Alien: Covenant – Film Review by David Turpin
Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (2012) fascinated some and bemused many with its combination of half-baked cod-philosophy and monster mumbo-jumbo, all of which added up to something not-quite-but-almost a prequel to his 1979 classic Alien. The film felt heavily re-jigged, commendably resistant to repeating the Alien series’ familiar stand-bys, but failing to find anything particularly evocative to take their place. Now, Scott’s sequel-to-a-prequel – tellingly retitled Alien: Covenant to downplay its connection to its divisive predecessor – faces the complicated task of continuing the narrative of Prometheus while simultaneously back-tracking on much of what left irritable Alien fans reaching for their keyboards. It’s not an easy undertaking, and while Alien: Covenant has its moments, the strain shows throughout.
Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant takes its title from the conveniently prophetic name of a space vessel, in this case a ship carrying two-thousand colonists and a handful of crew on a mission to populate a distant planet. After a freak accident, the ship’s android, Walter (Fassbender), is forced to awaken the crew – including acting First Mate Oram (Billy Crudup) and terraforming expert Daniels (Waterston) – at several years’ distance from their destination. Having never seen an Alien film, the crew thank their lucky stars when they discover a seemingly habitable planet right in their path, and modify their colonising plans accordingly. Although Daniels objects (in a scene clearly designed to align her with Sigourney Weaver’s peerless Ripley), the crew have soon touched down on this mysterious world and merrily begun traipsing around with no protective clothing, sniffing and groping at mysterious plants and artefacts. Somehow, when hideous creatures begin bursting out of their bodies as a consequence, they manage to act shocked.
The picking off of the crew is rather rote, not least because – although Scott has gathered an overqualified supporting cast – we scarcely have time to differentiate them before they begin dropping like flies. Fine actors like Amy Seimetz, Carmen Ejogo and Oscar-nominee Demián Bichir scream and run with conviction, but one can’t help but feel that similar things have been done by any number of anonymous co-eds in lower-rent run-or-be-gobbled horror films. Perhaps the perfunctory nature of the film’s horror mechanics is the result of Scott, once again, having bigger things in mind than a mere re-tread of the original Alien’s brilliantly-engineered ghost-train ride. While Alien: Covenant goes to some length to restore the gore and firepower absent from Prometheus, that film’s lip-service enquiries into faith, creation and divinity are back in force – a trite opening dialogue between android and maker that apes Scott’s own Blade Runner (1982) setting the tone for a string of surface-level disquisitions that are interspersed seemingly at random between action sequences and splattery death scenes.
Most of this stuff comes courtesy of the sole returning character from Prometheus, the shifty android David (Fassbender again), who turns out to be the sole inhabitant of the treacherous orb on which the Covenant has touched down. In the ten years that have elapsed since we last encountered him, David has become a kind of Dr. Moreau character, haunting the corridors of an abandoned necropolis, playing god with genes and viruses, and occasionally pausing to deliver a sinister flute solo. While Fassbender makes something oddly touching of the innocuous Walter, his malevolent twin David is pure ham – every action punctuated by a campy pose and a creepy-snobby one-liner that feels as if it’s been copy-pasted over from a late instalment in the Hannibal Lecter franchise. Fassbender has never really bothered with subtlety, which makes it more of a disappointment that his double-jobbing here leaves the rest of the cast with limited air-time – particularly Waterston. An incisive and economical actress whose scene-stealing credentials were showcased particularly well in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015), Waterston is certainly game for this, and makes the best of what she’s been given, but the sketchiness of her character ill-serves her – and leaves the film rudderless for a series of climactic action sequences that should be breathlessly tense, but end up feeling rather too much like a video-game played by somebody else.
Oddly for Scott, Alien: Covenant feels curiously pedestrian on the level of pure aesthetics. Addled though Prometheus was, it still offered a handful of the breathtakingly finessed images we have come to expect from the director, as well as a single indelible horror moment (the ‘medpod’ sequence). Alien: Covenant has no such show-stopping moment, perhaps because it’s simply too busy to allow for one, and – with the exception of some pleasingly expansive exteriors shot in New Zealand – feels ‘smaller’ and more generic than its predecessor. When Daniels and co. eventually enter David’s gloomy domain, there is a frustrating disconnect between the expansive CGI exterior shots and the rather cramped and flatly-lit studio interiors. What’s more, there is absolutely nothing in the film’s visuals to rival the floridly grotesque H. R. Giger designs that jibed so interestingly with the more streamlined narrative of the original film.
Those disappointed by Prometheus’ status as an Alien film with no ‘alien’ in it will be pleased to hear that the familiar creatures do make a re-appearance here – although not to the extent that the film’s aggressive marketing campaign implies. Problematically, when they do so, there is little sense of the CGI creatures sharing the same physical space as the human actors, although things pick up in several sequences that appear to make use of practical puppetry effects. Ultimately, however, merely reanimating the perversely beloved phallic-headed monster doesn’t remedy the underlying problem of Prometheus or Alien: Covenant itself, which is that what is truly missing is not the creature itself but the ruthless narrative focus that it represented for the series’ most successful instalments (one to three in roughly descending order). Alien: Covenant cultivates an air of obfuscation, but it’s never clear what, exactly, the central mystery is supposed to be. Similarly, it offers a lot of frenetic action sequences, but rarely a clear danger or objective. Gorging on new creatures, old creatures, and android villainy spreads rather than stacks the film’s sense of threat. It never seems to quite make up its mind about what it’s about. On the level of basic design, it’s flawed because the tangled path of Prometheus can never be resolved into the thrilling linearity of Alien. Watching Alien: Covenant is like watching several films jostling for attention: the film its director wants to make vies with the film its assumed audience want to see, and the film it doesn’t want to be keeps tripping up over the film it thinks it ought to be.