Ah, Ridley Scott. What an enigma. At 79 years old, he has made his bloodiest, grisliest, and most hyperactive film to date. Alien: Covenant feels like a young man’s film, in the way that Mad Max: Fury Road felt like it had been directed by someone in the vibrancy of their youth. Ridley Scott has always had an up-and-down career, peppering some real flashes of brilliance with long, hard thuds that never made much sense at any stage of their life. For me, Prometheus was closer to the latter than the former. It just never worked for me. I never cared as much for the mythology of the Alien franchise as I did the sheer force of creatures on the attack. Alien: Covenant is 50% Prometheus and 50% Alien, which means I was somewhat disappointed.
After a surprising prologue, the film opens with the colony ship Covenant experiencing unexpected solar bursts, causing the death of the ship’s captain and quite a few colonists. The crew are awoken by Walter (Michael Fassbender), the resident synthetic, and are forced to deal with the aftermath. In doing so, they stumble upon a remote transmission of someone singing John Denver’s “Country Roads”. Upon realizing it is coming from a planet that might be more habitable than the one to which they’re heading, they change course and set sail. When they arrive, however, they almost instantly realize things aren’t what they seem. Something about the planet is “off,” and, when people start getting sick, the reality sets in that they should have stayed on their original course. That, my friends, is the plot of Alien: Covenant.
SPOILER PARAGRAPHS (read at your own risk):
Yes, of course the planet they venture towards is connected with Prometheus. After being attacked by some unpleasant xenomorphs, the crew of the Covenant are rescued by David…that’s right, David (Michael Fassbender) from Prometheus. He takes them back to a large, ornate temple and we quickly see that the devastation around them was wrought by David when he unleashed the virus, wiping out everyone on the planet. David has also been experimenting with breeding, attempting to create a perfect organism. This is when the film doesn’t work for me. David didn’t work for me in Prometheus and he doesn’t work for me here, which is a shame since he basically becomes the lead of the film. Alien: Covenant goes from being a survival tale to a game of switcheroo between synths. Old hat.
Another issue I had was the sheer size of the cast. It was impossible to keep up with everyone, and I don’t think I ever fully understood who was married to whom. And the decision to cast James Franco as the original captain who dies in the first few minutes was distracting. Why did it need to be James Franco? Ridley Scott could have trimmed this cast in half and it wouldn’t have made a bit of difference. I think he got carried away at the thought of having a group of actors like he had with Alien, but the actors in Alien are really given a chance to develop and expand – in the group and by themselves. Here, there are just too many people and not enough time to develop anything between anyone. Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride get the most time together, but all they do is shoot guns and share a collective grief.
END OF SPOILER PARAGRAPHS (resume your reading)
That said, even though there are too many characters, the actors here are all top-notch. Katherine Waterston is the obvious Ripley surrogate, and she handles the role well. Danny McBride exceeds expectations as (I am not joking) a character named “Tennessee,” and Billy Crudup and Demian Bichir round out the core group. But it’s really Fassbender’s show, and he has zero difficulty in showing us why he’s one of the great living actors. There’s a strength to his minimalism that blends perfectly with the particular character traits of the others. Poor Jussie Smollett, Alex England, and Callie Hernandez are given next to nothing to do, except die in very grisly ways. Hell, that might have been the reason they signed on in the first place.
Alien: Covenant is bloody. Bloodier than any of the other films in the franchise. It is, quite literally, a slasher film in space. There’s even a moment where we get a P.O.V. shot from the alien like it was pulled from the Friday the 13th playbook. And, when it’s a slasher film, it works like gangbusters. That is what has always worked best for the franchise – human beings on the run from vicious monsters in dark, wet, cramped spaces. There are some genuine scares here that rival anything in the original film. Then, as if by contractual demand, Scott takes us back into the world of Prometheus, and I lose any and all interest. I suppose the prologue should have tipped me off that that was going to happen, but it didn’t make it go down smoothly.
So, I don’t know – I was entertained. When it worked, it was terrific. When it didn’t, I was rolling my eyes and frustrated with storylines I thought I’d left behind. I get it – Ridley Scott is creating this universe and connecting dots and all that jazz but, why? Who cares, really? No one watched Alien or Aliens and wondered, “Where did humans come from?” No one watched them and thought, “What is the origin of the xenomorph?” Sometimes, less is more. And, unfortunately, the more backstory they give us about this mythology, the less frightening the original films become. Why would you make me rewatch Alien with all the blanks filled in? That takes away from the magic of the picture. At least, for me it does. So, while Alien: Covenant is a cut above Prometheus, it hasn’t shed enough of that skin to avoid some of the same pitfalls. I wanted a straight up Alien horror story. When I got that, I was a damned happy camper.