The following was commissioned by Flickering Myth
Henry Bevan on the rise of the stupid smart character…
If you’ve been browsing this website over the last couple of days you will have noticed there has been a lot of Alien: Covenant content. We’ve published not one, not two but three reviews. We’ve written letters to David Fincher, we’ve talked about Ridley Scott, we’ve written comment pieces on why the franchise is exhausted, and others on why Covenant is the third best film in the franchise.
Don’t worry, this is not another article about the theologically minded space slasher. We don’t want to face-hug you to death. But, this comment piece will use the xenomorph’s favourite franchise to explore how blockbusters are increasingly having “smart” characters do some stupid shit.
Covenant is full of stupid shit. The crew land on an uncharted planet with only some guns for protection. They proceed to sniff black pods, go to the toilet unaccompanied and do exactly what the “devil” tells them to do. You know Katherine Waterston plays the hero because she’s the only one who raises an objection. Like she says, they “don’t know what the fuck is out there”, but the crew descends without space helmets anyway.
Likewise, Covenant’s predecessor, Prometheus featured an intrepid group of adventurers removing their protective gear on a whim. They also pet alien snakes because that’s what a sensible person would do. Man of the moment, Bryan Fuller admits, he, like many people, is getting frustrated by “really smart characters doing really stupid things”.
If you think the characters not wearing helmets is immaterial then you must consider the history of the Alien franchise. This is a franchise that plays on our fears of being forcibly penetrated. By removing the helmets, impregnating the human characters and advancing the plot becomes an easier task for the writer. Screenwriting is essentially problem-solving. It’s about getting from A to B to C before returning to A. Covenant may have lofty ambitions but it clunkily and lazily sets up each kill. When a character says they need to be alone, they might as well say “I’m gonna die”.
This can be fine, the horror genre’s rules, where Covenant is rooted, require people being stupid by splitting up or descending into the creepy-as-fuck basement. Cabin In The Woods mocks this trope by having Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford deliberately dumbing the characters down with hair dye and pheromones. Drew Goddard’s film is able to do this because we accept the rules most horror movies play by. In the world films like Friday the 13th and Halloween create, we accept stupid decisions. But, Covenant writers, Dante Harper and John Logan, whose fingerprints are all over the film’s awesomely homoerotic scenes, go against the rules of the universe Scott created in 1979.
Alien feels like a real world. Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon makes the characters talk like truckers, the ship is lived in and they wear helmets. When the facehugger attacks Kane (John Hurt), it burns through his visor by secreting acid. The facehugger is scarier because it rapes Kane though his protective barrier and the writer has solved the problem of getting the alien aboard the Nostromo. When the aliens life-cycle involves impregnating the human characters, having them “give birth” and killing all in sight, removing the space helmets is the easiest and most obvious solution.
Film characters are getting lower IQs because, in a time where they have tight deadlines to deliver a draft, the easiest way to advance the plot is by having the character flout our rules. Vickers (Charlize Theron) runs in a straight line because she has to die and there are only 10 minutes left.
You can’t help wondering how interesting Alien: Covenant and Prometheus would have been if the characters stuck to the rules the universe had already established. Alien and Aliens are classics because they are smart and the characters make sensible decisions. Modern blockbusters would be a lot more interesting if characters remained smart.