Review: Alien: Covenant
When Prometheus opened in theatres five years ago, hoping to rejuvenate the Alien movies for a new era of popular sci-fi, it was met with a mixed reception among critics and audiences. While some praised Ridley Scott’s passion for bringing new ideas to the table to the world he helped shepherd way back in 1979, others were put off by the script’s direction that left much to be desired.
After years of back-and-forth and launching a new sci-fi film that became a mega hit (2015’s The Martian), Scott has returned with Alien: Covenant, a direct continuation to Prometheus which, as evidenced by its title, aims to be the connective tissue to that prequel as well as something made in the same essence that helped the Alien franchise become one of the biggest in Hollywood history.
Much like Alien and Prometheus, we’re presented with a futuristic setting and a cast of characters on an intergalactic mission, in this case colonizing a faraway planet in a journey spanning several years. A major calamity early on awakens the crew from hypersleep and restructures their hierarchy, leading first mate Christopher Oram (Billy Crudup) to take a chance on a distress signal on an unknown planet. This gives the story its impetus, and it’s the first in a series of dumb decisions made by a supposed team of experts. Granted, a dispute emerges between the faith-based Oram and Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the ship’s terraforming expert who is thinking with a practical mindset. This conflict between religion and science plays out in more ways than one across the film’s duration, positioned bluntly from the start. Upon arrival, the expedition team finds the scenic landscape of the mysterious planet too good to be true. But as it unfolds, that’s exactly the case, as not long after an emergency breaks out and the crew is forced to find refuge with an unlikely ally.
It goes without saying that Ridley Scott is one of the greatest living directors, from his career spanning over 40 years that have contributed an illustrious list of cinematic classics. So when he delivers a follow-up to one of his past films, even one with a less-than-stellar reception, it warrants attention. Alien: Covenant may have been conceived to correct the setbacks of Prometheus, a soft-reboot of sorts, but halfway through it delves deeper into the unanswered questions that frankly, were better left unanswered.
The best entries in the series are unmistakably Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens, which apart from being wholeheartedly thrilling in different measures avoid laying on heaping amounts of exposition and revelations about the universe they’re contained within. A big part of Prometheus was giving answers to the creation of the Xenomorphs as well as the role of the Engineers, and Covenant takes things one step further. Prometheus had the added notion of intrigue in taking things back to the very start, one supplemented well with solid ambiance and a philosophical backdrop. Covenant, on the other hand, is too preoccupied with stripping this away and being relatively straightforward, not to mention bridging the unanswered questions left by the end of its precursor. This may be the film’s biggest mistake, depending on how you see things. And while the first half tries hard to emulate Scott’s original film, the tonal shift that occurs midway through is where things take on a decidedly less-than-stellar path.
Covenant’s body horror qualities, like the film itself, start off strong, as best exemplified by a scene close to the end of the first act, where like in past films, a member of the crew is infected and killed in disturbing fashion as a new organism emerges. But after this, we get variations of the same sequence the lack any distinct stylization or fear; inevitably feeling like the script is going through the motions in terms of doing exactly what we’ve seen from past films (but with more CGI than ever before). It eventually loses value and turns the idea of the iconic ‘chestburster’ moment into hollow fanservice.
Taking on double duty as synthetic androids David and Walter, Michael Fassbender is the star of the show, though it’s a shame the rest of the ensemble doesn’t get the same chance to be fleshed out. Since we last saw David in Prometheus, he’s taken on a persona that feels like a cross between Victor Frankenstein and Roy Batty from Blade Runner – obsessed with understanding humanity and the idea of creation itself. Always captivating when on screen, and doubly so when both androids share moments, it makes for another fine demonstration of Fassbender’s talents as one of this generation’s best actors.
It’s hard to look at Katherine Waterston’s character and not, in some way, be reminded of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. Much like Noomi Rapace before her, Waterston becomes the key crew member of the Covenant the audience identifies with. From the very beginning we get a sense she is stunned by a heavy emotional loss, and struggles to pick herself up to carry on for the sake of the mission. Of course, she gets to kick a lot of ass later on, and Waterston’s casting (known mainly for her roles in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Inherent Vice) is easily the most effective of the whole group.
The rest of the cast, while having their moments, aren’t given much of a background aside from the odd throwaway line and contemplation of the mission itself. The placement of Danny McBride as the ship’s pilot Tennessee is an enthused one, not preoccupied with making crude remarks and instead showing more range than we’re used to seeing, and while it’s his character’s actions that help guide a lot of development in the second half, it ultimately results in a strange bit of stunt casting.
Ending on a twist that most audience members will see coming 15 minutes before it actually happens, Alien: Covenant is not the return to greatness hoped for, and falls more on the unremarkable side of Ridley Scott’s filmography. If you’re a big fan of the director and his work, chances are you may look at things more favorably. There are moments of greatness within, but they are bogged down by the same problems as its predecessor. It’s hard to gauge if this is better or worse than Prometheus but it ends up being the same kind of disappointing attempt to revitalize a series that has failed to deliver for over 30 years now. Alien: Covenant certainly looks and sounds amazing, but what we’re left with story-wise is another plodding, formulaic entry that fails to make the franchise feel fresh again.