For the dedicated follower, there can’t be a more frustrating series of films with such varying, unequal results as the Alien franchise. After the original and its sequel, there are no other continuing big screen adventures that promise so much yet deliver so many ultimate disappointments. The audience is there; it always is, the box-office returns tell us so. But it lives in the ever continuing hope that what made those first two films work will eventually happen again. It never quite does.
If you’re among the many who saw 2012’s Prometheus, walked out with a sense of letdown, and have never given the film a second thought, there’s a fair chance you can’t remember how it ended. It doesn’t matter. Alien: Covenant updates as plot points and their association with the prequel are required.
Once you skip over Covenant‘s prologue that presumably took place before Prometheus began, where genius inventor Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce) has a philosophical discussion with his android David (Michael Fassbender) about life, the universe, and everything – “If you created me,” begins David, “Who created you?” – the new film really starts when the colony ship Covenant is on its way to colonize a remote planet.
It’s ten years after Prometheus, eighteen before the first Alien, and there’s a new, more advanced android on the ship. This one is Walter (again, Fassbender), who has the same looks and the same voice as David, but the accent is different. Where the earlier model had a clipped, cultured, English accent and was good on the piano, Walter is all-American and can’t play a tune.
Even though the setup is different, there’s a familiar arc to the Covenant that follows Ridley Scott’s 1979 original. In fact, there’s a feeling that the movie-makers were only too aware of how audiences felt about the franchise after the release of Prometheus. They must have decided that what was needed for the new film was something a little more familiar, like an alien.
The interior of the ship, its design and its passages are lit and shot as in the ’79 original. The new crew, gathered around the table after having awakened from their sleeping pods too early look something like that first crew, just more of them. There’s a new, strong leading lady in the vein of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley; an unexplained signal received from a remote planet that needs investigating; and unlike Prometheus, this one even includes those alien pods that peel open at the top, the neck choking face-huggers, and the alien itself. It even has some earlier, undeveloped versions of the creature that are born, not of those face-hugging things, but of spores that float unobserved in the air and enter into human orifices, such as the ear canal or up the nose. There’s even an on-board toy-bird pretending to drink water from a small cup, just as in the original, plus a faint echo of Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting 1979 score incorporated at intervals into Jed Kurzel’s new soundtrack.
The film certainly looks good. Before he was a film director, Ridley Scott spent more than a decade designing and filming commercials for British television, homing his presentation and decorative visual skills on the selling of products, the kind of filmic commercials that won awards. And you can see that sense of design, lighting, and his use of color from the beginning. His first film, The Duellists in 1977, set during the Napoleonic Wars, is simply beautiful. Look for the Blu-Ray and you’ll discover the amazing images for yourself. With the clarity of those military uniforms and the remarkably well framed shots that were never less than perfect, almost any segment of the film could be used as a backdrop to a commercial for Napoleon Brandy.
That extraordinary look and design continues into all of his films, as it did with Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and everything else he has made, including the original Alien. Somehow, everything has the clarity and the high gloss of a well-sheened image; no one can make the inky blackness of space look as shiny as Scott. Look closer at the screen and you’d swear you just saw your own reflection looking back. Fans of the franchise must have felt a sigh of relief when it was announced it would be Ridley Scott in the director’s seat for Prometheus. But even though the film looked great with all of Scott’s visual hallmarks, it felt distant, uninvolving, and didn’t quite deliver. Too much philosophizing, perhaps, and not enough tension, even though it certainly had its moments.
An overall plot explanation to Alien: Covenant is not required. The enjoyment of the story is allowing things to reveal themselves as it goes along. After all, once you know there’s a new ship, a new crew, and a mysterious message intercepted that needs to be investigated, familiar groundwork is established. But once an away-team is dispatched to the new planet’s surface, it may still not be what fans want in their Alien adventure, though it’s certainly close.
While the faces of several of the crew members blend indistinguishably among each other, there are standouts. As Daniels, Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam) impressed in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and does even better on the good ship Covenant. She’s the plucky heroine around whom the nail-biter of a climactic action sequence is built. Billy Crudup is equally good as Senior Officer Oram, a man reluctantly forced to assume captain duties once the real captain is accidentally killed in his sleeping pod during a storm.
The real surprise, however, is Danny McBride who has shunned his usual boorish comedic persona in favor of someone who actually seems close to a real character, though there’s still a shade of humor. As crew member Tennessee, he’s the man who deciphers the crackling emergency radio message the ship receives, declaring it’s not so much an SOS but a woman’s voice singing John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads. When asked if he’s sure, Tennessee replies, “I never joke about John Denver.”
But there are lengthy moments on the planet with explanations of origins, life and death, and of an android playing God that, while interesting, don’t always feel as though things are heading in the direction that an Alien audience are really looking for, nor want. Plus, that concern of director Scott’s disconnect from storytelling in favor of a well-designed image occurs when the crew discover a large arena filled with the scarred and tortured bodies of thousands from another race who look as though they all died in agony at the same time. In a flashback we see what happened, but upon the arena’s initial discovery, none of the crew remark upon the horrific site. You’d think that someone would declare an “Oh, my God,” or at the very least, “I wonder what happened here,” but there’s nothing, just the images.
Maybe here’s the problem. In the original Alien and the sequel Aliens there was no theorizing on the meaning of life, and no lengthy philosophizing on creation and our creator. The stories were simple, shocking, and effective with two very different styles from two very different directors, Scott and James Cameron. One was an atmospheric, high-gloss, haunted-house story with a killer boogey-monster hiding in the shadows; the second, a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges looking, war-in-space action thriller where the Marines were sent in to clean up the horrifying mess. Even though there are more Alien features planned that will eventually circle back to where it began, everything we really needed from an Alien film was already covered in the first two of the franchise. Nothing else ever seems to satisfy.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 122 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)