If anyone is going to enjoy Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant it’ll be fellow director and screenwriter Vincent Ward. The centre piece of his wooden-monastery-planet set script for Alien 3 (1992) would have seen the xenomorph stalking a group of monks through a large wheat field. Whether an intentional compliment or not, the scene that pushes Scott's latest Alien instalment in to shit-yer-pants mode sees a newly born alien hunting the crew of the colonialisation ship Covenant through a wheat field. It’s one of the best moments in a film that also features a frustrating amount of chaff with its wheat.
The question dripping from every fan’s lips is whether Covenant is better than its predecessor Prometheus (2012). Scott’s return to the Alien franchise was a frustrating affair. Pitched as a prequel that would address the ‘where did the xenomorph come from’ question that no fan particularly wanted answering, Prometheus was more of an Alien (1979) remake, following its plot like a roadmap. But despite being so close in story to Alien it was largely scare free, swapping tension for philosophical noodling, and replacing a group of believable space miners for a crew of what-the-hell-are-they-thinking scientists. Most disappointing of all, it was classic xenomorph free and asked more questions than it ended up answering.
Perhaps as a direct response to Prometheus detractors who labelled the film too much of a departure from the established franchise, Covenant swings back in the other direction, way back in fact. Covenant is a redo of nearly all the highlight moments from the franchise so far. Crew of large spaceship unexpectedly awoken from hypersleep; check. Crew check out mysterious signal on unexplored planet; check. Bumpy ‘express elevator to hell’ shuttle ride down to the surface; check. Unlucky crew member infected with ghastly creature which colourfully exits poor saps torso; check. Supposedly helpful android turns nasty; check. Xenomorph chase through ships corridors; check. Double ‘surprise’ finale when you think everything has been safely resolved; check. Desperate fight to punt xenomorph out an airlock; check. Scott and composer Jed Kurzel even call upon a number of Jerry Goldsmith’s original Alien soundtrack cues just to remind viewers aurally that they are deep in Alien territory.
So given that most of us were humpy that Prometheus was too different from what we’d seen before, surely this marks a return to form for the franchise. Sadly, not quite. While the fingerprints of Alien films past are all over Covenant, Scott drops the ball in too many other areas for the film to join the lofty position that Alien and Aliens (1986) has in fans hearts.
The biggest mistake is pace. Scott makes a decent job of building tension over the first forty five minutes. All the ‘where did we come from’ philosophising is squashed in to a succinct five minute scene over the opening credits where Micheal Fassbender’s David (Prometheus’s obligatory android) shoots the breeze with his creator Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce). From here it’s a nervy crawl to the inevitable xenomorph action.
Once all hell breaks loose in spectacular and gory fashion, hands are rubbed in anticipation of what will hopefully be a balls-to-the-wall thrill fest from here on in; only Scott does the opposite and slams on the brakes. After the initial explosion everything calms back down as the remaining crew settles in for the night in a conveniently placed castle shelter, courtesy of a last minute rescue from the returning David. It seems David and Dr. Shaw crashed landed their stolen Engineer spacecraft on to the planet ten years prior.
The only reason for this story slowdown is so that David can spew large chunks of exposition, dispensed to various crew members in between curious bouts of bonding with the Covenant’s own Fassbender android, Walter. Intriguing though the scenes may be, it’s not a welcome interlude. It’s like watching the crew of the Nostromo break for lunch right after witnessing Kane spew forth the original alien, or the Colonial Marines breaking out a pack of cards after their Sub-Level 2 ass kicking. No one needs a half time orange during an Alien film.
Things only improve slightly when the action picks up again. Disappointingly, the big ‘twist’ that drives the film’s climax could be guessed by a five year old. After a scene where David inexplicably stops to cut his hair it becomes painfully obvious that he could easily be mistaken for the Covenant’s own android Walter; I wonder where this is going?
Characterisation is hit and miss again. While Alien and Aliens managed to efficiently flesh out all of their major players in their early scenes, Covenant only manages to establish three, Katherine Waterson’s Daniels, Billy Crudup’s Oram, and Danny McBride’s Tennessee. But even this trio aren’t painted with much depth. So weak are the remaining characters, when the bodies starting hitting the floor it’s hard to care who got munched and who managed to escape.
One of the main complaints with Alien 3 was that three of the characters we’d cheered for all the way through Aliens, Hicks, Newt and Bishop, were killed before Alien 3 even started. Fans asked what the point of saving them in Aliens was if they were just going to be killed in their next minute of screen time. Scott obviously didn’t heed the lesson that director David Fincher had to learn though; after Fassbender, Noomi Rapace was the second best thing in Prometheus but her Dr. Shaw goes the way of Hicks and Newt, killed before she gets to utter another line of dialogue. Again, you wonder what the point of Prometheus was if the two hours we spent cheering for Shaw were completely futile. It felt like a cheat in 1992 and it still feels like a cheat now.
As with Prometheus, foolhardy decisions abound again. Despite the crew exploring a never-before-stepped-on planet, there isn’t a biohazard suit or helmet in sight. At least Dallas, Kane and Lambert were properly equipped when they stepped out on to LV4-26. As David ironically quips, curiosity kills the cat, but such is the stupidity of some of the cast whole scenes get swallowed up by a wave of eye-rolling and heavy sighing. Worst of all, despite half the crew having already been wiped out by infectious alien life forms one of its most senior members is coaxed in to looking directly in to a newly minted, sinister looking alien egg. What exactly he expected to pop out of the thing is anyone’s guess, and when he finally gets a well-deserved Facehugger to the chops you want to cheer rather than gasp. You’re also left wondering where the Alien Queen is that laid the thing in the first place.
On the xenomorph front it’s unfortunate that Alien: Covenant arrived in cinemas just a week after Guardians of the Galaxy 2. Scott’s replacement for the classic Chestburster is a mini-me alien which eventually pops out of a crew members chest cavity some way in to proceedings. Far from startling, when the Baby Groot-alike raises its little hands you almost expect it to croak ‘I am alien’ and dance its way off screen to sounds of an ELO classic.
Tonally, Scott once again fails to capture the lived in, real world look of the Nostromo, offering another sterile, just-off-the-factory-line ship that because of its sheen appears more like a film set then a believable world. The film also ends on a bizarre note. Thanks to an intriguing soundtrack choice, which cues back to the film’s opening scene, the final character onscreen wanders through the halls of the Covenant as if the movie has veered in to dark comedy territory.
Despite these gripes, it’s not all bad news. For all it does right, Covenant is the best instalment in the franchise since Aliens, easily outdoing Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection, Prometheus and the horrid Alien vs Predator films, and though besting these movies is hardly cause for an award it’s a sign that things are finally moving in the right direction.
The scares and the body horror are back. Don’t be fooled by the ‘15’ certificate; this is easily the most graphic film in the series to date. The xenomorph attacks are genuinely nasty this time around, the new creatures attacking with a sustained violence not seen before. The alien implantations are also stomach twitchingly gruesome; the franchise may have finally topped John Hurt’s original ‘birthing’ scene. In a cheeky nod to the slasher movies of the early eighties, there’s even a kill scene in a shower where a nude couple enjoying some alone time together fall foul of the xenomorph’s explosive jaws.
The alien creatures also look fantastic, finally putting to bed the argument as to whether CGI aliens can ever match the man-in-suit achievements of the first two films. Scott’s CGI xenomorphs look good enough to stand alongside anything Alien and Aliens put on screen. There are also other visual treats throughout, the Covenant crew searching in the dark for creatures, their green gun-sights cutting an ominous glow through the dark, the massive recharging ‘sails’ of the Covenant, the internal insemination as alien spores float and imbed themselves in to ear canals.
Waterson gives a fine performance as franchise’s next Ripley replacement, despite being lumbered with a horrendous haircut and some clunky dialogue, ‘We don’t know what the fucks out there’. McBride expertly casts away his comedy typecasting, his Tennessee an easily likeable pilot and a character Scott should have perhaps made more use of. Of the cast though, Fassbender steals the show again, pulling double duty as Walter and David. It’s a work of genius how he ensures the androids have similarities, whilst at the same time creating two completely different characters. So good is his David, the xenomorph itself is in danger of become the secondary villain of the franchise.
For all it does right though, as the overarching plot evolves we don’t seem to be getting any closer to the Nostromo’s unfortunate landing on LV4-26. If anything Covenant moves us further away from it. Set in 2104, and with the year for Alien calculated as 2122, Scott only has eighteen plot years to play with. As the Covenant continues its seven year journey to Origae-6, one can only assume it experiences another detour en-route.
Scott has already announced that Covenant is the first of three more films before the series ties back in to Alien. The next film has been tentatively titled Alien: Awakening. Disappointingly though, just as the franchise looks like it has picked up some momentum to move towards the 1979 classic, Scott has confirmed that Awakening will be a prequel to Alien: Covenant, set between it and Prometheus.
How much tension Scott can wring out of a story where the future ahead of it has already been set is questionable. There also doesn’t seem like there’s much story prior to Covenant left to tell. We know where the xenomorphs come from now, we know what happened to David and Dr. Shaw, and we know what happened to the Engineers. The fuel that drives the Alien franchise is mystery and fear of the unknown. Alien kept its beast in the shadows, never explaining where it came from or what its purpose was. Aliens expanded on its mythos only slightly. But now Scott has revealed just about all of the creatures secrets, the unknown is known. As much as fans want more big screen xenomorph action, one wonders how much more screaming in space there is left to do.