When I went to the cast and crew screening of ‘Alien: Covenant’ in Sydney, I wondered: what would I say if the film was bad and someone who worked on it asked me what I thought of the finished product? There was free alcohol on offer from 5:30pm to 6pm, so there was a very real possibility somebody might try and make conversation during the inevitable toilet queue. “Sooo, what’d you reckon about the movie?” they might ask, eyes shimmering with pride. Avoiding their gaze, I would reply: “Well... it was better than ‘Prometheus’,” give a reluctant thumbs up, then go and use the toilet in the pub around the corner.
The thing is... while ‘Alien: Covenant’ really is better than the flabby, confusing and boring ‘Prometheus’, it’s still a sub-par science fiction effort from director Ridley Scott (‘The Martian’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘American Gangster’).
This film is a sequel to that disappointing prequel, which Scott directed in 2012 and was supposedly setting up the events of his original 1979 film, ‘Alien’. A prologue reintroduces the android David (Michael Fassbender, 'Assassin's Creed', 'The Light Between Oceans', 'X-Men: Apocalypse'), whose severed head was one of Prometheus’s few survivors, whom we see talking to his creator Weyland (Guy Pearce, 'Holding The Man', 'The Rover') in flashback. David pours Weyland some tea.
As the audience reels from the portentous implications of this tea-pouring, the story cuts to December 5, 2104 (10 years after the events of ‘Prometheus’) and the Covenant itself, a colonist ship (complete with nifty solar sail) bearing a sleeping cargo towards a habitable planet. We are introduced to Walter (Fassbender again but with a ropey American accent), a newer, safer android model whose programming has been stripped of the impulses to create and experiment that made David so creepy.
A freak electrical storm awakens the rest of the crew prematurely from their artificial hibernation. Walter’s human crewmates include the ship’s devoutly religious captain Oram (Billy Crudup, 'Jackie'), Daniels (Katherine Waterston, 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them', 'Inherent Vice'), the cautious second-in-command, and Tennessee (Danny McBride, 'This Is The End'), who wears a cowboy hat.
When a strange radio communication is picked up that sounds like John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’, a week-long detour is made to investigate, leading to a lush, alpine (yet strangely empty) mountain-scape. An initial reconnaissance mission on the planet is launched and, well, you can guess how it goes...
There is some enjoyment in how the film initially unfolds and for forty minutes it is great at gradually building the suspense. Then the first xenomorph bursts out from between some luckless sod’s shoulder blades in a shower of tomato sauce, and the IQ of all the characters takes a huge dive that never recovers.
Did you think characters made really stupid decisions in ‘Prometheus’? Prepare to triple down in ‘Alien: Covenant’. Things like not being able to shoot monsters at point-blank range with a shotgun, people exploring a potentially hazardous uncharted planet with no protective gear (no helmets, just hats with ear flaps), the villain leaving elaborately drawn incriminating evidence lying around in the open, characters letting the bad guy finish a monologue, and people separating from the safety of the main group to take a wizz or wash their hands.
Without getting into spoiler territory, there is also a sudden diffusion of tension and a massive amount of predictability to the film once the reconnaissance team meet up with a certain character from ‘Prometheus’. All of [redacted]’s motivations and moves are heavily telegraphed by a clumsy script from screenwriters John Logan (‘Gladiator’, ‘Skyfall’) and Dante Harper.
Did you think characters made really stupid decisions in ‘Prometheus’? Prepare to triple down in ‘Alien: Covenant’.
Did you watch that teaser trailer featuring David and Elizabeth Shaw? It’s a huge spoiler regarding the eventual fate of Shaw and the Engineer’s alien race (and David’s role in both). The film actually treats it as a startling revelation and it might be... if you haven’t seen this piece of advertising for the film.
On that subject, a lot of the clips in the film’s trailers had the lazy feel of fan-service, and I was worried that it would heavily imitate the original ‘Alien’. Instead, Ridley Scott homages James Cameron’s superior ‘Aliens’ (1986) throughout, with a dropship plummet, Ripley-ish hero, Vietnam War allegories, machinery versus xenomorph action and hijinks in the cargo bay. Strangely, the film also seems to reheat garbage like ‘Alien vs Predator: Requiem’ (2007) with the frequent explosions of gore and a dumb sex-in-a-steamy-shower killing. Stranger still, Ridley Scott basically compresses the entirety of ‘Alien’ into the last ten minutes of the film, as Daniels and Tennessee play cat-and-mouse with a xenomorph aboard The Covenant, complete with bleeping motion detector. The ending also riffs on Christian Alvart’s underrated cult sci-fi film ‘Pandorum’.
On the acting front, Katherine Waterson does her usual unhappy, dewy-eyed thing in Ripley cosplay. Comedic actor Danny McBride plays effectively against type as a boring guy with a cool hat and no other discernible characteristics. James Franco plays a larger role in the teaser trailer than his tiny cameo at the start of the film. A fine cast of actors, including Billy Crudup, Demián Bichir, Jussie Smollett and Callie Hernandez, are criminally wasted as under-written, featureless xenomorph chow. Considering the ship’s crew is composed of married couples, there should be an intriguing dynamic as they are slowly picked-off. There isn’t.
But, hey, it’s not all bad. Jed Kurzel’s consistently electrifying score even weaves in some pensive flutework in the classic John Williams style and themes of Jerry Goldsmith's original score to ‘Alien’ are also incorporated. The film looks amazing; the futuristic technology and sets are incredibly detailed, the alien planet is impressively vast and a set piece that recalls the stone people of Pompeii is suitably epic.
As has been the case since ‘Alien 3’ (1992), the xenomorph here is a computer-generated construct (Javier Botet provides the motion capture). When the creature isn’t moving, it’s fine. When it springs into action, it is rubbery, weightless, unconvincing, dumb-looking and frankly unnecessary. It makes the viewer yearn for a return to practical effects and the less-is-more minimalism of the earlier films. Unfortunately, on the whole, the same can be said about ‘Alien: Covenant’.
It’s still better than ‘Prometheus’, though.