The Good: Directing and acting in the first third, Michael Fassbender's performance for most of the movie
The Bad: Entirely formulaic plot, Ridiculous reversals, Michael Fassbender's acting is too good to make the end convincing, Stupid, stupid characters, Emotionally unrealistic characters
The Basics: Alien: Covenant is an utter disappointment for anyone who loves the franchise . . . or movies in general.
For the past few months, the film I have been most excited about seeing has been Alien: Covenant. For sure, the Alien franchise (reviewed here!) has had some duds, but one of my strongest moments of cinephilic joy came in seeing Prometheus (reviewed here!) in IMAX 3-D. So, tonight, I schlepped out 85 miles to a theater with a 70 ft. screen to see Alien: Covenant. And, sadly, it was not worth it.
Alien: Covenant is, sadly, garbage. Everything that was good and clever in Prometheus is missing from Alien: Covenant. Everything that made Alien scary is passe in Alien: Covenant; the elements that made Aliens a great sequel seem cheaply recycled in Alien: Covenant. Even the darkness of Alien 3 that robbed fans of the prior episode's "happy ending" is presented in Alien: Covenant as a glossed-over, expository afterthought. The inventiveness of Alien Resurrection even is lacking from Alien: Covenant.
Sadly, by the point Alien: Covenant was made, the Alien-franchise films have developed into something of a formula. Introduce the characters and setting (usually Ripley), isolate the characters, introduce some form of the alien life form, the alien is hunted while the alien(s) hunt the human characters, drama with an android, someone makes it to safety . . . psych(!), resolution. Alien: Covenant only minimally challenges that well-established formula. In fact, the big differences of Alien: Covenant are pretty easy to define: this time the chestburster comes out the back, there are no real chestbursters (just tiny xenomorphs), and the aliens are not really the villains this time. And, apparently, Ridley Scott listened to the commentary track on Alien and decided to side with Veronica Cartwright; Alien: Covenant features a character actually making a good-faith attempt to communicate with the xenomorph and it positively responds. Take that, Tom Skerritt!
So, what actually happens in Alien: Covenant and why is it so bad?
Opening with David being brought online by Peter Weyland, David and Weyland discuss the nature of creators and the created. Leaping forward to ten years after the Prometheus disappeared and was presumed destroyed, the Company has sent the colony ship Covenant into deep space to colonize a distant world. The synthetic human, Walter, is acting as custodian of the ship, crew and cargo (colonists and embryoes) when a nutrino pulse cripples the ship, forcing him to wake up the crew. In the process, the captain is killed, leaving Daniels a widow and making the faith-based Oram Captain. While Tenessee is out fixing the solar collectors, his helmet intercepts a message. Returning to the Covenant, the crew works to decipher the message, but all they can do is identify that it includes John Denver's "Country Roads." Walter discovers that the signal came from a previously undiscovered planet that is both closer to Covenant's current location and is a better match for a human population. Given how the captain died in his cryotube, the crew is resistant to returning to sleep, so over Daniels's objections, Oram reroutes the Covenant to the new planet.
Arriving at the planet, the Covenant crew is surprised by the volatility of storms in the upper atmosphere, so they leave a skeleton crew aboard and take most of the crew down to the surface. There, they split up and two of the crew step on spores that they then become infected by. By nightfall, the two infected crewmembers are killed birthing xenomorphs and more of the crew is lost when their dropship is destroyed. When all looks bleak, the colonists are rescued by none other than David, who takes them to safety in a city that was once home to the Engineers. There, Daniels recognizes him as twitchy and she sends Walter in to learn the truth of what happened to the Prometheus and how he got to the alien planet in the alien ship. Soon, though, Walter's loyalties are tested as David's experiments using Engineer technology are slowly revealed and various xenomorphs start hunting the crew!
Alien: Covenant takes a lesson from, of things Alien Vs. Predator in that it includes facehuggers that impregnate at ridiculously fast speeds. That is paired with a first xenomorph style creature that gets huge very fast and skips the larval chestburster stage. And, apparently, people in the future lack a sneeze reaction.
Fundamentally, the big problem with Alien: Covenant is in the acting of Michael Fassbender. Fassbender is a great actor and he convincingly creates two distinctly different characters in Alien: Covenant in Walter and David. The problem is that he's such a good actor that he fails to sell the film's supposed big surprise reversal because of how he is playing his character. As Spock once noted: it's easier for an enlightened person to play a barbarian than for a barbarian to portray an enlightened. By similar extension, it's much harder for the mad scientist to play the lovelorn android than for the loving synth to play the madman.
Finally, many of the characters in defy sensibility. I like a good satirical commentary on the intelligence of people who make decisions based primarily on faith, but Oram is played as just plain stupid (sorry Billy Crudup!). Having encountered David cozied up to a xenomorph (who looked like it was designed by Guillermo Del Toro), Oram follows David literally into the dark basement. On the commentary track for Prometheus, the writers discuss how they were painfully aware that they had characters walking into the (figurative) haunted basement, so they worked hard to make that apparent defiance of reason character-driven. And it works. There is no such attention to detail or reason in Oram's decision.
The surprises in Alien: Covenant are often more obvious than surprising. Ridley Scott telegraphs a lot of the big moments and makes explicit almost everything in the film in a way that diminishes the mystery that Prometheus established well. In fact, the only element that is not overly-explained (arguably) is that the recorder David and Walter play is made of bone and probably came from Elizabeth Shaw's corpse. But, Scott didn't need to make that explicit when he has David holding it like a weapon when the object is taken out of frame. Does Scott truly think that the audience is so stupid they've forgotten it is in David's hand?! And while there is a lot of carnage in Alien: Covenant a lot of it happens so fast that its graphicness is undone by the speed of the effects.
Alien: Covenant has a few good moments, but the promise of its opening scene is that it will be philosophical and/or clever. But the moment the first whatever-morph appears on screen, Alien: Covenant degenerates into an over-the-top bloodbath orchestrated by a mad scientist and it stops being satisfying, smart or even enjoyable unfortunately early.
For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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