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Categories: Movie Reviews

What starts out as a sci-fi dream, with great performances from the whole cast, quickly becomes a nightmare of enthralling, but unfinished, ideas.

I should probably begin with a confession that would most likely come out at some point or another during this review anyway: yes, I am one of those weird people that thinks Prometheus is a good film. Flawed, but unique and interesting because of those flaws. Not damned by them. I tell you this to give you some kind of context to the damning qualities I found in Alien: Covenant, a film that certainly dishes out many more fan favourite icons from the franchise canon but does so with a greatly diminished plot. Ultimately posing more new questions than it answers.

The most admirable quality that I found in Prometheus was its unwillingness to satisfy me as a fan. It wasn’t about just playing the greatest hits, it was about trying to do something new off of the back of something old. I agree that it doesn’t always work, but I respected it. Alien: Covenant is, pound for pound, a much faster moving, and maybe even more enjoyable, experience. But I find it very hard to respect it. Its two hour running time breezes on by, silkily. In fact, most of the script does too. In an effort to hit more fan-service beats, it seems Ridley Scott forgot about the melody.

In keeping with the franchise, Alien: Covenant begins with a crew of terraformers who are interrupted on their way to their new colony by a distress signal which lures them to an unsurveyed planet where things go very, very wrong. The first act seems to address some reasonable problems that audiences had with the crew in Prometheus and hunkers down on some great character development. This team come off as far more in line with the original crews of the Nostromo and Sulaco, who’ve stuck with audiences for nearly 40 years, as people just trying to do a job. The film even messes with the dynamic in an interesting way by making them all married couples. You’re curious to see how these relationships will perform under extreme stress and when things go bad in the second act, they go bad on a dime. This is where you begin to tumble down the rabbit hole.

Please know that I take absolutely no pleasure in spoiling aspects of a plot for someone who hasn’t seen the film yet but it’s unfortunately impossible to talk about Alien: Covenant in any kind of detail without revealing certain plot points. So consider this a spoiler warning and read no further if you want the experience to be as fresh as possible.

You can count, roughly, the first half of the film as a new storyline altogether; with new characters and a new world. The second half is, in terms of a plot, pretty much a sequel to Prometheus; bringing back Michael Fassbender’s character of David and explaining what occurred during the ten years between the end of Prometheus and the beginning of Alien: Covenant. But if you were hoping to see a continuation of the story of Noomi Rapace’s character, Dr Elizabeth Shaw, to find out how she can survive a journey to an alien world with only the head of a homicidal android to help her, and who the so-called “engineers” really are as a species in relation to humanity, then you my friend are what they unceremoniously refer to as “shit out of luck”.

I fully appreciate that a lot of the questions that Prometheus asked didn’t have answers when they were written but the production team has had five years to think of a few and, as fun as Alien: Covenant may be during its schlockier parts, five years feels like an awfully long time to wait for something so unsubstantial. Particularly in terms of modern Hollywood franchise filmmaking, which churns out a satisfyingly complete sequel in either two or three years now.

One thing that you appreciate more and more about the Alien franchise as you get older is how much of a role that religion plays in the basic concept. Prometheus hammered it in quite hard but really no harder than the previous two instalments and its themes were clear. Alien: Covenant has a lot of talk about faith, creation, procreation, love and divinity but very little in the way of conclusions that don’t end with just a mindless splat and a very predictable plot twist. There’s no reason to describe it any detail, just be aware that you’ll know it when you see it. It’s set up in such a way where the only reason that you’re shown what you’re shown is so that there can be a plot twist that is, consequently, unsatisfying. But enough about the bad because there is a lot of good in here too.

Michael Fassbender is an actor worth his weight in gold and it’s great to see him being fully utilised in both of his, very different, roles as David and a later model android called Walter. The pair are, really, the centrepiece of the film. Prometheus did a good job of at least creating a protagonist through whom the key themes of the film are channeled and, while Katherine Waterston’s second-in-command is as entertainingly no-nonsense as you’d hope for in an Alien film, it’s David that ties the film together and gives it its most interesting qualities. Fassbender makes him a crazed AI for the ages, one to perhaps even be one day mentioned in the same breath as HAL 9000, and it’s through him that the film truly becomes horrific. Which is something Alien: Covenant excels at.

Unlike a hit sequel such as Aliens, it’s not a straight thriller or action film. Like both Alien and Prometheus it is a horror film, just a bit of a contrived one. It’s also significantly gorier than perhaps any Alien film to date. It fits with the overall tone of the film, which delves more into the body-horror side of things to make it feel a little more like the 80s Ridley Scott Alien sequel that never was, but it’s a tad superfluous when you remember how much more the franchise has achieved with less.

As is the problem with so many large scale Hollywood films now, that can go anywhere and show anything, there’s an overbearing sensation of trying to be too many different films. Alien: Covenant is effectively a reboot of a reboot, functioning as a sequel to Prometheus and a prequel to Alien and a standalone survival horror at the same time, meaning it can never focus on being just one.

The ideas that actually are developed are interesting though. Witnessing David, essentially an artificial lifeform, attempting to come to terms with ideas such as identity and sexuality is fascinating and handled with a particular fearlessness from both Scott and Fassbender. There was a lot of confused and nervous laughter in my screening directed towards some of Fassbender’s mannerisms and it was an understandable reaction. As I said before, the scenes where Fassbender is playing off of himself (where we witness two androids having perhaps the first really honest conversations of their lives) are probably the best scenes in the film. The part where David softly sings “The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo” to himself being perhaps its most genuinely terrifying moment. There is nuance in here but it’s a struggle to see what it amounts to.

Maybe that was the point. Nature is ugly and cruel. Paradise is a lie. In that respect it doesn’t bother me. As you may have guessed, I’m quite a fan of Ridley Scott’s elderly curmudgeon phase. But no matter how stripped down the story may be, and it is, there’s still an air of excess to Alien: Covenant. The production design is terrifically detailed, and it will be one of the many aspects that will make this film great on repeat viewing, but there’s too much going on and not enough time to really look at it. The cast is great, including a standout performance from Danny McBride of all people (I’m not hating, I’m a big Eastbound and Down fan), but when the story shifts into crisis mode all of that character development begins to feel like it was for nothing.

Everything up to the point where David first appears feels like a very different film, tonally and visually, to what comes after. It does ultimately fit together as some kind of gothic science-fiction fairytale where the mysterious, hooded, count leads a group of unwitting travellers back to his dungeon laboratory to reveal his sacrilegious creations. Fassbender plays the unnerving stranger with adequate aplomb, both Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s monster, as well as his counterpart Walter, the servant, with echoes of fan favourite character Bishop. But for all the concessions made in an effort to make Alien: Covenant less like Prometheus, the story is still not self-contained and its conclusion is equally vague, if not more so.

If anything, the film could have benefitted from being significantly longer. It’s an enjoyable ride, but one whose tricks you become wary of before the end. There’s enough time to feel intrigue but not enough to feel real suspense. Alien has become a franchise with a fantastically well structured antagonist that is in dire need of a consistent protagonist once again. This may not sound like an endorsement, but it is. Scott has lined up some great possibilities, again, let’s just hope he can follow through on them in the future.       

Alien: Covenant is out now in UK cinemas and will be released in US cinemas on May 19th.

Mark Birrell

Mark is the editor of The Spread as well as a copywriter, film-blogger and lifelong cinephile who received his bachelors in Film and Comparative Literature from the University Of London.

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Posted on May 13, 2017

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