April 2021

Alien: Covenant (2017)

DIRECTOR: Ridley Scott

CAST: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup


In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the universe of his 1979 sci-fi horror classic Alien with the ambitious, sporadically compelling, but in some ways unwieldy and half-formed Prometheus, but those who went to the theater expecting more traditional xenomorph action were disappointed.  Originally, Scott intended to follow up Prometheus with a follow-up tentatively titled Paradise which would have gone even further afield from Alien, but in the wake of Prometheus‘ lukewarm reception, Fox decided to play it safe and explored other options for getting back to the aliens as we know them, including with Neill Blomkamp’s proposed sequel to James Cameron’s 1986 Aliens which would have reunited Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn and potentially wiped all other sequels out in favor of an alternate storyline (which, given the declining quality level of Alien 3 and Alien: Resurrectionmany fans would have been okay with).  However, when the grandfather of the franchise Ridley Scott himself expressed willingness to make an Alien movie that was less like Prometheus and more like the traditional films, Fox gave him the green light and Blomkamp’s project became indefinitely dead in the water.  The result bears all the hallmarks of a movie stuck in some netherworld between being a follow-up to Prometheus and a more conventional Alien movie, but serves up enough of what fans liked about the series in the first place to be an engaging diversion, even if it doesn’t approach the franchise at its height.

Ten years after the Prometheus mission fiasco, the colonization vessel Covenant, ferrying 2,000 colonists and a small crew to a distant colony world, encounters a solar flare that disturbs the ship enough for its watchful android Walter (Michael Fassbender) to awaken the crew.  The captain, Branson (an uncredited cameo by James Franco), dies in a fire in his cryopod, but the others survive, including new acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup), who is ill-prepared to be suddenly thrust into the command chair, Branson’s widow Daniels (Katherine Waterston), who struggles with fulfilling her duties while coping with her fresh loss, and the crusty pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), among others.  With the 2,000 colonists still in oblivious cryosleep, Oram makes the decision to investigate a signal from a nearby habitable world, over Daniels’ protests.  At first glance, the planet seems idyllic, fertile, capable of supporting a colony, but Daniels’ misgivings prove well-founded when a storm cuts off communications with the mother ship and the crew encounters vicious life forms, the first confrontation with one of which results in the destruction of their landing craft and everyone stranded until Tennessee can brave the storm to rescue them.  Meanwhile, the survivors receive the dubious “help” of the android David (Michael Fassbender), who has been stranded for the past decade and leads them to shelter, but as isn’t likely to surprise anyone who’s seen Prometheus, David may be less than entirely trustworthy.

Alien: Covenant is caught between being a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien, but the Alien in its title should clue you in as to which it leans further toward.  Those who disliked Prometheus may be pleased to know the traditional elements like eggs, facehuggers, and xenomorphs have been added back into the mix (though they don’t show up in their final traditional form until the third act), while those who appreciated Prometheus‘ weighty questions about the origin of life and hoped to see more of Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw and the Engineers are in for disappointment.  The movie doesn’t completely ignore unresolved plot threads from Prometheus, but it pays them such perfunctory, shortchanged lip service that they feel glossed over (the character of Shaw in particular has been peremptorily cast aside as unceremoniously as Hicks and Newt in Alien 3).  It’s not long before Covenant turns into basically a slasher horror movie in space (complete with cliches like a couple falling victim while having sex in the shower), only interspersed with pretentious philosophical pontificating from David, which adds to the feel of two disparate story directions being mixed into one film.

Special effects are expectedly top-notch, with the space scenes as convincing as those in Gravity, although it’s slightly disappointing that the filmmakers have eschewed puppets and animatronics for CGI.  As in the opening of Prometheus, Scott captures some striking landscape shots, mostly as Covenant is landing on the alien world.  At its best, it echoes (albeit only echoes) the tension and creepiness of Alien.  For those here for the gore quotient, it serves up a respectable amount, with a gruesome “birth” through the back instead of the chest, and some nasty prototypes on the way to finally getting back to the xenomorphs as we know them.  Jed Kurzel’s score throws in some of Jerry Goldsmith’s ominous musical cues from 1979, which enhances the feel of us being back on familiar ground (never underestimate the influence of music in a movie).  There are other small nods to Alien, including David, like Ian Holm’s Ash, reverently describing the xenomorph as a “perfect organism”.  The final showdown between the full-fledged old familiar xenomorph and Daniels/Tennessee onboard the mother ship is serviceably engaging, and the xenomorph isn’t made overly easy to dispatch, although it doesn’t hold a candle to the nerve-wracking intensity of the climaxes of Alien or Aliens.  We’re on weaker ground with a sluggish and talky interim extended sequence with David and his “brother” Walter having a philosophical discussion while playing music, complete with thinly-veiled homoerotic undertones and a Fassbender-on-Fassbender kiss.  There’s a couple twists, but they’re both easy telegraphed ahead of time.


Of the cast, Michael Fassbender (the only returning veteran from Prometheus) gets the juiciest material, including a dual role as the Bishop-esque Walter and the more morally dubious David, who’s gone even further afield of his original programming and developed a god complex (David was fascinatingly ambiguous in Prometheus, but here he ends up going into full villain mode, including a Fassbender versus Fassbender hand-to-hand smackdown).  It’s obvious Ridley Scott is enamored of Fassbender/David, and he’s where a lot of the focus lies.  Apart from him, the only character to achieve a scrap of rooting interest is Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, but she comes off as a second-rate Ripley.  The rest are just as underdeveloped and two-dimensional (at best) as those in Prometheus.  Billy Crudup’s insecure Oram, who’s not cut out for leadership, and Danny McBride playing it straight as the crusty Tennessee get decent screentime but not much meat on their bones beyond the basics, and the rest (including Carmen Ejogo and Demian Bichir) are onhand as monster fodder.  It’s worth noting that Alien and Aliens weren’t long on character development either, but their supporting characters—Ian Holm’s Ash, Michael Biehn’s Hicks, Bill Paxton’s Hudson, Jenette Goldstein’s Vasquez, etc.—came across as more distinct and memorable individuals than anyone here or in Prometheus.  There’s an uncredited cameo by James Franco, and Guy Pearce briefly reprises his role (sans old age makeup) as David’s creator Peter Weyland in an opening flashback.

At the bottom line, those who crave gore and traditional xenomorph action will be more satisfied with Covenant than Prometheus, while those hoping for answers to Prometheus‘ hanging questions will be dissatisfied by how its broader aims have been cast aside to get back to a horror movie in space.  Covenant serves up enough conventional Alien action and gore to provide a (mostly) entertaining couple of hours, but it’s no more than a pale echo of the greatness of Alien and Aliens (though it’s at least better than Resurrection).  It’s fun to get the xenomorph back onscreen one last (?) time, but one also can’t help feeling like this franchise would have been best-served by quitting while it was ahead after #2.

* * 1/2