Alien: Covenant plays it safe by mashing together the best elements of previous Alien films, delivering a solid sci-fi horror/thriller in the process.
In the year 2104, a decade after the events of Prometheus, the colony ship Covenant heads to a remote planet with thousands of passengers in cryogenic sleep and embryos preserved onboard. When the Covenant is hit by a massive solar flare, the damage inflicted upon the the ship results in the deaths of multiple people and leaves the members of the ship’s crew – including, first mate Oram (Billy Crudup), pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride), android assistant Walter (Michael Fassbender) and the captain’s wife, Daniels (Katherine Waterston) – to pick up the pieces and ensure that the mission keeps going as planned, all while dealing with the emotional fallout.
While repairing the Covenant, the ship’s crew happen upon a fractured transmission that appears to be human in its origin. The signal comes from a planet that is not only much closer than the Covenant’s intended final destination, but appears to be a perfect choice for human colonization… though the mysterious world itself is seemingly devoid of any non-plant life. Oram decides that the crew should investigate the planet, in order to find the source of the transmission and to determine if they can, in fact, live there. However, it’s not long before these space colonists then discover that this world is far from paradise – and is something much more terrible altogether.
Following a somewhat-divisive critical and fan response alike to his Alien prequel/spinoff movie Prometheus in 2012, director Ridley Scott has chosen to continue his run of Alien prequel films with a more traditional chapter in the form of Alien: Covenant. Covenant does expand upon the plot points and mythology featured in Prometheus, but also shifts a bit from the trajectory of the latter film, in order to set itself on a more direct course towards connecting with the events of the very first Alien. While Covenant is less ambitious than Prometheus in this respect, it also makes for a sturdier movie on the whole. Alien: Covenant plays it safe by mashing together the best elements of previous Alien films, delivering a solid sci-fi horror/thriller in the process.
Alien: Covenant plays out as a sci-fi drama-turned horror/thriller during its first act, before transitioning fully into a Prometheus sequel during its second act and then blending those approaches together, for its final third. Looking at the previous efforts of the movie’s four listed writers – with the screenplay attributed to John Logan (Penny Dreadful) and Dante Harper (Edge of Tomorrow), while Michael Green (Logan) and Jake Paglen (Transcendence) are given screen story credit – it’s easier to understand why Covenant plays out as a body horror flick, a Gothic monster movie, a bloody action/thriller and a darkly philosophical sci-fi film, at different points in time. As mentioned before, these elements work well together here and ensure that Covenant neither amounts to just a slasher movie set on an alien planet, nor comes off as pretentious during its meditative moments (as some accused Prometheus of doing). Problem is, Covenant winds up retreading many of the same basic plot beats as the Alien movies that have come before it, in doing so.
Derivative story aside, Covenant does continue to develop and evolve the larger creator/creation themes that were introduced in Prometheus, at the same time that it explores related subjects that arise organically from that thematic through-line (Eugenics, for example) with the allegorical narrative being told here. While the movie integrates Biblical imagery and concepts seamlessly into its futuristic sci-fi proceedings, the larger issue of “faith vs. reason” that Prometheus focuses heavily on receives far less attention in Covenant – and the Engineers (as well as the many unanswered questions concerning them) along with it. However, in doing so Covenant succeeds in moving the larger franchise closer to fully connecting the dots between the events set in motion by Prometheus and the status quo at the beginning of Scott’s original Alien.
Scott and his trusted cinematographer, Dariusz Wolski, infuse the opulent visual style of Prometheus with more of the nitty-gritty texture and lived-in qualities of the original Alien, in order to create the aesthetic for Covenant. The result, as is typically the case for a movie directed by Scott nowadays, is a visually-striking film that boasts much in the way of meticulously-detailed practical sets, beautiful landscape shots and sharp CGI elements to complete the film’s vision of the Alien universe, creating a more immersive viewing experience. It’s too bad, then, that the Covenant’s human crew members are not afforded equal amounts of development. Instead, the movie glosses over key character details in order to concrete on fleshing out its scenery and keeping the plot moving forward. (The Covenant prologue video “Last Supper” arguably does as good, if not better, a job of fleshing out the Covenant crew and their relationships than the actual movie.)
To be fair, most of the humans exist in any Alien movie to be slaughtered by the Xenomorphs (or, in this case, “Neomorphs”), so Covenant is simply keeping with tradition in this sense. Covenant protagonist Daniels is similarly a variation on the Ellen Ripley archetype, but Katherine Waterston plays that role well and it’s fun to watch her transition into being a full-on badass over the course of the movie. Character actors Billy Crudup (Spotlight), Demián Bichir (The Hateful Eight) and Carmen Ejogo (Selma) bring more depth to their respective roles here too, as does Danny McBride in a refreshingly buttoned-down dramatic turn as the character Tennessee. Michael Fassbender, however, is the true MVP here and the moments that involve Fassbender’s two android characters (see: Walter and David) are some of the best scenes in the entire movie – managing to be funny, weird and more than a little creepy all at once.
Alien: Covenant was clearly designed with the intention of addressing the criticisms of Prometheus, but continuing to develop the plot threads and themes of that movie at the same time. The outcome is a worthwhile addition to the larger Alien franchise that stands on its own as an engaging sci-fi/horror flick… even if it does play out like the “Greatest Hits” collection of the Alien series’ tropes, at certain times. Covenant does leave the door open for another installment (like Prometheus did before it) – but as Scott doesn’t seem to have too many new ideas for what to do with this franchise, it might be best that he make the next installment the final chapter in his Alien prequel trilogy (connecting Prometheus and the first Alien at last) and then call it a day.
Alien: Covenant is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 123 minutes long and is Rated R for sci-fi violence, bloody images, language and some sexuality/nudity.
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