In a year filled with highly anticipated sequels, Ridley Scott’s latest foray into the Alien franchise was at the top of my list. Although his previous entry, Prometheus (2012), had more than its fair share of detractors, I wasn’t one of them. After waiting what seemed like an eternity, Scott’s follow up finally hit theaters in the US, but didn’t quite scratch the itch. Selling audiences on action and fear, Alien: Covenant fails to answer (or even really address) the biggest questions raised by its predecessor and settles for merely connecting the dots.
Unfolding 10-years after the events of Prometheus, this film follows a new crew composed of couples heading to colonize a new world. When a technical problem with the spaceship throws a wrench in the works, the plan takes an incredibly risky turn and members of the expedition must battle to survive a variety of increasingly fierce threats. Chief among them is the infamous Xenomorph, which the film’s trailer isn’t coy about showing. Showcasing the creature in the trailer is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a lack of mystery in this film. At least the creature design was top notch with a modern take on a nostalgic return to form.
Scott is a visionary director who has tendency to do things on a grand scale and this film is no different. However, the scope of the film is relatively narrow despite the premise being built on a broad foundation. Once the primary plot point takes hold, the film quickly dissolves into a more traditional and one-dimensional monster movie without the cerebral appeal of its precursor. In an interview with Collider, Scott admitted that he succumbed to fan pressure to reintegrate his original monster into the film. Whether or not fans will respond positively this time around remains to be scene. One thing I can say with full confidence, this is the most intimidating version of the Xenomorph we’ve seen. Unlike other versions of the creature, full CGI renders allow for a level of mobility and alien athleticism that makes it far more imposing than ever before. Additionally, Scott upped the ante with the graphic violence in order to really drive his point home.
The screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper isn’t great, and that’s putting it mildly. Logan had worked on some very good scripts like Gladiator (2000) but this was Harper’s first. The dialogue isn’t consistently strong and has a tendency to wander into vagaries during what should be important explanations. Sadly, the characters aren’t well developed either and the crew lacks the kind of camaraderie which made the ensembles work in other installments in the franchise. Without much chemistry among the crew, it’s difficult to believe in their relationships and cheer for them. Additionally, every decision made by the crew goes directly against protocol and results in almost instant catastrophic failure. Even for a film about aliens and planet colonization, it became increasingly difficult to suspend disbelief with each ridiculous decision. These problems are only exacerbated by the decision to funnel the story through the non-human characters.
Michael Fassbender reprises his role as a Weyland Industries android and anchored a cast without other significant star power. He always delivers good performances and this wasn’t any different. We get to see a wider scope of his character’s emotions and internal motivations, as the film begins with the moment of his awakening by Mr. Weyland and explains some character development that isn’t present later in the film. If nothing else, it should etch him further into the franchise ethos. Drawing the short straw to fill the void left by Noomi Rapace is Katherine Waterston. She plays Daniels, the second officer in command (who is clearly cast in the image of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic Ripley). Those are some big shoes to fill and she just wasn’t up to the task, but she shouldn’t shoulder the blame. Her character introduction is meant to paint her as a sympathetic figure, but without the requisite background the audience can’t form an emotional attachment and the narrative falls flat (based on some extended clips I’ve seen, something undoubtedly got left on the editing room floor). Although Daniels is the only one with a legitimate character arc, her development comes far too late in the film and was poorly established beforehand.
Surprisingly, Danny McBride was the best part of the crew. His character Tennessee felt the most authentic, most human. Considering the aforementioned lack of chemistry, McBride was the only one even close to hitting the mark with his partner. Something about his style of comedy lends itself to a much deeper source of emotion and he tapped into it for this role. Don’t get me wrong, he won’t be winning any awards for his portrayal but, in a cast mostly void of any semblance of genuine emotion, it was a pleasant surprise to see it coming from him. Amy Seimetz plays his wife, Faris, who’s laughably bad. It wasn’t her acting, but the character is shockingly clumsy, drastically panicked in comparison to her crew mates and makes a series of increasingly dumb decisions in a very short period of time.
Then there’s Billy Crudup. Usually a very good actor, he didn’t seem very at home with his character Captain Oram either. Once again, the character wasn’t very well thought out and literally has dialogue explaining how blatantly unbelievable it is for his character to be captain. But sure, let’s run with it. As a “man of faith” he struggles to lead the crew and his faith-based decision making is met with total and utter disaster, further undermining the character choice. Damien Bichir is in this movie but it’s difficult to tell. He plays Lope, part of the military envoy for the colonization team, but for an actor of his caliber, he’s tragically buried in the background. There isn’t much in the way of bright spots looking at the rest of cast list. Aside from one surprising cameo, I didn’t recognize more than half the characters’ names because (as a means to an end) they are mostly forgettable.
Dariusz Wolski returned to the helm as director of photography, so the same vibrant visual style from Prometheus carried over. Chris Seagers did a good job with the production design and had extensive teams to keep on track. The visual effects team was massive and marrying all the different elements into a cohesive vision must have been a tall order for Supervising Art Director Ian Gracie. Set decoration by Victor J. Zolfo combined some sleek design with the more gritty feel of Aliens (1986). Janty Yates costume design was an interesting departure as the cast was dressed in what looked like more utilitarian camping gear. One of the most important elements in Prometheus was Marc Streitenfeld’s original score. It was a brilliant piece of music which captured feelings of hope and wonder. That is noticeably absent from the film as Jed Kurzel took over with a much more intense tone, although homage is payed to Streitenfeld in the film.
I wouldn’t call this movie terrible because it’s well made from a technical standpoint, but I do think it failed to hit the mark in several areas. It takes a while to get to the real point even though shit hits the fan almost right away, but the last 45 minutes of the film are more entertaining than the first hour-fifteen. Unfortunately, the end of the film is painfully uninspired and unsurprising as well. Although the connections to Prometheus are left in Fassbender’s capable hands, those explanations are flimsy and only left me with even more questions. Why is their human vegetation on this planet? Why does an android have hair that grows? Is it possible for artificial intelligence to lose its mind? How come no one is wearing space suits? Why is everyone so massively unprepared? For fans of Prometheus, this film will do little to quench your thirst for knowledge but should bridge the gap for future installments in the larger Alien franchise.
Recommendation: As a stand alone effort, it works as a action-horror-thriller, even though it’s not really rewarding. As a piece of a larger puzzle, there is a lot to be desired. The R rating is appropriate and not a great choice for kids. Considering the lack of competition at the box office, Covenant isn’t the worst way to spend your money this weekend.