Alien: Covenant (Film Review)

Ridley Scott’s 2012 Alien prequel Prometheus may be a big hot mess, but it has its moments, and I personally enjoyed it on a number of levels despite the overall disappointment.

Not only does Scott’s follow up, Alien: Covenant, have the expectations of the main franchise riding on its distinctly bowed shoulders, it needs to learn its lesson from Prometheus (other than “Don’t fucking hire John Spaihts to write your screenplay”), while providing a decent – and coherent, and scary, and original – continuation of both.

No pressure, then.

I enjoyed this one, mostly. Covenant is a decent addition to the franchise, and it’s a lot neater than Prometheus, which, despite some excellent creature design and great visuals (generally a given for Ridley), featured a shitstorm of dunderhead characters wandering blindly through what was a largely incoherent narrative.

Set ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows the titular colony ship on its seven-year journey to distance planet Origae-6, loaded up with two thousand colonists and a thousand human embryos in stasis. After a neutrino flare damages the ship, waking up the crew and immolating James Franco’s captain Branson (in the briefest of cameos), they receive a distress call from a lush, potentially habitable planet nobody’s noticed before. Figuring that they might be able to settle here instead of their heavily vetted and scanned and predetermined Origae-6, the crew changes course. Needless to say, the shit is on a collision course with the fan.

Covenant has a great cast, although only a handful of their characters are fleshed out enough for us to care whether they live or die; the rest are simply food for the monsters. Michael Fassbender, both reprising his role as Prometheus’ sociopathic synthetic, David, as well as the Covenant’s newer model, Walter, is the standout here, to absolutely nobody’s surprise. His David is a complex and impressive villain, and far more skincrawling than the bio-horrors picking off the rest of the cast.

As Daniels, Katherine Waterston is the Ripley stand-in and gives a great performance, but her character doesn’t have an enormous amount to do beyond the first act’s character building, and later dispatching of acid-blooded threats.

Billy Crudup’s Oram is one of the more interesting characters, a man of faith forced to take on the role of captain after Branson’s death. His clashes with the rest of the crew and his uncertainties in the face of adversity make him fallible and a little sympathetic. Eventually though, like a lot of the characters in Covenant, his decisions and choices make little sense for his character and fall into the same ballpark as the doofuses who can only run in straight lines, a la Prometheus.

Beyond this, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo are all good, but their talents are somewhat wasted with underwritten characters or early deaths. The fact that the crew is made up entirely of couples makes for some interesting and fresh dynamics, if only so they’ll be more distraught every time somebody is eviscerated.

Jed Kurzel’s score is effective and thrilling, although it seems to hark back a little too often to Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic work from 1979’s original Alien. It also doesn’t have quite the same epic feel as Marc Streitenfeld and Harry Gregson-Williams’ work on Prometheus. Having said that, it works beautifully here with Kurzel’s trademark moody ambience, and really stands out in some scenes.

For all its problems, Prometheus was at least ambitious in terms of its mythology building, its monsters, and its refusal to recycle the xenomorphs. That Scott has “listened to the fans” and included the traditional xenomorphs in Covenant is actually a bit of a letdown. The xenomorphs’ creation story is interesting and creepy, but the creatures themselves just aren’t that scary anymore. They’re relegated to a few third act set pieces that feel shoehorned into the story for the sake of being able to call this an Alien film. The decision to include the xenomorphs also short-changes the far more unsettling Neomorphs – pale, lanky prototypes that could easily have carried the film if only Scott and the screenwriters had had the faith to let them.

It takes a while for the horror to kick in, and while the film’s attempt to take its time building characters is admirable, this throws off the overall structure, squashing much of its action into the second half. This probably could have been fixed if the film was a little longer, or its third act wasn’t so average, especially after the dark heights of the second act. This section, set largely in some imposing ruins and dominated by some seriously creepy Fassbender on Fassbender interactions, saves the movie. Here it delves into some dark themes and philosophical questions, like the idea of humanity undone by its own drive to evolve and advance. This is aided by screenwriter John Logan’s proclivity for quoting classic works of literature and poetry (no surprises from the man who brought us the pulp horror series, Penny Dreadful). It’s also the closest Covenant comes to being genuinely scary, with some wonderful set pieces and scenes of smaller-scale violence, plus a flashback that’s both beautiful and terrifying.

Unfortunately, all this good work dissolves into predictable mediocrity as the characters return to the ship for the final act, featuring lazy off-screen deaths and what is by now a severely flogged dead horse for the franchise: ejecting the monster into space. There’s also a “twist” that’s ruined by being painfully, stupidly obvious from the moment it’s hinted at earlier in the film. On the other hand, it makes for a great ending, and leaves me hopeful for Scott’s planned third prequel film.

Ultimately Alien: Covenant could have been a lot better, could have delivered on its promise of a dark sci-fi horror epic that terrifies as much for its existentialism as for its monsters. What we got was far from shit, and at the very least it’s one of the best looking films of the year, but Covenant can’t seem to decide which side of the Prometheus/Alien fence it wants to sit on, resulting in a clumsy hybrid that ends up playing it far too safe. There are some great moments in there, and I honestly enjoyed it much more than it seems; it just needs more polish and coherence.

Scott’s apparently planning to conclude this prequel trilogy in the next few years. Third time lucky, fingers crossed?