MOVIE REVIEW: Alien: Covenant
ALIEN: COVENANT-- 4 STARS
Designed by H.R. Giger and manifested by Oscar-winning special effects puppetry, the unforgettable xenomorph creature that debuted in 1979’s Alien lunged with more menace than suddenness. The acid-dripping extraterrestrial was an overpowering stalker. Fast-forward 38 years (and technically a little backward) to Alien: Covenant, and the CGI-boosted effects capable today have accelerated the monster’s lethal velocity to an unhinged and downright bonkers level. Let me tell you, that’s a dandy of a jolt.
Kicking aside Neill Blomkamp’s long-proposed history-wiping “gangbusters” sequel, director Ridley Scott chose to advance the fertile small beginnings of Prometheus to bring Alien: Covenant. After the intentional bush-beating misdirection of his 2012 film, many were pleased as punch to see the Alien series kicking and screaming again. Scripted by three-time Oscar nominee John Logan and first-timer Dante Harper with a few problematic flaws, Alien: Covenant further cements the franchise’s prequel trajectory as a gorgeous and captivating one to behold.
Before even stepping into this new film, consider Prometheus to be essential and required viewing, a film this writer gave a 5-star review for five years ago. If you don’t mind minor spoilers, 20th Century Fox dropped a few prologues on social media, but they are not as necessary. You will need Prometheus to properly appreciated and understand the connections and progress sought by Alien: Covenant. What follows is, as always, SPOILER-FREE.
Ten years have passed since the failure of the now-forgotten Prometheus expedition spurred Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and the remnants of the android David (Michael Fassbender) to seek the homeworld of the Engineers they pursued while following Peter Weyland’s (Guy Pearce) expensive search for humanity’s creation. A new Weyland Corporation vessel, the USCSS Covenant, is rocketing 2,000 souls, 1,000 human embryos, and a crew of fifteen in hibernation stasis to Origae-6 on a colonization mission. Think “couples retreat” on a planetary kickstarter scale. When a neutrino wave critically damages the ship, the newer model android Walter (Fassbender again) wakes the crew, led by Billy Crudup’s acting captain Christopher Oram, seven years early to fix the damages and correct course.
During their repairs, the Covenant discovers a garbled and mysteriously human transmission emanating from an unlisted planet nearby. Long-range scans show the world to be an even more suitable, albeit completely unresearched, planetary environment than the one they scouted on Origae-6. Drawn by the improved pioneering possibilities and the quest for answers to the communique, the ship detours to investigate. Sure enough, the crew instigates and encounters quickly-escalating threats in face-to-facehugger fashion.
The ever-polished Ridley Scott has again assembled a top-shelf collection of artistic talent to expand upon the hellishly stunning level of designs and atmospheric creations from Prometheus. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski masterfully squeezes breathtaking natural beauty out of every science fiction environment on display from their location shooting in New Zealand. Long-time Scott editor Pietro Scalia splices the pensive peril together deftly while new collaborating composer Jed Kurzel (Macbeth) gives the auditory palette his own serrated singe. Every layer of collected production value is completely pristine.
The messier elements are the humans. The salad bar of meat sacs flirting with gory deaths includes Katherine Waterson’s widowed terraforming expert Daniels, Danny McBride’s lead pilot Tennessee, Demian Bichir’s security detail Sergeant Lope, Oram’s biologist spouse Karine played by Carmen Ejogo, and other unlucky saps. Because each of them is betrothed to someone else, any death twists the proverbial knife of spousal agony a little more tormentingly stronger than usual, which is a commendable touch of punch. Crudup brings soulful sternness to balance McBride’s loose cannon in many strong moments, but it’s Waterson rising the highest among the entire ensemble only to feel saddled by inevitable parallel comparisons to Sigourney Weaver. Instead, the non-human is the most interesting character and the one who runs the show.
Alien: Covenant is undoubtedly owned and defined by the multi-layered behavior traits conveyed by the headlining Michael Fassbender. This is more than a classical actor establishing an assured cadence of dry line readings to appear robotic. It’s about the methodically ominous snake oil Fassbender can brew underneath and convey with any scripted word. Every pause, inflection, annunciation, and word choice brims with weighty intrigue, hidden subtleties, and stark ramifications. The movie collapses like a black hole without him.
On its own and thanks largely to Fassbender, this is all fascinating exhilaration as a follow-up to Prometheus, if Prometheus was all that existed. However, if Alien: Covenant is on a path to plug into the original Alien (only 18 years away in storyline), much of this prequel is going to steal the thunder that was the shocking and more deliberate introduction represented by the 1979 classic. It feels much like Rogue One trying to flow into Star Wars. In the same way Rogue One’s badass Darth Vader scene is spectacular, but it takes away from his original grand entrance, the same can be said for the ferocious xenomorph advancement placed and played as nodding callbacks in Alien: Covenant. This will be unnoticeable to new viewers, yet problematic for us veterans.
Prometheus and its fair share of criticism led Alien: Covenant to follow suit in investing heavily in ponderous pacing of portending exposition and world-building between spurts of violent thrills. The lulls can be heavy. As the creature feature starts slaying, this film’s largest knock is one that is a step down from Prometheus’s newness. There is a repetitive regression to cheesy horror tropes, especially ones used in the Alien franchise before, to deliver the kinetically juiced-up action. Not just Ridley Scott and his screenwriters, but a squad of characters touting themselves as “capable and prepared” shouldn’t be falling for ridiculous life lessons like these.
LESSON #1: TRUST YOUR VETTED DATA-- Fix your ship and go back to sleep towards the proven destination you did your homework on and trained for. Don’t fall for or chase the “too good to be true” outlier. While you’re at it, leave at the first sign of danger.
LESSON #2: HUMANS MADE STUPID MISTAKES-- Oh my, the list of farcical life lessons could double the length of this review. Don’t take a piss alone in an unknown place. Hold it until you get back to the ship, mind your surroundings, and leave your radio on. Don’t venture alone to look for any missing persons. Bring a buddy as a witness or backup. Be mindful of wet or slippery surfaces. Blood is not sticky like corn syrup. Showers and horror films never end well. Universal precautions and quarantine protocols are never enough yet should be followed to the letter of the law. Last but not least, don’t stand there, talk, watch a dangerous predator attach something, or let it come closer. Go the way of Hermann Goering by shooting first and asking question laters. Kill the motherf-cker while you have the chance.
LESSON #3: CREATORS ARE NARCISSISTS-- I don’t care if you made a pasta necklace in kindergarten to give to your mother for Mother’s Day or invented the cure for cancer. Every creator on every level cares deeply, in a supremely selfish way, about praise and feedback to what they made. They need it and want itThe god complexes that can arise from that are learned behaviors fed by such obsessions.