Director: Ridley Scott
Stars: Katherine Waterston, Michael Fassbender, Billy Crudup
Its time for Ridley Scott to stop. The man’s earned it. Now on the cusp of his 80th birthday, the acclaimed director has shown an admirable and inexhaustible work ethic, but there also comes a time when it’s probably best to step away. At least, from the things that people cherish the most. Word has it that Ridders intends to forge ahead with multiple further entries in the Alien prequel series (when he’s not exec producing a Blade Runner sequel or announcing intentions for Gladiator 2), but Alien Covenant suggests a stubborn blindness in such plans. Perhaps Scott is too close to the material to see when he’s harming it.
The acidic response to 2012’s actually-fine Prometheus informs almost everything that’s wrong with this confused, labored, turgid second prequel; a film that feels so hopelessly indebted to answering that movie’s deliberately open questions that it’ll sacrifice all sense or momentum to do so. There’s a palpable feeling that Covenant is trying to legitimise Prometheus. It goes to questionable lengths to do so.
Ten years after Elizabeth Shaw buzzed off with the decapitated head of David 8 (Michael Fassbender) and we join the crew of the colonisation ship Covenant on their journey through the infinite to establish a new home. A solar flare causes unexpected damage to the vessel leading to the inevitable early wake from hypersleep. During the repairs one of the fifteen-strong crew members intercepts a distress signal. Investigation reveals a planet perfect for their needs and practically on their doorstep. The Covenant changes course…
So far so Alien, albeit for a few tweaks, and Scott glides through this material with steady confidence. There’s little urgency and no cause for alarm; the events themselves are interesting, as are the small but precious character moments that we’re allowed, chiefly with Daniels (the great Katherine Waterston) – a sort of grief-stricken proto-Ripley – and with Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), who might just be the nicest guy in the Alien universe so far (if also the most gullible).
And when things inevitably take a turn on the planet surface, Covenant still holds itself together well. The situations are a break from the established pattern and the speed of escalation is involving and exhilarating. Covenant promises some of the series’ most immediate thrills at this point.
But then, roughly an hour in, an unforeseen character enters the mix and the whole film sits down on its hands. Covenant screeches to a stop as Scott and his writers heave out the exposition manual. Here the film becomes exponentially more ludicrous as remnants of the Prometheus storyline are packed in regardless of how inelegant the fit is. Scott descends the movie into an interminable gloom. The baroque pretentiousness of the entire second act breaks the film’s back. Covenant dies here. Even a homoerotic piccolo scene (yes, really) can’t shake the sensation that all Scott is interested in is excusing what he did last time. It’s a critical drain.
The mire of the plot is only matched by the visual murk we’re presented with. Scott obscures much of the middle of his film in near darkness. This adds a certain atmosphere, sure, perhaps even conjuring remnants of Vincent Ward’s lost monastery concepts for Alien³, but when it comes to scenes of crucial action, the fundamental details get gobbled up. Between the gloom and the frantic editing it becomes incredibly hard to tell what is happening and to whom.
The latter is another sticking point. A few standouts aside, the Covenant’s crew are largely interchangeable and underdeveloped. Daniels aside, the women particularly lose out in this regard. I swear one of them appears for the first time only to add to the body count.
There remains a visceral thrill in seeing H R Giger’s hellish creation return to the cinema screen, and it does, as promised. The third act wakes Covenant from its pompous torpor for a remix of monster-evading escapades previously experienced in the series’ original sequence of films. The best of these scenes see Daniels fending off a xenomorph on the exterior of their escape craft. But a telegraphed final twist in the tale reasserts all of the movie’s problems. What’s more it casts serious doubt on the worth of future installments already in development by the merciless Scott.
What’s particularly frustrating here is the sense that a perfectly workmanlike sci-fi horror about doomed colonists has been brought down by the weight and expectation of folding it into an extant franchise. Convenant could’ve worked pretty well as a standalone feature outside of the Alien canon. It is the moment the film starts trying to torturously weave in the series’ increasingly convoluted narrative that it starts to break down. Prometheus is a millstone around the neck of Covenant and may well continue to be for whatever comes next (and you thought the last movie was maddeningly open-ended…)
Fassbender is icily charismatic in a dual role here and will likely take most of the plaudits for the film, but pushing him to the fore in this manner is an odd choice for Alien and a possibly fatal one. Can you imagine the franchise having made it this far if it were Ian Holm’s Ash who had survived to await James Cameron in hypersleep? Solving the riddle of the xenomorph’s origins has become a bitty, frustrating and cumbersome experience. I’m reminded of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween which diverted ample time to explaining why Michael Myers is the menace that he is, in the process diluting his mystery and leaving the film gaping for someone emotionally satisfying to root for. Scott is doing all the right things to leave us without a reason to care.
Jed Kurzel’s music for Covenant fondly folds in recognisable motifs from both the original Alien and from Prometheus, but fails to add something durable of its own. And that’s Covenant in a nutshell.