This weekend Ridley Scott combines the space-horror thrills of Alien with the creation myth lectures of Prometheus in Alien: Covenant. Attempting to blend the more traditional scares of the early franchise films with the big themes first broached in his first prequel, Scott has – if you’ll pardon the pun – created a monster. Part Frankenstein story, part slasher flick, Alien: Covenant is an uneasy blend that makes you think Scott tacked an Alien story to the one he really wanted to tell, just to appease studio executives. While you have to admire the grand tapestry Scott is striving to weave with his prequels, what Alien: Covenant delivers is a beautiful, self-serious genesis story, wrapped in a threadbare space horror blanket.
Scott begins with a rather engaging premise. A colony ship filled with hibernating humans and thousands of ready-to-go embryos, is manned by a crew of seven married couples and a robot named Walter (Michael Fassbender). Well, six couples and Daniels (Katherine Waterston), our new fierce, level-headed heroine who is freed up for the protagonist role after her husband dies in a terrible cryo-tube accident. This motley crew are soaring through the universe searching for a new home, when they receive a distress beacon in the form of a John Denver song coming from a habitable planet nearby. Not just a habitable planet though, the perfect planet…”too perfect” intones Daniels as Billy Crudup’s First Mate Oram ignores her completely. The distress beacon comes from Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) who – ten years previous – seemingly crash landed on this planet after escaping the events of Prometheus along with her robot sidekick David (also Michael Fassbender). Let’s just say that situations haven’t improved much for Dr. Shaw since we last saw her.
Against Daniels’ warnings, and the original mission plan, Oram orders the fast-talking pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) to orbit the planet so that a landing party can head down. Eager to get colonizin’, the crew of the Covenant are soon traipsing around this unknown world care – and space suit – free, following the distress call to the alien ship. In a fashion typical of Scott’s franchise the characters are split up, with some on the ground, some in the lander and others on the orbiting ship; all the better to hear the screams of terror through crackling radios, and to keep some characters alive until the bitter end. Things get gruesome quickly as – infected by alien spores – a few nameless crew members become birthing vehicles for the alien xenomorphs who now explode out of backs instead of chests, and take mere minutes to gestate. Hunted by the blood-thirsty beasts the survivors hole up in the crashed space ship where the android David waits…as if he’s been expecting them.
The prequel hits all the beats of an Alien film, which is a good and bad thing. Good, because fans in the mood for blood and guts will not leave disappointed, but bad in that there is little about this formula left to surprise us. Like in Prometheus, it’s clear Scott’s interests are elsewhere. He’s beyond caring how the aliens kill these hapless colonists, he’s moved on to the why. And this “why” belongs to David, the company android who has moved beyond his life of servitude and now views himself as some sort of creator god. Michael Fassbender is magnetic in his dual roles in the film, with the stand out scene being Fassbender speaking to Fassbender. Though the dialogue (from a four man screenwriting team) sounds -at times – like a first-year philosophy student who just discovered Nietzche, it’s a testament to the actor that it’s eminently watchable.
The rest of the cast aren’t given as much. They’re mostly involved in getting hunted, or hunting, blood-thirsty aliens. Both Billy Crudup and Danny McBride are fun to watch, but their characters never evolve past one-note wonders. Amy Seimetz (who has long deserved another big role since her incredible turn in Upstream Colour) deftly portrays the two emotional notes provided: terror and panic. And Katherine Waterston gives a game performance, even if it’s painfully obvious what will become of her, given any knowledge of the franchise. Despite the strong performances, the film’s big downfall is the general stupidity of the characters. Like Prometheus, it’s filled with characters making the worst possible choices in any given situation. New, unexplored planet? Who needs space suits! Alien egg sack? Better lean over it and look inside! It feels slap-dash and overdone, and prevents us from truly getting immersed in the story.
If Scott is determined to follow his xenomorph creation myth to the end, it would almost be better if he ditched human characters altogether. Let the next movie be David in a spaceship lecturing xenomorphs on the poetry of Shelley. Or playing them songs on his flute. It’s pretty clear the director is far more interested in robots with god-complexes than he is in human beings. Of course that film is never going to get greenlit, so expect the next prequel to be an equally tenuous combination of gore and Goethe. Who knows, maybe he’ll find the balance and it will tie so neatly into the brilliant 1979 film that, when viewed together, the franchise will be an undeniable triumph. But when viewed on a film by film basis, Scott’s prequels have been muddled with self-important philosophy and painfully predictable in their plotting. They say that if you have to explain a joke it’s not funny anymore, and the same can be said for a movie monster. If you have to give it a three film origin story, by the end we could care less.
Reviewed by Evan Arppe.