The crew of a colony ship, bound for a remote planet, discover an uncharted paradise with a threat beyond their imagination, and must attempt a harrowing escape.
5 years ago, Ridley Scott rode back into town on a wave of excitement, bringing with him a bright, shiny reinvention of a beloved franchise. The brilliant Alien and Aliens gave the world their new favourite monsters. Over the ensuing years, their legacy was mangled by way of a prison colony, a resurrection and several equally mistreated Predators. Hopes were high that Scott would truly ressucitate a series in its death-throws. In steamed Prometheus, the very definition of a beautiful mess: it looked great but suffered from unlikeable characters and ham-fisted writing.
So, with echoes of disappointment still ringing loud, there was an understandable air of caution as Alien: Covenant popped up to say, “Hello my baby. Hello my honey.” Would it suffer the same ill fate as its predecessor?
Thankfully, certain lessons have been learnt, and each of the characters here are better fleshed out. Katherine Waterston, in the pseudo-Ripley role, fares much better than Noomi Rapace before her. Billy Cruddup does well as the reluctant captain Oram, despite his motivations remaining largely undercooked. Danny McBride dials down admirably on his usual overt comic stylings as Tennessee. There are solid turns from most of the supporting (and very much expendable) crew. And, of course, there’s Michael Fassbender … but we’ll come back to him.
Right from the beginning, Covenant’s tone is expertly set, particularly by way of a well orchestrated conversation between corporate head honcho, Peter Weyland, and Fassbender’s android, David. The added layers of care extended to the central plot and its inherent musings are clear.
Which makes it even more bewildering when it then repeatedly lapses into the same old bad habits. For every time the story intrigues and fascinates, it follows up with moments of illogical idiocy. Really, these have to be some of the worst space crew members assembled (perhaps only topped by the dumber-than-dumb Prometheus squad). They really are a bunch of cowboys. Danny McBride even wears the appropriate hat. Having repeatedly preached about protocol and their responsibility to the hibernating colonists, they then completely abandon these considerations. What supposedly well-trained space crew sets off to explore a brand new, uncharted planet without even a hint of protective clothing or breathing apparatus? And why would that same team then split up without even fully charting this new territory and its potential dangers? Worst of all is that these are not new oversights – many of them are almost note-for-note replicas of Prometheus’ rightly maligned bumblings, not to mention innumerable horror movies over the years that have relied too heavily on characters doing extremely stupid things in the service of story advancement.
The biggest problem with this origin strand is that it comes across as two very different stories mashed together, with it often feeling as if the aliens have been shoehorned in. At the beginning of this particular cycle, the indications were that Ridley Scott was set on creating a spinoff, sharing the same DNA but embarking in its own direction. Once more, Prometheus is very much to blame, as its failure seems to have forced Scott into bringing the iconic aliens front and centre once more. Interestingly, this mirrors a central theme of the movie: where one’s greatest creations can be both a blessing and a curse.
Of course, if the aliens themselves were frightening enough, these missteps could be easily forgiven. Problem is, they just aren’t particularly scary anymore. The over-reliance on CGI and gimmicky variations makes them wholly less effective than those that scared the bejesus out of everyone in the classic first two entries. By demystifying and bringing them out of the shadows, the aliens have mutated into grotesque virtual puppets, reeled out in the name of crowd-service. One particularly awkward scene features an alien birth in a fountain of digital-heavy blood. It looks and feels too forced and, yes, you guessed it: the set-up hinges on a character making an inexplicably daft decision.
So, there is much that is lamentable about Covenant but, fortunately, there is also much that is good. A large chunk of this is thanks to Michael Fassbender, who delivers a nuanced turn that is mesmerising at times; in a couple of excellent scenes even eliciting shades of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. The mythology of this expanded universe is also far better handled than in Prometheus, and channelling it through Fassbender lends it a focus and solid foundation that was sorely lacking previously. In its examination of how genius and ambition can make for a volatile mix (never mind adding wanton genetic tinkering to that explosive cocktail) Covenant just about manages to rise above its self-inflicted injuries. It’s just a shame that the continued lack of care for the finer details still prevents a truly welcome new dawn for the series.