Directed by Ridley Scott
I dunno about you, but I really didn’t think I could get excited about the thought of a new Alien film in 2017. After watching the once great movie monster mix with a dog, orgy with Ripley and verse Predator I figured there was no life left in the franchise. Yet as soon as the trailer for Covenant dropped, I was dead happy to be wrong. Having initially enjoyed Prometheus, before realising it was colossal bore, I was glad to see the Xenomorphs back at the forefront in all their acidic glory. Moreover, the stunning scenery, enigmatic tone and sense of peril suggested original helmer Ridley Scott was back to his A game and the series basics.
From the offset it certainly seems this way: a ship responds to an unusual signal, landing on a mysterious planet, and before long something gets beneath the crew members’ skin. However, there are some twists on the original formula – this time the ship is a colony one (called Covenant), and rather than returning home they’re on the hunt for a new one. Luckily the strange transmission, that seems to be a famous folk song, leads them to a habitable paradise complete with beautiful views, water supplies aplenty and wheat. But then there are also little black bugs that have a nasty habit of swarming in people’s ears. As chests are burst open, and spines are bust, this would be heaven turns into hell. Along the way there are a few big, albeit predictable, twists (that I won’t spoil) and a couple of white knuckle action scenes.
The crew, who take us on this journey, are a likable bunch. There’s the new kick arse heroine Daniels (Waterston), the first mate with faith Christopher (Crudup) and the trustworthy pilot Tennessee (an oddly dramatic Danny McBride) among others. There’s even a cameo from James Franco. Each member of the cast gets good chances to show off their acting chops, as the plot takes them from tragedy to triumph and then back again. Then there’s the series signature synthetic, Walter (Fassbender) – an update on Prometheus’ predecessor David, who appears in the prologue. Despite being hardwired to serve the crew, the crew and nothing but the crew, without emotion, it’s this character that provides much of the film’s heart. His unreciprocal friendship with Daniels makes for some of the most moving scenes, and his later musings with a different character provide much of the film’s meaning.
Because make no mistake – despite being, on face value, a horror film, Alien Covenant is more concerned with the mystic than the macabre. From the opening scene, which discusses the origins of life, this is a film that asks the big questions. Repeatedly. However, the pondering thankfully doesn’t get in the way of it traversing the lush landscapes of an uncharted utopia and bringing in the franchise’s most tense sequences since 1986. As well as discussing our origins, it also further explores the Xenomorphs’, revealing why they were generated and what their nastu, primitive forms were. All credit to Scott – he manages to make the almost 40 year old iconography both interesting and scary again. I can’t emphasise enough just how refreshing this part was, even if (as I will come to later) the species’ potential is not fully realised.
Ridley’s also not lost his visual flair, with the planet’s natural and man-made architecture looking characteristically spectacular. From the vast mountains to the deep caverns it’s all ultra-moody and highly atmospheric. The inside of the ship is also very detailed, with an intricate design and some authentic future tech. Fans will also be delighted to see the return of AI voice, MUTHUR. The cast are generally very strong too, with their naturalistic performances elevating the drama beyond space-opera and giving weight to all the themes the surprisingly talky script deals with. Waterston, in particular, is a top addition who injects a lot of personality into a role that will hopefully not be lazily compared to Ripley.
Because this isn’t a proper Alien prequel – it’s much more a Prometheus sequel. And although there’s a greater focus on the titular creature this time, I imagine a large part of the fan base would much rather this was something it isn’t. Because, beneath the philosophising on creation, there lies a very simple idea: a fucking scary creature. Sadly it’s this part that gets sidelined. Granted, there are some creepy bits, yet most of the time the Xenomorphs are explored as a concept rather than an adversary. On one hand their demystification makes them seem all the more perfect an enemy, being the ultimate war machine. Yet it also reduces them to a tool and a means to an end instead of a natural organism. In some ways thinking of the one in the original as the latest of an organism that’s less than 50 years old cheapens rather than enhances the experience. Goofy shower scene aside, their hunt/ chase sequences are, admittedly, well done regardless of where they came from. Just annoyingly there aren’t many ‘til the last act. Plus, with the ones we see being mostly limited to newborns, they lack the best of the saga’s bite.
Yes, it’d be nice to think of this film in isolation, yet with it acting as a bridge between two others (with the soundtrack even nostalgically recalling themes from the first) it’s tricky to do so. Sure, it’s a step up from Prometheus, and I doubt many who liked that will be disappointed. Though with the news of another prequel to come, I’m looking forward to the timeline catching up so we can go back to the first two. Sometimes the destination is more rewarding than the journey.