May 11, 2017blog, review

Alien: Covenant - Ridley has another stab at it

Five years on from Prometheus’ high concept and flawed execution, Alien: Covenant follows a colony ship carrying thousands of hibernating humans to a new world.

They get waylaid, of course, and the crew, which includes Katherine Waterston’s Daniels, eventually runs into Michael Fassbender’s errant android, David on a strange deserted world, ten years after he was last seen.

In an interview with The Independent, director Ridley Scott essentially admits that after the frosty reception of Prometheus, the iconic xenomorph was shoe-horned back in here as a convoluted form of fan-service, and it shows. Covenant spends its first two acts aping the big themes and expansive locales of Prometheus, and its last act duplicating the claustrophobic horrors of the 1979 original.

David's presence is the only thing lifting Covenant from mediocrity

Synthetics have always been nearly as core to the Alien franchise as the titular creature, portrayed variously as foils and helpers to the human characters, but have never taken centre stage before now, with not one but two androids in the main cast, both played by Fassbender.

There is very little that modern audiences don’t know about the xenomorph - so it’s hard to keep them scary. The first film thrived on the simple unknowable other-ness of the creature, but nearly four decades on, there’s very little of that left to play on. It’s good, then, that the story of Alien: Covenant is really more about David and the creation of life, than the titular aliens.

The xenomorphs have been resurrected after their conspicuous absence in Prometheus.

In fact, David’s presence is the only thing lifting Covenant from mediocrity. It’s the same move Ridley tried to pull with Prometheus - marrying the sci-fi body horror with Big Themes®, but in 2012, after the franchise had been on ice for so long, the move was unexpected and confusing.

Aesthetically, the design of the Covenant is halfway between the clean, high-tech, world of Prometheus (taking its cues from the present day), and the dirty 70s retro-future of the original film.

Despite publicity, Katherine Waterston's Daniels is never as interesting as Fassbender's two android characters.

It’s generally a bad idea to rely on human stupidity to create tension, and while the bad decision-making and rough characterisation that blighted Prometheus aren’t gone, they are certainly more subtle.

Unfortunately, just as in the 2012 prequel, you never quite buy into the characters’ personalities enough to see them as more than xenomorph-fodder. With the Covenant’s crew of six or seven couples, there’s just too many to get to know over the course of 120 minutes.

We never buy into the characters' personalities enough to see them as more than xenomorph-fodder

The script is loaded with the kind of poor character choices that might make sense for the blue-collar crew of the Nostromo, but are bizarre and out of place for the presumably talented and trained professionals we encounter here. Billy Crudup’s captain, Oram, has an unspecified ‘faith’ which, perplexingly, the film only really uses to explain away his general incompetence.

The final moments of the film rely on a twist so obvious that we end up angry at the characters for not seeing it coming.

Fairly gratuitous liberties are taken with the alien’s life cycle. While the original films tried to at least maintain a semblance of biological realism (acidic blood notwithstanding), Covenent makes the species essentially magical - going from facehugger, to chestburster, to full-grown adult in a matter of minutes - a speed which strains suspension of disbelief.

Covenant is definitely a better film than Prometheus, but it’d need a few more decades of hypersleep to catch up with Alien and Aliens.