Alien: Covenant (Movie Review)

Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers for both Prometheus and Covenant!)

Forty years ago, screenwriters Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shussett created a monster like no other: a parasite with acid for blood, pharyngeal teeth, and an insatiable drive to kill. I wasn’t alive at the time, but the script that became Ridley Scott’s Alien was so successful, it spawned one of my favourite film series as an adult. Since 1979, when the first film was released, another seven have been made; only a few came close to matching it (one being Aliens, which surpassed it). The newest - intended to right the wrongs of its predecessors - is Alien: Covenant, a second prequel directed by Ridley Scott following 2012’s Prometheus. The film intends to take the series back to its roots, and I went to see it the day it released to find out whether it does.

Set ten years after Prometheus, Covenant follows a new cast of characters: the crew of a colony ship (played by Katherine Waterson, Billy Crudup, and Danny McBride among others) bound for a new planet. When an accident in cryosleep leads to the death of the ship’s captain, the first mate Oram (Crudup) is left with no choice but to take charge. Soon after, the ship receives a rogue transmission and, against the objections of terraforming expert Daniels (Waterson), Oram intercepts it to another, unknown planet that appears to be better than their planned destination. It has food, water, everything the crew needs to start their new lives - but it has no animal life. Oram and his crew follow the signal to an alien ship - originally flown by David (Michael Fassbender) and Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in Prometheus - where they start to find out what happened to them. In doing so they also find out why there are no other lifeforms around. Needless to say, there are monsters involved… but not just the face-hugging kind.

If you haven’t seen Prometheus, I must warn you Alien: Covenant is a direct sequel to it, and you’ll need to watch it first to get the whole picture. That said, it’s very much an Alien film despite the connection. It has the same elements the original films had, only with a bigger budget and some new twists. One of the best is the Covenant crew, which is made up of married couples. It sounds like a cheap gimmick, but thanks to the cast’s performances - and a screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper - it manages not to be. Unlike the Prometheus crew, which had come together for the first time, the Covenant are a tight-knit group who care for each other much like the Nostromo and the Colonial Marines. They still make stupid decisions, but you’ll come to care for them more than the cast of Prometheus - especially Daniels, who has the most sense of them all. When one of her friends dies, most of the time it will hit you as hard as it hits her (more so if you watch the online prologues first).

Sadly, one name overshadows the fourteen-strong group of newcomers: Michael Fassbender. He first appeared in Prometheus as the android David, who set out with the film’s other remaining survivor Shaw to find the Engineers’ homeworld. David returns in Covenant, but Fassbender also plays a new character: Walter, an upgraded model from David’s production line, and the Covenant’s synthetic. It’s always a challenge playing multiple characters in one film, but Fassbender has done it before in Assassin’s Creed - and he does a great job once again as David and Walter. It’s all the more impressive because Fassbender has much more to work with this time. Walter is the stoic, loyal caretaker of the Covenant who tends to the crew’s needs both in and out of stasis; and David… Well, let’s say he’s gone off the deep end since he embarked for the Engineers’ planet. If you liked him in Prometheus - and you want to know why he became who he is now - you’ll love him when he makes his entrance. However, if you’re an Alien fan, you may not like the role he’s being set up to play in the franchise. It’s quite the game changer.

Now, if you were let down by the lack of Aliens in Prometheus, fear not - the bitch is back! Ridley Scott promised to put them back in the spotlight, and he’s done it using CGI and animatronics to bring them to life. Although, as always, we have to wait for our first face-hugger, Scott makes up for it in the meantime by introducing a whole new beast: the Neomorph, a forerunner of the Xenomorph minus its biomechanical skin. It’s less intelligent than the Xenomorphs, but no less dangerous; the first one is barely a minute old before it starts killing. However, Scott’s use of CGI to portray the creatures robs them of their power to scare. That isn’t to say it’s bad; the CGI in Covenant is the best in the series to date. The problem is that he uses full-body shots wherever he can, leaving little to the imagination. In one scene you see the full-grown Neomorph in full long before it strikes, making the kill less shocking when it does come. The Xenomorphs also suffer the same treatment, which is a shame even though we already know what they look like. I can’t help but feel like Scott tried too hard to please the fans after the Aliens no-showed in Prometheus. They're creepy in Covenant, but with a few more close-up shots and low angles, they would’ve been terrifying.

One of the reasons the original Alien films were scary is that they built up slowly, allowing us to get to know the characters before chests started bursting. Sadly, pacing is another point where Covenant trips up. It takes the time to introduce the ship’s crew and build up to its arrival on the planet, but when the Aliens appear it kicks suddenly into high gear and doesn’t stop till the end. It softens the impact of the later deaths, and also has a serious effect on the Xenomorphs’ lifecycle - they go from face-hugger, to chest-burster, to adult in a matter of minutes. This will really upset fans as it contradicts the rules set by previous films, and raises questions that go unanswered when the credits roll. Thankfully, the film goes some way towards answering the questions left by Prometheus, namely the fates of Elizabeth Shaw and the Engineers. However, you may not like the answers you get; some of them call into question the sequels’ place in the Alien franchise. Scott has planned another two prequels, so how he plans to tie them up with the main films remains to be seen - but if Alien: Covenant is any indication, he’ll do it in ways we won’t expect. Whether we like them or not is another thing entirely.

Although it wasn't quite the return to form I hoped for, I was sure of two things when I finished watching Alien: Covenant - it's better than Prometheus, and the best film in the series since Aliens. Hopefully, Ridley Scott will get it right with the next prequel.

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