Alien: Covenant review – Halfway to nowhere
At what point do you call a franchise a failure and simply move on? Granted, in today’s Hollywood that point may never come as long as a property still holds the interest of people and there’s the chance of a reboot, but with six movies (not counting two crossover spinoffs), four of which fell somewhere between underwhelming and bad, it might be time to give the Alien franchise a rest – or at least take it away from Ridley Scott.
If you saw Prometheus, you know the direction Scott wants the franchise to go. In his mind, the enduring popularity seems to be thanks to the enigma behind the xenomorphs, a wholly alien species capable of decimating humanity. To most audiences, however, we just want a sci-fi film that properly combines horror and suspense.
Both Alien and Aliens are modern masterpieces. Alien was an incredible suspense/horror film that used the isolation of space to emphasize the desperation of the circumstances. Aliens masterfully played on that convention, positioning itself as the opposite of its predecessor, masquerading as an action film until it revealed itself to be similar in tone to the original. The next two seemed pale imitation by comparison, both looking to imitate rather than reinterpret the franchise. Then came Prometheus.
With Prometheus, Scott looked to change the direction of the franchise. The xenomorphs became a footnote to the story of the origin of humanity and the meaning of life. In theory, that’s a smart move. It breathes originality into a franchise four decades old. Unfortunately, it had plenty of flaws. The story was disjointed, the characters were underdeveloped, and the characters kept doing dumb things. Like, how do xenobiologists discover an organic alien object and literally just start poking it? It also raised a lot of questions that were interesting, but left unanswered.
Scott seems to have heard the criticisms about Prometheus when it comes to Covenant, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Covenant picks up a few years after Prometheus, when the colony ship Covenant is damaged in a solar storm. The crew is awakened from cryosleep by the ship’s android, the familiar looking Walter (Michael Fassbender). After repairing the ship, they discover a feint distress call from a nearby planet that appears habitable. They decide to investigate.
By the way, in one of the more annoying signs of the changing nature of Hollywood, you should watch the prologue introducing the crew, and especially the second clip that is essentially an epilogue to Prometheus. It’s almost essential. It is briefly recapped in Covenant, but not nearly as well and knowing what it shows changes how you see the character of David (also Fassbender).
Viral marketing is great and all, but it’s not viral if it is required. At that point, it’s a failing of the film.
The distress call leads the crew to the ship commandeered by Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and her pet robot head, David, as seen at the end of Prometheus. It also leads the crew to the remains of the Engineers’ city and a strain of nano-weapon that creates a proto-xenomorph. It also introduces the crew to the fully rebuilt David, who takes them in when things go sideways.
Naturally, things aren’t what they seem, and there are a bunch of gory deaths.
Without getting into spoilers, there are also a few twists that you’ll see coming a mile off. One is so obvious that you have to wonder why the film didn’t just lean into it and choose suspense over surprise. In what should be one of the more important moments in the franchise, a significant action revolving around David that happens before the film isn’t given much thought either. It’s barely mentioned.
The plot also overcompensates for some of the issues seen in Prometheus. The previous movie was ostensibly all about the nature of life and the beings known as the Engineers. That is resolved and forgotten in a way that makes Prometheus even more ridiculous in retrospect.
In some ways, the story seems to be written the wrong way around. Covenant is all about the end point which connects to Alien and the films that followed it, and everything else is just filler. Hardcore fans will appreciate some of the connections, but Covenant goes way, way out of its way to set these moments up rather than just telling a good story. There are some action and suspenseful moments, but they are separated by huge stretches of poorly paced sections.
The cast helps to elevate some of the flatter moments of the script, and Fassbender is especially strong in a dual role as Walter and David, androids that share a face but have very different outlooks. His performance is an absolute highlight. Katherine Waterson as Daniels also does a lot with very little development, while Danny McBride is a surprising scene stealer.
The rest of the cast is more than competent, but they aren’t given enough to stand out. Billy Crudup’s character Oram, for example, briefly struggles with command and mentions once – just once – that his piety puts him at odds with others. It’s then quickly forgotten and that’s as much development as he gets. Most of the others you won’t even know their names.
The biggest issue with Covenant is simply that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It tries to tap into the suspense and horror of the earlier films but doesn’t go far enough. It also dips its toe into the philosophy of Prometheus, but never expands on it. It also hints at expanding the mythology including the role of the Engineers, but then stops short. It goes halfway in every direction then stops. The result is an underwhelming film, made more disappointing by the pedigree it is built on.
Alien Covenant review conclusion
Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens are both amazing films that have kept interest alive in a series that is fast approaching its 40th anniversary. Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrection were both met with mixed reviews and modest box office results, while Prometheus made money but couldn’t live up to expectations. Add in Covenant and you have two great films and four mediocre ones.
Scott should be commended on his ambition if nothing else, but there seems to be a fundamental difference in what he wants and what fans want. There is absolutely a happy middle ground between the two, but unfortunately this film isn’t it.
Alien: Covenant is rated R with a running time of 120 minutes.