REVIEW: 'Alien: Covenant' is ordinary, even with all the gore
Somewhere along the line, the Alien franchise went from claustrophobic sci-fi horror-thriller to sci-fi action set piece, and in doing so became yet another example of a sequel we didn’t need. Alien: Covenant is the sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and Ridley Scott’s third entry in the six-film franchise, which alone presents a problem: through nearly four decades, which included three different female leads, four different directors, four sequels and a prequel, there’s not a lot of ground left to cover. A film that should be equal parts tense, chilling and exciting ends up becoming none of those things.
Of course, if Prometheus – which is recommended viewing before seeing Covenant – has been your only exposure to the franchise, then Covenant will likely be a lot more enjoyable. Following tradition, the female lead this time is Daniels (Katherine Waterston, who was excellent in Inherent Vice, by the way), a terraforming expert aboard the spaceship Covenant, and tasked to colonize a planet called Origae-6 with a cargo of two thousand colonists and one thousand embryos. After the Covenant is damaged, the crew intercept a signal from a nearby planet, and opt to investigate. Upon landing, members of the expeditionary force become infected with alien spores, and before long, aliens start hatching from their bodies, setting off a chain of grotesque events that dooms the ship’s crew.
That the Covenant’s crew is doomed is one of the many unsurprising things, but just how they end up hurtling toward their doom continues to be an infuriating problem. It’s become commonplace for characters to make baffling decisions that continually put them in the most precarious situations, and all because the screenplay says it should or because the film’s structure demands it. The unpopular Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) never quite becomes the divisive internal force you expect him to be, and of course members of the expendable and unimportant security team are the first to get killed off, one by one. This formula has become so hackneyed it feels cheap, and the best Alien films have always been a few notches higher than the average space monster flick.
The heart of Covenant’s story begins with the questions Prometheus never bothered to answer, including the initial scene in which David and his creator, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), have a conversation about creation and the greater purpose. It serves as the basis for the grand reveal of the xenomorphs’ origin, a story that Prometheus had promised but only half delivered, but in a weird way manages to also suck the life out of the franchise. The original Alien was suspenseful because the threat always remained hidden and unpredictable – like Jaws – but when the threat is explored and shown off in all of its gruesome glory… well, the unknown is always much scarier.
The intrigue and much of the film’s most interesting segments come almost exclusively from Michael Fassbender, who pulls double duty as androids David and Walter. He nails the pivotal scene in which David teachers Walter how to play a recorder, and it’s easily one of the most interesting plot elements of the film. Along with the Fassbenders, Danny McBride and Amy Seimetz offer the best on-screen presence, while Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez and Carmen Ejogo provide the best scares.
Scott has built an incredible Alien universe, and the production value remains top notch. The story itself, though, is uneven at best, and manages to both answer a lot of questions but ask a lot of new ones. He’s established so much of the xenomorph mythology that he’s written himself into a bit of a hole, and the third installment will surely once again tackle some philosophical questions halfheartedly and feature another doomed crew that become unwilling hosts for a far more gruesome xenomorph.
Alien: Covenant was disappointing because it had already spoilt much of the mystery that made the franchise so successful, so it neither excites nor terrifies. It seems to be having trouble climbing out of its tired formula, despite the best efforts of its cast and production.
Rating: 3/4; 3.5/5; 7/10