With 2012’s Prometheus, Ridley Scott proved that he definitely still has the eye to create a fantastic visual spectacle on film (which he later solidified with The Martian), but that particular picture left many people disappointed at best and outraged at worst. It dipped into the mythic canon of a film he’d made more than 30 years prior in Alien and added a crazy philosophical depth to it, IE trying to find our creators, only to find they’d been disappointed in their creation and wanted to start over. The story seems almost ironic, in that a great filmmaker revisited a franchise that made his name in the business and wanted to start over, or at the very least, tell the tale that came before it. Beautiful as it is, however, Prometheus fails on a muddied story with abhorrent characters, and the plot is only advanced relevant to the stupidity of said characters (hear our full review here).
Enter Alien: Covenant, Scott’s sequel to his prequel, and the story begins with an echo of the past, as David (Michael Fassbender) is given life by Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce, this time sans old-man makeup). We then fast forward to the Covenant, where Walter (also played by Michael Fassbender) is deploying the power sails aboard the colony ship when it is hit by a neutrino blast, which forces Walter to awaken the crew to assess the damage to the ship and to repair it. In so doing, the captain’s pod malfunctions and he is killed, making his first mate Oram (Billy Crudup) the new captain of the ship. When they pick up a random transmission that appears to be a human voice singing, they change course to try to find this new world.
With Covenant, unfortunately, it feels as if Ridley Scott did not learn the lessons of Prometheus, doubling down on the advancement of the plot purely out of character stupidity and once again serving up a muddled mish-mash of heavy-handed philosophizing with a liberal sprinkling of Alien lore. In this near-future where mankind has mastered deep space travel, it seems utterly backward that the characters would descend onto a planet in the middle of a storm, and even more backward that the characters would then proceed onto an alien world without any kind of safety precautions whatsoever, such as helmets, or examining their surroundings for anything alien (pun not intended) that might merit proceeding with some level of circumspection. Instead, these characters- many of whom are either named once or not at all, thus sealing their cannon fodder status- wander into the dense jungles of this mysterious world without a care and cause the plot to happen. The passage of time during the story here is particularly troubling at a few instances, such as early on when the characters have to return to the lander; the main party has proceeded to a ship (the doomed Engineer ship from Prometheus) some eight kilometers away, but manage to return almost instantaneously after two of the crew become sick.
We then bear witness to the return of David, still alive after the events of Prometheus, after the incredible character of Shaw is sadly killed off-screen in the events between the films that honestly would’ve made for a much more enjoyable time at the movies. More character stupidity advances the plot further as the cannon fodder is summarily picked off, and the plot philosophizes further on that which was already established, diving deeper into the lore of the Alien franchise and the genesis of the Xenomorph, if only it weren’t all so fatefully boring. Up to the second act of the film, the story swings and swats its way through its absurd paces, never once taking the time to really invest the audience in any character save for those played by Katherine Waterston and Danny McBride, both of whom do turn in wonderful performances here.
As with Prometheus it is once again Fassbender who is the stand-out here, shouldering not one but two unique characters in the film, both androids but entirely different in his portrayal of them, and all for the better. Fassbender’s talent almost makes the so-ridiculously-easy-to-telegraph plot development almost forgivable, if only it weren’t so frightfully ignorant. After a mostly-enjoyable second act (Fassbender acting off himself through half of it, which are honestly the film’s best parts), the third act shoots for the stars to out-snoozefest the first act into a downright silly and woefully “been there, done that” pair of set pieces that are just not entertaining or engaging, but are instead as clunky and hard to maneuver through as the stupid cargo ship piloted by Danny McBride’s Tennessee.
The creature work in the film is a sad and pathetic bombardment of CGI for the most part, devoid of any element of terror, unless watching cannon fodder get quickly picked off is the kind of entertainment one is seeking. This reviewer is no devotee of the Alien franchise, but in this the creatures seem almost laughably bad, scoring some kills but getting quickly defeated as the plot tries to finish rushing through its paces. Alien: Covenant misses out on several opportunities to build a real sense of dread by rushing to conclusions far too quickly, especially early on with the Neomorphs, but then again later with the Protomorph, easily missing out on far better setups and payoffs than it reaches for (the shower scene is particularly egregious here). It almost feels as if, during some of these scenes, that Scott just got lazy and shrugged his shoulders.
It may have some of the same elegant beauty that Prometheus had, but ultimately Alien: Covenant is exactly more of the same; pretty to look at and little else. It once again bolsters fantastic performances, but casting Fassbender to play a new android alongside David is a cheap cop-out when one realizes that the rest of the androids in the franchise are all different looking, and it smells like a plot setup from the very beginning (also a clever marketing gag to hide the fact that David is in the film). Again the philosophical explorations that the film undertakes, while weighty at times, prove to be its best aspects, but Scott has sadly saddled them to an Alien film wherein he feels compelled (and is demanded, by fans) to shoehorn various aspects of the franchise into it. The result, as with Prometheus, is a very pretty, neatly-stacked pile of refuse. As these films continue to plod ahead toward the original Alien film, one can’t help but wonder if the franchise was already out gas, and all the great cinematography in the world will eventually wear out trying to push this thing down the road. Four out of ten stars.