in our discussions and debates. It’s never fully agreed upon. For one example, I still consider the Original Trilogy as the only Star Wars canon there is. For another, I love NuTrek, which has ruffled the feathers of canon on several different occasions since the 2009 reboot.

Enjoy franchises how you want to enjoy them. Get out of the stories what you want to get out of them. You will ultimately feel a certain way about a film, but that doesn’t mean you have to bind yourself to it.

Canon is movable. It’s flexible. It’s communal.

And I’m so damn glad it is.

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