Starring: Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup
Director: Ridley Scott
Running Time: 122 mins
Synopsis: 10 years after the ill-fated journey of the Prometheus, the spaceship Covenant is on a 7 year trip to a new planet in the hopes of starting a new colony. The 15 members of the crew, all couples, are awoken early by a catastrophic event. Vulnerable and shaken they hear the distant sounds of a signal calling for help. Upon investigating they land on a planet that will offer nothing but fear, pain and death.
Unlike the Xenomorph at its centre the Alien franchise has had a rough evolution. Kicking off with the seminal horror provided by Ridley Scott in the late 70s before segueing into the science fiction action movie wonder of James Cameron’s Aliens. Unfortunately studio interference and differing opinions of where to take the story led to a disjointed but intriguingly unusual third film, before Alien Resurrection all but destroyed the legacy with its weird hybrid baby and multiple Ripley clones. Then we have the hideous crossover duo of Alien Vs Predator and its tragic sequel, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the Xenomorph as we knew it was dead for good. Into the pot steps the originator of everything Ridley Scott, who brought us the messy but complex ideas of Prometheus. A big budget treatise on creation, humanity and religion, it had some terrific performances and magnificently accomplished visuals. Sadly the film stumbled through poor characterisation and ties to the Alien universe that were a tad confused.
Determined to steer the ship more firmly towards the Alien universe of the very first film, Scott has now chosen to return to the well again with a more viscerally overt prelude to those horrors. If you’re wondering whether this is more an Alien prequel or a Prometheus sequel, the answer is a frustrating yet compelling amalgamation of both. As Covenant opens we are very much in Prometheus territory with a quiet complex scene featuring Guy Pearce’s Weyland and Fassbender returning as the android David. The scene is set just after David’s birth as he attempts to grasp his reasoning for existing, amidst high culture such as Wagner on the piano (it is evident this is a blockbuster with high minded aspirations). Weyland’s affection towards his creation is tempered by the cruel servitude he pushes David to. It is a stunningly ballsy scene, eschewing the usual bombast most summer movies aim for in favour of a thematically nuanced character study that influences not only latter events but gives clarity to some of Prometheus’s plot turns.
Soon enough we are falling through space as the large scale colony ship Covenant makes its way to a new planet to colonise. Once more the camera quietly stalks the barren corridors of a darkened ship as the crew and the 2000 colonists sleep. Except for one coldly calm presence, the android Walter. Once more played by Michael Fassbender this android is markedly different to the psychotic David, with Fassbender doing hugely subtle work in distinguishing the two of them via delicate accent changes and physicality. In a move that speaks volumes to the human contradiction of artificial creation Walter has been programmed to learn the lessons of the unpredictable earlier machines, as far too many people found the David iteration scarily realistically human.
Unexpectedly the ship is subject to a tragic event that stirs the crew from their slumber in time to see their captain brutally burned alive (a surprisingly and strangely brief cameo from James Franco). Shaken by this cataclysm, the crew all attempt to fix the ship and grieve. Notably Katherine Waterston’s Daniels who was married to said captain. In a move that distances itself from the previous crews usually seen in the Alien films, the 15 souls here are all couples. A mix of old and young, straight and gay, it is a refreshing change up of formula. Sadly they are for the most part quite thinly sketched, with only a few rising above to stick in the memory. Waterston has shades of Ripley, especially in the more gung-ho final moments which veer heavily into Aliens territory, but is predominately vulnerable throughout. Her chemistry with Walter opens avenues that makes later plot turns far more palpable. Danny McBride is delightfully straight-laced as the ships pilot and displays some keen heart as the film progresses. I was worried with his casting that he would simply be the wise-cracker of the piece but Ridley has no time for cracks once the horror begins. The only other crew member given any real chewy material is Billy Crudup as the replacement Captain. A man of faith, he is a decent presence but veers a little too close to the questionable character choices that so marred Prometheus.
Despite the relatively languid pace of the opening 30mins, similar to the slow builds of Alien and Aliens, Scott doesn’t focus enough on the teams interactions beyond the lovey dovey romantic leanings. The first two films worked so well because its men and women felt so believable, from the wages debating and dinnertime conversations in Alien to the machismo banter of Aliens the eventual deaths of said crews felt tougher because we liked these people. A few flashes exist here and there but Covenant largely avoids it, with the online only prologue offering better context as to their relationships but strangely not featuring as part of the film itself.
Of course no sooner have they fixed the ship, stunningly realised CGI work as always from Scott’s VFX team, than a distress message is received. A fragmented image of an apparent human woman singing what sounds like a John Denver song, one of many surreal touches screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper add in, leads the crew to a planet that may be more habitable than their original destination. Suffice to say it wouldn’t be an Alien film if they didn’t decide to venture down there. Flying across some beautiful painterly landscape shots by regular Ridley cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, the crew land and begin their explorations. Scott masterfully builds up the tension here, cutting across multiple locations to gently crank things higher and higher. The eventual release is bloody, gooey and horrific. Covenant isn’t just content to revisit the Alien we know so well, dropping in some delightfully nasty little creatures that exit the body brutally. These Neomorphs, as they become known, are a hideous monstrosity but lose a little impact through a tad too much CGI augmentation. Scott also chooses to film many of the violent encounters in clouded darkness lessening the force as you struggle at times to make out what is happening. Later as the Xenomorph we know so well comes to the party some may baulk at the fact we see so much of it, but handy little distinctions are made to offer evidence that there is still some evolution to go before we meet the Alien of the original film.
After the initial attack the film does not let up, with the return of Fassbender’s David offering some of the films more stranger, chewier aspects than simple horror. David’s appearance brings with it Covenant’s dovetail back into Prometheus territory. Philosophical monologues, surreal conversations with dual Fassbenders and a gradual build towards some horrific revelations come out of leftfield from the more genre formalities of the earlier gore filled moments. It could lead to a few in the audience feeling frustrated, especially those expecting wall to wall gore. Despite that it is certainly better integrated than in the clunkier Prometheus, and provides ample material to chew on. Notions of Gods, the follies of creation and the drive to achieve perfection are all present and correct, with Fassbender proving once more to be a captivating and monstrously believable villain. Mind you one scene involving flutes, the two Fassbenders and some unfortunately unintended sexual innuendo will likely result in guffaws more than contemplation’s.
Things build to the aforementioned Aliens-alike action finale, with a predictable but no less brutal final twist leaving things on a distinctly nihilistic ending, leading inevitably to a further sequel. A sequel that I am genuinely excited for. People will always wince at the fact these prequels manage to reveal that which was so effectively mysterious in that seminal first film, but the twisting of this story into far deeper richer material is for the most part rewarding. Scott once more conjures up a production with huge skill and control, especially notable when you think how quick he works (the film was begun less than a year ago). Notable callbacks to his original feature exist organically, with particular credit given to Jed Kurzel’s score which uses cues from both Alien and Prometheus subtly. There is still a slight imbalance in the genre leanings of the two opposing films but Covenant marks a steady improvement towards what will hopefully be one final hurrah from Scott. The evolution may not be as perfect as the organism as its heart but sometimes the fun is in the creating.
Verdict: Alien: Covenant improves upon its predecessor with ferocious thrills, chewy ideas, and a beguiling dual Fassbender performance. However the lack of a memorable crewmember and some imbalance to the smart film/genre movie duality at its core stop it from becoming a full success.