By Elias Savada.
Thirty-eight years ago this month, the world experienced a horror like no other. Ridley Scott’s Alien intensely attacked worldwide audiences. No one wanted to swim into the ionosphere. Our species has never been the same. We’ve now survived three sequels and one prequel (2012’s Prometheus) as the man behind this monster franchise (well, for three of the movies) has allowed men in space to show their shared stupidity when dealing with anything of extraterrestrial origin – especially the smarter entities. Haven’t these silly hominids learn from past movies? From Alien, where their unorthodox antics were foiled by a too laid back crew (smoking in space!) and a misaligned synthetic on the damp, oily space freighter Nostromo. Or in James Cameron’s Aliens (still smoking!), the incredible, action-packed sequel of 1986, with an incredibly greedy human (Paul Reiser plays evil so well!) turning the tables on his crew. I just love those films. Alien: Covenant, which lands in the middle on the enjoyability scale for the series, is also the central film in the Prometheus (i.e. Alien-prequel) trilogy dreamed up by Scott. When finished, everything will come full circle. Someday the acid will stop dripping.
For this episode, we have the colony ship U.S.C.S.S. Covenant appending the series title. Obviously, in the future (a.k.a. December 5, 2104), our planet has oodles of money to build incredibly large and sophisticated spaceships. (Is The Wall finished yet?) The current vessel is shepherding over 2,000 deep sleeping colonists (in a twist, most of them in monogamist relationships; some are gay) and half as many embryos. On this seven-plus year journey to earth-like Origae-6, the sole janitor is Walter (Michael Fassbender), a technological upgrade and emotional downgrade to the synthetic human David, first seen in Prometheus. Walter’s only companion is the onboard computer Mother, tomorrow’s souped-up version of Siri.
Sigourney Weaver’s character, the cunning-enough-to-stay-alive Ripley (at least in the series’ first four films), has been retired since 1997. Her current stand-in, Daniels (Katherine Waterston), pales in comparison, despite her spunk in a forced-into-leadership position because of the foolishness of others. Sure, there’s also the various strains of xenomorph and assorted beasties that will greet the unassuming and careless crew as they make a pit stop on this uncharted and unassuming (at first) living planet. They had to visit it – they’d been sent a distress single disguised as a John Denver song. Also, when pieces of dialogue contain the phrases “closer look” and “a monumental risk,” which direction do you think the film will take?
Anyway, the expected descent into horror commences when one of those pesky neutrino power-surge anomalies throws the ship into triage mode. Dozens of sleeping passengers are killed, and the revived skeleton crew is tragically shaken, especially Daniels, whose partner was the dead captain. If you don’t blink, you’ll recognize him as James Franco. His replacement, Oram (Billy Crudup), is an overzealous and overwhelmed fellow who decides to search for the guy singing “Country Road.” No protective gear necessary. Naturally, some of the more foolish crew (whose names won’t be remembered except for Tennessee [Danny McBride], the hick pilot with a cowboy hat) learn that infestation can take several forms. Any nook and cranny is an invitation for the worst. On land, in the air, or in the shower.
This installment’s generally steady story was penned by John Logan (Hugo, The Aviator, Gladiator) and Dante Harper (an editor and post-production supervisor the last 20 years), again based on the characters marvelously created by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett. It moves along well enough as a meet-and-greet effort that finds some old acquaintances the crew would sooner forget. Is it a sci-fi film trademark (or just an Alien thing) that that there’s always some kind of never-ending electric storm that plays havoc on communication between the lander and the mother ship?
Like Prometheus, there’s just too much recycled philosophizing going on when alien hell isn’t breaking loose. In the Ridley Scott universe, mankind could be its own worst enemy, although the drooling critters with those glistening metallic teeth can cause a lot of R-rated, big-screen damage. And that frame is actually nicely filled thanks to director of photography Dariusz Wolski (The Martian, Prometheus, and Scott’s biblical turkey Exodus: Gods and Kings). The evidence of a large, earlier civilization on the planet is horrifying in its own right, with charred bodies making a very large plaza. Think of A-bomb drops during WWII. This people’s backstory will emphasize how maniacal the enemy really is.
Still, when the ship’s lander is put out of commission (hmm, another Aliens redux), the crew has to improvise because this monstrous vessel doesn’t have a second ferry? Too many contrivances at this point have taken away most of my satisfaction with the film.
The film plays like an old fashioned shell game mixed with Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, although it’s pretty obvious who the murderer is here. Stir in a dash of Mary Shelley, in which Fassbender’s dual characters battle good vs. evil in a well-orchestrated fight.
Sadly, Alien: Covenant feels like warmed over gruel. The ending (as expected, you’ll find more than one) won’t provide much closure. Only the next chapter will allow audiences to decide if the wait was worthwhile. In the meantime, Ridley Scott’s passion has left the building.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).