Alien: Covenant (2017)
Dir.: Ridley Scott
When Ridley Scott returned to sci-fi filmmaking with Prometheus, his return was hyped to seemingly no end. Unfortunately, due to expectations surrounding the acclaimed director remaining high, the mixed reactions to that mostly-decent but ultimately disappointing film diminished any further hype towards films from the director in a sci-fi tone, especially once it was revealed that Prometheus was a secret prequel to his classic Alien. Now, we come upon Alien: Covenant, a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to the original Alien. Taking place approximately ten years after the events of Prometheus, Covenant follows a brand new crew of colonists as they explore an uncharted, seemingly inhabitable and safe world. Of course, things turn violent and creepy fast, and what results of this gory slaughter fest is a highly entertaining sci-fi horror film. Ridley Scott remains visceral behind the directorial chair, as even this far into his career, he still knows how to direct suspenseful action and body horror. Alien: Covenant as a film attempts to balance the high-minded themes of Prometheus with the body horror and creature-driven set pieces of the Alien franchise, with mixed but mostly effective results. What it lacks in thematic cohesion it makes up for in sheer thrills, impeccable set design, and gorgeous cinematography.
The film starts off like Prometheus: a ragtag crew lands on a serene planet and investigates some otherworldly phenomenon. The main difference in the first act lies in the fact that this crew’s goal is to investigate a distress signal rather than to answer philosophical questions relating to the origins of humanity and interstellar life, so the journey feels more urgent and with greater stakes. It also acknowledges to fans of the franchise that this is a film that will attempt to return to what made the Alien films so visceral: body horror with atmospheric world-building and intense violence. For the first half of the film’s runtime, the tension is kept up nicely, with excellent visual and audio cues that sneak up on the viewer, and with some new hybrid alien creatures different from the standard jet black xenomorphs that provide an essence of unpredictability for the violent set pieces. Towards the later half of the film, which focuses a little less on the horror and more on the philosophical themes of creation and creator established primarily through Michael Fassbender’s two android characters, David and Walter, this tension almost deflates, as the reveals that occur are highly predictable and underwhelming. This film is at its best when it’s an Alien prequel rather than a Prometheus sequel, so I was a tad disappointed with how the film wrapped up from a narrative standpoint, but I was in no way as bewildered or as pissed off as I was upon Prometheus’s ending.
One of the film’s greatest strengths lie in its cast. The characters in Covenant all feel much more grounded and sympathetic than they did in Prometheus, and since these characters for the most part do not act like neanderthals when confronted with conflict and terror, the viewer is able to care when the characters meet inevitable ends. Michael Fassbender owns the film as the two android characters, as he is given the most screen time and the most narrative fruit to channel through his always reliably impeccable portrayals. Katherine Waterston plays a great Not-Ripley, as she provides the audience surrogate similar to Sigourney Weaver in the first few films, and she proves to be greatly sympathetic. One welcome surprise is the dramatic performance by Danny McBride, whom I’ve always been a fan of for his comedies, namely Eastbound and Down. Vince Gilligan, one of my favorite cinematic visionaries (despite working primarily in television) once said that he loves casting comedic actors in dramatic roles, because acting comedy is more difficult than acting drama. Danny McBride proves to be the masculinity of the film, as the other male characters are either robots, cowards, or ones who die almost immediately, and he is given the patriarch role moreso than the Covenant’s own captain, played unremarkably but serviceably by Billy Crudup. Though this film from an acting standpoint is the Fassbender show, and he joyously eats up his lines like a starving man at a steak buffet, Waterston and McBride’s characters alone prove that this film’s character integrity far surpasses any film in the franchise since Aliens.
Ridley Scott proves to be the truest hero of this film, as he shows yet again that his sci-fi visual direction is impeccable. Much like Scorsese is reliably excellent towards gangster-crime dramas, and Kurosawa always prevails under a feudal samurai aesthetic, Scott never ceases to be visually spectacular when depicting sci-fi imagery. For better or for worse, he always supplements the screenplays he is provided with cinematic beauty, whether it be for vibrant, joyfully exuberant scripts like The Martian or dark, foreboding films like Blade Runner. I am even a fan of the Cormac McCarthy written film The Counselor that he directed, which by all means is a mess, but one that seamlessly conveys McCarthy’s tone that he maintains in his novels. If you’re the kind of cinephile that puts the artistic visual canvas of a film ahead of narrative or thematic cohesion, Scott is a director you can rely on to make his films gorgeous. With that being said, Alien: Covenant is not one of the best screenplays he has directed, but his direction combined with his cast are able to carry a lot of the flaws to at least provide an entertaining, violent ride. The soundtrack provides an ominous bass-filled romp that never feels overbearing or too reliant on jump scares, but this is to be expected from a veteran director like Scott. The sound effects of the xenomorphs, as well as the other creatures, more than aid in providing tension to the necessary scenes of the film. From a technical standpoint, this film is a marvel, and other than a few cases of questionable CGI, the film remains as hauntingly beautiful as Prometheus, but as violent as the other Alien films.
Overall, I enjoyed Alien: Covenant a whole lot more than Prometheus and other recent Alien films, and I believe it’s the best film in the franchise since Aliens. It’s a good return to form for the franchise, even if it never quite lands as a great one, mostly thanks to its screenplay’s thematic flaws in the second half. It’s still a film worth watching, but I believe it will divide its audience, as it attempts to blend the ambitious philosophies of Prometheus with the more primal, aggressive terror of the Alien films, and it does so to mixed results. For those who buy into the marketing on TV and in trailers that this is a brand new Alien film, and for those expecting nothing more or less, I can see why the viewer may be disappointed. Depending on your expectations for this new entry, you may find a lot to enjoy in the film as I did, or you may be left wanting more. Some of the revelations in the film feel underwhelming, but the cast and the direction more than make up for the uneven script. Alien: Covenant is a fun, horrific and grotesque time.