In 2012, Ridley Scott returned to the Alien universe with Prometheus, an intellectually ambitious prequel that proved to be the most divisive film of the franchise. The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that there weren’t nearly enough aliens in Scott’s Alien prequel. Five year’s later, he’s correcting that mistake in Alien: Covenant, which brings on the alien bloodshed in a big way. It may not be the truly great return to form some were hoping for, but Covenant does remember to be what all good Alien movies are – a horror movie.
The year is 2104 and humanity has sent it’s first colony mission out into the reaches of space aboard the starship Covenant. Carrying 2,000 colonists and thousands of embryos, the Covenant is crewed by couples and their robot Walter, played by Michael Fassbender. When a neutrino blast damages their ship, the crew is woken up, and it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. James Franco, the ship’s captain, doesn’t even make it out of his stasis pod before being burned alive. As they repair the ship, they intercept a transmission from a nearby planet that might be ideal for colonization. It almost sounds to good to be true… Once on the planet, things go south quickly, and pretty soon the crew of the Covenant is running for their lives.
In a lot of ways, Alien: Covenant was destined to disappoint. It doesn’t have the slow burn tension of the original, or a badass heroine like Ripley, who became a genre-defining archetype in the sequel. Covenant is merely a first class treatment of B movie material. If Alien is a haunted house movie in space, and Aliens is a Vietnam War movie in space, then Alien: Covenant is a slasher movie in space. Every Alien film that isn’t a sci-fi classic will always be a little disappointing, but Covenant does succeed at being the kind of film it wants to be.
Like the cast of most slasher films, the crew of the Covenant is padded with fodder for the blood machine, but there are a few stand outs, including Billy Crudup as Oram, the Covenant’s religious and indignant second in command, and Danny McBride as Tennessee, doing some very good dramatic work here. There’s also Katherine Waterson as Daniels, who serves as an adequate heroine, so long as you don’t start comparing her to Ripley. The rest of the cast all turn in serviceable if perfunctory performances, but the star of the show is Michael Fassbender who pulls double duty as Walter and David, the calm, collected, and creepy-as-hell android from Prometheus. The aliens are undoubtedly the bloodiest part of the movie, but David might be the most haunting.
Despite the Alien moniker, Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus and inherits that film’s philosophical predilections. If you are so inclined, there’s quite a bit to dig into regarding creation, religion, artificial intelligence, and evolution. If that’s not your beat, you won’t have to sit through much of it before the bloodletting resumes. And oh is there blood.
As with all of Ridley Scott’s films, Covenant looks amazing. Scott brings back cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, who also worked on Prometheus, a film that even its staunchest critics admit is beautiful. It’s a gorgeous blend of sweeping alien vistas and claustrophobic space ships. While it’s hard not to bemoan the digital aliens, Covenant gets it mostly right, nailing down the creatures’ movements. Where things come up a bit short is in the writing department. The script was written by John Logan and Dante Harper from a story by Michael Green and Jack Paglen, and it’s never a great sign when four writers are involved.
Alien: Covenant is a film smart enough to wax philosophical about creation, but silly enough to assume we’ll just accept that the entire crew explores an alien planet without any protective suits, and it’s just a bit too proud of twists that any audience member paying attention would see coming. This is a horror movie first, science fiction movie second, and it’s a damn good horror movie. In a lot of ways, Covenant feels like a course correction, bringing the franchise back to its bloody, bump-in-the-night roots. It might not be the modern classic we were hoping for, but it is an Alien film, and for now that’s good enough for me.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Alien: Covenant is the first real Alien movie we’ve gotten in 20 years, and probably the best one in 30. Ridley Scott’s original and James Cameron’s sequel are stand-alone films that remain in a league of their own. But franchise films aren’t made that way anymore, and so while this very much feels like a stepping-stone in a larger story, it’s a step in the right direction. Ridley Scott has delivered a beautiful horror show and, if it’s true that he does have two more films planned, I’m excited to see what comes next.