OnScreen Review: 'Alien: Covenant'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

Ridley Scott made two landmark sci-fi films early on in his career as a director, Alien and Blade Runner.  When it was announced that he was returning to the Alien franchise in 2012’s Prometheus, it was huge news.  Prometheus ended up being quite divisive as a prequel to Alien; some people enjoyed it, some people complained about the script from Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, and others complained that there was not enough connective tissue to the original.  I consider it a good but flawed film that has some opaque story elements that do it no favors.  It took me a third viewing of the film recently to finally understand fully everything to do with the Engineers and the black goop from the containers.  Ridley Scott announced shortly after Prometheus that he intended to make more prequels that would eventually lead into the events of Alien.  The fact that the film is titled Alien: Covenant is an indication that this installation in the franchise intends to hew far closer to the original subject material than Prometheus did.  While it certainly gives more fan service than Prometheus by actually including Xenomorphs this time around, it comes at a surprising cost to the franchise and left me at a crossroads.

Picking up 10 years after the events of Prometheus, where Dr. Elizabeth Shaw and the android David (Michael Fassbender) were the only survivors of the Prometheus crew, the Covenant, a colony ship, is journeying through the galaxy with a cargo of settlers on its way to a distant planet for colonization, with the crew and passengers all in stasis save for their “synthetic” Walter (Fassbender).  A sudden neutrino burst causes damage to the ship and kills a few of the crew and settlers in the process, including the captain of the ship, who was the husband of one of the crew, Daniels (Katherine Waterston).  While repairing the ship they encounter a distress call from a nearby planet that looks habitable.  With the loss of loved ones and co-workers fresh in their minds and they make the decision to deviate from their journey to investigate this new planet rather than go back into cryosleep for a few more years.  When they arrive, they find a planet full of vegetation but devoid of animal life.  While on the planet, events, problems, and revelations eventually reveal to them the fate of the crew of the Prometheus and what dangers are lurking on this planet.

Like Prometheus, Alien: Covenant has great special effects and overall cinematography.  Ridley Scott is someone with an eye for impressive visuals and there are some great shots in this film, both in space and on the planet.  The Covenant inventively unfurls solar sails to recharge the ship as it journeys through space.  While in orbit above the planet, intense storms are visible on the surface below.  The crew on the surface of the planet eventually makes their way to the remains of a civilization on the planet that looks like a sprawling, open graveyard.  Whether in the Alien franchise, Blade Runner, Gladiator, or any other number of films he has made, Scott has the ability to create shots and moments that are stunning.

There are a lot of aspects I enjoyed about the film.  It follows a similar arc to that of Alien in that film builds to the eventual horror of the Xenomorphs.  There are even new creatures this time around too, Neomorphs, which are paler variations on the traditional Xenomorph creatures.  The facehuggers also pop up in the film, and are as creepy as ever.  I also enjoyed the creativity that went into how these creatures gestate and also in how they attack.  Part of the horror thrill with these films is how these monsters appear, bursting out of people that they have been incubating in.  The one disappointment in this department, though, is that the alien creatures are CGI.  No matter how advanced special effects have come, practical effects Xenomorphs like the ones in Alien and Aliens are far superior to the CGI Xenomorphs of Alien: Covenant

Seeing Fassbender get to play dual roles is a treat, of course, but at times Ridley Scott seems preoccupied with what these androids say about humanity and more interested in David than the larger story.  Katherine Waterston’s Daniels has obvious parallels to Ripley.  Danny McBride, known more for his crude comedy, gets a chance to shine doing other material, and his performance was a real highlight for me.  Billy Crudup is in the film as the man who takes over as captain.  The character is a bit of a disappointment in that he is someone who is a “man of faith” but this character aspect really doesn’t bring much to the table.  I thought the relationship between science and faith was touched upon far better in Prometheus through Dr. Shaw than it is here, where it really serves no purpose.

Where I find myself at a crossroads with Alien: Covenant is that despite having so many ingredients that I liked and could enjoy or appreciate the finished product leaves a bad taste in my mouth.  I am unable to shake the feeling that it is something I wanted, but having it I am saying to myself, “This… is… wrong.  We shouldn’t be doing this.  What have we done?  This is wrong.”   With this film, Ridley Scott has fallen into the Hollywood mindset that everything has to be explained.  It is the great fallacy, or at least the great double-edged sword, of the prequel business.  So many prequels exist merely in service to the pre-existing story that has already been told.

I found myself reminded of the Star Wars prequels.  Strip away all of the Jar Jars Binks, the wooden acting, the soliloquys about sand, and the uninteresting politics of the Galactic Senate, the Star Wars prequels tell the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.  Ultimately, though, is that a story we need to know as an audience?  It’s not essential to the character that we have every single detail of how Vader became the Vader we see in Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  If anything, it takes away from the character because it eliminates any mystery and removes all speculation because everything is spelled out. 

Alien: Covenant diminishes the mystique of the Xenomorph and Alien in the process.  Part of what makes the Xenomorph so terrifying and great as a movie monster is that mystique.  In Alien, Ash says to the crew members of the Nostromo that are still alive, “You still don’t understand what you’re dealing with, do you?  A perfect organism; its structural perfection matched only by its hostility… I admire its purity; a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.”  That moment is sobering and chilling.  Space is an inhospitable place as it is, largely unexplored and mostly devoid of life.  To travel out into the far reaches of space and not just find something dangerous out there but actively hostile that has developed and evolved and can survive in an environment where we cannot, and that it has all happened beyond the sight of mankind adds to the terror of the Xenomorph.  All of that is thrown out the window when you explain the who, why, and how of the origins of the Xenomorph in this much detail.  To put it another way, the supposed boogeyman in the closet becomes a lot less scary when you fully explain everything that is actually in the closet.

Alien: Covenant is a well-made, well-acted, well-produced film.  There are plenty of scares and sci-fi horror moments to make people squirm in their seats and plenty of moments with Xenomorphs and facehuggers to satisfy fans.  But at the heart of it all is something that undermines and diminishes part of what makes the franchise and the monster at the center of it so great.  I’ve rarely been as conflicted about a film as this one.  Even Prometheus sat better with me, but taken together Prometheus is perhaps part of the problem too.  These films feature characters that are interested in terraforming, but these prequels aren’t terraforming but strip mining the universe they have created.  Rarely, if ever, has a film like Alien: Covenant given me so many elements to like but ultimately left me wishing it was a film that had never been made.  To paraphrase Dr. Shaw in Prometheus, I was so wrong.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars