The release of Prometheus in 2012 should have been a cause of celebration for fans of science fiction, horror and cinema in general, the return of Ridley Scott to the long running franchise which he had launched in 1979 and which had drifted spectacularly awry in later years, yet the response was justifiably outraged towards a film riddled with inconsistencies and failures in plot, character and logic.
Perceiving that the major grievance was that Prometheus was a largely standalone film set in the same universe but with no direct links to Alien and crucially lacked the presence of the titular “xenomorphs,” it was decided that Alien: Covenant would directly address this absence. This is to misunderstand the underlying problem which was not that there were no xenomorphs in Prometheus, it was that it was simply a terrible film. The malaise misdiagnosed, the response is equally misguided.
Like Disney’s understandable desire to move their Star Wars films away from the prequel trilogy back towards the style of the originals which resulted in The Force Awakens being a remake of A New Hope in all but name, the urge to position Alien: Covenant as “more like Alien” has resulted in a film which, structurally, for the first half is in fact Alien, before devolving into a paint by numbers pick and mix greatest hits whose few drops of originality are drowned in the rolling ocean of déjà vu.
In December 2014 the colony ship USCSS Covenant is on course for the distant world of Origae-6 system, over 2,000 humans in hypersleep along with 1,200 frozen embryos watched over by Walter (X-Men: Apocalypse‘s Michael Fassbender), the latest and most advanced model of synthetic created by Weyland Yutani. Deploying the solar rigging to recharge before the next hyperjump, disaster strikes, a neutrino burst heralding the incoming aftershock of a major solar event.
The Covenant damaged and several crew and passengers killed including Captain Branson (11.22.63‘s James Franco in a role smaller than Guy Pearce had as Peter Weyland in Prometheus), repairs are underway when a transmission is received, garbled but apparently human in origin, the source a previously uncharted planet closer and more favourable than their intended destination.
First mate Oram (Watchmen‘s Billy Crudup) clashes with terraforming expert Daniels (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them‘s Katherine Waterston) who believes they should continue their planned mission, but determined to assert his new authority he makes the decision to alter course to track the repeating signal and assess whether this new world is suitable for colonisation.
Immediately forsaking the egregious stupidity of Prometheus, the characters in Covenant make smarter arguments and on the whole act professionally, at least until circumstances unravel, Oram specifically warning the expedition to observe security protocols as they explore the planet, though at times the script feels too much like a list acknowledging Prometheus‘ mistakes being checked off one by one.
What it lacks is the epic grandeur of Prometheus, the sense that this is an alien world whose every mountain and lake is unknown and unexplored, and though overall a more coherent film it is at best passably mediocre and could have achieved more had it not spent so much time consciously apologising for its immediate predecessor and then mimicking the earlier and better regarded films in the sequence.
Clearly aimed to please the fans of the series, counterintuitively Covenant is designed for those who are unfamiliar with it, previously staged scenes whose shocks are so well known the only reason for their inclusion can be to give the crowds exactly what they think they want, when what they should be given is new challenges and wider horizons, even if the land beneath is stained with blood.
Unlike the Colonial Marines of Aliens who were all given brief moments of distinct character to establish and differentiate themselves before boarding the express elevator to Hell, the crew of the Covenant fail to distinguish themselves before they are extinguished, some of them not even warranting introductions as though Scott and the screenwriters knew their imminent fates made the effort more trouble than it was worth.
Credited to John Logan (Star Trek Nemesis) and Dante Harper from a story by Jack Paglen (Transcendence) and Michael Green (Logan and the forthcoming Blade Runner 2049), there is only the briefest fragment of a flashback to tease the film which this should have been but isn’t, the arrival of David at the destination for which he and Elizabeth Shaw departed in the final scene of Prometheus, all else unfolding with tiresome predictability.
Daniels is no substitute for Ellen Ripley; while Ripley’s grief for her daughter adds depth to the director’s cut of Aliens it was removed in its entirety for the theatrical release without impacting the narrative in any way, but in the same way Shaw spent Prometheus weeping over her father, weeping over her inability to have children, weeping over her boyfriend, here Daniels is weeping over her husband almost from the opening moments, their relationship so deep that she has home movies of him, a farcical shorthand for emotion rather than genuine connection between character and audience.
In the dual role of Walter and David it is Fassbender who is given the most interesting roles which recall the relationship of Data and Lore, the isolated and unpredictable elder brother turned bad, and with his eccentricities and obsession with life in all its forms David has become more than a little like Roy Batty, most famous of the Nexus-6 replicants, the religious mania of his self-appointed messiah borrowing from Vincent Ward’s unmade concept for Alien 3, set in a space monastery rather than the prison of David Fincher’s produced version.
Yet it is Scott’s own Alien which he is most obsessed with revisiting, torches in the dark and the clanking chains which bind the industrial equipment in the Covenant’s hold, the nodding bird on the messroom table, the controls and displays exactly matching those of the Nostromo though with considerably more advanced internal tracking sensors and CCTV, lines quoted directly from Dan O’Bannon’s script, Jed Kurzel’s soundtrack built entirely around the atmospheric score composed by the late Jerry Goldsmith though his sole credit is “Alien theme by…”
Other than the mysterious derelict the ships of the Alien sequence have been generic and functional rather than elegant and the Covenant is no exception, devoid of personality and overlit in the opening scenes where it is supposedly in deep space, less convincing than the Nostromo and its refinery, beautifully crafted, lit and shot practical model work which remains a credit to the team who created it almost four decades later.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the big action scenes which fail to thrill, in particular the rescue mission a virtual roller coaster rather than the real thing, the characters battling a digital digital creation whose threat is barely convincing even when not shown in broad daylight, even before the preposterous “alien vision” point of view shots, the xenomorphs lacking visual organs.
For all the intention to bring them to the forefront it is the aliens which disappoint the most, the motion capture used to create the neomorphs and the protomorphs lacking the presence and necessary threat, killing machines with no grace or personality, the twisted shapes of Silent Hill if designed by Guillermo del Toro no match for H R Giger’s imagination though in David’s sketched bestiary there are nods to the late artist, in particular his iconic tribute to Li Tobler.
The intense pace of the narrative requiring that their life cycle matches that demonstrated in Alien vs Predator, pop tarts ready to burst within minutes of implantation then growing to full maturity as though they were balloons waiting to be inflated with helium as soon as they step offscreen, the credibility of the film is undermined even before the telegraphed less-than-grand finale which also owes a debt to that better forgotten film. While probably the best Alien film since the reinstated “assembly cut” of Alien 3, Alien: Covenant is another missed opportunity.
Alien Covenant is currently on general release and also screening in IMAX