Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer: John Logan, Dante Harper, Jack Paglen, Michael Green
Producer: David Giler, Walter Hill, Ridley Scott, Mark Huffam, Michael Schaefer
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz
The crew of a colonization vessel detours to an uncharted planet where they encounter a terrifying alien lifeform.
The following generalization tends to be overused when offering a ‘Consumer Reports’-style summary of a sequel, but the sentiment applies to “Alien: Covenant” nonetheless. Basically, however you feel about “Prometheus” (review here) is likely to fall in step with how you’ll feel about this successor too.
Both films follow similar templates for establishing tone, tempo, and themes. And both films share many of the same strengths, e.g. outstandingly sleek conceptualization and thought-provoking subtext, as well as weaknesses, like casual pacing and slim character development, some of which can be categorized as either depending on whom you ask. In other words, “Covenant” may have “Alien” in its title, but there’s no use disputing its true identity as “Prometheus 2,” as it mirrors that movie’s spirit of exploratory wonder much more than it echoes any of the entries emphasizing creature-related horror.
The story concerns the crew of the Covenant, a colonization vessel on a multiyear mission to Origae-6, where they intend to make a new home. When a solar storm kills the captain and forces the others out of cryosleep, the ship detours to a nearby planet. They find that this new location isn’t just capable of supporting life, but it already is, as familiar faces have landed there too. Other entities are far less welcoming. And the subsequent faceoff between those made by gods and those made by man threatens to destroy every species involved.
Somewhat funnily, to me anyway, I’m writing this review after a weekend in which a segment of “Star Wars” fandom lost its collective coolness regarding revelations in “The Last Jedi.” Some choose to see certain swings in Episode VIII’s story as spitting in the face of established canon, rendering several years worth of fan theories pointless while usurping conventions previously assumed untouchable.
This pseudo-controversy may be coloring my perception of “Alien: Covenant.” Yet I can’t help but think I’m seeing franchise father and current steward Ridley Scott similarly using this movie to tell fans, “What you think ‘Alien’ should be is irrelevant. This is what I want it to be.”
However, Scott’s movie still stumbles as a singular vision because at the same time, he also aims to address common criticisms of “Prometheus,” or perhaps to appease any Powers That Be who insist on returning to “Alien” roots without actually altering the mythology’s course. The result is a movie conflicted over what it purports to be, an “Alien” prequel, versus what it really is, a “Prometheus” sequel.
This conflict comes about because Scott acknowledges the demand for xenomorph frights “Prometheus” didn’t have, yet clearly has a lukewarm at best interest in getting gritty with gore. Easily the most uninspired scenes in “Alien: Covenant” involve creature carnage, usually set up via straightforward slasher tropes. Two Covenant crewmembers electing to have sex at the worst possible time, after most of their peers died horribly within the preceding few hours, appears peeled straight out of a “Friday the 13th” flick. Bursts of blood and squealing beasts linger in frame with little residual value. Director Ridley Scott comes across like a parent teaching a child to avoid fire by allowing him/her to burn a hand, as though saying, “You want alien action? Fine, here it is. Maybe now you’ll agree this is the least fascinating thing happening in the prequel timeline.”
He’s right, of course. No wonder post-“Covenant” chatter says Scott means to move the series’ spotlight from aliens to A.I. The real meat of the movie at hand has to do with contemplating creation rather than licking lips over depictions of death. “Alien: Covenant” continues “Prometheus’” beard-pulling ruminations regarding life’s origins via inquisitive android Walter and his dark doppelganger David. Michael Fassbender doubles down on his spellbinding synthetic personality from the previous film with dual roles here. Save for an odd accent that isn’t so hot, Fassbender again emerges as the movie’s sleeved ace. He perfects a blend of chilling charisma constantly coiled like a cobra poised to strike while retaining a tinge of comforting confidence that is somehow seductively soothing too.
David makes for a far more interesting villain than any phallic-headed snarler ever could. Again, it’s evident that exploring human curiosity through manmade constructs struggling to understand identity dominates what Scott and his writers wish to develop with their fiction. Much like the androids, had they not been sidetracked with having to please their masters by including alien-related hubbub as a practically ancillary addition, there’s no telling how much further they might have expanded their concept’s reach.
So it is that “Covenant” ends up with a deep bench of characters and not nearly enough minutes for everyone to get their due on the field. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, doomed to be darkened by Ellen Ripley’s shadow regardless, weirdly requires rescue or assistance from male companions over every hurdle, a sharp departure from the series’ dominant heroine standard. Despite never meeting the man, screen time devoted to mourning Captain Branson’s early demise makes us feel more emotion than other deaths do. There’s little chance of being invested in outcomes when end credits roll with the audience unable to name more than five members of a 15-person crew.
I can envision myself revisiting “Prometheus” to reexamine the insight behind its cinematic movements. I’m uncertain if identical value can be mined from another pass at “Alien: Covenant” because its motivations are murkier. In trying to appease multiple interests with a mix of science-heavy fiction, classic creature horror, and deep drama, “Covenant” denies the DNA demanded by its core story.
The meta-message appears to reflect the movie’s, which is that tainting the creator’s intent by imposing a will of our own leads to an unnatural abomination. At this point, dissenters insistent on what is best for the franchise would be wise to surrender to Scott’s imagination, allowing him to take us where he wants. The direction might be more “Prometheus” than “Alien,” though I suspect the journey would be far more rewarding as a unified experience.
Review Score: 60