Tales From The Box Office: Alien: Covenant's Rescue Mission Was Doomed From The Start

There are few movies of any kind that can produce as much affection, from just about every sort of movie lover there is, as "Alien." Ridley Scott's 1979 masterwork blends sci-fi and horror together in a way that remains undefeated more than 40 years later. "Aliens" is often regarded as being nearly as good as the first movie (if not better, in the eyes of some), and it was James Cameron who took the director's chair for that sequel, bringing more of an action element to the series. 

Beyond those first two films, the Xenomorphs have had a bumpy ride, ranging from the uneven "Alien 3" to the "Alien vs. Predator" movies. But one of the most unique and complex moments in the history of the franchise, with a little bit of distance from it, came in 2017 when Scott returned to the fold for "Alien: Covenant," a sequel to his 2012 prequel, "Prometheus." Only this time with 100% more Xenomorphs!

"Prometheus" generated a great deal of excitement ahead of its release, but also garnered a heavily mixed response upon its arrival. And while that movie has certainly found its audience a decade later, the prospect of actually getting Ridley Scott back in the ring with the Xenomorphs made the follow-up a tantalizing prospect. The resulting film was divisive, challenging, financially underwhelming and, for some, the "Alien" sequel they had been waiting literally decades to see.

In honor of the movie's fifth anniversary, we're looking back at "Alien: Covenant," how the marketing for the film set a certain expectation, why the actual film could never truly fulfill that expectation, how it failed to deliver financially, and what lessons might be extracted from the film's journey in the modern context. Let's dig in!

The movie: Alien: Covenant

The "Alien" franchise had been dead for a handful of years following the release of the much-maligned "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem," though the last proper entry in the series was 1997's "Alien: Resurrection." Again, not a widely-loved film. But things changed in a big way when Ridley Scott, the man who directed the original 1979 classic, decided to step back into the fold for the first time since "Alien" for a new film — one that would take us back to the origins of the Xenomorphs. This was 2012's "Prometheus."

Despite not even having the word "Alien" in the title, "Prometheus" was a major commercial success, taking in $403 million worldwide. Scott was probably right to leave the franchise's namesake out of the title, as there were no Xenomorphs in this film. It was a prequel to a prequel in many ways, setting the stage for further installments that would/could eventually lead us to the tale of Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and the tragedy of the Nostromo. This approach was a bit divisive among "Alien" fans, and that very much informed Scott's thinking in developing the sequel which we would come to ultimately know as "Alien: Covenant."

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald just ahead of the movie's release, Scott seemed downright bullish on the idea of doing more "Alien" movies, seemingly for the rest of his career, in the same way that James Cameron seems fully content to make "Avatar" sequels from now until the end of time. "If you really want a franchise, I can keep cranking it for another six," Scott said. "I'm not going to close it down again. No way." 

A big part of that renewed commitment to the franchise was acknowledging that a lack of marquee elements from the franchise in "Prometheus" perhaps turned off certain audience members. Scott wasn't prepared to make the same mistakes again.

"What we did really well on 'Prometheus,' considering that it was a ground zero idea that was starting all over again, was I discovered that people do have an appetite for the alien and what he means and his evolution, the egg, the facehugger, the chestburster as we call them. People still want to see it. So I return to a little bit of that but not wholeheartedly; there's a lot in here which is new as well."

The 'new' of it all

From a marketing standpoint at least, "Prometheus" was somewhat nebulous. Scott was coming back and for many people that was enough, but were they hiding the actual aliens in the marketing? It was tough to know what to expect. 

With "Covenant," on the other hand, Fox leaned into the "Alien" of it all. From the very start with that initial teaser poster, it was made clear that we were getting Xenomorphs, and we were returning to the world that Scott started all those years ago.

No title. No nothing. Just a Xenomorph head cloaked in darkness, and the word "run." In my humble opinion, a genius stroke. 

The other thing to take into account is that May release date hiding at the bottom of the poster. This first bit of marketing also served as an announcement that Fox was bumping up the release date by several months, right to the beginning of the summer movie season. This seemed to signal that the studio had a great deal of confidence in what Scott had cooked up. And why wouldn't they? Aside from being a true "Alien" movie, it had a cast that included Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Amy Seimetz, Demian Bichir, and not one but two Michael Fassbenders!

At the same time, that "new" that Scott alluded to made this not just a rehash of what came before, but a very unique and strange mix of familiar as well as challenging sci-fi elements. The whole notion of an android questioning the nature of his existence, prompting him to conduct violent experiments, ultimately leading to the creation of the beasts we all know and love. "Alien: Covenant" featured operatic imagery, lots more CGI than we were accustomed to with the creatures — and yeah, plenty of Xenomorph action. The resulting film divided opinion and, despite a return to the familiar in some ways, Scott's desire not to rest on his laurels sadly doomed "Alien: Covenant."

The financial journey

"Alien: Covenant" hit theaters on May 19, 2017, and it did manage to win its first weekend at the box office, taking in $36.1 million – though it only narrowly defeated "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," which was in its third weekend. That was the first bad omen for this movie's financial prospects, as it turned out. The movie would go on to fall off a cliff in its second weekend, dropping a huge 70.6% with just $10.6 million, losing out to "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales," "Guardians 2," and "Baywatch." Ouch.

Things went very poorly overall, with "Covenant" taking in just $74.2 million domestically in total, to go along with a $166.6 million haul from international markets for a grand total of $240.8 million. Now, that isn't an outright shipwreck level disaster, as Scott managed to make the movie for a pretty reasonable (by big modern blockbuster standards) $97 million, but it represented a steep drop from where "Prometheus" finished and gave Fox zero confidence that continuing with this iteration of the franchise was a good idea. Thus, we were left with a cliffhanger, Scott never got to complete his journey leading up to the original "Alien," and the franchise was, once again, dead in the water.

For a little bit of added context, "Covenant" didn't fare especially well with critics, boasting a middling 65% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The bigger red flag there is the audience rating, which is at a very poor 55%. This was not the crowd-pleasing sci-fi/horror flick that the initial teaser poster might have indicated. "Covenant" also still technically ranks as the second-highest-grossing entry in the franchise overall, though most of the other movies had much smaller budgets and, especially when accounting for inflation, were far and away more successful when it comes to a return on investment.

The lessons contained within

It is really tough, a decade removed, to relay just how the response to "Prometheus" seemed to shape all of this. I personally remember walking out of the theater with an utter feeling of tragic disappointment. Granted, I have kind of come around to the movie in my own way as many others have, but so much of that had to do with the fact that "Alien: Covenant" delivered on the promise of what I wanted in the first place, so I was able to take "Prometheus" for what it was. That film's performance might have been misleading in some ways when it comes to determining the appetite for a sequel. People were interested, but the prequel might have taken some of the wind out of the sails for the moviegoing public.

Beyond that, for me, the big takeaway comes in course correction. Both Fox and Scott knew that getting to the actual Xenomorphs and the iconic imagery was important and logical if they were going to continue along this path. While Scott was still very much interested in exploring new themes, characters, and ideas in new ways using "Alien" as a vessel to do so, steering the ship in a more familiar and seemingly commercial direction made every bit of sense. 

But sometimes that course correction comes a little too late. That very much seemed to be the case with "Covenant." Yes, the solid box office of "Prometheus" all but guaranteed the franchise needed to return with another installment but, much like the crew aboard that ship, this journey might have been doomed from the start because, despite that attempted course correction, there may have been an overestimation in the public's desire for more — Facehuggers or no Facehuggers.

Now, we're left to try again in the streaming era. Not only are we getting an "Alien" TV series on FX from Noah Hawley and Scott, but also a brand new "Alien" movie being made for Hulu from director Fede Alvarez that appears to be going in an entirely new direction. "Covenant" couldn't kill this beast forever; it just ensured that Scott's ambitious vision for the future would never come to pass.