After the mixed reaction to 2012’s Prometheus, Ridley Scott is back in the Alien universe with the latest in the long-running sci-fi series, Alien: Covenant. Thirty-eight years after the original, Scott shows with Covenant–the first main entry in the franchise with ‘Alien’ in the title for two decades–that he’s still finding new ways to turn the stomachs of the audience, awe them with beautiful visuals, and intrigue them with unexpected story twists. Despite all of that, it feels like Covenant retreads familiar ground and doesn’t come close to being as frightening or exciting the best Alien films: Alien and Aliens.
Covenant picks up 10 years after the events of Prometheus. The crew of the massive interplanetary ship Covenant are on a seven-year journey to what they hope is a new planet to colonize with the 2,000 frozen passengers they are ferrying. However, a disastrous solar flare awakens the crew early, damaging the vessel in the process. Amid the repair effort, they receive a puzzling transmission stemming from a habitable planet that is only a two-week journey away. The choice then becomes to either stick to the plan and re-enter hypersleep to reach the faraway planet (which was vetted thoroughly) or seek out the signal and land on the closer yet unfamiliar moon. Very much against the wishes and advice of Katherine Waterston’s character, Daniels, they pursue the signal to find its source. This brings them to a mysterious planet full of terrors they couldn’t have imagined.
The film begins strongly with a gorgeous, introspective scene in a big white room involving the mega-rich scientist Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) meeting with Michael Fassbender’s android character. Continuing on from the existential ideas put forth in Prometheus, they discuss the origins of life and creation, with Weyland emphatically laying out his ambition to basically discover the meaning of life. Covenant overflows with exposition and early on in the film, Daniels remarks: “There is so much here that I don’t understand.” I nodded along from my seat as she said this. Covenant does provide answers–satisfying ones–to the questions put forth in the meandering story of Prometheus, including what happened to Noomi Rapace’s character, Elizabeth Shawn, and Fassbender’s David. It also talks about the origins of the Xenomorphs and dramatically teases out the shocking horror of what might come in the future. All up, the story is compelling and thought-provoking, if a bit heavy-handed at times.
Covenant’s tone and style bounce around a lot–but not in a way that makes the complete package feel scattered or disjointed. The first and third acts are basically all suspense and action, featuring gunfights and big set pieces, disturbing deaths and gory moments. The second act, meanwhile, feels quieter and more reflective, planting the seeds of some of the biggest questions that will hopefully be addressed in the sequels Scott is planning.
As for the cast, Michael Fassbender’s compelling performance makes him the standout. He plays two robots: David and Walter. They are identical in appearance but have different ambitions and objectives when things go awry. Fassbender’s energy and versatility drive the weight and intensity behind his robot characters. Despite their identical appearance, he always makes them feel unique. Danny McBride plays the cowboy hat-wearing, John Denver-loving pilot Tennessee, who doesn’t get the most screentime, but absolutely makes a mark with his wit and passion. Daniels is also a standout character, with Waterston playing the broken-but-determined, loyal crewmate in a strong and engaging performance. Billy Crudup is adept in his role as the hesitant but driven-by-duty captain Oram, a man of faith. But the script doesn’t do much to explain why his religion matters, leaving a character who feels forgettable and empty. It feels like a missed opportunity considering the grander themes of life and creation that permeate the entire film.
The classic and frightening Xenomorph, which was shown in some of Covenant‘s teasers, is not seen in the early stages of the movie. Instead, more screentime is devoted to a menacing-looking white variant that moves fast and bites hard with its ferocious fangs. In one particularly unsettling scene, a few of these beasts dash and scurry through a wheat field, jumping and diving at the would-be colonists in the dark of night. The clicking sound they produce makes them all the more horrifying.
The trend of aliens being grotesquely spawned from human bodies continues in Covenant. How this works has been well established, but this time, Scott finds even more orifices to spring slimy, screaming alien creatures forth from their human host. Then there are the face-huggers that terrorize their host in a different brutal way. There are literal back-breaking scenes, convulsing bodies, and blood splatter everywhere when the creature finally breaks through. Scott truly gives the viewer new ways to experience trauma. The death scenes are brutal and unique, but scarcely scary and never surprising when they’re about to happen–almost every death scene is telegraphed. A couple, naked in the shower together on a remote section of the spaceship? You can see it coming.
The death scenes can feel unaffecting, and they aren’t helped much in their significance by the fact that much of the crew are married. It’s an unexpected element, and Scott attempts to use it to make each death all the more painful to witness. However, the impact isn’t always there. Holding things back is the script in general, as we don’t learn enough about what the crew members are leaving behind or much of anything that would help the audience try to understand their relationships on a deeper level.
Covenant is a fun movie that has a number of standout scenes, including one of the biggest, most over-the-top (and somewhat silly) set pieces in the franchise’s history. It is a notable improvement over Prometheus, but it runs the risk of feeling too familiar and formulaic overall.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Fassbender’s performance is memorable||Not all that scary|
|The trademark Alien gore is here in spades||Feels familiar and formulaic|
Thought-provoking for its commentary on life and creation
Incredible production values with stunning visuals
- Directed by: Ridley Scott
- Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Billy Crudup, Carmen Ejogo, Benjamin Rigby, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollet, Callie Hernandez, Nathaniel Dean, Alexander England, and Benjamin Rigby.
- Rating: R
- Runtime: 122 minutes