Movie Review: Alien – Covenant.
Trying to bridge the gulf between Prometheus and Alien, Ridley Scott does neither justice.
Alien – Covenant is the fifth film in the franchise and functions as an indirect prequel to 1979’s horror classic, Alien, and a maddening sequel to 2012’s science fiction disappointment, Prometheus. One gets a sense that director Ridley Scott really does not want to make another Alien movie. He may love the universe he created in that film, and he certainly likes to play with the archetypes and motifs from it, but he seems to be doing his damnedest to oust the actual Alien as the focus of the franchise.
As a bridge between a heavily modified Prometheus trilogy and the proper trilogy of Alien/Aliens (we don’t count Ressurection, and neither should you!) this film is hard pressed to please fans of either. It raises more questions about both films than it answers, and the answers that it gives are unsatisfactory. As a film, Covenant could have been fine, but this film wasn’t called Covenant. It’s called Alien– Covenant, and that extra word ends up sinking the ship.
Alien – Covenant (2017)
Ten years after the disappearance of the Prometheus expedition (and 20 years before the crew of the Nostromo discovers the xenomorphs on LV- 426) a colony ship called Covenant is headed to a distant planet to start a new life. Tragedy strikes, damaging the ship en-route and killing the captain. Reluctant to continue the 7-year voyage in a damaged vessel, they find strange readings coming from a nearby undiscovered planet with very Earth-like signatures. Exploring the planet, they uncover relics from previous inhabitants and discover that the current residents are not friendly to mankind.
The acting in Covenant is mostly strong. Our main protagonist Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, has echoes of Ellen Ripley from Alien but stands as her own character. Even when faced with tragedy early, we see her firm resolve. She’s tough yet vulnerable, and a good lead.
Michael Fassbender plays two androids in this film, and they’re OK. We get flashbacks to David, the Iago-like villain from Prometheus, and then meet Walter who is a new type of android. He is based on David but has been given personality restraints to prevent him going rogue. The contrast between the two models is interesting, and Fassbender is fully capable of playing the shades of gray game Scott has handed him.
The remainder of the crew is mostly fodder, and show off some glaring weaknesses in the script. Attempting to get back to some of the horror roots of the franchise, Ridley Scott needs bodies to burst, and the rest of the cast is pretty much just that. People fail to take simple precautions, make unforced errors, and commit the cardinal sin of wandering off alone. Frequently. In one sequence somebody wandered off alone, so another person goes to find them. Alone. And then a third person goes to check on them. Alone. Teens getting axe-murdered at a summer camp have more common sense.
The characters are written like a mash up of other crews from the franchise. They have a blustering camaraderie like the space marines from Aliens, but also the earnest work-a-day values of the original group from Alien. They do some science stuff, like in Prometheus, but like those sad sacks, they fail to have any decent safety standards. In the end, you have a hard time believing in them. They are too capable for simple homesteaders but too dumb for space-going professionals.
Even when the films are bad, Ridley Scott can be counted on for two things: gorgeous cinematography and cool aesthetic designs. Covenant is no exception. The locations are beautiful and memorable and feel distinct. From the retro-futuristic human vessels to the organic Engineer’s ship to the vaguely Greco-Roman architecture of the planet, everything pops visually.
The action set-pieces manage to be exciting, though somewhat familiar. Echoes of scenes from earlier films abound but are given a new touch. While the final segment aboard the Covenant is definitely trying too hard to feel like 1979’s Alien, the sequence where Daniels and the surviving colonists fight their way off of the surface is one of the coolest action shots I’ve seen in a while.
Where Covenant fails is in the story. Like a million slasher flicks, this film is filled with poor decision making just so the body count can grow. Somebody is locked into isolation way too late and then the person who locked them up immediately breaks the quarantine. People are constantly wandering off alone, even after they know about the planet’s deadly inhabitants. Like a cheesy zombie movie, nobody ever tells anyone else when they are infected or compromised. The captain discovers somebody is a traitor and then does what that person says anyway. Somebody puts their face DIRECTLY OVER A STRANGE PULSING ALIEN EGG.
While I didn’t love Prometheus, I did think it had enough of its own bold ideas to want to see another movie about those premises. This is not that film. Everything interesting in Prometheus is either drastically changed or just plain thrown away. The way the film treats Noomi Rapace’s character from the first film is insulting. Things are just butchered so Scott can say “well, that story line got settled.” No, no it didn’t.
Since the film goes out of its way to proclaim itself an Alien movie, it’s fair to ask how it fits in. The answer is poorly. Ridley Scott clearly wants to make this Prometheus 2, but the studio must have told him it was an Alien movie or nothing. The result is a film that is 80% follow-up to the Prometheus story with a shot-gun wedding of Alien moments at the end. I think that’s going to anger lots of people who rightly assume a movie called Alien is about Aliens.
Finally, the focus of this film is squarely on Michael Fassbender’s David. No ifs, ands, or buts. David is the most important character and we spend the majority of the film’s middle and end concerned solely with his machinations. He is given ludicrous importance in the Alien universe. The lengths to which the script tortures logic to make David relevant is laughable. At one point we get an eerily erotic scene where David teaches Walter how to play the flute, and then Michael Fassbender kisses himself. That is this film in a nutshell. Not only did viewers not get an Alien movie, they didn’t even get a Prometheus movie. This movie should be called David – Covenant.
Alien – Covenant took quite a while to digest. I wish I could say that was because this movie is trafficking in high ideals and symbolism. It really isn’t. This movie is high-minded like the guy in Philosophy 101 who mistakes jargon and misunderstood quotations for insight. Despite having some fun action sequences and a cool atmosphere, this film is supremely unsatisfying.
Fans of either Prometheus or Alien are going to leave the theater pretty angry. It baits a sequel at the end, but I can’t imagine who is going to want to see it. Ridley Scott has demonstrated his comfort with slapping continuity in the face. I don’t trust him anymore. Why wouldn’t he just pull the same stunt again and retroactively throw away the plot from THIS film in his next outing? So long, Alien franchise, it was fun while it lasted.