Ridley Scott/ UK USA Australia New Zealand/ 2016/ 122 mins
In cinemas nationwide
The latest instalment in the seemingly never-ending Alien franchise, Alien: Covenant, like its (not so) illustrious predecessor Prometheus, attempts to both recreate the key elements that made the first two films so memorable, and include new and unique aspects to differentiate it from the five other Alien adventures (seven if you count the two mediocre Alien Vs Predator detours). Whilst the film partially succeeds on this front, particularly regarding the stand out dual performance of Michael Fassbender, it unfortunately falls into the trap of the majority of the newer elements being infinitely more interesting than the alien itself, with the various visual and narrative nods to the earlier films feeling more forced rather than fan-pleasing.
This time around, we follow the crew of the Covenant, a colony ship travelling to an uninhabited planet with the aim of populating it with two thousand colonists, plus another thousand frozen embryos. When communications receives a mysterious radio transmission from a nearby planet (sound familiar?), ship captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to change course and land on the planet to investigate the source of the signal against the wishes of his second in command Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Upon arriving on the planet, the crew are met by David (Fassbender), the android who survived the events of Prometheus, as well as a familiar chest-bursting creature…
Unlike previous instalments, Covenant is strongest when it deviates from the expected formula expected from an Alien film. The scenes with David and his Covenant counterpart Walter, where the former informs the latter of his plans for humanity, not only allow Fassbender to convey the difference between the more nuanced, ‘human-like’ complex characterisation of David with the more traditionally-robotic nature of Walter; but also provide extra depth to the idea raised in previous films of the xenomorph as a perfect weapon.
Scott’s decision to show the “Engineers” succumbing to a mass xenomorph infestation, as well as earlier, human-sized xenomorph prototypes that can be tamed like animals provide greater scope and characterisation to a creature usually described simply as “a thoughtless killing machine”. However, these moments are briefly shown, only to be quickly discarded for more conventional gory horror and action expected from the Alien series.
The xenomorph attacks themselves are, as in the tradition of the series, well-shot examples of visceral horror. However, they vary between unique sequences and cookie-cutter moments that are overly derivative of the previous films. Scenes showing a xenomorph prototype being tamed by David and an atmospheric shower attack are sandwiched between an over-edited gun battle in the planet’s grasslands and a pale retread of the climax of Aliens, but with less charismatic leads.
The characterisations, as with the other post-Aliens instalments, are the biggest let-down of Covenant. The fourteen-member crew that serve as xenomorph/android fodder are either not provided with the character development needed to be invested in their fates or, as is the case with Waterston’s Daniels, retreads of earlier, more successful characters. Waterston tries her best to invest Daniels with a more emotional vulnerability than Sigourney Weaver‘s Ripley had; but it all comes to nothing when she is expected to imitate Weaver’s action-hero moments in the film’s third act.
Alien: Covenant is a film brimming with interesting concepts that is let down by its need to conform with the rest of the series.