Alien: Covenant

US| 2017 | Directed by Ridley Scott

Logline: The crew of a colonisation expedition land on a seemingly perfect paradise only to discover the sole survivor of an earlier doomed expedition, and monstrous predators. 

Ridley Scott initially talked up his return to the Alien franchise by describing Prometheus as going to be “really tough, really nasty”, and that he would be dealing with dark side of the moon, with gods and engineers. Essentially he was juggling with age-old concepts grappling with the power of creation; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein thrown into the deep dark cosmos where the tendrils of Greek mythology and humanity wrestle for eternity, or damnation. 

Prometheus polarised audiences and critics. For many hardcore science fiction movie lovers it was the biggest disappointment ever, for other passionate followers of cinema it was an amazingly rich and atmospheric nightmare. For all its flaws in the screenplay department, much of which comes down to Ridley Scott’s attempt to fuse elements of numerous story threads, and in the process creating something that tries too hard to explain and in the process turns plausibility on its head, and throws valuable dread and mystique out the cabin window. 

If Jon Spaihts original screenplay (before Damon Lindelof was brought in) had been the one that was filmed, I think Prometheus would’ve been a far more interesting and awe-inspiring movie, but it probably wouldn’t have lead to Covenant. So, we find ourselves with a sequel to Prometheus that is bringing us closer to the original Alien movie. Prometheus was set in 2093, Covenant takes place in 2104. Alien takes place in 2127. According to Scott, the next movie, Alien: Awakening, will be a sequel to Prometheus, but a prequel to Covenant, and that it will be part of a trilogy (or the precursor to a trilogy) of further Alien movies he wishes to make (should Covenant and Awakening perform well). At some point one of these movies is supposedly going to dovetail into the beginning of Alien, where the crew of USCSS Nostromo discover a derelict spacecraft belonging to the engineers (a.k.a. the space jockey) on an inhospitable moon known as LV-426. But, I digress … 

The crew of Covenant are couples on an expedition to a planet with the intention of terra-forming and colonising. They are joined by Walter (Michael Fassbender), a newer version of the android David (also played by Fassbender) who accompanied the crew of Prometheus, and whom ended up decapitated and in the care of Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) on her ambitious quest to find the home planet of the engineers at the helm of one of their spacecraft. 

A signal from another, previously undiscovered planet, lures the Covenant to make an unscheduledvisit to this apparently pristine world, which would save them another six months in cryosleep. Oram (Billy Crudup), the First Mate turned Captain, makes the decision, much to terraforming expert Daniels’ (Katherine Waterston) dismay. She’s already emotionally devastated, but she’ll need to pull herself together. 

The mountainous geography of the planet is stunning, but it’s eerily silent. No birds, no critters. Instead, the reccy group discover the wreck of the craft which Shaw and David traveled in, and Shaw’s dog tags. There’s something strange, something ominous in the air. 

What is inherent about Covenant, and to a lesser degree Prometheus, is that it lacks any real intrigue, except for the flashbacks in which we see David, aboard the engineers’ spacecraft, making a dramatic entry over the massive central plaza of the engineers’ city. This lack of intrigue won’t be pronounced at all for anyone watching the movie who hasn’t seen any of the other Alien movies, but, seriously, will there be anyone in the audience who hasn’t seen, at least, Alien and Aliens??

Covenant is a hybrid - a xenomorph - if you’ll allow the analogy; taking the successful elements of Alien, Aliens, and Prometheus, and stirring the pot of extraterrestrial stew fast and furious. There’s the nightmarish claustrophobia and suspense of the first movie, the action-orientated military shoot -em up of the original sequel, and elements of the prequel’s intrigue and mystery. But, and herein lies the alien rub, Alien worked a dark treat because back in 1979, no one had seen a movie like it, and, let’s face it, there won’t be another of its kind (an elaborate, arty b-movie space horror) ever again. Aliens worked well (at the time, but much of it has dated) as a spectacular and visceral action-horror, of which there was very little that could compete with it. 

The ideas thrown up in Prometheus have both fascinated and infuriated fans of the original movies.  Everyone has an opinion about why it failed, or why it didn’t work properly, and already the critics have been carving up Covenant in similar, if perhaps, slightly less vitriolic fashion. There are implausibilities, for sure. Characters do stupid things, a central character survives an obviously fatal injury, an android somehow manages to remain active despite no maintenance for ten years, it’s ridiculous, yes. But, if we tear a movie to shreds, and most movies can have strip torn off them if we look to do it, then we ruin the cinematic glory they might possess. Alien: Covenant is awesome cinema. 

Ridley Scott is 79-years-old, and, one can argue, he doesn’t seem to know the best draft from the less-than-best draft. But keep in mind, the contemporary Hollywood protocol for a big-budget movie like this is nothing like what Scott worked with when he made Alien. That amazing naturalism he elicited from his cast back in ’79 never extended into any of the sequels, or even his own prequels, nor was that industrial grime that gave Alien such authenticity. Covenant is forced to play fast, but it’s not even as hard as Scott promised to all the hardcore horror fans of the original movie. Sure, it’s violent and there is some gore, but the overwhelming Lovecraftian horror and dread is noticeably, and depressingly absent. 

And, once again, therein lies the alien rub. As visually stunning - the cinematography and production design is beautiful - as Scott makes these new movies in the franchise, they will never re-capture that pure, unadulterated sense of cosmic, otherworldly horror as Alien did, and still does (if you’re lucky enough to watch it for the first time without having seen any of the other movies, and man, I envy that rare person). But all the familiarity and inevitable CGI aside, Scott makes a darn fine contemporary science fiction horror movie regardless. I look forward to the director’s, or extended cut, of Covenant, as I’m sure there will be one. And bring on Awakening. I’m not about to break my loyalty to this franchise, even if I do appear somewhat disappointed.