In space, no-one can hear you say “Yeah, I dunno, it was alright, aye”
DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott
PRODUCERS: Ridley Scott, Mark Huffman, Michael Schaefer, David Glier, Walter Hill
WRITERS: Jack Paglen, Michael Green (story); John Logan, Dante Harper (screenplay)
GENRE: Science fiction horror
INITIAL RELEASE: May 19, 2017
RUNNING TME: 123 minutes
STARRING: Katherine Waterson, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Carmen Ejogo, Demian Bichir
SICK WARNING, YO- MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD
Well, I’ll say one thing for Alien Covenant: it was better than Prometheus…like, a lot better. Granted, that’s not really a particularly high bar to clear, given that Prometheus was a bit of train-wreck. Ridley Scott’s ill-fated Alien prequel was stunning visually and technically, but was let down by one of the most bafflingly and shoddy scripts I’ve seen in a sci-fi movie in recent memory. So when it came to Covenant, I wasn’t completely sure what to expect. The whole thing really smacked of an attempt to essentially reboot Prometheus and right the Alien ship, as it were. And as that effort goes…well, it’s a start, I suppose.
Alien Covenant follows on from the events of Prometheus, this time following the crew of the good ship Covenant, which is on its way to colonise a new planet. An unexpected whoopsy involving a solar flare damages the ship and ejects its crew from cryo-stasis earlier than expected, killing James Franco along the way (he’s also the captain of the ship). With command passed to his second-in-command Christopher Oram (Cruddup), he makes the somewhat questionable call to land on a much closer planet that’s mysterious perfect for habitation. You can guess how well this goes.
I dunno guys, but there’s something very “going through the motions” about Covenant. Part of that may be down to the fact that Covenant often times feels like a strange mish-mash rehash of both the original Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens, but I think more so than that its simply that much of what has come to define Alien has also become spectacularly overplayed. There’s only so many ways in which you can take the “people trapped with a blank on a blank” premise and keep it fresh, and Covenant doesn’t seem to bring much new to the table on that front, seeming content to borrow the story and plot elements of Alien that worked instead of trying something a bit more new or novel. The pacing of how quickly things go south was also rather odd: the initial slow burn of the introduction almost comically gives way very quickly to a very similar kind of schlock horror that so unfortunately defined Prometheus.
And in spite of John Logan and Dante Harper penning a vastly stronger script than the roller-coaster ride of nonsense that was Damon Lindelof’s Prometheus script, Covenant still manages to have characters who act in complete defiance of any common sense and logic- which by the way goes away beyond just the meta expectations and knowledge as an audience member well-versed in the series and the tenants of the genre. The amount of times a character would do something baffling, out-of-character, or just plain dumb was perhaps a little too high for a purportedly smarter movie for me to just let go- its not just dumb, its often lazy too, which to me is actually far less forgivable than if it were just the former and not the latter. Its even less forgivable when you consider the fact that these people are supposed to be scientists, or at the very least, presumably trained for these kinds of mission in some way, yet they make really, really basic mistakes like, y’know, not wearing fucking helmets on a weird alien planet you know nothing about. The crew in Prometheus at least wore helmets before stupidly taking them off and swiftly paying for it; I guess Covenant decided to dispense with the former for the sake of brevity in questionable logic.
By I think really beyond that its just that the Xenomorph itself, once a horror icon, has really just kind of lost its bite: it feels trite now, entirely too familiar. Its no longer some kind of truly alien and terrifyingly unknowable menace- and that’s doubly true by the film’s end. Hell, there’s even one scene where a baby Xenomorph is actually kind of adorable- yeah, a Xenomorph was cute, and that is a concept that is incredibly difficult for me to process. Point being, the menace of the Xenomorph is gone, and I think with it has gone a pretty big part of the heart of the franchise as a whole. Covenant’s core conceit seems to be basically explaining the Xenomorph, but really, was that something that we ever actually needed to know? It certainly didn’t enrich my experience, and it only really served to neuter the Xenomorph a whole lot more.
Really, Alien Covenant’s one true saving grace is (as it was with Prometheus) Michael Fassbender. Ol’Fassy Wassy pulls double duty here portraying both new android Walter, as well as the returning David. Fassbender’s performance in both roles is a delight- both his stoic and weirdly Bishop-esque affected demeanour as Walter and his often completely off-the-wall and deliciously campy performance as David. I’m not sure what it says about Covenant’s characters when the best scenes of the film are when Fassbender is essentially talking to himself about the nature and value of humanity, but I guess that’s just the kind of movie we’re dealing with here. David’s overall character arc is about the only consistent element retained from Prometheus, and it makes for the film’s most compelling and fascinating moments- as an unstable android with a God complex and a mission to create the perfect life-form, Fassbender’s David is by far one of the more intriguing and genuinely fascinating antagonists I’ve seen in a film for a while. Given my complaints earlier about re-hashing, its worth noting that the scenes between David and Walter are not only the smartest stuff in the film, it’s the only part of Covenenat that felt genuinely fresh or new, even in spite of some occasionally bizarre and unintentionally hilarious dialogue in some of those scenes.
It’s a good thing that the stuff with David and Walter is so compelling, since most of the other characters populating Covenant are rather flat and distinctly empty. About the only one who gets much of anything to work with is Oram (Cruddup), and even then, the whole “faith” idea as its articulated through the character comes across as horribly forced and surface-level, and doesn’t really seem to function much on a story level, other than to annoy me with really shoe-horned dialogue making ham-fisted religious references. Even the film’s ostensible protagonist Daniels (Waterson) gets basically nothing to work with- she’s really the “new Ripley” in aesthetics only, since she lacks anything close to the substance that Ripley had. Of course, that’s not to underplay Waterson’s performance at all: if anything, she felt so right in the role that it frustrated me that she wasn’t given more to do with it. A similar point could be made for Danny McBride’s turn as the ship’s pilot Tennessee, which was appealing but lacking in substance.
With all that said though, there’s still a fair amount of entertainment value to be had with Covenant. I mean, substance issues aside, its still a beautifully shot and slickly put-together film on the technical side of things, even if the CGI doesn’t always strictly hold up at times. If you’re in the bag for perversely entertaining gory kills, there’s plenty of those to be had throughout Covenant, as long as you don’t mind things occasionally taking a dip down to B-movie tackiness here and there. And lest I forget, as if Fassy-Wassy wasn’t already the best part of the movie, he also has a really entertaining fight with himself…so there’s that too, I guess.
So after all that, I’m genuinely uncertain about if I should recommend Alien Covenant, or indeed to whom I would recommend it. For an Alien fan, Covenant will likely be pleasing on certain levels, if you can stomach its dimmer moments and the gore, but I wouldn’t really give it much past that. Truth be told, I think I’m pretty much done with the Alien frachise after Covenant. That’s not so much because of what Covenant does than what it doesn’t do- which isn’t much of anything genuinely exciting or fresh. As an effort to correct the mess left by Prometheus its admirable- but on its own merits, its not much more than that.