‘Alien: Covenant’ Presents A New Ship But A Familiar Story (Movie Review)

Director Ridley Scott is 79-years old and excited to keep making Alien movies. He first jumped back into the universe he helped create with 2012’s Prometheus. While I was among those who embraced the mix of intriguing (and sometimes puzzling) ideas and technical wizardry, the film certainly received mixed reactions overall. Prequels always tend to be tricky business, regardless of certain ambitions. Alien: Covenant seems to have wanted to rectify the problem by providing a continuation of the story that began in Prometheus and adding many of the greatest hits found in Alien and other entries in the franchise. The result makes for an overall entertaining experience, but I miss the big ideas floating around with the previously doomed crew.

It’s the year 2014, and the film puts focus on an all-new ship, the Covenant, headed to a far-off hospitable planet to colonize. This space voyage is suddenly interrupted by an unpredictable solar flare that causes several problems and wakes the crew from hypersleep. Issues are addressed, and a captain is sadly lost in the chaos, but a new development emerges. It would appear a planet previously unseen by scans is now on the map, and it’s not only closer but apparently able to support human life. The decision is made to explore this new planet, leading to the discovery of both a familiar face and unpredictable terror.

Part of the issue many had with Prometheus was the way the back half of the film seemed to rely on poor character choices to form plot developments. Alien: Covenant walks a fine line between bad choices and situations where judgment may be realistically unfocused by characters. The problem is how the film is mainly tackling what we’ve seen in previous Alien films again, but with a larger crew of ill-defined characters, making it harder to accept their choices. It’s fine to see a stacked list of talented actors doing their best to make an impression based on the few choice moments they may have, but then you have to wonder where Scott really wants to take this series.

To their credit, screenwriters John Logan and Dante Harper do what they can with a difficult challenge – give Scott more Prometheus, but infused with enough Alien so that Fox can sell tickets to the masses. That may be too much of a generalization of how the film plays out, but there’s far too little intrigue beyond seeing Scott deliver yet another film where production design and visuals shine the brightest. Gone are the grand ideas that explore thoughts of existence and creators of men, save for some really fantastic scenes involving Michael Fassbender’s dual roles in the film. Making up for it are more scenes of supposed terror and horror violence, but those also have their drawbacks.

I don’t need to go too far into what makes Alien more than just a sci-fi slasher film, but there is a clear understanding of how to handle claustrophobic suspense. With practical effects and a moderate budget, that film put emphasis on shadows and darkness; withholding the monster, save for shocking moments. Alien: Covenant has a $100 million budget and plenty of digital artists working to make an awesomely scary-looking computer Xenomorph, but what good does that do if it’s not scary? The film is violent and gory, sure, and it features some scenes that raise the level of tension through white-knuckle build up, but there’s hardly a lingering sense of dread. Alien: Covenant is a film that knows how to put an alien into crazy action set pieces, but forgets that some of the best Alien moments come from not knowing where the creature is.

So the film isn’t exactly scary (let me say again though, it is brutal) and it lacks in deeper ideas, but it is still worthwhile. Beyond just being a part of the Alien franchise and having more to offer than at least three other entries (mostly ones with ‘Vs. Predator’ in the title), the film features neat sets and scenery. Shot in New Zealand and featuring the work many talented visual effects artist, the film may have a bleak tone, but it has plenty of arresting images to share, as we come to know the mysterious planet. Additionally, the way Scott delivers in all new ways for Xenomorphs to burst out of human bodies is also something of a treat, though some may note the modernized changes, which speeds up the time it takes for these things to grow.

There’s also the committed cast, which features an array of familiar faces and, as mentioned, two Fassbenders for the price of one. Yes, Prometheus’ David has a prominent role in this film, along with another synthetic android named Walter. Both have distinct personas, but Scott happily challenges Fassbender and the crew with scenes that feature their interactions together and go beyond having the two stars standing on opposite sides of the screen. Additionally, you also have Billy Crudup, Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Demian Bachir, Carmen Ejogo, Amy Seimetz, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez and others filling out the rest of the crew.

That’s a long list of names and no doubt problematic when it comes to thinking of a majority of them as anything more than just eventual Xenomorph fodder. Among them, however, Crudup and Waterston stand out, as they are given the most presence (I’d also add McBride is solid playing a role against type). Crudup is the former first mate promoted to captain and not ready for the role. He’s also a man of faith, which could have ideally played better into the film’s ideas, were there to be a deeper focus on potentially interesting directions for the narrative. Waterston is clearly modeled after Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, though having her in an unassuming role amidst a larger cast than the 1979 film doesn’t make her eventual standing all that compelling. The rest of the cast hit all the right notes, but aside from paying enough attention to who is married to whom and not wishing horribly violent deaths upon them, there isn’t much reason to care about with these people.

Alien: Covenant perhaps does a better job at being more conventionally entertaining than Prometheus, but at what cost? Well, the film sacrifices ambition for traditional thrills and feels less satisfying as a result. No narrative turn seems all that surprising and while the next ride through this universe, courtesy of Scott’s lively direction, may have more (or less) to offer, the current place we are in feels like caving into the pressure of fans that want concrete answers and nasty deaths to go with them. What was initially supposed to be a journey to paradise may not have turned into a trip to hell, but it does mostly sit in limbo.


3 Responses to “‘Alien: Covenant’ Presents A New Ship But A Familiar Story (Movie Review)”

  1. Jonny B

    Saw the movie last night. This review is spot on…

  2. Ulises

    I loved the movie, as a fan of the more thoughtful Prometheus I was a little disappointed with the more linear approach of Covenant but once the action kicks in it never stops, it has some problems with the script but visually is breathtaking and the Atmos sound was great.

  3. Brian White

    I agree! It is going to sound AMAZING at home in Atmos on 4K UHD!!!