Genre: Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
Ridley Scott may be turning eighty this year, but that doesn’t mean he’s walking off into the swift quiet joys of retirement. In fact, if you read any recent interviews with the iconic director, it seems that he’s just getting started, with news that Scott plans to remain in the Alien universe for some time.
One of the great joys of the Alien franchise is its ability to mutate and reinvent itself through each subsequent film. From the straight up horror of Alien to the brazen, action thrill fest of James Cameron’s classic, to god knows what the hell Alien Resurrection was, the Alien franchise has proven itself adept at adapting when it needs to, much like its famed creature. With Prometheus, Scott and his team attempted to take the franchise a step further, by greatly expanding the mythology and making it more about existential questions of God, the universe and all creation. Prometheus may have its fans, but let’s be honest – it was a mess of a film that got bogged down with its own ponderous sense of self-importance, choosing to philosophize on grand existential themes at the expense of telling a coherent and engaging story.
So, after having been disappointed by the visually stunning but narratively inert Prometheus, my expectations for Alien: Covenant were somewhat muted. Despite having a more focused, stripped down “back-to-basics” narrative, which gleefully applies all the franchise’s signature beats complete with gore and full on Xenomorph action, the film is still dragged down by its predecessor’s flaws in its attempts to explain its grand mythology and give meaning to all of this. It feels at once ambitious yet too constrained by its narrative template and generic necessities to truly satisfy.The story takes place ten years after the events of Prometheus. After an intriguing but weirdly unnecessary prologue dramatizing the synthetic David’s (Michael Fassbender) early life with Peter Weyland, the action picks up with the colony ship, Covenant, on its way to a distant planet Origae-6 with over two thousand colonists and human embryos on board. After an accident disrupts the voyage and awakens the fifteen-strong command crew, including Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, they stumble upon a weak distress signal from a nearby habitable planet. Billy Crudup’s newly appointed captain decides that checking out this nearby world is worth the risk and sure enough, the crew of the Covenant come upon some pretty horrific truths, including the truth behind the ill-fated Prometheus mission.
There are many things to admire about Alien: Covenant: Katherine Waterston is excellent as Daniels, the de facto Ripley surrogate, who proves herself more than a capable match for any alien beasts that come her way. She has the range and physicality to prove herself more than a worthy action hero and true successor to Ripley’s mantle. Michael Fassbender is also terrific in his dual role of the synthetics David and Walter, cleverly distinguishing both with simple nuances, making even the hammiest of dialogue seem profound and showcasing once again why he is one of the great screen presences of this generation. His scenes, in which he essentially plays against himself, are a real highlight of Covenant.
The film looks stunningly beautiful. Dariusz Wolski’s luscious cinematography, coupled with Chris Seagers’ production design, gives the film an eerie drained out quality which adds to the film’s tension in its early scenes, while Jed Kurzel’s music score masterfully brings the franchise back to its roots, moving away from the bombastic riffs that dominated Prometheus. And, of course, when the carnage does occur, it is all so wonderfully gory and viscerally exciting.However, there are flaws and they are multiple. Aside from Fassbender and Waterston, the rest of the Covenant’s crew fail to make even the barest of impacts, barely existing beyond their job descriptions. What made the first two Alien movies work so well, was that every character was distinct, memorable and rounded in their own way, or just enough so that when the inevitable blood and guts carnage began, you felt those characters’ deaths and feared for the ones still alive. Here, when the carnage does begin, you never care when a character bites the dust, nor do you feel anxious for the ones still breathing; a major problem in a film such as this.
Another issue is that while the script by John Logan and Dante Harper wisely strips the film down to a more back-to-basics approach, it still suffers from the flaws of its predecessor, with the film almost stopping midway through in order for characters to virtually point at things and explain the plot with heavy handed philosophizing on the nature of creation and life etc., sometimes without making much sense.
Covenant is a vast improvement over Prometheus and is a highly entertaining ride, with Fassbender and Waterston worth the price of admission. However, it’s doubtful this will last long in the memory banks.