Ridley Scott returns to the science fiction genre again and retreads things that have gone before in Alien: Covenant.
The latest film in the seemingly indefatigable series connects the previous film, the divisive Prometheus with the first film in the series, 1979 Alien, both directed by Scott. And while I didn’t hate it, the film didn’t make me jump up and down with joy.
Like Prometheus, Covenant is a very good-looking film (except for the xenomorph, but we’ll come to that) but it seems to forget its origins. For all its production value and A-list cast, the first film was always a B-level monster movie – in the best way, but that it is all it ever was. The first sequel, 1986’s Aliens was a balls-to-the-wall action film, but still worked within the trappings of its b-movie origins.
With Prometheus, as flawed as it was, Scott tried to elevate the B-movie creation to high science fiction, by infusing the story with the eternal questions of ‘who are we?’ ‘where do we come from?’ ‘what is our purpose?’ and ‘who created us?’
Things that were removed from that film could have made it work better (some religious plot lines that would have posed some interesting queries), and it was definitely the best cast of the sequels since Aliens.
Covenant tries to expound on those as it adds themes of evolution, cycles, creation and destruction to the story.
We are introduced to the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship, as things are torn away from them, friends, family, when their ship is struck by a neutrino burst from a solar flare. Most of the characters are ill-defined (which makes it difficult to tell them apart or empathise with most of them).
A little stronger defined is Daniels (Katherine Waterston) who is a broken woman moments into the film, and must define herself anew as she is put through the crucible of the film. Danny McBride plays the Covenant’s pilot, Tennessee and it’s very enjoyable to see him stretch some dramatic muscles instead of playing comedic roles all the time. Billy Crudup plays Oram, the ship’s new captain, who is forced into the position by circumstances.
Michael Fassbender gets the most work in the film as he reprises Prometheus’ David, as well as a new android (replicant? There’s a bit of a Blade Runner nod in a piece of dialogue), Walter aboard the Covenant.
We dig into the cycle of creator and creation, and the cycle of destruction that has to go with it. The revelations about the eggs, and the xenomorph are a little bothersome. I understand it from a mythic storytelling standpoint, but that doesn’t always make for good storytelling.
I do like that they are trying to infuse a little higher sci-fi into the series, but they don’t seem to be doing it in the right way. They start out so well, and then just misstep. I love the first half of the film, the mystery of what is going on, but it rushes it to get to the gore (this is by far the bloodiest of the Alien series) and stumbles against its own B-movie nature.
Scott is trying to get his viewers to think, but six films along now, (not counting the abysmal AvP series) the viewers know what they want in terms of an Alien story, and they may not necessarily get it here.
And there’s the xenomorph. The alien works in the first two films because despite the fact that it is a man in a costume, it has more reality than the computer-generated creations running around in this film.
While CGI works for the ship, starscape and augmenting the landscapes, there is a distinct lack of reality to the alien creature. Yes, it’s fast, but it never feels truly threatening because you know it’s not there. It wasn’t actually on the set interacting with the actors, and you can tell. The film suffers most there.
I will say this, I loved the music. Jed Kurzel’s score marries some of my favourite themes from the original film, with those of Prometheus, and they work wonderfully. That truly added to the feeling that I was watching an Alien movie.
Technically, as always, it’s a solid film, but the script doesn’t do all it should. It raises some interesting questions for Fassbender’s David, which I will hope to see answered, but it was unable to strike the balance between thoughtful science fiction and b-level monster movie. Maybe it’s not possible. I believe it is, and that they just haven’t found it yet.
While die hard fans may take exception with some of the revelations the film makes about the xenomorph – I’m still not sold, though I understand the symbolism at work – most moviegoers may not even be engaged by this film, as it seems to be a chimera of past films while adding very little new material to the canon of the Alien-verse.