When Ridley Scott allows the blood and gore to flow Alien:Covenant succeeds. It’s when it tries to honor Prometheus that problems arise.
In 1979 director Ridley Scott set the bar high when he created Alien. In 2012 he returned to the series with a spin-off, Prometheus. Prometheus received its fair share of negative reviews, and considering Scott’s track record, many have asked whether his best films are behind him. When Alien: Covenant was announced, fans hoped for a return to form. Scott himself even said he’d listened to people’s complaints regarding Prometheus. Unfortunately, for the man who gave audiences the best sci-fi heroine, Covenant works best when it’s honoring Alien and massively fails when it hearkens back to Prometheus, and the balance lies more in favor of the latter.
The year is 2104 and the crew of a colony ship are making their way to a new home planet. When they get a signal and discover a planet capable of sustaining life they believe they’ve cut their journey short. But the robot companion David (Michael Fassbender) tells the crew a story of violence and terror, leading the crew to try to get off the planet as quickly as possible.
With Prometheus, audiences were turned off by the movie’s bleak, pretentiousness as Scott and crew pondered the meaning of life. Alien: Covenant seeks to have a bit more fun with its premise — it does bring back Alien into the title — though the title takes two minutes to mordantly reveal itself. Borrowing from the 1979 original, the crew is quickly introduced as having lived on the ship for several years.
Though character names never reveal themselves fully – at least four characters names were revealed to me with the help of IMDb – it’s easily deduced that Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is meant to be this film’s Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) when she’s more Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace). Like Rapace’s character in Prometheus, Daniels is traveling with her husband — played by James Franco in what I’m assuming is deleted footage — who dies within the first minute. Her only friend is Walter (Fassbender), another robot copy of Prometheus‘ David, and she clashes with the leader of the ship (Billy Crudup replacing Charlize Theron).
Unlike Weaver’s character, the script fails to give Waterston any personality. She’s not charming, or funny; she barely interacts with her fellow crew members despite an implied camaraderie. The only thing we truly know is she’s logical where everyone else is stupid. When she tells Crudup’s Oram that the planet is “too good to be true,” he mansplains the logic of the locale and overrides her. Scott subscribes to a level of feminist storytelling that he believes is progressive, failing to understand why ladies have embraced Ellen Ripley all these years.
Once the crew gets to the new planet — compelled by a John Denver song leading one to assume this is a shared universe with Free Fire — the actual aliens arrive. Characters remain just as inept and stupid as they were in Prometheus leaving questions of how any were cleared for space travel. People will randomly trounce on plants or, the old standby, touch things that are too goopy for their own good. By the time the film cuts to a completely random sex scene, you’ll be happy to see the movie embrace its ’80s horror roots, even if it’s at the expense of any of these people being considered as scientists.
When Alien: Covenant embraces its Alien roots it’s pure fun. If you thought the Xenomorph bursting out of John Hurt’s chest was the best thing ever, you’re in for a treat. This movie knows several deliciously gruesome ways of getting an alien out of a human. However this comprises less than half of an already bloated two-hour movie. Two dueling Michael Fassbenders pontificating over Byron and Paradise Lost will leave you begging for a Xenomorph to pop out of someone’s eye socket or something.
As much as Scott claims he rectified between this and the previous installment, Alien: Covenant is just a continuation of Prometheus. After the crew get to the planet they’re saved by a hooded David who tells a tale of survival alongside an unseen Rapace as Shaw. Fassbender’s David remains just as creepy and unsettling as ever, if retaining the pretentiousness that people found irksome in the previous film. He’s complimented this go-round by another robot, Walter, a kind, caring and limited soul. The prospect of watching two Fassbender’s duke it out for supremacy is fun, in theory. But Scott uses them to opine some more about the nature of creation and what causes us to rebel against our creators. This takes up significant portions of the second act, completely erasing the aliens, and even the ship’s crew, to become a one-man Fassbender show which ends with a “twist” everyone saw coming in my theater.
The rest of the cast is just bland, shiftless creations there as cannon (or, more accurately, Xenomorph) fodder. You’ll be surprised to see solid character actors like Carmen Ejogo and Demian Bechir in this, who probably would have given fine performances if they had motivation and nuance in their scriptwriting. Billy Crudup is the film’s “true believer” who reiterates his faith like he’s auditioning for a PureFlix movie. Outside of Fassbender, who’s gifted the entire movie, Waterston and Danny McBride, as Tennessee, are Alien: Covenant’s strongest allies; unsurprising since they are connected to the film’s Alien side more than anything. McBride pulls out a serious dramatic turn, particularly when his wife is killed.
I’m a casual Alien fan so whether H.R. Giger’s influence is felt or not is negligible to me for the Xenomorphs. They look creepy and have enhanced movement. But you can tell Scott isn’t interested in showing them off, and generally uses them for jump scares.
If you enjoyed Prometheus, Alien: Covenant gives you more of that film’s philosophy with an added dose of blood and guts. But if you’re still pining for the days of chest bursters and face huggers galore, you really gotta wait for it here. When Alien: Covenant is an Alien movie, it soars. But when Scott gets into sad, drippy philosophizing, it’s a snore.