You know the feeling when you are really digging a song. There’s that one line so ambiguous and catchy it sets off your endorphins, simultaneously driving you crazy as you try to figure out its dual or triple meaning. You look it up online only to realise a big part of what you liked so much about that one line was projecting your own personal meaning into it.
Alien: Covenant has that peculiar feeling in spades. Be prepared to have your curiosity on the origins of the xenomorph satiated. Hell, most of the mysteries from ‘What’s with all the variations of xenomorphs?’ to the roots of that creepy statue guy from Prometheus, are unwrapped in the second of a series of three prequels.
The abstract percolating ideas you had are unceremoniously torn apart by now official canon. To rub salt into the wound, those revelations have none of the perverse depravity nor emotional awe of the gothic romantic roots that the first Alien installment evolved from. The feminine, masculine, and epic biblical themes from the originals are heavily tempered.
The film opens with Guy Pearce and his android David (Michael Fassbender) wryly discussing the nature and origins of humanity. The parallels and irony of the situation don’t escape David’s unnerving artifcial intellect. It’s with Fassbender’s return as the android, David, and his new incarnation as the upgraded model, Walter, that Ridley Scott introduces Frankenstein themes that bubble and resurface throughout the movie.
The plot is engaging enough to get the sci-fi nerds in. Not long after the events of Prometheus and not too far away from the beginning of Alien (in 2122) the year is 2104. A crew of 2000 humans (including fetuses) are in deep hibernation, travelling towards a habitable planet in hopes of colonising. A distincly earthly signal enroute has evangelical captain Oram (Billy Crudup) change route to investigate. This doesn’t sit well with Deputy Daniels (Katherine Waterston) who suspects not everything will be peaches with an oasis planet broadcasting country music. No points for whose intuition will prove sage.
Once they touch down, the crew, which includes the updated Fassbender android Walter, run into the Fassbender of Prometheus, the android David, who is sans Dr. Shaw (viewers will remember the pair escaping together in the prior film). This is when the film really gets interesting and it’s largely thanks to Fassbender’s masterclass performance. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Fassbender is a genius of cinema. Prior to this film the androids have always been a curiosity, but with Covenant the two synthetics steal the limelight, compensating for a plot which is somewhat staled with repetition.
With Ridley Scott’s return to his magnum opus, one is left to wonder if this tamer film is a result of the mixed reactions to Prometheus. When you give people what they want you end up with Transformers and The Big Bang Theory. The creative risks of Covenant simply aren’t there, and the plot becomes a formulaic ‘alien’ story with a new female protagonist (although in fairness Waterston does a great job). Most infuriating of all is a foreshadowing of the ending, letting us all know how it will finish half an hour before the credits roll.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. It’s easy to be critical when the bar has been set so high by prior entrants. If Covenant’s worst fault is borrowing from its own rich tapestry of Alien films then that’s really not so heinous a crime. It’s a shame that what made the individual Alien series so interesting was cycling through a slew of fantastic directors determined to leave an original artistic footprint. While Prometheus had its share of criticisms (rightly or wrongly) it left more doors open than it closed. Playing it safe will appease fans of the franchise, but this is also the film’s biggest weakness. As great as Ridley Scott is, one of the few what-if’s viewers will leave with will be whether this new generation of Alien films should have been helmed by new blood.
Did I mention Fassbender was fantastic in this?
Alien: Covenant is in cinemas from 11th May through 20th Century Fox.