ALIEN: COVENANT chest- and back-bursts its way to mere mediocrity.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Review by Matt Cummings
If 2012’s PROMETHEUS didn’t quite work for you as an important chapter in the ALIEN franchise, get in line. Dull to the point of inducing sleep, PROMETHEUS worried fans who expected more chest-bursting/acid-burning Xenomorph madness and got a story about God. And while ALIEN: COVENANT doesn’t exactly blow us away with a very slow first act, it does deliver a suitable meal rather than the anticipated gourmet spread.
As the crew of the colonist mission Covenant make their way to Aegis 6, the ship is maintained by the android Walter (Michael Fassbender), a to-the-point machine with a North Dakota accent. Soon, he has plenty to do, as the ship encounters a solar flare, leading to the death of their sleeping captain (James Franco). While repairing a solar sail, the pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) encounters a garbled transmission from what appears to be a human. After landing near the coordinates, the new captain Oran (Billy Cruddup) learns that the android David (Fassbender) has survived, holed up in the city center for more than 10 years and lamenting the death of the human Shaw. But soon, the team including Daniels (Katherine Watertson) begins to suspect that David is up to something, and it’s not long before he unleashes a new terror upon them: a genetically enhanced monster that will pave the way for a future filled with Xenomorphs which will call him their daddy.
If you read about all the drama last year surrounding the ALIEN franchise, you know that Director Ridley Scott cashed in his chips from the brilliant THE MARTIAN to force Neill Blomkamp out as director and to set up what he hoped would be a new series of films. That logic would have worked had COVENANT succeeded in bringing back the terror of Ridley’s 1979 original or James Cameron’s 1986 military-styled bloodbath. Instead, COVENANT doubles down on the extended character development that made PROMETHEUS so frustrating to watch. People open doors, close doors, open hatches, push buttons, but don’t do anything too terribly exciting for at least 30 minutes. Things get a lot better when they find the source of the transmission, as David begins to weave his murderous plan against them. But his supposedly brilliant machinations can be seen a mile away: he cuts his hair to match Walter’s (An android’s hair actually grows?), and too often we realize that he will assume Walter’s role. Nothing the writing team – led by Jack Paglen and Michael Green – does here is surprising, from David’s big plan to the way the Covenant crew find their ways to untimely deaths. Six movies in, and that plot feels ready for its own deep sleep.
ALIEN: COVENANT is really Fassbender’s show. He chews up scenery like a billygoat alone on a grassy hill, and the results are a lot like PSYCHO. He’s gone beyond his creator’s programming and straight into God territory, caring little about the personal cost, so long as he grows beyond his creator Weyland. No advanced culture will get in his way of creating the perfect beast, and so COVENANT is as much about seeking one’s identity in the universe as it is a horror film. But those moments of facehugging come as so contrived that at least one member of the team gets exactly what they deserve, just because they’re stupid. That’s not a great side to be on with the audience, even when some of our acting troupe are working hard to keep our attention. Waterston seems like another Noomi Rapace or Sigourney Weaver, except she’s not as smart as them, particularly as the movie concludes. You want to yell at the screen, “Hey, lady! That’s David, not Walter – get him!” For such a strong and intelligent female character to miss that one is just unforgiveable. Cruddup is serviceable as the worrisome captain, fearful that his crew won’t have confidence in him, but soon his character’s problems resolve to find him in a bloody heap on the ground. He and a bunch of others are just grist for the Alien mill, another chance to infect and tear apart another space sucker who fails to ask the right questions.
COVENANT also struggles to wrap up several storylines from PROMETHEUS, further polluting this timeline in the way Fox has managed to muck up the X-Men universe. The pinnacle of these mistakes is the role of The Engineers, who get zero love here, falling victim to David’s maniacal intents. We’re left to guess their role, as Scott grants us only one scene here, with the their deaths haphazardly executed. Many fans assumed that the Queen Xenomorph from ALIENS was the queen mother, but here Scott and the writing team muddy that interpretation as well. David is now the creator, and any alien evolution will go through him, which makes you wonder how the queen fits in going forward. There’s also a design aesthetic here that sees this universe filled with tech that ALIENS never benefited from, including VR consoles and stylish Engineer bridges. It makes the original movies seem like 100 years before COVENANT, and it appearance here is never explained. We shouldn’t have to think about such questions with prequels, as we hope that creative teams already have that figured out. And yet, here we are, wondering why we’re watching the same types of characters diving headfirst into their deaths.
The final question then is whether the high ambitions desired by ALIEN: COVENANT are enough to forgive it for failing so spectacularly. Fassbender’s interaction with himself is pretty genius, and the analogy that all gods are descendant from other gods is an interesting concept on which to build this new wing of the universe. But will fans be willing to accept yet another failure for a franchise that hasn’t got it right in over 30 years? With that kind of track record, one would have faced cancellation long ago.
THE BOTTOM LINE
What could have been a well-executed course correction via ALIEN: COVENANT soon descends into long exposition, surrounded by dumb military-trained colonists doing stupid things while Xenomorphs lick their acid-laden chops. The gorgeous cinematography of PROMETHEUS is gone as well, replaced with manufactured environs that fail to live up to any scrutiny. COVENANT fails for a whole host of reasons, but at least Fassbender is enjoyable as the universe’s Dr. Frankenstein. There might eventually be another great Alien film – one that addresses the growing list of plot re-directs with compelling horror elements – but this one sure isn’t what we expected. I guess ticket sales will tell us whether or not this franchise is once again bound for a deep sleep in the coldness of space.
ALIEN: COVENANT is rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity, and has a runtime of 122 minutes.