After the polarizing reception its predecessor received, Ridley Scott has lowered his ambitions considerably with Alien: Covenant. The new entry in the decades old franchise foregoes the thoughtful ruminations of Prometheus and strives to be an unabashed crowd pleaser hoping to win back audiences.
Movie Review - Alien: Covenant
By Felix Quinonez
May 29, 2017
But in aiming for the so-called “return to form,” Covenant comes off as a clumsy step backward for the once venerable franchise.
It’s been almost 40 years since the infamous tag line “In space, no one can hear you scream,” heralded the arrival of a horror/sci-fi masterpiece. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, became a classic and a cultural phenomenon whose influence is felt to this day.
Seven years later, the sequel, Aliens, directed by James Cameron, garnered similar acclaim and box office success. Although it mostly eschewed the horror elements in favor of action movie tropes, it’s also considered a classic and a benchmark for all sequels.
However the following entries did not please fans or critics in the same way. And the box office returns diminished accordingly. By 1997, after the fourth entry, Alien: Resurrection, it seemed the series had gone off the rails.
After that, the franchise spent the next decade dragging its goodwill through the mud with a couple of embarrassing Predator crossover films that were easily the creative nadir. The first one made money, but the second one was a new low point at the box office. With that, it seemed, at least for a while, that audiences had seen the last of the franchise’s iconic Xenomorphs.
But in 2012, fans had reason to be optimistic with the release of Prometheus, which saw the return of series creator Ridley Scott. Although its connection to the Alien franchise was initially kept vague, eventually it was confirmed as a prequel to Alien. (Or at the very least, the first prequel)
Except this time around, Scott set his aims higher by not only trying to illuminate the beginnings of the franchise but to also meditate on the creation of mankind. Unfortunately, fans weren’t ready to follow Scott in his new direction. And it appears that the director’s confidence might have been shaken. His desire to take the series into new territory has now been replaced by a boring need to appease fans. And because of this, Covenant plays like a sort of greatest hits package.
The result feels like Filmmaking by committee at its most blatant. It’s not hard to imagine executives sitting in an office assessing the various strengths and weaknesses of the franchise in an attempt to cultivate a newer, more popular strain (not unlike the interspecies alien hybrids that kill the characters in the movies). But the efforts are both transparent and disappointing. In the end, Covenant winds up being less suspenseful than gratuitously gory and painfully predictable.
Things begin promisingly enough with David (Michael Fassbender), a synthetic, and his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) having an intimate discussion. It’s a beautifully shot scene in a minimalist way. And their discussion about creation hints at the profundity found in Prometheus. Unfortunately, that’s quickly pushed aside for what turns out to be a frustratingly by-the-numbers affair.
In 2104, a team made up of 15 crew members is tasked with leading an expedition to colonize a distant planet. They are on a ship called Covenant and carrying 2,000 passengers. However, in transit, disaster strikes in the form of a neutrino burst.
After the crew’s captain is burned in his sleeping pod, the ship’s second-in-command, Oram (Billy Crudup) assumes leadership. The crew members, understandably shaken, are not very eager to get back into their sleeping pods for the remainder of the trip. But, conveniently enough, they receive a rogue transmission signal from a nearby, uncharted planet.
It appears there is human life there and that this mysterious planet could be an even better candidate for a new home. After very little deliberation, Oram decides to divert their mission to investigate the planet for their new home. The only one who objects is Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the dead captain’s widow. They soon land on the planet that seems to be too good to be true. And what follows is exactly what you would expect.
By this point, viewers should know better than to get attached to any of the human characters. Because of this, the filmmakers don’t put any effort into making any of the human crew members particularly memorable. Aside from Oram and Daniels, the only other one that comes close to registering with the viewer is Tennessee (Danny McBride). He’s the fun cowboy of the group, and we know this because he wears a cowboy hat (it’s good to see that they’re still in fashion in the 22nd century).
But the attempt to turn the Daniels into the Ripley of this movie is obvious and unfair. Living up to Sigourney Weaver would have been tough for anyone, especially with an underwritten role. And aside from being self-doubting, Oram’s only other characteristic seems to be that he is a “man of faith.” This isn’t evident through any of his actions but because he repeatedly reminds people of this fact. In theory, this could have been a great way to engage in the science vs. religion debate. But in practice it, like anything else of substance in this movie, is just window dressing.
Aside from that, the rest of the cast is basically just lambs being led to the slaughter. But the highlight performance(s) comes from Fassbender who plays David, the android from Prometheus and Walter, his newer, less, well...human, model. Together, David and Walter are the heart, soul, brains and the highlight of the movie.
But for all its flaws, Scott is still a master filmmaker with great visual flair. And Covenant does offer plenty of horror, action, and gore.
The problem is that everything here feels too familiar. Even the dreaded Xenomorph, once nightmare personified, loses its menace when everything it does is just a slight variation of what the series did before. At this point they inspire more impatience than fear. This is the sight of a franchise feeding on its own past because it has nothing new to say.
And the story is treated as something that needs to be gotten out of the way before the next kill. It’s not surprising that the human characters are so one-dimensional, since their main purpose is to add to the body count. This movie was made for fans that show up to see how many different ways the aliens can kill crew members.
The philosophical themes that made Prometheus such a breath of fresh air are barely afterthoughts here. By focusing solely on the superficial scares, Covenant becomes “just a movie” rather than the meditation on life that Prometheus at least aspired to be.
Alien: Covenant ostensibly continues the Prometheus storyline but it is by no means the same kind of story.