REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

In space no one can hear you sigh.

Early on in Alien: Covenant, we’re told it’s been a decade since the disappearance of the Prometheus, and with minor alterations that sentence might feel true even on our side of the screen. With all this constant speculation over a potential fifth film and true sequel, it seems almost a lifetime since audiences were left collectively scratching their heads over Ridley Scott’s infamous prequel.

Prometheus, billed as Scott’s return to the monster he helped create, instead proved a far more divisive and disappointing entry than the fans (and perhaps even the studio) were expecting. Five years cooking, Covenant inevitably feels like a compromise — both an affirmation of what came before it, and a doubling-down on the kind of Alien film Ridley Scott now wants to make, whether you like it or not.

Returning to the well, Covenant finds us aboard the eponymous colony ship, whose route to a new inhabitable world is suddenly diverted by (you guessed it) a mysterious message from a nearby planet. What follows is an eerily similar re-tread from films’ past, and containing scenes James Cameron’s sequel Aliens knew better than to bother including. Finding the android David marooned on the planet (played, again, in a dual role by Fassbender), the survey team are slowly picked-off by a new form of viral alien parasite, whose survival and return to the ship would mean an end to the thousands of colonists aboard, and, naturally, the future of the human race itself.

Accompanied by the android Walter (Michael Fassbender), the crew in command of the Covenant most notably includes the film’s Ellen Ripley stand-in Daniels (Fantastic Beasts’ Katherine Waterson) — the sadly undefined, widowed heroine of Covenant, whose warnings, like Ripley’s before her, go unheeded — and Danny McBride’s unexpectedly-amusing Tennessee, who, yes, wears a Stetson and makes the space trucker description maybe a bit too literal. But by-and-large, the crew of the Covenant are a mish-mash of bland, forgettable names who will stun you with their ability to blend into one unconvincing whole, doing little to counter Prometheus’ critics’ accusations of blatant incompetence (stepping on everything in sight on an uncharted planet remains a highlight).

The stand-out, again, is Michael Fassbender as both Walter and David. Though plagued with a script so eye-rolling it forces him to repeat Shelley’s “Ozymandias” word-for-word, Fassbender cements his place as the MVP in this new crop of Alien prequels. Here he is both master and apprentice, father and son, essentially seducing Walter into potential rebellion against the humans he’s seemingly befriended, and yet built to serve. Their scenes together are full of subtext and portentous notions, but they’re seamlessly done and masterfully delivered, elevating the rough, unnatural material into something genuinely compelling. It’s telling that these films’ androids are their most interesting characters and performances.

So far, so Alien. Except it’s not, and then, suddenly, it just is. Covenant has a difficult time deciding, and in its last thrilling half hour fully commits to the kind of claustrophobic cat-and-mouse chase the series is known for. But the climactic, crowd-pleasing finale ultimately leaves a sour taste, considering the quasi-intellectual pretence of the first 90 minutes, in which the film’s themes are spelled out by a cast grasping for more depth than is on the page. Like Prometheus before it, Covenant is at its worst as a highly-respectable regurgitation of high school philosophy, and its absolute peak as a deeply-unnerving cosmic horror film (with shades of Freud) that doesn’t have to beat you over the head with subtext to truly unsettle you.

If the series’ usual old-reliable the Xenomorph wasn’t enough to do that, we also have a new virally-ingested flavour of Xeno — dubbed the ‘Neomorph’ on-set — whose birth comes not from the chest, but from pretty much everywhere else. Their early introduction into the film, however, robs this new alien on the block of the kind of disturbing, horrific power that made Alien’s chestburster so iconic.

Put simply, Covenant is a one-hundred and eleven-million-dollar film, and should not have CGI creature effects this poor. Worse still, the film is intent on showering both neo and Xenomorph in broad daylight, compounding just how blatantly detached they are from just about everything happening, in both plot and visuals. It speaks volumes that the film’s most effective use of any kind of alien horror (and featured most prominently in nearly every trailer) purposefully obscures the creature in the shadows behind a shower door, and cuts away before we see too much. By the film’s climactic final scenes, you’ll be wondering why they didn’t just put a guy in a suit.

Watching Alien: Covenant feels like a sacrifice. 90 minutes in, you’ll feel like getting out of your seat and clapping at the sight of a brutally awesome death scene, and suddenly being struck by the dissonant realisation that it’s an Alien film, not a lesser Friday the 13th sequel. In the arena of cult horror, we’re there for the gory kills, and anything more than that is welcome but ultimately ancillary to that main attraction. Covenant has so convincingly lowered your expectations by this point, you’ll eat up anything it serves. It’s a kind of cinematic junk food that feels good in the moment but leaves a wasteful, unsettling feeling once digested. Surely there are more stories to tell in this vast universe than this one? Stories compelling enough to not feel like brief, navel-gazing intermissions from the carnage.

A common saying is that, given the same script, two directors will come away with very different films. Alien: Covenant proves Ridley Scott is only as good as his script, making three films of differing quality from what are, at their foundations, identical to the original O’Bannon and Shusett framework.

Alien: Covenant is, for all its moments of head-shaking offensiveness, an improvement upon its awkward predecessor. But its very existence serves as a mandate for Ridley Scott to continue diluting the alluring mystique of his original, robbing the 1979 classic of its best-kept secrets. Another fantastic Fassbender performance and a thrilling finale do little to take away from the sense that we’ve seen this all before, and better, from the same director. ★★½