Movie review: ALIEN: COVENANT

Ridley Scott is responsible for some of my favourite films of all time. BLADE RUNNER approaches perfection on so many levels. BLACK HAWK DOWN is a seminal war movie. But it’s really ALIEN that has always captivated me; a film that I return to again and again, and which has spawned (much like the titular xenomorph of the title) an entire franchise. The creature is so terrifyingly alien – so utterly incomprehensible – and Scott’s movie is so convincing, that it’s hard not to be drawn into the grubby world of space truckers and long-haul starfreighters, and a company that doesn’t care about anything except for raising the profit margin by another fraction of a percent…

So, when news of a new ALIEN film was first released, I was pretty stoked. Sure, in recent history we’d had Paul Anderson’s ALIEN V PREDATOR, as well as the Brothers Straus’ AVP: REQUIEM, but neither of those approached the heights of the original ALIEN series. The news that Ridley Scott would be revisiting the universe of ALIEN was earth-shattering: a ray of hope in a franchise that had seemingly lost its way. Of course, in the end we got PROMETHEUS, and to many (myself included) that was a disappointment because it wasn’t really an ALIEN film. Gone was the sense of realism: to be replaced by theologising and androids with god-complexes. Indeed, to my mind PROMETHEUS was only an ALIEN film in the most tenuous of senses. It featured the company (now called Weyland Industries), but absent was the series-defining xenomorph. This was a conscious decision on the part of Scott and the studio – they hoped that by distancing PROMETHEUS from the original series, they could create a new franchise.

Sadly, that didn’t work out. PROMETHEUS is a decent enough SF movie, but it isn’t an ALIEN film as far as I’m concerned. Its impact is in some ways muted as a result of the decision to remove it from the ALIEN arc.

When Scott revealed that he was taking PROMETHEUS’ sequel back to the origins of the series, and the film was renamed ALIEN: COVENANT, I was elated. As you can probably guess, I’m a pretty huge ALIEN fan. ALIENS is my favourite film of the series, and one of my favourite films full-stop. The franchise has had a tremendous influence on my interests, and in particular my writing (anyone who has read THE LAZARUS WAR can probably tell that!). I care deeply about the ALIEN franchise; I’m even what some may call a fanboy. So please bear that in mind as you read this review. I found it very difficult to review this film without commenting on some major plot points, so – unlike most of my articles – this review contains spoilers! Read on at your peril.

USCSS Covenant is on a mission to colonise Origae-6. Two thousand colonists remain in hypersleep, together with a crew of specialists, destined for a new life in deep-space. During their long and lonely voyage, only Walter (a latter-generation David, as featured in PROMETHEUS; played by Michael Fassbender) operates the ship. When the vessel is hit by a neutrino shockwave, many systems are damaged, and the crew are prematurely awoken. Casualties are suffered. During the repair, a transmission to detected from a nearby planet. Apparently human in origin, this communication gives the crew hope that the planet may be habitable. Despite Daniels’ (played by Katherine Waterston) objections, the crew decides to investigate this signal. They find an apparently stable ecosystem, although on further investigation discover that an alien starship (the Engineer ship from PROMETHEUS) has crashed here. Infected by an unknown alien pathogen, Covenant’s crew is soon stranded on the planet: forced to fight for survival against a developing alien threat. Rescue comes in the form of David; last survivor of the PROMETHEUS mission…

I don’t believe in writing negative reviews, and so I’ll start by saying that there are elements of COVENANT that work, and work well. As you’d expect from a Ridley Scott film, COVENANT looks beautiful. The visuals and cinematography are stunning. For instance, the image of the Engineer ship crashed in the forest is simply incredible: an image that I never thought I would get to see on the big screen. Cast-wise, the new crew is interesting (although not varied enough for my liking), and Waterston does a great job as Daniels. Contrary to the concerted attempts of the advertising campaign to paint her as another Ripley clone, Daniels is not Ripley at all, and she’s sufficiently different to grasp some attention. Fassbender shines in most scenes, although at least one fell very flat, but overall it’s a pleasure to see him return to the series. The effects are – again as you’d expect – excellent, and the alien itself is well shot and suitably terrifying. Unlike PROMETHEUS, COVENANT has some genuinely frightening moments, and it feels that the franchise has gotten back its edge in that sense.

However, for all its successes, COVENANT has some serious flaws. Despite marketing, and Scott’s pre-release interviews, this is not a true ALIEN film: COVENANT is very much a sequel to PROMETHEUS. It shares very many of the themes of the first movie (life, death, creation, gods etc), and as a result very many of its faults too.

My largest gripe with the film is the extremely crude – and ineffective – attempt at explaining the origin of the alien. I really feel that COVENANT fails in this respect because of the approach PROMETHEUS took to the xenomorph: this element could – and should – have been tackled in PROMETHEUS, not left until COVENANT. In short, as the lore currently stands, David created the aliens. Yes, you read that right. He made them. Ash’s “perfect organism” was made by another android “tinkering” with samples in a cave. That’s the current state of the creature’s origins, and it doesn’t sit well with me at all. I was hugely disappointed when this revelation was made. Once made, it’s pretty much glossed over without explanation or expansion: we’re just supposed to accept it and get on with the story. (Incidentally, if COVENANT’s explanation of the alien’s creation is accurate, neither AVP nor AVP: REQUIEM can be canon – the alien doesn’t even exist until David makes a hundred years later. Not only that, but COVENANT also de-canonising a raft of expanded universe sources from the comics, books and video games…)

When the alien does eventually turn up on screen (pacing-wise, the early third of COVENANT is quite slow: I could forgive that though, given the you could argue ALIEN has the same trajectory), it doesn’t look or feel like our alien. Scott has interfered with the basic principles of the creature’s lifecycle to such an extent that it’s barely the alien anymore. We all know how it goes: an egg hatches, a facehugger finds a victim, said victim is impregnated, chestburster hatches, alien infant is born, alien matures. Cameron inserted the alien queen into that cycle (a principle that, I suspect, Scott never really accepted as canon), and later movies established that the alien itself is mutable in appearance. I’m fine with that: and given that basic tenet of alien evolution, I’m also happy to accept that the alien might experience certain evolutionary mutations (ALIEN: RESURRECTION suggesting one, AVP: REQUIEM another). What Scott does in COVENANT is far from that, however. Firstly, there are no chest bursters. Instead, we have a weird, small, puppet-like alien. Secondly, the alien’s birthing cycle is interrupted (some may even say surpassed) by the fact that a host can be infected by inhaling spores as well. At least one host even gets infected by alien blood on the face…

Curiously, this very approach to the alien lifecycle was described in William Gibson’s ALIEN 3 script in the late 1980s. It was rejected as being too removed from what audiences knew as the established lore of the alien’s reproductive cycle. It also, to my mind, feels more THING than ALIEN…

When the alien is on the screen, it feels like an alien and sounds like one too. There are some very well-done action sequences involving both the xenomorph and the new creature (neomorph?). The battle in the wheatfield, with the new creatures bursting through the undergrowth, is excellent. Towards the end of the film, a couple of scenes which arguably echo ALIENS appear: these are also very effective, and I felt that the comparison to ALIENS here was too harsh. However, the final “chase” scene aboard the Covenant did feel too much like ALIEN.

This sequence is also robbed of any dramatic impact by the extremely unconvincing replacement of the ship’s android: Daniels’ struggle is pretty pointless, given that David is inevitably going to be left in control of the Covenant. You see, David has basically gone a bit bad in his isolation on the planet. Walter is a more restricted model, made with limits on his behaviour specifically to avoid such distortions. Fassbender plays both roles very well, although he has a lot more fun with David. Whilst there’s an interesting fight sequence between characters, many of their joint scenes feel clumsy and unnatural. A particular scene involving a flute was obviously written as a deep, emotional moment, but it comes across as funny and unconvincing. It also felt like a poor quality lift from BLADE RUNNER (reminding me of the scene where Roy Batty confronts Tyrell). Considering that we’d already had a fairly similar scene between Peter Weyland and the Engineer in PROMETHEUS, I really feel that these elements could’ve been trimmed or abandoned altogether.

So where does that leave us? I really, really wanted to enjoy COVENANT, and in some senses I did. However, it isn’t a significant advancement of the ALIEN franchise. It answers questions that I’d rather were left unanswered. Meanwhile, viewed as a sequel to PROMETHEUS, so much of that film remains unresolved. While I would definitely recommend going to see it and making up your own mind about the film, do not expect this movie to reach the heights of the original ALIEN franchise. Like the prequels to the STAR WARS films, it seems that we’re destined to have a paler shadow of the original ALIEN films by way of prologue too.

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