Written by John Logan and Dante Harper
Directed by: Sir Ridley Scott
Starring: Katherine Waterston, Danny McBride, Billy Crudup and Michael Fassbender
10 years after the Prometheus disappeared, the Covenant is en route to set up an off world colony. Aboard are 2,000 colonists and 15 crew. The mission is ambitious, dangerous and in trouble. After an accident claims the life of the captain, the surviving crew members detect a human signal where none should exist. They follow it, and discover a world far better suited to their needs than their original target. But someone has been there before…
Sir Ridley Scott’s second return to the franchise he launched is much more successful than Prometheus but still almost buckles under a raft of serious problems. The first and biggest is how little we know the majority of the crew of the Covenant. Of those 15, we get to know terraforming engineer Daniels, pilot Tennessee, first mate Chris Oram and ship’s synthetic Walter pretty well. The remainder are given almost no screen time, zero development and often register only as they’re killed. That’s a massive shame, not only because of the franchise’s long tradition of engaging ensemble casts but because of one of the choices made here. Sergeants Lope and Hallett are part of the ship’s security detail, both men, and married. For a gay couple to be represented in a movie like this is still a significant deal. For them to barely register as characters is depressingly familiar.
To make matters worse, Scott’s action sequences leave a vast amount to be desired. Two actually work; the first alien attack is a nicely handled adrenalin-streaked panic attack and a closing sequence involving a freight lifter, Daniels, a winch and an angry xenomorph is really nicely handled. The rest switches between either weightless or flat out incoherent. An early neomorph attack kills several crew members but it’s hard to tell who. A later fight between two crew members is so jankily shot it looks like it fell out of a Bourne movie. It’s aiming for frantic but comes across as rushed, damaging the movie.
It’s not the only issue. Where nearly every other Alien movie could stand alone (just), Covenant is built on the bones of Prometheus. Scott has talked about the movie being a response of sorts to its predecessor and that’s clear in the second half especially. If you’ve seen Prometheus it’ll be an overdue, but largely satisfying experience. If this is your first time with the Alien franchise, well… maybe don’t make this your first with the Alien franchise.
What’s worse is that a lot of the DNA it shares with Prometheus leads to both a profoundly annoying plot point and one that’s just flat out unnecessary. Don’t worry, there’s nothing quite as bad as Vickers not understanding what turning is but the ending in particular is both telegraphed and deeply frustrating. More egregiously, there’s a creative choice here that plays as unfairly mean-spirited. To say any more would spoil it, but the movie makes a choice that it doesn’t justify any way other than shock value and both it, and its director, are better than that.
Finally, there are several points where something stupid has to happen or the film just stops. The idea of an early era colonisation vessel having a single shuttle is laughable. The idea that anyone would respond to an alien world by prodding a weird looking fungus to see what it does is, post-Prometheus, depressingly familiar.
For all that, there’s some really good stuff in Covenant. Katherine Waterston’s Daniels is a subtle, grounded heroine who can stand comfortably shoulder to shoulder with Ripley. Danny McBride’s Tennessee is a flat out delight and Billy Crudup’s Oram is a complicated, surprisingly interesting character who deserves more screen time than he gets. Each feels interesting and human and the few times the movie slows down and lets them react to things are among it’s strongest points. There’s one scene between Daniels and Tennessee in particular that really does seem like it’s stumbled in from a better movie.
The film also does some really interesting things to the franchise as a whole, answering a long-standing question about the xenomorphs in particular. Better still, it wraps the xenomorphs and synthetics around each other in a way that’s complicated, intelligent and deeply horrific (although that’s been true since the very first outing). There’s also much more detail on the implied motive behind the creation of the synthetics and how that ties into Peter Weyland’s plans from Prometheus. And no, don’t worry, the terrible old man makeup isn’t back we promise, the big concepts being played with here are all great. The execution of those concepts almost always leaves a lot to be desired.
Alien: Covenant isn’t a blazing return to form. It’s oddly paced, over focused, nervously shot and makes some truly bizarre choices built on some deeply stupid decisions. But, somehow, despite that, it ends up in a really interesting place. A definite improvement on Prometheus, but the franchise still has lots of work to do.