Alien:Covenant (2017), a Review

Alien_Covenant_Teaser_Poster

Director – Ridley Scott

Writer(s) – John Logan, Dante Harper

Starring – Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterson, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup

Alien, and the immediate sequel, Aliens, are unquestionably masterpieces of Sci-Fi horror, blending the two genres in a way no other film has managed, at least with that much skill, since. It is the quintessential space-based monster movie franchise, unfortunately dipping in quality after the third installment. When the originator, Ridley Scott, announced his grand return to the franchise, with 2012’s Prometheus, expectations were high.

Unfortunately, it fell short; collapsing under the weight of ambition and seemingly never settling on exactly what it wanted to be. It left us with more questions than answers, and a majority of the audience bemused. Alien:Covenant had a chance to right the wrongs, answer these questions, and restore glory to the once formidable franchise. For the most part it succeeds, easily sitting as third best entry in the franchise, yet, it suffers from a few similar issues, and an overwhelming sense of ‘Been there, seen that.’

In 2104, the crew of the colony ship Covenant is bound for a remote planet, Origae-6, with some two-thousand colonists and a thousand embryos on-board, monitored by an upgraded android resembling the earlier David, named Walter. While en route, a neutrino shockwave severely damages the ship, killing its captain and waking the crew from stasis. As the crew repair the damage, a radio transmission is intercepted from a nearby planet. Against the objection of Daniels, the ship’s terraforming expert and acting executive officer, acting captain Oram decides to investigate, as the transmission is human in origin, but the planet is supposedly lifeless. They soon discover they’ve placed themselves within the midst of a nightmare, as a cinematic icon returns to the hunt.

Prometheus appeared to infuriate fans predominantly via the enigmatic nature of the plot, and what appeared to be hollow promises. It marketed itself as an exploration into the origins of the beloved and dreaded Xenomorph, and that of the mysterious Engineer from the original Alien, known then as the Space Jockey, yet raised more questions than answers. Covenant mostly succeeds in answering these questions, but perhaps goes too far the other way.

If part of your intrigue, like my own, lay in the mysterious nature of the creature itself, causing you to spend hours imagining how such a beast could ever have been spat out by evolution, those days are over. Covenant tells us absolutely everything we need to know about the birth of the iconic monster. The over explanation could be considered to strip the Xeno of its mystique and fear-factor, yet, this explanation is the very point of these movies, so to consider it a flaw seems unfair. If you’d rather not know, my solution is very simple. Don’t watch it

Covenant does, annoyingly, raise its own set of new questions. Normally this could be considered a criticism, but, as we have been promised two more of these at least, it’s worth waiting to see how they answer them before getting annoyed. What is irritating though, are the questions from Prometheus the film still doesn’t answer. Particularly in regards to David’s actions, yet I cannot go into the nature of these actions without spoiling the film. Safe to say, he performs a major, world-changing action, and your first question will almost certainly be ‘Why?’.

While the film works incredibly well as a thought-provoking and existential Sci-Fi epic about the creation of man, the creation of life, and the role of God in creation itself, the film was marketed primarily as a horror film, and here it falls flat. I say flat, yet, I imagine a lot of casual cinema-goers will find it scary enough, but any horror aficionados, particularly fans of the original, will find they’ve seen everything before. The sequences are rushed, devoid of suspense or build, and feel more like fan-service than obligations than labours of love.

In fact, the entire third act is terribly rushed, and the film is incredibly hamstrung by the inconsistent, and, at times, downright poor pacing. The first act seemingly goes on forever, the second is perfectly balanced, and the third is rushed and wasted.

The original worked so well because of the slow hunt. The Xenomorph was a stealth hunter, stalking from the shadows, using your imagination to mortify you alongside it’s terrible visage. Here, the beast is more like a domestic house cat, full of potential to be a predator of the shadows, but running around in the light like a harmless fool. Both the Xeno, and the newly introduced Neomorph, are almost background characters. They provide the horror, but only in very short bursts and are rarely the central focus of the narrative. It’s a bizarre use of an iconic enemy, particularly when deployed by the original creator.

That said, the Sci-Fi Elements themselves do work, and the film is brilliantly cerebral. A lot of broad and deep themes are covered, with a backdrop of murder and mayhem. The script is bizarre, working fantastically when dealing with these themes, but failing  miserably when attempting to garner sympathy for the human victims. It’s a testament to the film’s lack of ability in this department than the two most emotional scenes happen between two androids, and between an android and a murderous biological weapon. When the secondary Alien threat is more compelling than the central protagonists, you have an issue.

That’s not to knock the performances, though. Everybody floats between good and great, and do the best they possibly can with the material given to them to work with. Waterson and McBride are particularly impressive, but nobody gives a terrible account of themselves here.

The star of the show, without doubt, is Fassbender. His David is quickly becoming one of my favourite cinematic villains of all time; a genius, ego-centric bastard with a God-complex and a sickening liking for developing bio-weapons, not even afraid to commit genocide at the drop of a hat. A complex and a mesmerising performance, it’s almost impossible to drag your eyes away whenever he dominates the screen with his towering presence.  He’s almost, if not equally, as impressive as Walter, who provides both his double and opposite. The dynamic between the two is incredible, and the scenes between them are, by some distance, the film’s best, the two serving as a twisted reflection of one another.

The mirror theme carries into the main narrative as well, creating the film’s poetic genius that almost justifies the weaknesses. The creator is destroyed by the creation of the created. If that sounds deliberately ambiguous, that’s because it very much is. I want you to go in blind, but, when the moment comes and this quote clicks for you,  you’ll see what I mean.

The ending also manages to leave you intrigued for a sequel, which, considering we know where the whole project is heading, is very impressive. Going in to it, my thoughts were ‘How on Earth will they get another two films out of this?’. By the time I left, I was willing to sign up for another ten, despite the film’s major flaws. When your audience switches from ‘yeah, this wasn’t great, I never need to see another one’ to ‘I NEED to see the next’, with a scene lasting under ten minutes, you know you’ve done well.

If you’ve seen any Ridley Scott film, you know two things are guaranteed; a fantastic score, and incredibly gorgeous visuals. I’m glad to say he doesn’t fail here, and, this may be his most beautiful film since Blade Runner. It resorts back to the grey, murky lighting and filters that has become such an iconic look, whereas Prometheus ignored this with endless gloss and sheen (thought it certainly looked beautiful), Covenant embraces the franchises roots. Sometimes, you could argue it’s perhaps too dark, as almost nothing can be seen. Yet that just allows for deeper immersion.

While some may, and perhaps quite rightly, accuse Scott of having lost his story-telling and artistic talents at some point during his career, nobody can claim he’s lost it visually. Regardless of what you may feel about Covenant as a whole, one cannot deny that, visually, it’s a work of cinematic genius, and the score is also incredibly good; dripping in ambience and atmosphere, with an instantaneously recognisable Sci-Fi flavour.

While Alien:Covenant is never in danger of even coming close to matching the undeniable brilliance of Alien or Aliens, which, honestly, isn’t a surprise, when one considers just how good those two films are, it still has a lot to be impressed by; particularly the lofty ambition, the addition to the mythology, the fantastic visuals and score, and a hypnotic villainous performance by Fassbender. Hampered by a poor script, and a rushed final act, it is a great piece of Sci-Fi cinema, if a disappointing addition to the horror genre, with the iconic Xenomorph being sadly wasted. That said, we get two Fassbenders, and even a Fassbender Vs Fassbender punch-up, so, swings and roundabouts, right?

 

Final Rating  – 3.8/5

 

Joshua Moulinie