Starring: Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Michael Fassbender (X-Men: Apocalypse), Danny McBride (Pineapple Express), Billy Crudup (Watchmen), Demain Bichir (The Heat), Carmen Ejogo (Selma)
Director: Ridley Scott (The Martian)
Writers: John Logan (Skyfall) and Dante Harper
Runtime: 2 hours 2 minutes
Release Date: 12 May (UK), 19 May (US)
The Alien franchise hasn’t really had anywhere to go in the last twenty-five years. Alien 3 may have initially ended the story on a dampened note, but it was at least definitive. Everything since then has either just repeated what came before or taken it in radically stupid directions. Resurrection was a mutated sore dragging down an otherwise solid trilogy, Prometheus seemed embarrassed to even be associated with Alien when it wasn’t ruining it, and don’t even get me started on the Alien vs. Predator movies. Alien: Covenant seemed like the last shining hope for this series to get back on track; a chance to fix or forget the mistakes of the past and give the fans what they’ve been asking for. Unfortunately, Covenant is ultimately not that movie.
Covenant functions as both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original film, though it doesn’t resolve everything from the former or lead directly into the latter. The basic set-up is fairly standard for the series thus far: a distress signal brings a crew down to an unknown planet, leading to death and destruction at the hands of an extraterrestrial monster. The film, however, does eschew a lot of familiar concepts to keep the story fresh. The locales are far more open and natural than the usual confines of spacecraft and industrial facilities, a wider variety of alien species are exhibited, and the whole “evil corporation” angle is finally abandoned. The first half of the film isn’t anything special but it does resemble an Alien film without feeling too derivative. However, once the story brings in all the connective tissue between Prometheus and Alien, that’s where it begins to fall apart. The themes about creation and God get dragged out again in lieu of isolation and dread, the third act liberally lifts elements from across the franchise, several obvious twists fall flat, and the film finally answers the question of the Xenomorphs’ origin in a way that is not only lame but completely disregards huge pieces of series lore. I’m not talking about obscure pieces of expanded fiction that were probably never canon. These are concepts that contradict what has been established in even the original film; huge fans of this series are going to notice, and they will not be happy. I can’t say much without spoiling, but this is mythology-f*cking on the level of midichlorians.
The characters of Covenant are a step-up from the cast of Prometheus, but only because they aren’t as frustratingly idiotic. They are instead a merely bland but inoffensive crew that aren’t even as memorable as the characters in the latter half of the original Alien movies. Katherine Waterston puts in a decent performance as lead Daniels, but she’s ultimately yet another Ripley copy with all the gruff edges shaved off. Billy Crudup shows some initial promise the conflicted captain Oram, but by the film’s second half he ceases to have a reason to exist. Danny McBride is the only other interesting crewmember, downplaying his comedic chops to deliver a blithe but suitably dramatic performance; I’m interested to see what he could do in other serious fare. The rest of the crew is a series of redshirts with varying levels of development, who are neither vexing like in Prometheus or memorable enough like those in Alien or Aliens to get any major reaction when they bite the dust. And then there’s Michael Fassbender as the android Walter. Going into his character in depth is major spoiler territory, so I’ll keep it brief: like in Prometheus his acting is good but his character is lacking, and even if you enjoyed his previous performance I don’t think the direction they take it here is a particularly satisfying one.
Ridley Scott isn’t quite the director he was nearly forty years ago when he made the first Alien, but he certainly hasn’t lost his eye. Like Prometheus, a lot of what redeems Covenant is all in the technical achievements. The film looks gorgeously grim, bringing back some of the grit and murkiness of the original film. The production design is grand and earthy with its ships and temples absorbed under the foreboding vines and rocks of the natural planet; it feels almost like a Miyazaki film at points. The classic Xenomorph design triumphantly returns along with some original variants that, whilst not as creative as some concepts explored in expanded fiction, do feel like a natural part of the species’ ancestry. There is a disappointing lack of practical creature work in favour of CG, which takes away a lot of the menace during the intimate horror sequences, but the gore effects all look genuine and they are fantastic; this might be the most blood-happy Alien film to date. Finally, Jed Kurzel’s score for the film is suitably low-key and haunting, along with a lot of cues from Jerry Goldsmith and Marc Streitenfeld’s compositions from Alien and Prometheus respectively woven in at appropriate moments.
Alien: Covenant is a passable sci-fi horror on its own merits, but explaining why it doesn’t work as an Alien movie without completely spoiling it is tricky. Remaining as vague as I can, I think the reason the film ultimately irks me so is because I get the impression that Ridley Scott really resents everything that happened to the series after Alien. He already began steering the ship in a different direction with Prometheus and, as much as many fans disliked that direction, at least he did so without messing with the main series. In response, Scott has effectively given the fans what they wanted whilst on the surface taunting them with everything they didn’t like. Covenant isn’t just Ridley Scott taking his toys and going home. Covenant is Ridley Scott taking not only his toys but also the toys of James Cameron and David Fincher, going home, smashing those toys to pieces, knocking himself over the head until he falls unconscious, waking up in a daze, rebuilding the toys with the missing pieces replaced with stuff nobody asked for until they look enough like they did yesterday, then taking them back to the park and saying, “Here, play with these instead.” This film really sums up why the Alien franchise should have been left alone ever since Ellen Ripley took that final leap into the furnace, but it seems like Scott has plans to power on regardless. Next time, I don’t expect him to listen to his fans properly. I say let the man do what he wants, but that doesn’t mean we have to enable him by seeing these movies anymore.
FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10