Ask and you shall receive. When Prometheus was announced back in 2009, audience expectations were through the roof. The end result was an interesting but flawed film that posed many questions that it didn’t deem necessary to answer. Worst of all though, is that it didn’t actually feel like an Alien film. After that film’s mediocre box office return and slightly above-average critical reception, 20th Century Fox and director Ridley Scott decided to make its sequel a little more Alien-like to please fans. Jump to 2017 and we’ve got Alien: Covenant, but the results are decidedly mixed. This is a film that includes many of the best parts of the Alien franchise but none of the heart.
Before I get started with this review I should point out that I do like Prometheus (I’m not as wild about it as John Squires is, but I do like it). Like many others, I did want more Xenomorph action, but I accept the film for what it is. Alien: Covenant does deliver on xenomorph action, but what we are given is a hybrid of Prometheus, Alien and Aliens that has all of the right ingredients but never amounts to much, opting to set up future sequels that sound a lot better than the film we are watching.
10 years after the events of Prometheus, the colony ship Covenant is on its way to the planet Origae-6 with two thousand colonists and an additional two thousand embryos. After an energy surge damages the ship and kills the captain (James Franco, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo) the crew, which is comprised entirely of couples, is woken up in order to repair it. While awake, they receive a transmission from Elizabeth Shaw and track her location to a nearby planet. The crew decides to investigate that planet in the hopes that they can colonize there instead of Origae-6. Upon arriving they soon discover David (Michael Fassbender) and learn that the planet is not as friendly as they had hoped.
Right away, Alien: Covenant runs into problems with character motivation. It makes absolutely no sense for the crew to go explore this planet. In the original Alien the crew members of the Nostromo were automatically re-routed by the ship’s computer to go investigate an SOS it received from a remote planet. That makes sense. The motivation in Alien: Covenant does not. Screenwriters John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Penny Dreadful) and Dante Harper attempt to make sense of it by playing on the crew’s fear of getting back into their cryosleep pods after what happened to the captain, but it still requires a significant suspension of disbelief that the film doesn’t earn. The film follows many of the same beats as the original Alien, and that proves to be its biggest weakness. If you’ve seen that film and/or Aliens, you have essentially seen Alien: Covenant. There are very few surprises in store for you.
Logan and Harper include a large cast of characters in their script, but it’s too large. You are never allowed to get to know any of these characters beyond a surface level. A helpful dinner scene like the one in the original 1979 Alien would have helped a tremendous amount, but we are given nothing like that to acquaint ourselves with the characters. Even Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, who is meant to be the character the audience connects with the most, isn’t given the material she deserves. The film assumes that because her husband (the aforementioned captain) dies in the film’s second scene that the audience will automatically connect with her, but that is incorrect. Making all of the characters one-half of a couple does add a small amount of tension to the proceedings, but because you know nothing about them the stakes don’t feel particularly high.
The performances are all strong but the roles are underwritten. Special mention must be made of Michael Fassbender, who completely owns the dual roles of David and Walter. His roles are given the most attention and deservedly so. Scenes featuring both androids in the same shot are the most engaging. Katherine Waterston is compelling as Daniels, but you are never allowed to fully connect with her. Danny McBride is serviceable in a rare dramatic role as the pilot Tennessee, but actors like Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight), Jussie Smollett (Empire) and Callie Hernandez (Blair Witch) are completely wasted. They are relegated to a few brief lines of dialogue but aren’t given much to do.
All of that being said, it must be mentioned that Alien: Covenant is a beautiful film. This should come as no surprise considering that cinematographer Dariusz Wolski also shot Prometheus, which was filled with several, if perhaps a few too many, gorgeous landscape shots. From the stellar views of outer space to the shots of the terrain, it is clear that a lot of thought and love went into filming this movie. Made for a budget of $111 million, the production values are simply astonishing. See this one on IMAX if you can.
The practical effects that are in the film are equally fantastic. Scott amps up the gore to the max, making this the bloodiest entry in the franchise. Heads are bitten off, backs are split open, Xenomorph mini-mouths are shoved through heads. It’s all glorious. Unfortunately, roughly 80% of the creature effects in the film are CGI renderings (and that may be a generous estimate). In some instances this is understandable. It makes sense to resort to CGI during the wide shots of a fast-moving xenomorph, but it’s the static shots that surprise. There is no reason for any long shot of a stationary alien to not utilize practical effects. When a chestbursting scene in 2017 looks noticeably more fake than a chestbursting scene from 1979, you have a problem. It’s all the more surprising that this is coming from the director of Alien, a film known for its phenomenal practical effects.
What is sorely missing from Alien: Covenant are set pieces. It does boast the backburster, mouthburster and the chestburster which are all sufficiently disturbing, but there is nothing in the film that truly stands apart from any of the other entries in the franchise. Other than a battle sequence in which Daniels is tethered to the hull of a ship, nothing in Alien: Covenant brings anything new to the table, especially if you’ve seen all five of the other Alien films. The few times that Scott tries something new fail to pay off and don’t really work in the context of the film (for example, the shower scene seen in the trailers feels like it belongs in a Starship Troopers film rather than an Alien film). There are a lot of good ideas on display that just don’t mesh well together. This brings me to the ending (no spoilers). Had the climax been even a little bit suspenseful and awe-inspiring it would be easier to forgive many of the problems that came before, but it isn’t. The over-familiarity of the events that take place in the final 15 minutes are going to be all too familiar to viewers who have been watching this franchise for almost 40 years.
If you didn’t like Prometheus, you may very well love Covenant. So briefly does Alien: Covenant gloss over the events that happened between the two films that it’s a little insulting to fans of that film. There was an idea for a film between Prometheus and Alien: Covenant that would have seen Shaw and David arrive on the Engineers’ planet, but after Prometheus‘s poor box office reception that was scrapped in favor of a more Xenomorph-centric film. This is a real shame, as flashbacks to Shaw and David’s arrival are given mere seconds of screen time. That would have been a movie worth seeing, but that narrative is rushed in order to get to the xenomorphs. That is all well and good, but it dilutes much of the impact that Alien: Covenant could have had.
Alien: Covenant is not a bad movie, it’s just not a particularly memorable one. Even though I’ve harped on it quite a bit, I did like it. Truthfully, my feelings on the film are more a 2.5/5 but I think my extremely high expectations affected my opinion a bit so I’m giving it a 3/5. It has all of the pieces of a good Alien film (and to be clear, it is entertaining), but it cobbles them together in an enjoyable but hollow film that lacks inspiration and exists solely to set up the next installment which, based on the setup at the end of the film, sounds awesome. Reception for Alien: Covenant would be better if it was the Alien prequel fans were expecting five years ago, but now that Prometheus exists it feels like a betrayal of ideas that have already been established. This is a film that was made as a response to Prometheus critics but tries to appease fans of that film as well and it doesn’t fully work. If anything, watching Alien: Covenant will make you appreciate Prometheus more, so that’s something.