It’s mostly a return to form, mostly
2012’s Prometheus was an odd duck if there ever was one. It was originally supposed to be a prequel to the classic sci-fi horror, Alien, before the director of both films, Ridley Scott, came out and said it wasn’t going to be a prequel. He actually claimed, “The keen fan will recognize strands of Alien’s DNA, so to speak, but the ideas tackled in this film are unique, large and provocative.” Of course, anyone who saw the film with two functioning eyes could tell him, “Bullshit dude.” So Scott came back, licking his critical wounds from that film and fresh off his success with The Martian, to bring an honest to God prequel to Alien and sequel to Prometheus at the same time. Does it work? More often than it doesn’t, but some mistakes are too glaring for me to ignore.
We’ve got the crew of the Covenant, a spaceship containing over 2000 colonists and a robot named Walter (Michael Fassbender) en route to a habitable planet similar to Earth, when a horrible accident leads to the crew’s captain (James Franco) getting killed, and his wife Daniels (Katherine Waterson, Tina from Fantastic Beasts) despondent and second-in-command of the vessel. The new captain, Chris (Billy Crudup), isn’t doing so hot in the new leadership role but finds a way to cheer everyone up when a distress signal is heard coming from a nearby inhabitable planet. The captain decides to investigate, both to see who this mystery person may be and because the planet appears to be a perfect place to inhabit…as opposed to the planet they were already an route to. Of course things go wrong as soon as they get to the planet and discover the Engineer ship Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and David (Michael Fassbender…again) used to find the homework of humanity’s creators…but the ship was also carrying a dangerous chemical weapon that could doom everyone.
If this were a standalone film or even a sequel to the much maligned Prometheus, Covenant is a damn fine film. It’s got great speculative science fiction, solid acting, decent writing, well composed shots, and most importantly of all, a genuine sense of suspense that carries the picture. There’s a craft to making a moody atmosphere filled with dread of what comes next, and Covenant mostly succeeds in giving you just that before the iconic Alien even appears. Hell, we even get introduced to other permutations of the Xenomorph likely straight out of H.R. Geiger’s nightmare workshop. But what helps sell this movie above all are the actors delivering solid performances.
Three thespians in particular sell this movie in all the right ways: Katherine Waterson, Michael Fassbender, and Danny McBride. Waterson portrays our main protagonist and perhaps one of the few characters that has any common sense aboard the Covenant. She has a lot more room for charisma and likability here than she did in Fantastic Beasts as she plays a considerably more layered character. Further, she does a great job of conveying a sense of loss when her husband dies in the opening of the film, even more so when you realize that the entire crew of the Covenant is composed entirely of couples, leaving her as the odd one out. It’s a tragic position to be in, which helps us immediately sympathize with her and root for her to survive the onslaught of the alien threat, especially as the body count rises.
Next, it’s cool to see Danny McBride take a more “serious” role, one that’s not exclusively for a comedy, and his natural comedic charisma to inject as much personality into a character that was otherwise forgettable in the script. He conveys a full range of emotions well enough for me to compliment him. But the biggest acting accolade deserves to be with Michael Fassbender. Honestly, he was one of the few bright spots in Prometheus, and here he returns to portray two different robots from the same line. As the Covenant’s Walter, he’s a no-nonsense kind of android with small hints towards a more human side; but as the Prometheus’ David, he becomes a fascinating villain. Immediately, you can tell something is off about him and the full extent of his grand plan is gradually revealed to present a character with a god complex the size of Jupiter. On paper, this would be a hammy and very obvious turn, but in the hands of Michael Fassbender, he gives you something that you can reasonably buy.
However, the character of David also exposes a major flaw I have with this movie…it’s connection to Alien. No spoilers will be discussed here, but suffice it to say as someone who loves the first two films in this franchise, this movie is kind of a mess of a prequel. Honestly, I got major George Lucas vibes in terms of trying to retcon plot details that worked just fine in the original films and the movie ends up creating way more questions than providing answers. However, why the hell do we need answers to questions like “where did the Alien come from?” The nature of horror is more terrifying when you DON’T explain where the terror comes from (see It Follows and The Witch for a crash course on this). All of these attempts to explain what the Xenomoprhs are honestly make them less mysterious as a threat, and consequently less interesting.
Now I see why Ridley Scott wanted to talk about the origin of the Xenomorphs: it’s because he also wanted to tie their creation to the origin of humanity as a species. On one hand, it’s a genuinely interesting idea to explore humans as descendants of alien architects from across the galaxy. After all, noted creators like Jack Kirby genuinely believed this our species’ origin, and crafted various stories around said creatures calling them “New Gods.” However, Scott doesn’t really know how to connect the Xenomorphs to the creation of humanity, and it ends becoming a giant mess.
See, Alien: Covenant doesn’t have a solid metaphorical idea that guides the film the way the first two Alien films did. Think about it, the first Alien monster was essentially a big metaphor for sexual assault with a monster design and plot occurrences that are guided in service to reinforcing this theme. Additionally, Aliens was described by James Cameron to be reminiscent of the American experience in the Vietnam War, initially cocky about how experienced and well armed they are before realizing how well over their head they are in. And once again, major plot occurrences are in service to this idea.
But when Covenant wants to talk about the “humanity’s creators,” it kind of goes nowhere. Hell, they straight up drop the Engineer plot from the last movie in favor of just giving you the tension expected from a typical Alien movie. Honestly, as critic Will Valle pointed out (beware major spoilers there), the plot of this film almost hits beat for beat James Cameron’s Aliens. Futher, as I noted in my review of Life, these elements have been done better in other films…including Life. So I’m left wondering what the hell is the point of this movie as an installment of this franchise besides “to make money.”
See despite the criticisms levied at Rogue One, I still defended it because it accomplished three things as a prequel: explain a major plot hole away, give you solid characters to follow, and throw them into a situation you’ve never seen before. And Covenant nails the solid character part, but stumbles a bit with the other two. As I mentioned earlier, if this film wasn’t connected to the Alien franchise, I think this was a pretty solid film with great pacing and wonderful sense of dread. And props to Scott for listening to critics of Prometheus and providing adequate justifications for several decisions made by characters in this film. Sure some of them are straight up idiotic choices, but you could reasonably see why they did what they did…except for one final action in the end. Again, no spoilers, but if you’ve seen this film, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s honestly baffling that these characters would fall for such an obvious ploy.
In the end, I’m left with a sub-par Alien film and a really decent sci-fi horror flick at the same time. As I’ve pointed out, there’s a lot to dig about this movie, but as someone who’s familiar with the franchise as a whole, I’m left wanting more. I still think people should check this one out, but not as a FULL PRICE feature, this is a solid…