In space no-one can hear you philosophise…
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride
Directed by: Ridley Scott / Written by: John Logan and Dante Harper (story by Jack Paglen and Michael Green) / 122 minutes
What’s it about?
Diverting to investigate the origins of a mysterious signal, the crew of the colony ship Covenant are soon fighting for their lives against horrific and unstoppable creatures…
In 2012, director Ridley Scott reawakened the dormant (some would even say stagnant) Alien franchise with Prometheus, a sort of quasi-prequel to the original 1979 classic that took place within that universe whilst charting its own course by exploring deep existential and philosophical themes concerning the origins of life and the horrific consequences of playing God. Although divisive amongst fans of the iconic science fiction/horror series, the questions posited by Prometheus and a desire to correct some of its perceived shortcomings have lead to this latest instalment, Alien: Covenant, with mixed results acheived.
Picking up ten years after the close of Prometheus, we are introduced to the colony ship ‘Covenant’, whose core crewmembers are awakened prematurely in critical circumstances by on board synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender). As vital repairs to the ship are attended to, the interception of a mysterious signal leads to the discovery of a nearby Earth-like planet that the crew believes may be a more idyllic site for colonisation than their original destination and an investigative course deviation warranted. It’s needless to say from there that ‘paradise’ is ultimately not what it seems and harbours dark secrets that will turn the colonist’s hopes for a prosperous new life into a fight for survival.
Whilst Prometheus took strides to set itself apart from being a traditional Alien film (more an extension of the universe rather than a completely devoted tie-in or continuation of it), Covenant is unmistakably that, returning the series to its harder horror roots, with some twists on familiar elements as it works to further develop the Alien prequel story and continue discussions of life and creation.
For its first half, Covenant takes a slow, measured approach, allowing a steady build-up of intrigue and an ominous sense of foreboding before unleashing monstrosities – both new and old – upon the unsuspecting human players. It’s as grisly and bloody an affair as director Scott has been teasing, the terror aided by a mix of classic Giger designs with the new ‘neomorph’ creature – a suitable evolution from the creations we saw in Prometheus. It’s in the film’s second half where things start to derail and go awry as the script, despite lofty ambitions as it references Byron and Mary Shelley, falls victim to cliché and predictability as it begins to check off a grocery list of scenarios similar to what we’ve already seen before and not necessarily helped by lashings of fan service. It culminates in some exciting but perhaps slightly misguided blockbuster CGI spectacle that attempts to meld Prometheus with Alien and Aliens, leading to a derivative finale that feels rushed and lacking in suspense. There are also some questionable narrative choices along the way, particularly those concerning the origins of the alien ‘xenomorphs’ that may irk long term fans of the franchise especially considering that (much like Prometheus) it further demystifies Alien.
In terms of the cast, Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts) does a decent job of portraying Daniels, another strong female character type who is actually something a little more than the mere Ripley-clone the marketing suggests. Watchmen’s Billy Crudup is also great in a believable turn as Oram, the Covenant’s captain and man of faith, whose spirituality permits further exploration of the existential ponderings posed by Prometheus. It’s also worth mentioning Danny McBride who proves to be another notable member of the cast – and certainly not comic relief – as the ship’s pilot, Tennessee. However, Alien: Covenant really belongs to the excellent Michael Fassbender who excels in the dual role of android ‘synthetics’ Walter and David. With a captivatingly subtle and nuanced performance (and an effortless switch between accents) he is arguably the film’s strongest draw.
Although the script for Covenant may be problematic, there’s no faulting Ridley Scott’s direction as he once again demonstrates his talent for world-building and the ability to present a visually astounding film by marrying beautiful and striking photography from its New Zealand locations with brilliant production design that’s only let down by a reduced emphasis on practical effects in the creature action.
Despite its flaws, Covenant is still an enjoyable enough addition to the Alien franchise. It’s by no means its greatest instalment but there’s no doubt that Ridley Scott’s film is superior to Alien: Resurrection and Alien vs Predator albeit far from being on the same level as Alien and Aliens and is quite likely to prove as divisive as Prometheus.
The bottom line: Hindered by predictability and a rushed finale, as well as controversial story choices, Alien: Covenant is carried by its arresting visuals and the performance of lead actor Michael Fassbender.
Alien: Covenant is in cinemas across the UK now and opens in the US and worldwide from 19th May.