As a filmmaker enters his twilight years, he’s faced with a twofold path. He can allow the passage of time to ripen him, reducing him to a squishy facsimile of his former and more vital self. Or he can do what Martin Scorsese did with The Wolf of Wall Street and Silence, and seize old age as an opportunity to pull out all the stops in pursuit of a grander and more shocking vision than ever.
Roaring back into multiplexes at age 79 like he’s got something to prove, Ridley Scott has handed down to us the goriest, and what’s more, the largest chapter of the Alien saga yet. The original remains the franchise’s most fastidiously orchestrated work of craft, and James Cameron’s Aliens gave the series its most cathartic action showstoppers. Covenant, to its credit and detriment, is simply the most.
How much you end up liking Alien Covenant will depend largely on what you thought of Prometheus. I personally find Prometheus far more interesting in concept than execution. The idea of answering questions about the mystery surrounding the Alien franchise coming part and parcel with those characters seeking answers about their own creation is a fascinating place to start, but does it fit in with what I personally want out of these movies? Not so much.
Prometheus is barely an Alien movie in any real sense. Giving a backstory to the creation of the xenomorph is less on its mind than exploring philosophies of religion and belief via an R-rated sci-fi lens.
Alien Covenant is much more of an Alien movie (hence the word actually appearing in the title this time), but man if you lost patience with the prequelitis aspects of Prometheus then you're going to really hate aspects of this movie. However, if all you want is a little more gory alien action then there'll be parts of this movie that'll scratch that particular itch. My issues with this movie spring from that bit of split personality.
You see Covenant is stuck between three different movies. It exists somewhere in the middle of Prometheus, Alien and Aliens. It has the weird, convoluted xenomorph backstory elements of Prometheus, much more of the likeable crew getting hunted one by one by a monster stuff that we love about Alien and some big horror action spectacle that James Cameron's sequel gave us.
To me that never mixed together to make a flawless new thing. It felt like a mix tape instead of a fresh angle on this universe. I don't have a problem with the look of the movie or the cast. In fact, the crew of the Covenant is put to much better use than the crew of Prometheus. Both movies are impeccably cast, but man do the characters from Prometheus make some boneheaded decisions for no real reason.
The crew of the Covenant start in desperation. There's an accident that wakes them up early, so it's chaotic from the first moment. Dramatically this works better and lets the characters develop through action, a choice I'm always partial to. This crew is comprised of couples, their mission to scope out a potential life-sustaining planet and, if the data is correct, establish a colony there with a couple thousand human popsicles as their cargo and a bunch of pre-made babies in cold storage, just ready to be put into a momma.
That basic starting point means we get more of a working class central crew ala the first Alien film. They're smart and have important jobs, but they're not fancy brainiacs, so when they make some dumbass slasher cliché decisions later on it's not as insulting of a choice as when the scientists of Prometheus, you know, took off their helmets because fuck it, the air's probably fine in this alien spaceship. I could go on but I’ll leave it at that.
I like this Covenant crew. I like that Billy Crudup's Oram is a leader who isn't that great at his job. I like that Danny McBride gets a chance to stretch his acting muscles, but doesn't do so at the expense of denying us his inherently funny personality. I like that Katherine Waterston's Daniels is shown to be a fighter from frame one. I like that Michael Fassbender is let loose with not one, but two different characters, and he acts his ass off with both of them.
In fact, Fassbender's Prometheus character, David, is the thing I hold on to when I want to talk down on these movies. It's worth the eye-rolling bullshit that's in both films to get this character. In the first film his fascination with the creators of his creators made for an interesting duality. He had a childlike innocence to him, but he couldn't give less of a shit about protecting his human compatriots.
In this film he's even further off the reservation. In the 10 years between Prometheus and Covenant a lot has gone down. His fascination with the Engineers has evolved past them and to their creations. The way this ties into the series that we know is, again, interesting on paper, but kind of stupid in the over-explaining/demystifying way prequels can be at their worst.
But Fassbender sells it and sells it well enough that in the moment I was rolling with it, only to look back after the credits rolled and go “Really? They went with that. Okay...”
David is still great, made even greater by Walter, the updated version of the David synthetic that's onboard the Covenant. It's a little bit of an Ash/Bishop growth, with Walter forming a real bond with Daniels, acting very protective of her. That is mirrored by David's adoration of Elizabeth Shaw from the first movie, which has grown in this one, albeit in a pretty atypical way.
The scenes of both Walter and David together are the strongest in the movie. David sees Walter as a brother and desperately wants him to be as interested in his experiments as he is. Walter sees David is a similar light, but has a bit more of a moral compass. The temptation of Walter is the richest section of the movie. David knows Walter craves that familial connection because he also craves it.
There are some pretty righteous kills in the second half of the movie as the neomorphs run amok. Gorehounds don't get a lot of blood, but when you do get it it's very graphic. The neomorphs themselves are distractingly CG at points, but they have character, which goes a long way for me to embrace them.
The issue is that all the interesting character stuff is kinda abandoned halfway through in order to make it a scare flick with big action sequences. Instead of learning more character through these moments you instead have to rely just on what came before, which made them ring a bit hollow for me.
A big prop I give the movie is being unashamed of going not only dark, but doing so in a B-movie way. There's a lot of serious dramatic work and hard sci-fi stuff going on, but then it shifts gears to exploitation in a jarring, but ballsy way. I don't think it works perfectly, but I appreciate the swinging for the fences approach Risley Scott is taking here. I just wish it were done with a bit more care so I didn't feel so distanced by it.
There's still a huge gap between the end of this movie and the beginning of Alien, which I can't get into without a large amount of spoilers, but I can say in vague terms that it's confusing and seems to go out of its way to make it super complicated. There was a pretty clear line from the end of Prometheus to the beginning of Alien and this movie shakes that line like it's a rotten kid with an ant farm. I suppose this is so they can fit in a few more prequels, but it truly is a baffling story decision.
The actual end of this story is something I dig, but am still very confused by. I guess it's up to the sequel to make it make a bit of sense within the context of the series as a whole.
Ultimately I think Alien Covenant is going to be a divisive movie. There are things in it for most of the Alien fandom to grab on to, whether they want hard sci-fi, blue-collar space characters in a spook house or big action spectacle. So if all you want from an Alien movie is one or more of those elements they're there. If you want a cohesive whole that fits into the series you love then you might not be so fond of this one.