Review: Alien Covenant (2017)

We can give Ridley Scott one thing: he is very consistent, and in the case of Alien: Covenant, that is quite the double-edged sword.

Taking place ten years after the events of Prometheus, we follow the crew of the Covenant who are on a mission to colonize a far-off planet with their cargo of several thousand colonists in hyper-sleep. They are looked after by android Walter (Michael Fassbender), a more advanced and less imaginative version of the previous film’s David (also Fassbender). When a space anomaly wakes up the crew, including newly promoted second-in-command Daniels (Katherine Waterston), the overly zealous Oram (Billy Crudup), and pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), the team finds themselves pursuing a potential life form on a nearby, surprisingly habitable planet. Much to Daniels’ chagrin, the crew make their way down, and… well, you can probably guess the kind of trouble they get into.

That’s the most difficult hurtle for Covenant: its predictability. While there is an air of mystery through the first half of the film, it is hindered by a feeling of formulaic screenwriting that — while tense and at times straight-up horrifying — only becomes more egregious as we near the end of our scant two hour runtime.

A big part of this downfall is that, up to roughly the beginning of the third act, we’re experiencing a film that is just different enough from those that came before it. The DNA of Prometheus is there, with characters making questionable decisions and not taking necessary precautions, but it still feels different. Then, the third act hits, and we’re getting a looser and more compact version of Scott’s own Alien. In a way, it’s like a better version of Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

Luckily, Covenant is all-in-all a good film. It’s not the triumphant effort many had hoped for from the 79-year-old director, but it does at least try, which can’t be said for films like Alien vs Predator. Like the rest of his oeuvre, it’s a strikingly beautiful film, with Dariusz Wolski (The MartianPirates of the Caribbean) returning to take his marching orders from the notoriously controlling Scott. However, it’s not necessarily any more visually arresting than Prometheus, and at times can feel generic in its more action-heavy set pieces. Considering that this was shot in New Zealand, it’s hard to really go gaga over the visuals without thinking “well, it probably wasn’t that hard to make those mountain so gosh darn sexy”.

One of the less spoken criticisms of Prometheus was the lack of a strong crew dynamic, which is successfully alleviated here. Our crew, while not quite the roughnecks of Alien, are far more familial this time around, thanks in large part to being made up almost entirely of married couples who have a built-in emotional connection. One character is widowed in the opening moments, giving her dynamic and that of the crew a nice shift that adds to constantly mounting tension up until just a few minutes after David’s re-introduction. We’re still treated to Scott’s latter day fascination with blunt philosophizing, especially from Crudup’s perfectly-acted but extremely on the nose fundamentalist.

Katherine Waterston makes for a compelling heroine, although she is definitely just Ripley 2.0, even exhibiting her predecessor’s love of protocol. She’s a convincing hard ass, with plenty of human emotion to back it up. Thinking back, though, she’s more of a footnote in the grand scheme, and is unlikely to usurp Ripley’s throne.

Danny McBride deserves a special commendation for ditching his stoner aesthetic and embodying what we loved so much about the crew of the Nostromo. He’s funny, but in a charming and naturalistic way that I wish was more present in other characters, such as the “I’m going to go off and smoke so I can be impregnated by an alien microorganism” guy and the “Maybe I’ll just go wash up several rooms away in this killer alien infested world” girl. He does make one seemingly obvious mistake that should be Prometheus-levels of dumb, but turns out alright, so let’s just call it a mulligan and tout McBride as the MVP of the film.

Well, MVP after Fassbender, of course. Both the best and worst part of Alien: Covenant, Fassbender is undoubtedly the most skilled actor in this film and possibly in the entire franchise. His take on Walter is pitch-perfect, employing an American accent as one form of differentiation from the previous model, which apparently scared the public due to its ability to think and create. If it weren’t for the narrative absurdity of his David character, he would single-handedly turn this franchise into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, David’s presence brings with it many problems from the previous entry, including a love of self-aggrandizing philosophical discussions on creation and humanity. These can be fascinating, such as with the “Byron” quote that first alerts us to his character’s mental condition, but mostly just keeps us yearning for the space trucker conversations dreamed up by Dan O’Bannon.

Giger’s dreams are equally unrealized this time around. His alien designs are mostly replaced by creepy little CGI gremlins who, while pretty cool, seem more suited for another franchise. Don’t get me wrong here: as a fan of horror and intense bloodbaths, this is some good stuff. However, once the more traditional Xenomorph arrives, its cool factor has been minimized by these new (old?) creatures. The CGI also doesn’t work particularly well with Giger’s creation, as it feels a little too generic thanks to those ones and zeroes. Even the chest burster, given a redesign for the sake of one failed poetic moment, just feels fake and weird. It’s a tough thing to write, but the Xenomorph isn’t that great this time around.

Then there’s the plot issues, which with some exceptions are all produced by David’s schemes. Questions mount and mount, and we soon realize that this is all just an excuse to move the franchise forward through coincidence and one of the most obvious plot twists I’ve ever seen in a movie — one that made my opinion of a character noticeably drop. For a moment, I almost became that prick in the theater who shouts “the killer’s RIGHT BEHIND YOU!” It was that bad, even if the outcome was pretty ballsy. For a master of cinema like Scott to fumble so badly in the execution is dismaying, and casts a shade of pedestrianism over the film. If we’re going to compare this to writer John Logan’s previous work, it’s far more Spectre than it is Skyfall, right down to the feeling of all this just being a means to usher in the next film the franchise.

The Bond film comparison is surprisingly apt: the setup and characters here are entertaining, sometimes even fascinating, and the overall technical craft is more-or-less on point. However, there are just enough logical and storytelling gaffs — not to mention a fumbling, uncertain third act — that this is quickly downgraded from a potential masterpiece to a schlocky little monster movie. It’s nowhere near as good as the first two Alien films, but could comfortably sit in third place for the franchise. Considering the next step would be Alien 3 or Prometheus, that’s maybe not the strongest endorsement.

Still, Alien: Covenant is an entertaining flick, with some crazy gore and plenty of B-level schlock to keep you entertained. It’s just too bad that Scott doesn’t rise to the artistic levels he was obviously reaching for.

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