Review- Alien: Covenant (2017)

It’s been five years since Prometheus and in that time the film has received a very mixed reaction. There were a lot of unanswered questions that have been waiting for a sequel to go into more detail about where these prequels fit into the Alien mythos and Covenant might be the film that puts things back on track. Anyone looking for concrete answers to Prometheus will be disappointed, but as it’s own beast that adds more layers to the universe and it’s as close to the original film as we’ve gotten in nearly 40 years.

Set in 2104, ten years after the Prometheus disappeared; a re-colonization ship carrying 2000 souls in cryo-sleep alongside 15 crew members called ‘The Covenant’ is making a 7 year journey to Origae-6, an habitable planet where they hope to start their new lives. Tragically a neutron shock-wave hits the ship, killing 46 colonists as well as the ship’s captain Branson (James Franco), husband of terraforming expert Daniels (Katherine Waterston). During the repairs, the crew hears a distant and distorted signal that appears to be human in nature despite being several light years from Earth and coming from a planet that all checks show to be hospitable. Realizing that none of the crew wants to go back to cryo-sleep following what happened to Branson, and the prospect of starting a new world earlier than anticipated.  Acting captain Oram (Billy Crudup) takes a small recon team with him including Daniel and the ship’s synthetic assistant Walter (Michael Fassbender) to check the surface before making any big decisions.

Landing on the surface, the team are greeted by a strange and unexplainable world. On one hand the land is growing wheat which has been planted and grown by someone, but on the other there is not one single other life-form around them, not even a bird or an animal of any kind. After a deadly contingent outbreak leaved the team stuck on surface, the group is found by David (Also Fassbender), the sole survivor of the Prometheus mission and older model of the same synthetic group as Walter. Who explains that his arrival to the planet accidentally triggered a weapon on his ship that decimated any non-botanical species in the area and has now given way for deadly, mutating spores to take over. As the team looks for a way to get back to their ship, they start to realize that there’s something a lot more dangerous out there than what David’s letting on.

This is definitely a film of two halves; the first half is a straight-up Alien horror movie, intrepid explorers on a new world discovering unimaginable terrors that violently kills them all one by one, lacking the subtlety of the first film, but bringing it back to the horror roots with some sprinkling of Aliens action to keep things on edge. It’s when David comes into play in the second half when the film becomes a true Prometheus sequel that it’s place with the Alien mythos becomes clear, without getting into too much detail. David’s place in the universe become very important and his quest to make up for the disappointment of his creators – a plot point brought over from the Prometheus crew’s disappointment when meeting their creators – has left a very dark and very violent path open that shows where the series can go to catch-up with Alien, but leaves enough open for more story to be told.

The implication alone of what the ending means leaves things on a very interesting note.

Character wise there’s definitely been an improvement from Prometheus, but there are a few key issues I need to touch upon first. For starters, it’s painfully obvious that a lot of these characters are just walking corpses waiting to be killed, whether that bugs you or not is your deal, but it’s easy to tell who’s ready and waiting for the chop. For another, it feels like Ridley Scott missed a great deal of character moments that don’t quite come across as well as planned. Branson dies literally before he even says his first line, you barely have enough time to think ‘Is that James Franco?’ before he bursts into flames. There’s a gay couple in the film, but you don’t find out about until one of them dies, fair play to the film, is a good way of bypassing the need to have sexuality define a person. Some context could’ve added weight to the death scene which is never brought up again, even just personal things like Oram making an off-hand mention about meeting the devil as a child never has any pay-off despite the potential for some solid character development. Lastly while I don’t agree with the criticism that this crew is just as dumb as Prometheus’ – I think the inclusion of nearly everyone on the crew being married to someone else puts in a strong personal element that put people under pressure where they made rash but understandable decisions – there are still dumb choices being made including what is possibly the dumbest decision in the Alien-verse since Paul Reiser.

Waterston – who’s just been exploding lately – is on fine form as Daniels, the loss of her husband puts her in a bad place right at the start of the film, but she understands she has a job to do and the safety of the colonists is paramount. She’s a great Ripley substitute and there are shades of the same character in both of them, both hold positions of power, but aren’t in direct leadership, both look out for their respective crews before all else, both are brave when called for but scared shitless when facing certain death. What sets them apart is that Daniels is in a much rougher place than Ripley and her fight against the Alien feel more like fighting against all the shit the world is throwing at her opposed to Ripley’s sheer survival instincts. Waterston is solid in the role, maybe a tad closer to what came before, but she’s still a fine lead for the film.

Oram is clearly in no position to lead because his faith distracts him from making rational decisions. Oram is a man with a lot of baggage, he wants to be a leader but he can’t get the crew to listen to him which knocks him down every time, but he still tries even when he shouldn’t. It’s a tough position to be put in and Crudup showcases the torment that a man like that goes through, especially when its his decisions that start getting people killed. Faith has been touched on before in the series but Oram’s struggle with faith directly juxtaposes Shaw’s acceptance in Prometheus leading the film down a new angle for how to approach the subject matter.

Danny McBride manages a surprisingly straight-laced performance as Tennessee, the ship’s captain, he has a couple funny moments but on the whole this is a very serious turn for McBride who does some actually fine work as the character. His worry over his wife and willingness to step into danger weren’t always the best ideas, but he had the guts to make that step and see where it took him and he ended up being one of the better parts of the film. I’ve enjoyed McBride’s comedy moments – he made This Is The End for me – but if this is a hint of things to come I’m ok with it.

The absolute standout though is Fassbender in the dual roles of Walter and David and managing to make them both their own creation even when acting opposite himself. Walter, being the more streamlined and controllable model, has a rougher voice and more stoic attitude but small flashes of humanity comes through when with the crew showing a growing care for them. It’s something he never thinks about until he meets David, but where David’s ideas of emotions are more complicated and dangerous, Walter sees it as his duty to protect the crew, whether out of programming or genuine care doesn’t matter to him. David conversely is a much more interesting creature, building off his growth from Prometheus,. David has spent the last ten years experimenting with the biological weapons found in the Engineers’ tomb and as a result has found the building blocks for something truly terrifying. It’s chilling how almost human David really is but never quite getting it right, he understands the emotional response, but doesn’t quite know how to process it which is what makes him so dangerous in the second half of the film. Both are great performances and Fassbender does some of the franchises best work when he has the two of them put together to theorize about the nature of their existence.

Ridley Scott is back in the directing chair and while Prometheus might not have been the best step, seeing him back for a return-to-basics entry is a great sight. The stronger elements of horror keep the film in line with the original Alien, but with a far grizzlier heart. I was not expecting how intense this film would get, admittedly nothing as iconic as the chestburster, but when you’ve got backburster and throatbursters, it’s hard not to enjoy what’s on show and that’s just in the first 40 minutes. The inclusion of the much more primal neomorph is a great showing of the origins of the xenomorph and how they began before becoming the perfect organisms. It’s a lot more in-your-face than the original film which I can definitely see turning a lot of hardcore fans away, the horror isn’t a slow-burn dread of knowing something’s about the happen but not knowing when, rather it’s about knowing something’s about to happen and waiting to see what it is. There’s plenty of tension, but it’s far more of a spectacle than I think some people would like, the grizzliness might be seen as gratuitous by some.

What keeps the film from being just a flash-in-the-pan Alien flick is how it finds it’s place in the mythos. I don’t know how much I can say before verging on spoilers but the prime catalyst for the series going forward is David’s motivations and how they tie back to Prometheus, while simultaneously hinting forward toward the first Alien. For anyone going into this movie hoping that it’ll answer all the questions Prometheus ignored I’d say lower your expectations, it touches on some of them and aren’t all given the same focus, but the themes of purpose and place in the universe. The fight between creator and creation are all brought back and touched on in great detail here. Theologically alone there’s enough to guide the next Alien film.

I really liked Alien: Covenant, putting it all out there I can see a few people not liking it as much, if you had a problem with Prometheus this doesn’t fix all of them, but it might fix enough for you to enjoy the film as it’s own creature. As a return to form for the franchise, it’s a welcome sight, turning into the best the franchise has had since 1986. Overall, I’m very happy to see this franchise back to its dark and violent roots.

I am giving Alien: Covenant a 4 out of 5 hairpieces


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