2017 – USA/UK
Director: Ridley Scott
Starring: Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Guy Pearce
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
Alien Covenant is an alternately entertaining and irritating entry in the franchise; it hits all the beats you would expect of an Alien movie, often feeling like a lot of conscious course-correction after the messy and unsatisfying Prometheus (it’s difficult to discuss Covenant without constantly referring to the film that came before it, and so obviously guided its inception), while still feeling slightly insubstantial as its own entity.
Director Ridley Scott seems to be trying to reclaim authorial control over the Xenomorph as it first appeared in his original 1979 film, delving into the origins of the creature and expanding on the wider universe he nodded at in Prometheus.
However, the biggest strengths of this film lie in its exploration of Michael Fassbender’s malevolent, god complex-driven android David (who we last saw as a mere disembodied head at the end of Prometheus, but by the time of Covenant – which takes place ten years after the events of the previous film – he has been living as a kind of hermit biologist, experimenting with the Xenomorph DNA in his all-consuming quest to create, at any cost). The film’s opening scene, a flashback in which David meets his ‘father’, Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce returning without the awful old man make-up) is one of its most quietly effective, although its high-minded references to Wagner and Michelangelo will roll the eyes of those who already thought Scott was trying to show off with the half-baked discussions of philosophy and anthropology in Prometheus.
In fact, Fassbender is playing a dual role here, also appearing as ‘good android’ Walter, one of David’s later-model ‘brothers’, built with fewer human personality traits and without the innate desire to create. When both characters were on screen, I found myself marvelling at the subtle differences in performance that Fassbender brings to their interactions. It’s perhaps telling that in a film featuring an iconic sci-fi horror creature and multiple action sequences, the scene that I was most invested in is one in which David teaches Walter how to play a flute, all the while exuding both admiration and contempt for this younger, less human model of himself.
By now, David’s complex obsessiveness has perhaps become more interesting than the Xenomorph everybody paid to see.
Speaking of which, there is a sense that, in trying to appease those who were disappointed by the lack of Alien in Prometheus, Ridley Scott has gone too far the other way here, showing off the Alien in various stages way too much and diluting its power. The CGI is surprisingly terrible, with the early stage of the Alien (the small, white-skinned ‘Neomorph’) looking particularly like something out of a PS3 game, skittering around without ever appearing as though it operates on the same plane of reality as the flesh and blood cast. It’s almost offputtingly comical at points, jumping around and making high pitched screeches which sound distractingly like those of some kind of distressed ape. The ‘classic’ Xenomorph as it appears later on is similarly underserved, simply looking too obviously computer generated and never feeling fully present in any given scene. The creature which once so effectively stalked the underlit corridors of the Nostromo has here been relegated to the boss fight at the end of a video game.
The film looks gorgeous otherwise, with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski drawing a dead, cold ominous beauty out of the New Zealand landscape to create the planet our intrepid explorers end up on. There are many shots here which feel almost engineered to end up in the inevitable coffee table art book, and the film paces itself nicely in setting up an atmosphere of quiet dread until our hungry extra-terrestrial friend shows up. The score by Jed Kurzel is also worth noting, not only for how it ratchets up the tension itself, but for how it employs unobtrusive callbacks to the original Alien score by Jerry Goldsmith. It’s a strong example of referring to a classic without merely copying it.
The expansion of the franchise’s mythos and the tying up of loose ends from Prometheus are welcome – and Covenant is certainly the more coherent and enjoyable film of the two – but, while Prometheus felt like a lot of set-up with no payoff, Covenant feels like a lot of apology and reliance on goodwill without much actual substance.
While it has moments which individually work very well, the overall sense is that Scott has essentially made a ‘best of’ reel from his original ‘79 film here, only with sub-par CGI and less effective scares.
Well, Alien has been out for thirty eight years now… I think I’d rather just watch that again.