13 May 2017

Alien: Covenant Review


Space. A black canvas slowly reveals the title card as the eerie melody of Jerry Goldsmith’s classic Alien theme plays in the background. Suddenly, there it is. A large ship flies into view and fills the screen. The Covenant – a vessel carrying two thousand colonists – is en route to a remote planet for inhabitation. The opening sights of Alien: Covenant match up to Ridley Scott’s original 1979 masterpiece as the sense of isolation in a large universe is conveyed through the ship’s movements.

After suffering losses during a destructive shockwave, we are introduced to the crew of the Covenant. Terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston) mourns her late husband, while pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and android Walter (Michael Fassbender) trace a signal communicated from a nearby planet that the newly appointed Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) feels obligated to investigate. Sounds familiar, right? It’s at this point where Covenant begins to spiral towards something interesting. As the crew land on the beautiful paradise, a whole host of different horrors begin to emerge. Already from here the story begins to stumble. Daniels, Walter, Oram; they wander aimlessly and leave us with little desire to pursue them. The action is present but very sour as our characters zigzag their way through the first act. Our only interest is in seeing the trademark Alien carnage unfold.


Except it doesn’t, at least not yet. The plot stops trying to replicate Alien and returns to being more like Prometheus. The gaps between the latter and Covenant are gradually filled. The horror traits are toned down, allowing the film a chance to explore the human philosophies that had previously been set up in the previous film; ‘where do we come from?’, ‘What does it mean to be human?’ This also coincides with the return of David, Fassbender’s other android character from Prometheus, who has changed a lot since his last appearance. The duality between him and Walter are a central theme of the film. Not only do they bear physical resemblance, but their ideological stances on a synthetic’s identity is debated. Walter is bound by duty to humans whereas David hates them. To him humans see themselves as creators, yet his inventive mind also yearns to be one himself. Speaking to Digital Spy earlier in the week, Fassbender said of the role, “Obviously there's lots of interesting things about David but I had fun playing with the idea that in his programming there's some human personality traits that have been introduced to him. To play around with that concept was fun.”

Adding weight to Fassbender’s stellar performance – which is equally unsettling, warm, serious and exciting – is the thematic pairing of robotics and religion. There’s a Cain and Abel dynamic to both androids. Metaphorically, one is a farmer; the other, a shepherd. The embedded intertextuality of the Bible is glaring, and even the opening scene – featuring a flashback of Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) addressing David before the Prometheus mission – furthers the idea of an established covenant between humans and synthetics. 


An unfortunate nosedive hits the story once the aliens take centre-stage. Any semblance of continuing Prometheus is thrown out the window as a mediocre rendition of the original Alien is presented. The focus returns to the rest of the cast, because Ridley Scott must have realised he wasn’t making the Blade Runner sequel and there needed to be a human versus alien subplot. Although this gives everyone else something to do – a move that is urgently needed – the action is as dry as it is colourless. For a film that is desperate to replicate the success of the original, there’s a lot left to be desired. The xenomorph, which was originally designed in 1979 as a hidden predator, seems no more than a minor threat this time round. In the original the alien was just that: an alien. It was mysterious and deadly. Covenant’s version of the xenomorph breaks exactly that. We learn more about its physique and its nature. Its movements are less rigid thanks to the computer-generated animations it uses, which look as artificial as it would destroy the immersion. Everything the original stood for is defied, and it damages the final hour of the film which already suffers from being too fast-paced and holding a predictable outcome. 

What results in the full package is a workable central performance sandwiched between two unsatisfying acts. If it weren’t for Michael Fassbender being the sole saving grace that drags the movie along, Covenant would remain as forgettable as Alien vs. Predator. Ridley Scott seems to have put a lot of care into this project, as evident by the beautiful vistas seen on the planet, but the end result is disappointing for fans. The questions raised by Prometheus remain largely unanswered, as it instead treads along a spectrum between both the original and prequel, leaving people frustrated at the indecision at what it wants to be.

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