We review Alien: Covenant
I may personally be one of the only enthused fans of Ridley Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus, but I am not the only person who is going to be disappointed by Scott’s follow-up film Alien: Covenant, the sixth film in the Alien series (although it may be the eighth, if you count the Alien vs. Predator movies, which Scott certainly doesn’t), and a second prequel to the 1979 original. In Alien: Covenant, Scott eschews the “big ideas” of Prometheus, choosing to return to a more rote, dull thriller structure wherein a bunch of plucky astronauts – led by a pale, wispy brunette – are chewed up, one by one, by numerous creepy critters, some of which eat them from the inside out. Covenant, in re-adopting the ages-old structure of the original, plays like one of the many, many Alien rip-off flicks – common throughout the 1980s and 1990s – than it does a genuine sequel. Or prequel as the case may be.
It’s odd that Scott should make such an uncreative turn with this series. In Prometheus, Scott clearly sought to deepen the mystery of the creatures from his original film, explaining that the now-famous xenomorphs were indeed genetically constructed weapons made by a mysterious race of pale alien giants who had previously created – and now seek to wipe out – all humankind. The film was canny about explaining a lot, but raising more mysteries along the way, keeping audiences intrigued. What’s more, Prometheus had a lot of theological underpinnings, that sought to broaden ideas of humanity’s place in the cosmos, and how we may be playthings of superior forces we don’t quite understand.
Alien: Covenant, chronologically, immediately follows Prometheus, this time following a colony ship, the U.S.S. Covenant, as its crew receive a distress call from a nearby inhabitable planet. The humans on board are a who’s-who of recognizable slasher movie archetypes with, I am sad to report, no surfeit of personality. The Last Girl is played by Katherine Waterston, the Cowardly Leader is played by Billy Crudup, the Hayseed is played by Danny McBride, and the rest are all more or less fodder. There are a few conversations out how some of them may be religious people, but none of those conversations play out even thematically, the film quickly becoming a pretty useless thriller before our very eyes. Eventually, and perhaps predictably, creepy critters who will explode from some of their abdomens. The gore is fun, of course, but there are no surprises.
The most interesting character is the a brave android named Walter played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender will also turn up later reprising his role of David, the vaguely villainous android from Prometheus, and the two androids will have some college-dorm-deep conversations about the nature of humanity, and the ethics of playing God. Yes, some of the mysteries from Prometheus will finally be explained, although not in a particularly revelatory way.
The set design in Covenant is first rate, and Scott effectively creates an alien landscape that looks vast, discomfiting, and truly, well, alien. The spaces he creates looks as if humans were never supposed to inhabit it, the background details remaining intriguingly unexplained and unexplainable. The killer monsters are also unique are terrifying, looking like pale, elongated hairless man-gibbons with no facial features. Although not made by H.R. Giger, the designer behind the original creature, these new monsters are no less nightmarish. When the creatures are finally allowed to go hogwild on the bleeding meat hanging off of our lead characters, there is a certain anarchic thrill, of course, but one can’t help but immediately acknowledge that we’re just watching a pretty surface on a limp skeleton.
The structure of the film is especially maddening. The first three quarters of the film play as a protracted thriller we all know, and the final quarter simply repeats the events of Alien in microcosm. Did Scott simply want some nostalgia imagery mixed in?
No matter what audiences thought about Prometheus, one cannot argue that it was unique and ambitious and filled with some interesting questions about the nature of the series. Scott had a lot of questions about God and the creation of humanity, and, however successful it may have been, was trying to expand on something audiences have been familiar with since 1979. This is something not even other films in the series had bothered to do (the invention of the alien queen in Aliens perhaps notwithstanding). It’s baffling and immensely disappointing that Scott would choose to contract his ideas rather than continue to expand. No film in the series so far has felt this useless.
Witney Seibold has been a film critic for nearly 20 years, and is currently the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast on CraveOnline. He also co-hosts the TV podcast Canceled Too Soon. You can contact him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.