Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Ridley Scott is a fantastically skilled director. He has more good to great films to his name than many directors have films period, but not every one is a winner. While 1979’s Alien is a sci-fi/horror masterpiece, Scott’s return to the franchise with 2012’s Prometheus is… not. His latest, Alien Covenant, takes elements from both to deliver little more than a very expensive amateur horror movie. It’s not good.
It is new to Blu-ray this week though, complete with a commentary track from the director himself, so of course we gave it a listen. Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for…
Alien Covenant (2017)
Commentator: Ridley Scott (director)
1. “This is going to be a commentary off the cuff,” says Scott, adding that he hasn’t planned what he’ll be saying in advance.
2. He made Prometheus to answer the question, “who would make such a biomechanoid, hideous thing and for what reason?” That film was always meant as a first step towards answering that question with Covenant continuing the tale. This is why this film opens with a “prologue” showing David (Michael Fassbender) and Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) in their early days explaining the motivations to come.
3. Like with the opening credits, the film also homages the original Alien‘s score with composer Jed Kurzel echoing Jerry Goldsmith’s work at times.
4. They built up the ship’s crew “correctly” with couples as that’s a logical choice, but he doesn’t comment on how that leads to problems later in the film — and would probably do the same in real life. The husbands and wives here repeatedly make poor decisions in putting their loved ones before the safety of the ship, crew, and embryonic colonists. It proves to be an illogical choice.
5. He says these characters are the very best in their field, and that none of them would have been a “random choice… they’ve all earned their place here.” This of course flies in the face of their upcoming actions which reveal each and every one of them to be morons of varying degrees. He refers for example to Karine (Carmen Ejogo) as “the world’s leading protagonist” in the field of flora and fauna… and yet she shows zero awareness or concern for foreign flora/fauna, infection risk, etc.
6. “I looked at Danny [McBride] and flashed on Slim Pickens,” he says, adding that the character’s appearance is a nod to Stanley Kubrick’s use of Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.
7. He sees this film as raising the bar on the usual horror film. Presumably with a straight face.
8. Earlier drafts of the script had the incoming transmission be a prayer, but he felt that was “too corny.” So they changed it to a John Denver song.
9. At 24:26 he acknowledges this is the “same plot as the original Alien, there’s a transmission, they go and find out.”
10. He was surprised that none of the three sequels to Alien bothered to ask the question “why?” in regard to the creatures’ origin. “I thought it was really one of the first questions to ask, but it would mean getting out of that idea of the ‘old dark house and people are gonna die’ which is very simplistic.”
11. Astronauts and NASA scientists have told him that they sometimes get ideas from science fiction films because filmmakers have thought their way around problems in ways that they themselves don’t.
12. The shuttle landing scene was filmed in New Zealand, and a higher percentage than you expect of these landscape shots are real.
13. He does not explain why they would land the shuttle eight km away from the signal source they’re looking for thus requiring the team to hike through wheat fields and up rocky hills to the alien craft… that they could have simply landed beside.
14. More than once Scott says he’s going to hold back from saying something so as not to spoil it for listeners — as if people are listening to the commentary for their first watch of the film.
15. “Shooting this stuff, you gotta know what the hell you’re doing,” he says, adding that’s why he personally storyboards everything.
16. He says most of his projects are ones he’s developed from early on, including this one, and the four-film plan consists of Prometheus, Covenant 1, Covenant 2, and a final film that backs into the original Alien. John Logan is writing Covenant 2 as of this recording, but judging by this film’s box office take he may have since stopped.
17. “The subtext of this whole story is the evolution of an A.I. who eventually will demonstrate his superiority to the human intellect,” he says, adding that what follows is the A.I. creating a life at which point we’re really in trouble.
18. He used practical models of the creatures on set whenever possible to give the actors something real to act against as opposed to simply telling them “the monster’s in front of you.”
19. Only an idiot would stick his head over that open egg, “but John Hurt did, so we have to revisit that.”
20. He says after David killed Walter he thought “holy shit how do I get Walter to come back again?”
21. David’s music choice in the end is Wagner’s piece “about the gods entering Valhalla, and the gods are false and artificial.”
22. He learned David’s swallowing/smuggling trick during research on his next film, Cartel. “I’d learnt about girls, swallow, contained cocaine capsules in contraceptives, and they can swallow as many as thirty, and then when they come through, they then bring them up, or you know whatever, and they are carrying drugs that way. Can you believe it?”
23. David’s end walk through the sleeping colonists originally featured Fassbender doing an “Adolph Hitler kick,” but he removed it for fear it felt too comical.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“The original Alien‘s pretty good I think.”
“I think the original Alien creature has to go down as one of the most extraordinary creatures in cinema.”
“Chaos is good in these kind of films.”
“This is the remains of Noomi. I hope she forgives me.”
Buy Alien Covenant on Blu-ray from Amazon.
It’s hard to make a case for Alien Covenant as anything but a gory horror movie overflowing with non-stop stupidity. Scott seems oblivious to it in his commentary — he repeatedly frames these characters as the brightest and most capable in their fields — but what he misses there he makes up for with other observations, details, and insights. It’s an engaging and interesting track and well worth a listen for fans of the man’s work.