After the Covenant, a colony ship with a cargo of 2,000 people in cryosleep and a cache of frozen embryos bound for a distant planet, encounters a solar flare the crew are awoken by ship synthetic Walter (Michael Fassbender) as part of an emergency protocol to deal with the damage. Shortly afterwards the ship stumbles upon a signal from a nearby habitable Earth like planet. Despite the protestations of Daniels (Katherine Waterson), this films Ripley character more on her later, Oram (Billy Crudup) ,acting ships captain and out of his depth after the ships captain was burned alive due to a cryopod failure, decides the Covenant should go investigate the newly discovered planet as a potential colony site.
Whilst Ridley Scott’s Alien was an atmospheric sci-fi horror venture, followed by James Cameron’s sci-fi action opus Aliens, this latest entry in the Alien franchise is a brooding gothic drama with some crudely bolted on Aliens action.
Alien Covenant is a profoundly frustrating affair. It might be called Alien Covenant but it’s undeniably a Prometheus sequel. Whilst Ridley Scott might be able to frame a good shot, things look pretty great throughout, the script from John Logan and Dante Harper is insultingly dumb in places. The crew of the Covenant actually make the crew of the Prometheus seem really intelligent. Which is saying something.
Prometheus was a distinctly flawed attempt to explain the origins of the ship (and the xenomorph) first encountered by the crew of the Nostromo on LV-426 in the original Alien film. One of the best parts of that film was the mystery of it and Prometheus (and Alien Covenant) demonstrate the danger of pulling back the curtain.
Prometheus introduced the Engineers, a race of giant humanoids that apparently created the human race, along with a deadly pathogen kept on the planet the crew of the Prometheus find. They are also the owners of that strangely shaped ship found by the crew of the Nostromo. Prometheus ended with the severely damaged synthetic David (Michael Fassbender) and last survivor of the Prometheus scientist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) heading out into the stars to find the Engineers homeworld looking for answers.
Anyone expecting any of those answers here will only be disappointed.
One of the most laughable aspects of Alien Covenant is that none of the events that happen would’ve happened if the crew of the Covenant actually remembered to wear space suits when going to explore a planet they have only just discovered. That a crew of people so spectacularly dumb are actually in charge of a colony ship, one with a cargo of 2,000 people in cryosleep, says something about how easy it must be to get a job as crew on a space ship with the responsibility of establishing a new colony for humanity.
This is just part of why Alien Covenant is so maddening and frustrating.
Another big part is these characters are utterly forgettable and also pretty unbelievable as actual people, that whole ‘truckers in space’ dialogue thing that worked so well in Ridley Scott’s Alien? There’s not really any of that here.
There are three characters in this film that are in anyway interesting and two of them are played by the same actor. Michael Fassbender is, unsurprisingly, great playing the synthetic David (last seen in Prometheus) and Walter the synthetic who is part of the Covenant’s crew. The other character worth caring about is Danny McBride’s Tennessee, the stetson wearing, grizzled and rebellious member of the Covenant’s crew.
The landing squad from the Covenant soon find out to their horror that their new Eden is anything but as they discover David, stranded on the planet for a decade, has been busy playing god and wants to share his creations. David also reveals, after initially saying it was accident, that upon arrival at the planet, apparently the Engineers home world, he killed them all with the deadly pathogen last seen in Prometheus. The Engineers calcified bodies, frozen screaming out in anguish, now litter the area around where he lives.
Whilst this definitely sets a tone, it also means that the Engineers were only living in that one place on the planet that David now resides. Otherwise they would have undoubtedly retaliated in the years before the Covenant shows up. But in order for the first Alien film to happen there has to be an Engineer ship on LV-426 for the crew of the Nostromo to find, and it has to (in theory) have an Engineer on it in order for the ‘space jockey’ to be found along with the eggs. Unless David is the ‘space jockey’ but that would mean he was somehow infected by a facehugger, which doesn’t really make sense since he’s synthetic not organic. A parasite can’t survive without a host to feed off.
Fassbender basically carries this film, the interaction between David and Walter, an upgraded newer model of synthetic, is the best thing about this rather sorry mess.
Those questions you have about the Engineers, who are they, why did they create humanity, why did they create the deadly pathogen, why are their ships such a weird shape? Yeah, you’re not getting those answers here. The Engineers are it seems just a footnote in this story which establishes David as a Victor Frankenstein figure who created the xenomorph after years of experimenting with the pathogen on different organisms, and apparently just waiting for some humans to respond to his signal so he could have one of his facehuggers infect them and give birth to the first xenomorph. Which is exactly what happens.
That it happens in such a laughable way is just par for the course here, Oram, having just been given a guided tour of David’s creepy laboratory full of specimens he’s created with the Engineers pathogen, helpfully sticks his dumb face over an alien egg as it hatches.
The only thing resembling answers here are the indications that David decided to infect the crew of the Prometheus on his own, Walter makes a point of saying later models were changed because they were too human. As David says at one point “Idle hands are the Devil’s play thing”.
If you’re thinking ‘What about the alien queen how does that fit in here?’ Good question. I have no idea. Alien Covenant basically throws everything regarding the xenomorph as featured in Aliens into a woodchipper.
The worst thing about this venture is that Alien Covenant could’ve been considerably better with some competent writing. Having a team of people who fly through space for a living visiting a newly discovered planet who bring weapons in case they face a hostile threat, but don’t have intelligence to think there could be anything harmful in the atmosphere is appallingly sloppy writing. Profound stupidity is a major plot device here, the kind of thing you’d expect in a slasher horror film but without the sense of macabre fun. Unlike in Alien, where the crew are slowly killed by a vicious killing machine unlike anything they’ve ever seen whilst trapped in a claustrophobic environment, or Aliens, where the marines are killed because their superiors underestimate the threat they’re facing, here pretty much everyone dies due to their own stupidity because that’s what the plot demands.
The worst part is this happens in a film which is also trying to be intelligent whilst philosophising about the meaning of existence. There’s a sense that this film really wants to be seen as intelligent science fiction like Arrival but it really isn’t.
The third act is as predictable as it is underwhelming as it basically recycles beats from Aliens badly, but the worst part is you don’t care because the majority of these characters are ciphers, there’s no sense of stakes or dramatic tension Another thing the xenomorph only works when its utilised and shot properly, as seen in Alien and Aliens, which have entirely different approaches that both work brilliantly. Monster movie 101, less is more, a creepy thing hiding in the shadows is far more effective atmospherically than something in plain sight. This is especially true from a visual effects perspective. This film is seemingly entirely reliant on digital effects work for the xenomorphs and everything else and it really shows. The shift away from practical effects really, really stands out and makes me realise that a man in a suit shot the right way still looks better than what’s on offer here.
Oh and one final point, Daniels is Alien Covenant’s Ripley, only without any of the qualities or characterisation that made Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley so memorable. Carrying a gun and shooting at a xenomorph does not make a character interesting, if there’s no work done on building a character before that point then I have no interest in whether they live or die. There’s some weak attempt at portraying Daniels overcoming adversity after her partner the captain dies at the beginning and she ‘pulls herself together’ by the end but, like so much else here, it’s the bare minimum. One of the things that really stands out though is how the default for the Ripley character seems to be casting a white actor. I find it really kind of mind boggling that Alien vs Predator, Paul Andersen’s somewhat unfairly maligned spin off (I think it works pretty well as a polished B movie) is thus far the only film to actually cast someone who isn’t white in the Ripley role – Sanaa Lathan is Alexa in Alien Vs Predator. Viewed through the prism of racial optics that’s pretty appalling really, especially when the usual bullshit excuse ‘POC aren’t marketable’ is irrelevant when a film’s cast is largely unknown and not really used in the marketing anyway.
Alien Covenant is basically just the latest in an unfathomable number of films that connect the dots as to why that Engineer ship was on LV-426 and why it had Alien eggs on it, there will inevitably be another Alien/Prometheus film to continue this saga but will anybody really care??