Alien: Covenant (US/Australia/UK, 2017)

May 18, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Alien: Covenant Poster

When Ridley Scott released Prometheus five years ago, his stated intention was to explore a new story in the Alien universe. He had limited enthusiasm for continuing the evolution of the xenomorph he first brought to the screen in 1979 but marketing considerations demanded some kind of linkage. So, although Prometheus contained a subplot about the aliens’ origins, it was primarily about the travails of a space exploration seeking to discover something about the beginnings of life. The movie was met with a tepid response and Fox began exploring other avenues to continue the franchise, including an alternate universe concept that would re-write post-Aliens history. However, when Scott indicated a willingness to make another Alien that was more like the original film and less like Prometheus, it didn’t take long for an approval to be forthcoming.

Alien: Covenant is as much a sequel to Prometheus as it is a prequel to Alien. Like the recent string of Planet of the Apes movies, it’s about spinning a tale that’s interesting in its own right while not losing sight the end goal. Although Alien: Covenant ties up the plot threads left dangling at the conclusion of Prometheus, this story is more about giving birth to the familiar xenomorph than advancing the larger mythology of the universe. The only returning cast member from Prometheus is Michael Fassbender, who plays two roles: reprising his part as the android David and portraying Walter, David’s “younger brother.”

Alien: Covenant combines high-minded sci-fi ideas with the visceral horror-inspired shock aspects of a slasher movie. Unable to wed these disparate elements with the competence he showed 38 years ago, Scott risks tonal whiplash. At its best, this film echoes the creepiness and tension of Alien. At its worst, it sinks into the pretentiousness that at times threatened to derail Prometheus. It’s a mix of the good and the bad. One seemingly endless indulgence in tedium, which ends with a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss, has the two androids ponder life and play music. Much is forgiven, however, when the real xenomorph (rather than a prototype) shows up and starts killing people. For some of these scenes, Scott borrows from ‘80s horror movies. One couple discovers that it may not be the best idea to have sex in the shower when an alien is on the prowl.

Alien: Covenant opens with the traditional science fiction premise of a deep space cruiser zipping along at sub-light speed on its way to a new world. On board are two thousand colonists, all in hyper-sleep. The only one “aware” is Walter the android, who is able to handle all the day-to-day maintenance tasks without aid – until the ship runs into trouble and he is forced to wake up the crew. Everyone survives the de-freezing except the captain, Branson (an uncredited James Franco), who burns up in a fire. The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), is unprepared to be thrust into a leadership role, and Branson’s wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), struggles doing her job while coping with her loss. Once the repairs are completed, Oram decides that rather than putting everyone back to sleep and finishing the seven years left on the journey, they will take a detour to a potentially habitable planet and explore. Daniels is against the decision but everyone else agrees. The die is cast.  The planet is not somewhere even a well-armed group of explorers should be going, especially when communications between the surface and the ship are difficult.

The special effects rival those of Prometheus for the most impressive of the series. Perhaps because it has been seen so often in the other movies (especially the best forgotten Alien v. Predator and its misbegotten sequel), the xenomorph isn’t relegated to the shadows. Scott gives it plenty of screen time and, thankfully, it has regained the toughness it had in the original Alien. Over the years, the creatures have become disappointingly easy to dispatch; the ones in Alien: Covenant aren’t so easily killed. Jed Kurzel’s score is an asset in the way it echoes Jerry Goldsmith’s 1979 music without directly copying it.

The characters are as flat and two-dimensional as in any slasher film. The screenplay struggles to make David interesting but, for the most part, he’s just philosophical and narcissistic. Daniels is intended to be the kick-ass heroine but she comes across as a second-rate Ripley, emphasizing how, although the umbrella series is called “Alien(s)”, Sigourney Weaver may be a necessary ingredient to make everything gel. Perhaps Scott is aware of this – although the voice of the ship’s computer, Muthur, is credited to Lorelei King, it sounds eerily like Weaver.

Most members of the crew are generic and interchangeable. Thinking back to Alien and Aliens, it’s remarkable how effectively those scripts breathed life into characters without much screen time, whether it was John Hurt’s Kane, Harry Dean Stanton’s Brett, Bill Paxton’s Hudson, or Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez. There’s nothing like that here. Billy Crudup’s Oram, for example, is described as a “man of faith”, but there’s not much else there. Likewise, although Danny McBride gets a decent amount of screen time, he’s just a skeleton – no flesh on the bones.

Those who go to the Alien films for the gore and action will find Alien: Covenant more satisfying than Prometheus, although it falls considerably short of the high bar established by the first two chapters of the series. Those who appreciated Prometheus’ attempts to inject hard science fiction into the proceedings may be disappointed. Although Scott doesn’t jettison the ideas that underpinned the 2012 episode, he dispatches many in such a perfunctory manner that they’re hard to process. There’s a missing chapter here (although, to be frank, I don’t have much interest in seeing it filled). Alien: Covenant has enough of what made Alien great to deliver two hours of big-budget sci-fi/horror entertainment but it also cements the realization that, as good as the series may have been at its start, it’s not likely ever to reach that level again.

Alien: Covenant (US/Australia/UK, 2017)

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Callie Hernandez, Amy Siemetz
Home Release Date: 2017-08-15
Screenplay: John Logan and Dante Harper
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Music: Jed Kurzel
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 2:02
U.S. Release Date: 2017-05-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Science Fiction/Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1