As much as I was excited to see this new Alien movie, as I sat in the theatre waiting for the lights to go down, I found myself wondering what exactly I actually wanted from an Alien movie in 2017. Would I prefer it to just be essentially another of the numerous Alien clones that have continued to appear in the decades since its inception, but with a proper Xenomorph? Or do I want someone to try and tell a completely new story in within the Alien universe? While my instinct goes straight for the latter option, the last few times that was attempted the results were, at best, highly divisive.
Case in point; the curious example of 2012’s Prometheus, everything looked promising on paper; original director Ridley Scott was returning to resurrect the franchise he started back in 1979, but apparently had an original enough premise that he didn’t even wish to cash in on the Alien name. Although I remember being mildly positive on it at the time, Prometheus was a badly-written but well-directed movie that was sufficiently different as to barely be related to the Alien series, which already includes two Alien Vs Predator movies that aren’t considered canon anyhow. Would Prometheus have been embraced by fans had it simply been just another ‘haunted house in space’ movie? Maybe, the one big horror scene in it is still viscerally intense.
The core problem is more or less the one we nearly always encounter with prequels; I’m not interested in seeing an origin for the Xenomorphs. I don’t want to know where they came from, they’re at their most effective as mysterious, threatening space monsters. Unfortunately for me, Alien: Covenant is both a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien, and it’s going to get into that whether I like it or not. Ridley Scott, remaining with the series again, this time wants to deliver on both fronts though, seeking to give us a further exploration of Prometheus’s ponderous mythologising and slasher horror in space.
After a fascinating opening sequence that re-introduces us to Michael Fassbender’s android David, here sharing his first conversation with creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, thankfully not in old-man make up this time), Covenant picks up ten years after the events of Prometheus, following the titular spacecraft as it heads on a mission to colonise a distant planet. Scott’s knack for dazzling visuals is present as ever in an early sequence when the ship is hit by a freak shockwave.
Soon enough, the crew, which includes Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston and more surprisingly, Danny McBride in a non-comedic role, alongside a bunch of one-dimensional unmemorable other members, find themselves investigating a nearby planet that apparently has the atmosphere required to sustain human life. Those who complained about Prometheus’s crew being a bunch of supposedly intelligent people making dangerously stupid decisions will find that little has change here. I didn’t find anything quite as idiotic here, and it’s a well-established genre troupe, but this soon leads to the introduction of the vicious little “Neomorphs” and a couple of effective horror sequences, nothing as good as the abortion scene in Prometheus, and leagues away from the raw terror of the original, but decent nonetheless.
The majority of the second act then ventures back into sci-fi mythology, elaborating on who David is and what he’s been doing. I have to admit that some of this did manage to expand upon Prometheus’s more frustrating elements in a moderately satisfying manner. Exploring the theme of creation baring a cyclical nature, if we’re going to be given Xenomorph backstory, this is better that it could have been. The main pleasure to this though is seeing Michael Fassbender’s duelling performances as Walter and David, android models with slightly different settings. Fassbender excels here, elevating the film greatly, with the aid of flawless technological advances he interacts with himself in a completely convincing manner, resulting in the film’s most memorable sequence.
Making him the protagonist was a good idea for the story Scott wishes to tell, but it does also leave Katherine Waterston feeling a little side-lined until Covenant decides it wants to be an Alien movie again in its third act. She does solid work bringing a vulnerability to the character, and will inevitably invite comparisons to Sigourney Weaver’s peerless work in the original, and while the Xenomorph action/horror sequences are mainly effective, they can’t help but feel a little overdone by now. If the aim was to find new, inventive ways for the creature to bump off some crew members it could have been a bit more inventive.
Scott, it would appear, wishes to make at least one more Alien movie after this, and while I’ll be curious as to where it goes, I’m still not sure why the philosophical mythology espoused by these films needs to have particular attachment to the series. Covenant tries to juggle these to aspects with mixed results. I didn’t hate the film, but now a couple of weeks after viewing I’m already finding aspects of it a little tougher to defend, and feeling this might go down as one of the series’ more forgettable instalments. I really wonder how this film is going to be thought of even 5 years into the future, but at least it manages the rare ending that acts both as a cliff-hanger for the next and a satisfying wrap-up for this one.