This review originally appeared in Humanity Hallows
Five years ago, film audiences were left polarised with Ridley Scott’s return to the Alien series in Prometheus, a quasi-prequel to Scott’s original film that was thematically robust but narratively disappointing. A central issue to the divide in how the film was received was the idea that it raised more questions than it did answers. In addition to this, the distant, one-dimensional characters seemed to be caged within a script hardly concerned with the origins of the 1979 Alien film. Instead, Prometheus underlined the fascination with creation and existentialism, through a plot to uncover the god-like engineers. Alien: Covenant is set around ten years after the events of Prometheus, as we are soon introduced to a colony ship on a mission to set up human habitation on a distant planet. It is less Interstellar and more a counterpart to Prometheus. Swiftly in the first act, a well-constructed use of a John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ transmission sees the crew turn their attention towards a previously unidentified planet on their journey.
It seems, at least partially, that Scott has listened to his critics, as Covenant certainly feels much more dialectical to both Alien and James Cameron’s exceptional Aliens. The film often pays visual homage to these earlier works; whether it be through the claustrophobic terror of a spaceship’s ventral shaft, or the grotesqueness of a chest-burster, Covenant has most of the boxes ticked. Technically, there is much to admire in how both the CGI and set design feels dynamic and alive, reaffirming Scott as a true visionary in terms of cinematic world-building.
It soon becomes apparent however, that a rich visual aesthetic does not constitute for the many flaws in Covenant. As subplots and heavy-handed story lines begin to bog down the suspense, Covenant treads a fine line in becoming synonymous with what is commonly referred to as ‘the prequels’ in Star Wars terminology. Whilst the sight of a xenomorph tearing somebody to shreds (like watching a Jedi in action) will always provide the kind of big-screen thrills these blockbusters are designed to produce, the film cannot seem to find the right balance between fan-service and milking the cash cow. There is too much explanation to the foundations of the iconic xenomorph, whose mystery was once integral to its mythology.
The pseudo-sexual horror of this parasitic monster begins to feel over exposed, as it stalks a similar batch of recyclable characters, hardly giving any justice to such a credible cast. However, the dog-like neomorphs provide gory opportunity for a return to body-horror and inventive death scenes, with a quarantine room scene being a highlight of this. As the paradise planet soon becomes the stuff of nightmares for the Covenant crew, the neomorphs raise complete carnage in an intense field sequence which is brilliantly executed.
Subsequent to this, John Logan and Dante Harper’s script seems to become increasingly inclined to try and recapture the glory days of the franchise. Sadly, the film’s final third comes across as a pastiche of the franchise’s greatest moments, absent of any of the chaotic suspense, or firm characterisation that is sorely missed. The strongest asset to the Covenant team is actually the android Walter (an elusive Michael Fassbender) whose peculiar interactions with David (also Fassbender) on the remote planet provide a window to artificial intelligence at its most personal and profound. That being said, some of the hackneyed dialogue leads to heavy-handed conversations, as plot exposition soon becomes an unwanted trademark here.
At the heart of the narrative is Katherine Waterston, who finds herself wrestling with a formulaic script as Daniels, certainly the wisest crew member on board. Her performance is stellar, but still feels shadowed by the high standards of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. It is easy to attempt to compare Covenant with the triumphs of the first two Alien films, and equally as effortless to overlook the certain qualities that the film exhibits. In terms of its position in the trajectory of Alien films, Covenant succeeds in that it mainly delivers what fans of the franchise felt was missing from Prometheus. Unfortunately, its easily predictable third act sets up even more narrative arcs, cementing the idea that the film is actually more interested in generating profit, than it is in maintaining the legacy of the franchise’s earlier triumphs.