It’s hard not to feel nostalgic when the jagged lines of Alien: Covenant’s title flicker onto the big screen and most of us are familiar with the same powerful and eerie moment in the original Alien film. However, whilst Covenant utilises this trope to reignite memories of the 70’s sci-fi classic, the film as a whole fails to hit the same notes of tension and terror that made the original such a memorable achievement in cinema.
Warning: some spoilers ahead!
Covenant follows the crew of a ship with its namesake, Covenant, on their search to find a golden world for colonisation as part of a long-planned mission. They quickly run into technical troubles and intercept a mysterious signal which diverts their course to an alternative planet which was overlooked in their original surveys.
A few beats are missed in the colonisation premise, we learn throughout that the crew consists entirely of married couples, but this concept is never utilised to any real effect. The deaths and brutality come so heavily in Covenant that there is little time to get attached to any of the couples or feel for a great deal of compassion for the resulting widows.
We later learn that the mysterious signal originated from Prometheus’ protagonist Elizabeth Shaw, who arrived at the home world of the Engineers (see: heavy Prometheus lore for reference) alongside her now-repaired android sidekick, David. The film is more of a sequel to Prometheus than could be expected from the marketing run-up, but it still fails to address some of its main questions mysteries. We learn the true purpose of the ‘black goo’, but Covenant side-steps the question of why the Engineers abandoned humanity. At the end of Prometheus, David asks Dr Shaw “does it matter why?” to which she responds affirmatively with the justification that, he would not understand why she cares so much, because he is a robot. Whilst this serves as an interesting factor in David’s struggle with his existence, which plays a heavy part in Covenant, it’s hard to be satisfied with the fate of Dr Shaw and her search in this movie.
Covenant also explains the origin of the franchise’s xenomorph and introduces Ridley’s new alien concept, the neomorph, which is an interesting addition to the roster. We witness the neomorph’s development from pathogen, to back-burster (a great ‘shock factor’ scene ruined by over-exposure in marketing), to competent killing machine. There is one spectacular scene early on where a single new-born neomorph causes utter chaos with explosive results. Whilst the explanation of the birth of the xenomorph is an interesting premise and unfolds in a satisfying way throughout the film, it takes away from the mystery of the xenomorph and undermines the steps that the franchise has taken to establish the it as the ‘ultimate lifeform’. This is particularly noticeable in how easily the aliens are dispatched by the film’s protagonists, who show little fear when staring at the acid-drooling monstrosities.
The film’s finale is reminiscent of the earlier Alien films in a predictable manner (there is a definite need for alien-stowaway-sensors to be installed on all spaceships going forward), but is enjoyable as it briefly re-introduces the tight corridors and mechanical pipework that made Alien so visually striking. This section almost felt like a reminder of what made the original so great – the simplicity of a group of (mostly) defenceless people isolated in space with a killing machine on board their ship.
The standout of Alien: Covenant is Michael Fassbender in the dual roles of David and Walter. The film focusses heavily on the character drama between the two androids and, whilst culminating in an unnecessary and out of place fight scene, the route to this development succeeds in establishing the disturbing and dynamic foundation of David as the film’s antagonist. There are incredible moments and interactions between the two androids, as well as in David’s menacing treatment of the Covenant ship’s crew throughout.
There is an attempt to adhere to the franchise’s trope of strong women in a leading role, in Katherine Waterston’s character of Daniels, however in this entry her performance is completely overshadowed by Fassbender. There is little emotional impact in the throwaway cameo from James Franco, who plays Daniels’ husband before his untimely demise, which serves purely as motivation for Daniels to go on and fight for her ‘cabin on the lake’ (a cringe-inducing backstory which is used later to unveil a predictable plot twist). It is hard to get attached to Daniels, as she lacks the charisma and poise that made Sigourney Weaver so famous in the role of Ellen Ripley, or even the emotion and likeability of Noomi Rapace as Dr Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus. It is hard to decide whether this is due to screen time, writing or performance but in the end her character feels like another attempt to tick the boxes for necessary Alien franchise criteria.
The rest of the cast provide solid performances with minimal one-liner cheese expected of monster movies, however they are ultimately forgettable and not enough time is spent on building relationships. There are also a few character-contradictory moments, particularly in one scene involving the Covenant ship’s religious captain (played by Billy Crudup) who follows the villainous David to his demise shortly after witnessing a disturbing which clearly establishes David as the antagonist. There is a jarring sense of nonsense to his actions in this scene which is reminiscent of the infamous and silly ‘running-from-the-ship’ scene in the final moments of Prometheus.
Covenant has a washed-out feel, with greys and browns dominating its colour palette. There are moments, particularly in the opening half-hour, where the sleek, futuristic sci-fi look that Prometheus sported are present, as well as a final chapter which harkens back to the narrow corridors and pipe-work of the Nostromo. For the most part however, the film feels dark and gloomy and establishes its own grim visual style. This suits the tone very well with the plot focus on the twisted fate of David.
The visual effects are a mixed bag. There is something to be said for the rubber-suit practical effects of the 70’s original, in that they are more convincing than the shiny CG aliens we see here. It’s good then, that Ridley uses these aliens (xenomorph and neomorph) for dramatic effect and tension instead of scare factor. These CG aliens are impressive both in terms of their look and behaviour, but the CG definitely breaks the immersion and adds to the feeling that they have been shoehorned in as an attempt to please Alien fans.
The sound design is effective and serves the atmosphere of the film very well, with necessary moments of quiet and ambience quickly breaking with loud, screeching cries to build tension in more panicked scenes.
The film’s score (by Jed Kurzel) is Alien-by-wrote, re-using a number of musical cues from the original film with some new content. It’s good then, that these cues are so memorable and serving of the eeriness of the franchise. There are also a few references to the magical ‘Life’ theme from Prometheus during a fantastic flute duet scene. Overall the soundtrack is strong for the purposes of building atmosphere.
Ridley Scott had a difficult task on his hands when taking on this pre-sequel to Alien and Prometheus; fans of the former have been yearning for filmmakers to recapture the spark for years, whilst the latter caused an uproar for its complicated plot and outlandish ‘what are they thinking’ moments. On the whole, Covenant suffers from pacing issues. It is not as intense or nail-biting as Prometheus and not a flat-out horror like Alien. Instead, it sits somewhere between the two, focusing heavily on story and atmosphere, which is justifiable as this is where it succeeds. There are parts of Covenant which shine in originality, particularly the reveals for David’s menacing motivations. In some respects, Covenant feels like a film that could have been a spectacular character drama if it had nothing to do with its parent franchise.