To preface this review, I want to make something very clear upfront: I am a tremendous Alien fan, and therefore, I may be a bit biased towards films centered around this cinematic universe. But how can you not be? Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and countless brilliant artists created a lived-in universe. I can list off all of the characters from the first Alien off the top of my mind (Ripley, Dallas, Ash, Kane, Lambert, Brett, Parker, and MUTHER, of course); I can quote most of the insatiably quotable Aliens (“Game over, man!” Rest in Peace, Mr. Bill Paxton). I’ll be the contrarian if I have to, and say that I thoroughly enjoyed the philosophical mysteries throughout Prometheus AS WELL AS the religious allegories of Alien3. We’ve got Weyland Yutani; androids; acid-for-blood; milk-for-blood; pulse rifles; facehuggers; Nostromo; the Queen; etc. All of these things immediately conjure up clear, definitive imagery for anyone remotely familiar with this series. It’s a fully-realized, grungy future, with greedy and deceiving corporations, macho-military, inventive tech, and most importantly?The fucking Xenomorph.
The most horrifying monster in cinema history. Period.
So, with Alien: Covenant being the sixth entry in the official Alien series (if you include the Alien VS. Predator “films”: damn you straight to hell), we as an audience have seen the series hit its highest highs, and lowest lows. Certain tropes are expected in any new entry: ultra-violence from the xenomorph, android betrayals, inevitable “shooting-gallery” for most of the crew, and if we’re lucky, some philosophical exploration about life, death, and creation. As we have seen with many series’ that reach higher numbers in their sequels, these expected tropes should hit hard, and if they don’t, audiences tend to be upset with the final product. The Alien series, at its best, still contains these tropes, while executing the genre to perfection. The difference between Alien and Aliens is shocking, and yet, no one can really argue that either film is worse than the other. They are both effective at carrying out the same expected tropes, each with respect to their different genre – horror vs. action. Alien3 and Alien: Resurrection, for better or worse, seem to stray more from these tropes and genres, and thusly, have an additional reason why they are disparate from the former films.
Alien: Covenant lies in a strange place in between, and this is extremely disparaging. The film contains your expected Alien beats, and appropriately interjects them with philosophical banter. The violence is brutal, the story-world beautiful, and the performances stellar. The film is not devoid of all merits, and Ridley Scott certainly helps showcase everything that is great about it. However, the meat of the film seems to almost fall to playing it safe. It isn’t really scary, violence is gory but held back, and very little is worth “writing home about.” Where Prometheus dared, or Alien surprised, Covenant just kind of sits.
Alien: Covenant tells the story of a massive colonization ship, bound for a suitable planet at the edge of our galaxy. After an unusual distress beacon is discovered mid-transit, identifying a nearby planet with suitable environmental conditions, the crew decide to set down on said planet. And, of course, things start to go violently awry from there. As a deadly pathogen begins to infect some crew members, the crew must find a way to escape the planet.
On a positive side, this film is stunningly gorgeous. From the set design, the cinematography, the lighting, the costumes, the everything. This film is thick with attention to detail, and a focus for aesthetic. The performances in this film are also engaging and thoroughly well-executed. The standout, without a shadow of a doubt, is Michael Fassbender as androids Walter and David. Fassbender slips between these two characters with such ease and perfection. To be frank, Fassbender’s performance, and the writing between the two android characters help carry this film immensely. During the second act, surprisingly, things begin to slow down. Everything is quieter, and there are several elongated sequences between Walter and David as they discuss the essence of creation. What is their relationship to their creator? What prevents them from creating things themselves? With creation, does that make one a god over what you have made? Or can your creation rise up against you? The cyclical nature of their discussion keeps you on pins and needles, more so than some of the suspenseful horror scenes that follow.
In regards to performances, I also think a major credit has to go to Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride. These three were layered so well, and carried with them powerful and emotional roles. All are standouts, and easily hold their own next to Fassbender.
Aside from them, however, every other character kind of falls to the wayside. No one necessarily is bad in the film, it’s just that all of the other characters are treated as a “shooting gallery.” This term, essentially, is applicable to horror films where you know, almost at the outset, who’s going to die. Their performances are fine, but there is no “umph” to their characters to make the audience care about them. To it’s credit, Covenant makes a majority of the lead crew members couples. This makes sense, as they are all colonists starting life on the new planet. This does add to the desire and want for everyone’s survival, but ultimately, most characters just fall into stereotypes. Once again, not bad, just underwhelming.
Also, quick tangent, the marketing for this film revealed two substantially important scenes that were left out of the film. I, personally, thought that these two scenes very much should have been included in the final product, as they add more dynamics to the characters on screen. If you intend to see this film, I highly checking them out here and here.
On a story note, this film is actually a fairly concrete and well-written story. That is, of course, mostly in regards to the lead characters (Fassbender, Waterston, Crudup, and McBride). The setup is nice, the pacing is solid, dialogue is well-written, and everything is concisely told. The philosophical ventures between David and Walter are engaging, and help elevate what Prometheus set out to do. The problems I do have with the story come down to the execution, which felt bland during times where it should have been intense. Some beats kind of fall flat, and some of the stakes were just not as intense. Per example, in Alien when Ripley must reach an escape pod in time, everything is on the line. The ship is about to self-detonate, there is a terrifying monster on board, and Ripley is the last survivor with has no clue to where the monster is hiding. Stakes are clear-cut, evident, and Ridley Scott’s direction helped elevate what could have easily have been something shot like your typical 80s slasher. With Covenant, it almost comes off as closer to a slasher, albeit with a substantially larger budget and notable director attached. Some liberties are taken aesthetically, such as seeing from the Xenomorph’s perspective, but in the end, these are liberties that aren’t necessary, and everything is kind of basic in it’s approach.
It’s hard to pinpoint this feeling exactly without delving into spoilers, but I think I can best boil it down to this: Covenant doesn’t treat the xenomorph correctly. With Alien, you have, as Ash puts it, a “perfect organism. Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility, […] unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality.” In Covenant, because of all of the philosophical talk and devolution of mankind’s creations that David and Walter discuss, so too is the xenomorph treated. It suddenly has a conscience, at times remorse, and feels almost like something that can be trained. At one point, David even refers to a new xenomorph as an untrained horse. It just feels like the wrong approach for this creature. I even feel that Prometheus was a step closer in the correct direction towards the hostility of these mysterious creatures. It can’t be bargained with, or feel pity. It just plain ol’ kills things.
In the end, Alien: Covenant isn’t quite something that I wouldn’t recommend. As with all of the series, the lead characters are almost certainly well written, and completely engaging to watch. The aesthetic of this film is gorgeous, and the action is suspenseful. The horror elements lacked often, and most side characters just aren’t that important. But the typical Alien tropes are abound. I wish that the xenomorph had been treated differently (also CGI for the xenomorph was a bit rough…), however I did thoroughly enjoy the philosophical debates that permeate throughout the film, and about creation. The ending is solid, performances excellent, and overall, despite some major liberties it takes from the titular monster, it is a worthy entry in the series.
WRITTEN BY: Jake Sanders