It’s certainly not a masterpiece and most certainly nowhere near the brilliance and quality of Alien but Alien Covenant is a safe and welcomed addition to the franchise.
Daniels: “Are you sure about this, Captain?”
Christopher Oram: “How do you mean?”
Daniels: “We don’t know what the fuck’s out there.”
Let me state an obvious fact because your enjoyment of Alien Covenant will depend on it. If you go into this film expecting Alien, Ridley Scott’s ground breaking, sci-fi horror masterpiece, then you might be disappointed. But if you’re in the minority who enjoyed Prometheus, then Alien Covenant might strike a particular cord and surprisingly I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.
But just like Prometheus, Alien Covenant is far from perfect.
It’s fair to say that when Prometheus was released back in 2012 it was a mixed bag, delivering something that the audience wasn’t fully expecting. Veering away from the Alien mythology, it was a beautiful, mysterious space adventure exploring creationism with a group of explorers. Like an inspirational ode to Dante’s Inferno, Prometheus elevated beyond the quick cash grab sentiment (like Alien vs. Predator) and tried to infuse a more intellectual substance on the franchise. On the other hand it was also filled with inexcusable scientists doing things too dumb for words for this review. But besides the convoluted flaws, Prometheus wasn’t as bad as everyone was making out, underrated because of its investigative and nuanced themes which got better on repeated viewings over the years. Because in essence, a decent sci-fi film should leave its audience with a sense of curious intrigue. In Prometheus, the “be careful what you wish for” ideology and its philosophy on Gods and Monsters shines through because opening Pandora’s Box in search of answers can have a devastating and long-lasting impact.
So you can imagine my feelings when Ridley Scott suggested in a recent interview that he got Prometheus wrong. It’s something I completely disagree with but Alien Covenant is a direct response to those criticisms and frankly I wished Ridley stuck to his guns and rode out the storm.
Alien Covenant is a compromised, best of both worlds scenario. It’s a direct follow-up to Prometheus but also serving as the bridge towards the 1979 classic. While John Logan and Dante Harper’s basic screenplay does some interesting things for the franchise, it’s a decent exploration that doesn’t quite satisfy on either level. Alien Covenant is a straightforward, back to basics adventure more in the vein of Alien but it lacks the powerful and intriguing mystery that fans of Prometheus really marvelled at, essentially losing that uniqueness that Prometheus brought to the table.
There’s also a sense of deja vu in terms of the horror. Sure it’s unapologetically gory and well-executed. Director Ridley Scott certainly lives up to his visionary credentials by delivering stunningly beautiful scenes with all the hallmarks of terror lurking beneath the surface. However the scare factor can lack an impact and there’s two very good reasons for that.
The first reason is derived on whether we’re easily shocked any more. Being my favourite film in the franchise, there was a surprise yet revolutionary element when the first Alien movie was released. It was nothing we had seen before, easily blending tension in the unglamorous surroundings of the Nostromo. That heightened fear and the feeling of “you’re next” is always elevated as the xenomorph transforms in its organic life cycle, subsequently upping the ante as it picks off its victims. Alien is also deeply claustrophobic – you can’t run out into the wilderness towards an escapist freedom. Being in a tight, enclosed space not only adds to the physical fear but also the psychological fear where survival of the fittest is the only way to navigate an ever-changing and uncompromising environment. Fully living up to its tag line of “in space no one can hear you scream”, Alien is a masterpiece in its craft and catching lightning in a bottle trying to recreate that is simply impossible. With exception of Aliens, the subsequent sequels coinciding with our increased engagement with technology and social media hype, the fear (and spoiler) factor surrounding xenomorphs may have lost its primal and nefarious power. We know what to expect hence why it comes across as predictable and that directly ties in with the second reason. Xenomorphs no longer hide in the shadows, their CGI movements (instead of the convincing practical effects) always viewable in plain sight. The audience doesn’t get to experience that sense of confusion of the unknown as the crew are weighed down by the heightened conflict of emotions.
The crew itself in Alien Covenant which includes the Ellen Ripley lookalike Daniels (Katherine Waterston) are largely disposable, nothing to gain from their underdeveloped personalities or their forceful conflicts with each other. Also like many films do these days, having too many characters (even if they’re there for a certain purpose) can feel overcrowded. Just like in Prometheus, they’re still subjected to questionable things but to give director Ridley Scott credit, the lives of the crew are not the real essence of Alien Covenant. In order to maintain its snappy and resolute pace, the crew are dealt with quickly as the xenomorphs become an afterthought, as strange as that may sound.
The real focus is David (Michael Fassbender).
Elizabeth Shaw: “How long?”
David: “Impossible to say.”
Elizabeth Shaw: “What if they are not better than us?”
David: “So long as they are not worse.”
Where Alien Covenant excels is that direct link from Prometheus and if there’s a justifiable reason to enjoy it, then it solely belongs to the outstanding performance by Michael Fassbender who fully embodies a Ozymandias complex.
With this new added element, Alien Covenant continues its biblical themes set by its predecessor. In Prometheus it was the idea of who created humanity. David, a synthetic android who’s unable to share all the qualities that makes a human being, aspires to break free from his master Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). Alien Covenant moves beyond the search of God but to the re-evaluation on the idea of God.
For the strongest element of the film, I wished they spent more time on this and it makes me wonder whether we may see more of this mystery on the blu-ray. There’s no surprise that Ridley Scott treads on his previous work and the nods to Blade Runner is evidently clear in David. Whereas Roy Batty’s exploit was more sympathetic in nature by trying to extend his life, David’s transcendence borders on the psychotic and the delusional. Because for every “God” there has to be a “Devil” and the path to paradise can be a journey into hell. Without going into spoiler territory, it’s an exploration worthy of a dedicated essay piece.
The biblical references doesn’t stop there as the word “covenant” is expressed as two forms of interpretations. Covenant as a ship is the equivalent of Noah’s Ark where the animals (human beings) went in 2 x 2, carrying the future of humanity. Instead of escaping a “flood” that threatens mankind, the crew wakes abruptly in chaotic circumstances – a direct contrast to the graceful elegance of the Nostromo crew. Even David is given a “brother” in the form of Walter (also played by Fassbender), a mirror image of conflicting personalities and beliefs, psychoanalysing each other on what makes someone human. The second interpretation relates to the word covenant itself, alluding to an agreement. In the bible, it was an agreement between God and his people – a promise is upheld so long as the people obeyed his commands. The question is, who does the question reflect? The Engineers? Humanity itself? David? Alien Covenant doesn’t provide all the answers, most likely missing on deliberate purpose, but David’s interpretation of “covenant” is the key to the franchise itself.
Despite the surprised enjoyment, Alien Covenant can be a little frustrating because it has so many interesting concepts hiding beneath the surface but its execution can be a little clumsy. In some ways it’s a definite upgrade and improvement on Prometheus but at the same time didn’t bring anything new to the table with its nostalgic familiarity with Alien. But having said all that, this is not the Terminator Genisys of the franchise although both properties suffer from the same fatigue. Both started out as cult films owning up to their B-movie qualities. Their sequels evolved the story and changed the game but their subsequent films fall into mediocrity, losing the fundamental groundwork and appeal that made audiences fall in love with it in the first place.
But Alien Covenant escapes that. When the story works, it delivers and can be comfortably placed in the higher ranks of the franchise despite its obvious flaws. You can have fun with it (like I did) and given how films nowadays tend to over saturate their third act with heavy CGI to make it spectacular, Alien Covenant keeps things hauntingly simple.
The question that remains is where does it go from here? There are opportunities on where it can go depending if it can still be adventurous without feeling too predictable. It certainly needs to be bold and resolutely strong in its conceptual beliefs and not bow down to appeasement and pressures to correct “mistakes”.
Even if that path is uncertain, I’m ready to find out more.