Alien: Covenant has been loosely touted as the movie that Prometheus should have been. But is it? Well…
2012’s Prometheus was a curious beast. Shepherded into conception by director Ridley Scott, what began life as a prequel to his own 1979 film Alien eventually (and quite aptly) mutated and transformed into something else entirely. Whilst most certainly taking place in the same universe as its forbearers (or is it “descendants”?), Prometheus jettisoned the iconic face-huggers and nightmare-inducing xenomorphs (read: the alien) in favour of the trials and tribulations of a crew of scientists and explorers travelling to stars in an effort to piece together an ancient message that might just provide a clue as to the origin of our species.
So…nothing at all like Alien.
That being said, Prometheus provided its fair share, some gorgeous cinematography, and an undeniably memorable performance by Michael Fassbender in the role of the eerie robot butler, David. The film is not without its fans, some fervent in their support, but ultimately the movie (whilst making a tidy profit) was regarded as a head-scratchingly erratic experience for the general public and a jaw-clenchingly frustrating one for hardcore fans of the series.
Now, five years later, Scott has delivered Alien: Covenant, and the deluge of advertising and marketing for the Sydney-shot production has been relentless in its singular, core message: this is the Alien movie you wanted last time. Purporting to be the Alien prequel we deserve, Covenant spends a third of its running time doing a convincing job of fooling us that we’ve been served what’s on the box. But soon enough the curtain is pulled back, and the film reveals itself to be as much a sequel to Prometheus as it is a setup for the original film. The question is, does it succeed at either job?
Your opinion on the previous film is inevitably influenced by whether or not you were interested in Scott’s concept of the mysterious race of “Engineers” – the ancient, spacefaring civilisation that might be responsible for human life on Earth – and whether or not you felt Scott did a worthwhile job of telling that story. The greatest criticism levelled at Prometheus was that it never answered any of the questions it raised. Not only were the lofty questions of creation and the afterlife left unresolved, the basic storyline of the film felt riddled with contrivances, uncertainties and questionable character choices. The first scene of Covenant provides an instant glimmer of hope to fans of the previous film, as Guy Pearce’s character of Peter Weyland returns in a brief cameo to oversee the birth of Fassbender’s David. It’s an effective flashback that serves as an efficient piece of exposition for the uninitiated, but one that might prove to be an instant red flag for those that thought Prometheus was a drag.
Before long, however, we find ourselves on the eponymous starship Covenant and are introduced to our intrepid crew for this mission. And there are a lot of them. Not only are we presented with the largest human crew manifest yet for a film in this series, we also meet Walter, another synthetic assistant and a superior model to David, again played by Fassbender. The cast has a genuine chemistry and is vastly more watchable than Prometheus’ mob of morons, with Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBride as the stand-outs. The first third of the film is tense, engaging and effective, and for 45 minutes, it feels like Scott has pulled it off. The visuals, music and VFX are all top-class and manage to draw us into yet another story set in motion by the discovery of a mysterious, phantom signal. By the time we’ve landed on this episode’s uncharted (or is it?) alien world, we’re riveted, and when the creepy critters start appearing, the movie absolutely screams.
In Covenant, Scott goes for broke, and piles on the gore and the body horror to such a degree that it will have audiences howling in the cinema.
Now, five years later, Scott has delivered Alien: Covenant, and the deluge of advertising and marketing for the Sydney-shot production has been relentless in its singular, core message: this is the Alien movie you wanted last time.
But once the movie hits the second act, everything changes.
As soon as Fassbender’s David reappears and reveals himself as a survivor of the doomed Prometheus mission, the film almost completely changes course to accommodate the continuation of his story, one which is certainly fascinating and undeniably creepy, but also one which plays fast and loose with the history of the universe, and (far more tragically) completely eclipses any potential for the other players to leave an impression, let alone experience any kind of arc. Everything the film worked to establish in its first third is revealed to be nothing more than hollow window-dressing; the sprawling cast of thinly-sketched characters merely inconsequential meat-sacks, sacrificed and slaughtered in unquestionably gruesome fashions, but without ever making us care about them or their fate.
There are plenty of compelling themes and ideas the film briskly touches upon, but nothing is ever explored or developed beyond the simplest of surface levels. The true-believers that desperately hoped that Scott would make good on the promise of Prometheus will have their hopes dashed again. Beyond some fairly nebulous musings about creation and mortality (which are merely half-baked leftovers from the previous film), this entry is thematically empty, and by the end, we don’t even know who we’re supposed to be rooting for. As a result, fans on both sides of the aisle will feel short-changed. Despite Waterson’s efforts, the character of Daniels never manages to assume the mantle of proto-Ripley that the film desperately wants her to be, and we’re left with Fassbender to out-act himself as two identical robots cautiously playing a game of getting-to-know-you.
The scenes with David and Walter are captivating, but they’re not enough to steady the ship as it continues to roll towards an unsatisfying conclusion. The promise of further sequels now feels more exhausting than exciting, and Covenant ultimately makes one feel like perhaps this particular monster should be blown out of the airlock for good.
Alien: Covenant hits cinemas today.