12th May 2017 (UK)
The colonist ship Covenant encounter and investigate a distress signal sent by the lost ship Prometheus ten years previous.
Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Back in the day, Aliens was a big thing. It was damn near to the perfect movie for an action-loving, sci-fi nerd teenage boy. When someone would straddle the “sequels are never as good as the original” high horse, you could unholster Aliens, and shoot some sense-holes into the perpetrator.
But Alien 3 was a letdown. You can take your extended cut, your assembly cut, your whatever cut; it just doesn’t hold water like Alien and its’ badass brother.
Alien Resurrection…I remember watching this with my cadre of Alien obsessed buddies. So disappointing. Nay, so goddamn terrible. The franchise has been reeling ever since. Prometheus, a more dramatic sci-fi approach to the franchise, found original Alien director Ridley Scott back at the helm to divulge what happened to the alien ship before Ripley and co. found it. It was supposed to answer the questions. It was supposed to right the wrongs, to make up for decades of abuse. It was supposed to be salvation.
It was an abomination; dull, uninteresting characters running into one and other just trying to find ways to get themselves killed on a world that didn’t make sense in a film that some called “confused” and others labelled as “nonsense”. I personally called it utter bollocks.
So Alien: Covenant, once again under Scott leadership, is now supposed to be his make-up gift to us for Prometheus’ shortcomings. Like a scumbag boyfriend, he’s trying to worm his way back into our frilly knickers with promises of how he’s changed this time.
So has he changed? Is Covenant the return to form we’ve all been waiting for?
Yes and no.
We begin with one of the brighter elements of Prometheus; Michael Fassbender as David, the original humanoid android created by Mr. Weyland (a returning Guy Pearce) to help him crack the ultimate question – who made us.
The idea of creation and God-hood is a core theme of Covenant. It is the driving force of the David character. As we’ll find he’s been hidden away on an alien world for ten years now, and he’s been a busy little bee. He’s experimented on the crazy mutagen liquid found in the previous film, resulting in the birth of what he deems is the ultimate life-form – the iconic xenomorph.
But we’ll get to that in a sec.
Scott does try to score some early brownie points with a reinvention of the original Alien titles. We also start on a giant spaceship with a limited crew. The music, the iconography, all seems familiar too. Good so far. But it does lack the slow pace of the original movie and the meticulous photography. In fact, after a re-watch, it just feels like any other movie.
The ship we’re on is the Covenant. It’s a colony ship bound for some distant planet with 2000 cryogenically frozen people on board. Walter (also Fassbender), a next-generation Android, watches over them for the duration of the ride. They’ve made him American this time, and far less human. Ironically, this makes him far more caring than his evil older brother.
Anyway, a pesky stellar burst happens, causing damage to the ship. The core ship crew of 14 are awoken early to fix the ensuing problems. Unfortunately, the ship’s captain (a cameoing James Franco) is incinerated in his sleeping pod, leaving the God-bothering 2nd in command, Chris (Billy Crudup) in charge.
Chris is a pretty weak guy who makes bad (but perfectly rational) decisions throughout. In all honesty, he isn’t a bad guy. The idea to make him religious is interesting, like by having him believe in God somehow makes him less qualified to lead a science space quest. I’m not religious myself, but using his faith as a crux in this way is really ham-fisted by the writers.
The crew starts hating on him early when he prioritizes the repairs to the ship over a send-off for the crispy captain Franco. A perfectly reasonable command choice in my eyes, but Scott shoots it like he’s the biggest bastard. This isolates him further from the crew.
By the way, did I mention that all the crew is all coupled off? Yeah, I guess it makes sense for starting a colony and all, but it’s also really stupid. The moment someone’s significant other is put in jeopardy they’ll start acting irrationally to save them. It’s understandable but equally so annoying to watch people making stupid decisions like this.
Take, for example, Tennessee (Danny McBride), the ship’s pilot. The moment he loses contact with his wife on the planet he’s ready to plunge the ship and the sleeping crew into an ion storm without any thought for the danger. To be fair it’s an upgrade on Prometheus, where people would just make stupid decisions for the hell of it (like “let’s take off my space helmet on an alien planet inside a weird alien ship”).
During the repairs of the ship, they find a faint signal carrying a human voice. Pretty unusual considering they’re so far into deep space. They trace it to a planet that is close by and sits within the “habitable zone” with breathable air, water, and vegetation. Again, pretty weird that none of their initial scans picked it up. It looks like the perfect planet too, way better than the one they are still years away from reaching.
Captain Chris makes the decision to check it out. The former captain’s wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), is strongly against the idea. We all know it’s a bad idea too. It’s kind of obvious there’s gonna be aliens and stuff on the planet. And an hour later, when Chris is giving the whole “We should never have come here speech”, Daniels certainly has a told-you-so look on her face.
But again it’s a totally rational decision! I think most people in his position would do the same thing. No one wants to get back into the sleeping pods after seeing James Franco get turned into a chicken McNugget, and this new planet actually looks more promising too. Covenant really demonizes Crudup here (who is absolutely fantastic as the out-of-his-depth guy) for reasons totally beyond his control.
So they decide to check out the planet. Thus far the film has been decent. Yeah, there are too many characters. 14 is just too much, especially when they’re all dressed the same. They just don’t stand out enough, they don’t get enough individual time to develop as characters and you don’t even bother remembering their names. This poses a problem because when they start dying you really don’t care. Aliens had the balance right, with each character being memorable. The great Avengers: Infinity War is another example of a balanced approach to a large ensemble cast.
Most of the crew head down to the planet to investigate the signal. It’s a very rugged world, with a very Nordic Noir theme running through it; forests, streams, mountains. Lots of muted colours.
Once down, they start exploring. Of course, two idiots just happen to get face-to-face with a weird fungal spore thing that shoots black crap into them. They don’t seem to notice though. Well, they will when weird proto-aliens are bursting through their spines.
This is where the film peaks. It’s really well paced, tense and builds up unbearable to where we see the birth of this new breed of alien (a weird, white-skinned “neomorph”). The scene is delightfully gory, only spoiled by poor CGI on the creature’s part.
Sadly, the movie goes downhill from here, and proceeds in a sprint-like-fashion to what will happen first; the movie ends or we die of depression.
When the quickly grown neomorphs attack, they’re saved by David whom has been living on the planet for the last ten years. He takes them to the remains of a city once belonging to the original inhabitants of the planet – the navigators from Prometheus. I wonder why they didn’t see the sprawling metropolis from space. Instead, it’s just there.
While he promises them salvation from the creatures, he secretly has darker designs. He’s so damn creepy it’s pretty obvious from the beginning, but no one seems to realize until it’s too late. By then, I’d checked out mentally. Your mileage may vary.
Covenant is pitched as an apology to Prometheus, but it makes huge mistakes as well. It just doesn’t add anything new, and instead further dilutes the rich canon already established. For example, removing the navigator aliens runs contrary to that initial scene with Weyland, and most significantly complete renders Prometheus effectively pointless.
What’s perhaps most galling (beyond writing out the always awesome Noomi Rapace) is implying that the aliens are by proxy a human creation. Yes, that’s quite cleverly devised and deliciously ironic, but by having them made by something that we made (David) invalidates their “alien-ness”.
Despite this, it’s fair to say Covenant is a lot better than Prometheus. The plot makes sense, it doesn’t ask too many questions and proceeds much more like the formula we’ve come to expect from an Alien film. The return of the original xenomorphs is welcome, but six films in (more if you include the AVP films) they’re no longer as scary as they once were. They’re far too much part of the cultural fabric now, like Freddy Kreuger or Chucky.
Yeah, we’ve got another plucky heroine defeating the evil beasties (what a shock), but Waterston is decent enough. She doesn’t rise to the top quick enough to be a match for Ripley, nor does the film focus on her like in Prometheus, but she’s able and willing.
Contrary to rationale though, Danny McBride is actually a highlight here. I thought it was odd casting, but he’s surprisingly great. You’d totally expect him to play it too serious or too silly, and yes they do give him some comedy lines and a cowboy hat, but he shows a lot of depth, especially when his wife dies.
But there is no doubt that Alien: Covenant belongs to Michael Fassbender. Not only does he portray two characters, but his David is so well played, so nuanced and devilish, that he is really the ultimate threat in this movie. I really wish we’d spent much longer with him in the ruined city and really ramped up the slow burn threat he poses. For example, the scene where he teaches Walter to play the flute is loaded with menace and sexuality; it really encapsulates those original themes from the alien conceptualist HR Giger 30 years previous.
As a character, he is incredibly interesting. His spiteful hatred towards his creators simmers beneath a composed and cool exterior. As Walter tells him, the humans didn’t like David’s generation of synthetics – they were too human, too idiosyncratic. Yet, despite his mental and physical superiority, David resents the human’s ability to create. His manipulation of the “black fluid” allows him to overcome this limitation. Sadly, these themes are just not explored enough, and he’s almost relegated to a cartoon villain before the end. It’s only through the force of Fassbender’s acting that he remains horribly believable.
From a production standpoint, the film looks the business. However, it lacks the closed, claustrophobic atmosphere of the original movies. We also don’t ever get a sense of scale for the ship, nor the ruined city. We move between crisply presented sets with little thought as to how each character got there. It all feels very haphazard. Equally, the music is unremarkable. We get some nice callbacks to Prometheus’ score (one of the few highlights of the movie), but it sadly reminds us that this film is lacking anything memorable music wise.
Prometheus tried to take the saga in a new direction and failed more as a film than as a story. This was Scott’s attempt to right the ship into more familiar waters. It succeeds in that sense, but doesn’t provide us with anything overly wholesome or worthwhile. While the film does pose more questions for us and sets up a sequel, the real quandary is will we actually care next time? I for one have grown tired of being repeatedly disappointed by the thrashing death throes of a once mighty leviathan film series.
Maybe it’s time to let it rest?
A more familiar, formulaic premise
Good attention to detail
Good performances all round, especially Fassbender and McBride
Questionable story choices
Lack of scale
Feels rushed after the aliens appear