Usually when the credits roll on a film, a decision has ardently been etched in my mind whether said movie was great, good, bad or rubbish. With Alien: Covenant I was on the fence. I’ve taken the last couple of days to process the film and have come to the conclusion that although there are some great moments within it, with a heavy heart I must confess that it’s not a great film – the only way I can describe it would be to compare my disappointment to that of a parent coming home after a weekend away to find the house a monumental wreck by their children.In order to go through a whole breakdown of Alien: Covenant, plot points will be discussed and you can consider this your SPOILER WARNING. If you haven’t seen the film and wish to do so, you may want to click on another link at the STORGY website, because there’s other great reviews that will tickle your fancy…
Still here? Good. Let’s get into it then.
Let’s begin by highlighting the good points of the film. Ridley Scott is a creator of worlds. His artistic integrity is matched only by his fervent need to tell grandiose stories, and with Alien it seems that he has more to tell about H.R. Geiger’s monsters. The story kicks off with an accident on board the Covenant, a colony ship headed for Origae-6, a paradise planet to terraform and call home. The Captain, Jacob Branson (played in a one-scene flashback, puzzlingly, by James Franco) dies quite horribly in cryo-sleep within the first fifteen minutes of the film, leaving behind a grieving wife (terraforming expert Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston), a weak second-in-command named Oram (played by Billy Crudup) who gets propelled to the Captain’s chair and 2000 still-sleeping colonists and frozen embryos. Fassbender, who played the android David in “Prometheus,” is on board the Covenant playing Walter, a next generation version of the android that seems to be laconic and rational.
When the title Alien: Covenant appears on the screen, it slowly emerges in deep space scored by Jerry Goldsmith’s beautiful haunting theme, just like the original Alien. It would appear that Scott has taken on board the wailings and cries of purist Alien fans after the divisive Prometheus, with a nudge and a deferential guidance of the arm back to the core values of the franchise: thrilling moments with the monster, edge of the seat encounters and treachery from within. But as I was watching it, things seemed a little too like the original. A random transmission that is deciphered as John Denver’s Country Roads — alerts the colonists to the presence of a nearer planet that has better conditions to support life. Having suffered the recent catastrophe of the cryo-pods , the crew decide to visit the untested environment, rather than go back to sleep for another seven years. On this new planet there is breathable air and water to drink, however terraforming officer Daniels makes (one of the few) rational decisions in the film and states that they haven’t trained for this unchartered world. Regardless, they push on, land on the planet and do some exploring. They discover the derelict ship that David and Shaw blasted off into the sky at the end of Prometheus and also release spores that infect two of the forward party. We’re introduced to a new type of Alien (The Neomorph) and this is where the film changes gears and ramps up the action. When it’s intense, Covenant is really intense. The first encounter with the new beasties is a full-on onslaught, reminiscent of the Hive encounter with the colonial Marines in Aliens. There are some creepy kills but none that recapture the imagination and design of the original’s deaths.
The crew are a particularly nondescript, inter-changeable bunch. The first few to be killed off are simple canon fodder that you’ll forget as soon as their chests/back/head explode. Although Waterston does a great job with the character of Daniels, you get the feeling that she’s simply a diluted Ripley 2.0 – shoe horned into the plot to appease the fans that wanted another Ripley type character. Her arc goes from grieving widower, to terse finger wagging caution, to sudden heroine. There’s dialogue that she shares with Walter at the beginning of the film that only really serves as a plot device stinger at the very end. She’s simply not given enough time for the viewer to empathise with. When the action starts, the film seems to run at 1,000mph until the crew meet David, at which point the theology of Prometheus creeps in again and (a few) questions are answered from the previous installment. Newly promoted captain Oram (Crudup) was probably the most interesting character in the film for me; he’s not a natural leader but wants the respect of his crew. He’s dealing with doubts that his religious faith will undermine his authority – it’s a shame then that we don’t get more interactions with his character – that his dialogue serves as expositional plot filler and that he wasn’t given more screen time to become the leader that the crew needed. There was great potential for a redemptive theme to run through the narrative here; that somehow he would earn respect from the crew before the end, but alas (if you’ve seen the trailer) he ends up becoming a host for the parasitic face hugger. Danny McBride’s pilot Tennessee acts as the Nostromo’s Parker of the group, all bravado and zingers – it’s a good character that has heart, but he also stands out because he wears a cowboy hat…so swings and roundabouts. The most interesting dynamic comes with newbie android Walter and Prometheus holdover David (named after series producers Walter Hill and David Giler). Both skillfully differentiated by Michael Fassbender, the pair meet as David is the only inhabitant of the newly found planet. There are weird, interesting scenes as David teaches Walter to play flute, out-score each other on Romantic poetry and in, what feels like a bizarre homage to Blade Runner, a tender kiss. At one point, David utters the line: ‘That’s the spirit,’ which seemed a bit too on the nose.
Overall, those who enjoyed Prometheus’ religious inspired aspect will be sorely disappointed that the blueprint that had been previously laid out has effectively been wiped clear – it’s a little ambiguous but it would seem that David is in fact responsible for the creation of the H.R. Giger monster, rather than the engineers that Shaw and David met in Prometheus. It adds a different variety to the proceedings, and also foreshadows more carnage in the next installment, but in my opinion was a good decision to make. There were elements of Prometheus that were arresting and alluring, the sci-fi theme of where we come from and who designed us was intriguing, but to simply drop this in Covenant seems like a bit of a cop out. Walter and David reference Shelley and Bryon, ruminating on Frankenstein briefly but it was at this moment that I felt that the film was starting to derive from the actual theme of Alien – you see, one of the great joys of Alien is that they (space truckers, colonial marines, scientists, etc.) come across this weird alien race that they don’t know anything about, but it would appear that the cycle of movies about their background is now taking over, much to my dismay. I don’t really want to know where they came from – much in the same way that I don’t want to know Freddy Kruger’s backstory, or Jason Voorhees’s upbringing. The Aliens are there, dammit – the perfect killing organism; I want an interesting story about them, front and centre – not how they came to be.
Also, the dialogue simply isn’t good enough. In Alien, you believed in the crew of the Nostromo because they seemed like real people. Space truckers doing a crummy job because they needed the money – they talk about overtime and bonuses and how landing on an unchartered planet might forfeit them their pay. There’s tension between the grease monkeys and the officers, like you get in any job that has a hierarchy. You believe that they’re in over their heads because they convey the terror of seeing this creature pick them off one by one. In Covenant we skip from one kill to the next and it doesn’t really register anything from the audience – a crew member gets decapitated by the Neomorph and we don’t really feel anything for her, because up until then we didn’t really know who she was. When Parker and Lambert get killed we feel it – we hear Lambert’s screams over the PA system of the ship and we immediately feel Ripley’s terror that she’s now alone with the creature on the ship.
The thing with covenant is that you’re going to compare it with all the other films that have come before it. There’s no way around it – a horror film that was made over 30 years ago still stands out as the best of the bunch, and Scott knows this, trying to add all the ingredients of Alien and Aliens into a pot to see what works. But the thing about this is that there have been too many films since Alien that have used the devices on display here, so it’s stuff we’ve all seen before. There’s a moment where one of the new Aliens stalks the landing crew in tall grass only to jump out at them (Jurassic park 2) We have a landing crew explore an unchartered planet only to bring back a parasitic life form (Alien) a rogue AI that has malevolent purposes (2001: A Space Odyssey) and then in the third act we basically have Alien rehashed for us, with an ending that was ripped straight from the Aliens: Colonial Marines game.
As a standalone movie, Covenant holds up. It’s flawed, but not so much as its predecessor, Prometheus. It seems that for whatever reason there was a demand for more of the old than to go with innovative and original ideas, which is a shame but hopefully will be rectified with the third prequel movie (so far named Awakening) Covenant ends on a bleak note, but I’m excited as to where it’ll go next. Seeing Alien for the first time was such a profound and exhilarating experience, that in some ways my own hype for the film may have ruined the overall element of what is, at its heart, a decent thriller. It doesn’t break the mould in any way, but it’s a worthwhile visit back to the series.
Review by Anthony Self
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