(2017—Director: Ridley Scott)
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
(Potential spoilers below)
2017 marks the fortieth year in the career of celebrated director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, The Martian). Scott at the moment appears to devote the majority of his interests and seasoned talents in returning to the roots of Alien, his 1979 commercial breakthrough, through a more intelligent lens. While this is an admirable venture for sure, the products so far feel more confusing, distant, and derivative rather than exciting and insightful. Such was the case for 2012’s Prometheus (Scott’s first step in spelling out the origins of the ferocious Xenomorph) and it remains the case with Alien: Covenant.
It is 2104. The spaceship Covenant coasts through space to a planet ripe for colonization. Covenant carries around two thousand passengers, one thousand preserved embryos, fifteen crewmen, and one human-like android (“Walter”, played by Michael Fassbender). Unfortunately, a neutrino blast emanating from a nearby unstable star shakes the ship. A handful of Covenant’s inhabitants die in the process, including the still-sleeping captain.
The surviving crew, which includes succeeding captain Oram (Billy Crudup, Spotlight, this year’s Justice League) and the captain’s widow Daniels (Katherine Waterston, Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them), work to repair the ship. While doing so, a brief radio signal reaches the ship and they track its origin to a nearby planet. This planet appears to be as habitable as their original predetermined destination. At this point, the thought of another unexpected collision has left the crew paranoid. Moreover, seven years remain until they arrive at their intended destination. Rather than sleep again, the crew decides to explore the planet.
Looking beyond Alien: Covenant’s polished sci-fi surface to see the classic horror scenario underneath, one thing becomes clear: Trespassing into a monster house usually never bodes well for the trespassers.
On paper, Alien: Covenant keeps director Ridley Scott’s plans of circling back to the original 1979 film moving. It offers three spectacular settings—spaceship interiors, the evergreen forest and waterways, and the large, ghost-like City of the Engineers—all in which the gory, terrifying mayhem ensue. That said, the film aches for a more stable emotional investment in its cast that can give the science more meaning. Michael Fassbender and his fascinating dual performance as “Walter” and “David” (the android from Prometheus) benefits the most from the script. As with James McAvoy in the film Split from earlier this year, it fascinates to watch a single actor give life to many characters in the same film so well. Katherine Waterston (who starred alongside Fassbender in the criminally underrated Steve Jobs) is sturdy as the lead female, and it is always delightful to see a comedian like Danny McBride (This Is the End) go against type. Still, the film cannot afford them more screentime for their performances to leave a true impact. Elsewhere, Billy Crudup’s naïve, gullible, and fideistic captain never becomes someone to root for; he does, however, manage to stand apart from the expendable rest of the cast. Alien: Covenant may avoid repeating the lapses of common sense seen in Prometheus’ characters, but it still has some characters committing typical horror movie mistakes that should continue to leave viewers frustrated.
As a film buff, I often regret that Alien (along with The Godfather and Rocky) did not remain a two-entry franchise. History seems to have judged the films past James Cameron’s 1986 sequel to be unworthy of standing alongside the first two Xenomorph tales. I suspect Ridley Scott is attempting with Prometheus, Covenant, and the inevitable follow-up(s) to rectify the damage the post-Aliens films may or may not have done to the part-sexual, part-violent, ever-fascinating Xenomorph lore. If he is, then he would be wise to go all-out in doing so at once, especially with his 80th birthday approaching. God only knows how much longer Scott can contribute to cinema after that.
(Parents’ Note: Alien: Covenant starts with one character in stasis burning to death in a sleeping pod. Starting from a third of the way into the runtime, the film contains sporadic but intense and bloody maiming scenes. Two characters undergo a brutal and traumatic prototype of the “chestbursting” experience (more like “backbursting”). Another experiences it the more traditional way known to fans of the original 1979 film. Towards the end of the film, a nude couple in a standing shower are initiating the sexual act as an alien sneaks up on them. The camera avoids exposing anything more than backs, sides, and a glimpse of rears. Minutes after they’re attacked, the camera lingers for a moment on the messy aftermath. Expect a large handful of F-words, S-words, and others throughout the runtime, along with a dozen expletives involving “God” and “Jesus”.)