It took Ridley Scott 35 years, but the sci-fi movie legend was finally able to make his version of Aliens. All it took to get there was a decades-long decline of the series, a sort-but-not-exact reboot in the form of 2012’s Prometheus, and a five-year cloud of confusion for series fans. Maybe that was Scott’s plan all along!
Anyway, now we have Alien: Covenant, and it’s probably as much a James Cameron-style movie as we’ll ever get out of Scott. But that makes Covenant sounds more accessible than it actually is. If you are a longtime fan of series and have grown into an apologist or a hater, then you will love the adherence to this sequel Alien film history, his countless answers and his return to terror sequences brimming with gooey, murderous xenomorphs.
If, on the other hand, you’re just looking for solid sci-fi, you may find yourself adrift. This movie is only going to work if you at least have an idea of what happened in Prometheus-even Alien: Covenant is a very different kind of movie.
No spoilers here – making us a bit quiet
The film wastes no time dividing its audience in half, between those who saw it Prometheus and those who didn’t. In the opening scene, actor Michael Fassbender returns as a humanoid robot named David, and it immediately delivers surprising thrills and knowledge, along with a Prometheus plot payoff lost on anyone who skipped the 2012 movie. The best parts of this quietly enjoyable scene, featuring two crucial Prometheus characters that square in unexpected ways are impossible to describe without spoiling what they reveal.
Much of the movie feels like this, including Fassbender’s divine performance, which spans across the entire movie (and galaxy). It’s no secret that most of the film revolves around the crew of a space transport ship called the USCSS Covenant, nor is it that Fassbender has one of the top actors in the film. Getting to the heart of what Fassbender is doing here is a critical part of judging the film (and its place in the Alien spectrum). Yet that is impossible to do without blowing up a few big plot beats. (Perhaps we’ll come back to that in a follow-up article once fans have had time to chew through the film.)
For now, if you come away from this no-spoiler review with one takeaway, it’s this: Fassbender is a master of his craft, enjoying his apparent emergence as the new face of the franchise. Even if his acting or character seems uneven or illogical, the performance comes full circle in stunning fashion.
And then can we explain and describe? First, the film’s structure and momentum differ so much that you’d wonder if Ridley Scott wasn’t actually the director. Prometheus loved to leave questions unanswered—and thereby annoyed series fans who feared it would never get the two (or, god, maybe three) sequels Scott said are needed to return to the 1979 timeline Alien. The 2012 “reboot” was a Damon Lindelof (Lost) story through and through, where death and revelation have more impact by being mysterious and beautiful to look at than by providing answers and explanations. Really, that movie could have changed its choice of words for terms like “Weyland” and “Engineers” and probably appreciated as its own self-contained, dystopian future story. It felt so disconnected.
Alien: Covenanton the other hand, answers and explains almost all of its own mysteries, along with a few followers from the 2012 movie. You won’t leave the theater wondering what happened, or what’s about to happen in a possible sequel. (which seems pretty much guaranteed, based on how this ends).
This spaceship is heading east
The Covenant spacecraft is on a mission sponsored by the friendly faces of the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, but this mission doesn’t have the diabolical undertones you’d expect from a name like that: land on a new, distant planet and colonize it. The ship’s precious cargo includes more than 2,000 would-be settlers, including a slew of frozen human embryos, and these are being herded by a crew of 15. A strange distress signal diverts the crew to another planet that appears perfectly suited to human life. Once they land, the crew notices a bizarre lack of people. In fact they can not find each animals live.
The heart of the film lies with this crew, but unfortunately they don’t hold a candle to Fassbender. Most actors are at the top of their game, but they are stuck playing characters whose personalities and conflicts are given ample time to develop. We as viewers have to settle for the crew members’ witty, military banter in happier times—and their ability to sell utter panic and despair in worse times. The exception is lead actress Katherine Waterston as Daniels, the latest rock-hard, short-haired woman to have a Alien movie, and she gets the job done. Due to calamity, a limp, crabby underling accidentally becomes captain, but he mostly serves as a defender of Daniels’ emergence as the true leader of the Covenant. One final sequence, in particular, sees her “zero-effs-given”, ready-made attitude realized with a pretty beefy payoff.
Danny McBride joins her as Tennessee, and the famous comedian behind it Eastwards and down turns in his most direct acting performance to date. He’s in full command of the comic and seems completely at ease making rude jokes and pushing boundaries, while keeping his cool during the film’s most tense moments. I have no complaints that McBride can’t unfold his propensity for sarcasm or brutal vulgarity, but there was room in the film’s cast to do just that. No one steps up to fill the Bill “game over, man!” Paxton shoes that could clearly use this gory, campy movie.
A leak… of your blood and guts
Right, death. although Alien: Covenant starts out as a space exploration story, it evolves into a gruesome, militaristic movie…with a serious jones for horror movie camp. Many people die and their unfortunate fate is sent by telegram. In an early example, a crew member is collecting delicate biological matter on a new planet, and asks her to proceed with caution with a gun-wielding companion. His short response: “I have to start leaking.” The crowd at my screening burst out laughing.
Almost every death starts cheaply, and this fact may terrify fans who enjoy the drawn-out suspense that characterizes the best Alien movies. That said, I was happy with a large series entry that jerked the voltage valve in the opposite direction. The audience of my review screening laughed, cheered and immediately sink their teeth into these moments, because we knew, we knewthat a xenomorph like we’d never seen before would totally surprise these Covenant crew members.
This telegraphing does not always work in favor of the film. One of the film’s most crucial plot points is revealed by a duh-totally obvious moment before the first hour is up. This reveal sends shockwaves through the rest of the film, as it provides an unwelcome answer to the question, “will this one bad thing happen?” As result, Covenant is virtually devoid of a climax.
In any case, larger creatures look like incredible beasts.
In any case, it’s a beautiful movie, next Prometheus‘ streak of impeccable set design and beautiful fly-over scenery. Metallic yellow-and-black interiors come complete with metal masterpieces and expertly staged shadow displays, while sweeping Australian mountainsides Alien-appropriate CGI touch with thunderstorms, ancient mysterious shrines and monuments to what had existed before. However, I wasn’t nearly as excited about some xenomorph CGIs, especially in the case of tiny xenomorphlings. These characters’ renderings were frankly handed to the wrong digital VFX house, as their movements and glittering slime systems always looked stiff and imprecisely overshadowed compared to the natural landscape nearby. Larger creatures, on the other hand, look like incredible beasts. Their digital origins seemed obvious too, but their lightning-quick moves and brutal kills made those little flubs easier to forgive.
I had a good time with Covenant, but I would call the film “usable” in a vacuum. I was often more satisfied with the punctuation (sometimes an exclamation mark, sometimes an ellipse) the explanations and twists of this film that Prometheus than I was by how little these crewmen turned new leaves and overcame adversity. I liked having stamps on my . to get Alien series fan card, and I’d call this a must-see if you described yourself in the same way.
However, if you’re bringing a more casual series fan, warn them to catch up Prometheus prior to. No movie should require homework, but Prometheus– which I actually really liked, as I forgave the logical mistakes in favor of the suspense, the acting and the beautiful cinematography – only gets better with this sequel as a companion. In this case, at least those viewers won’t have to wait a full five years for the confusing parts of the 2012 movie to be a little clearer.