Alien: Covenant (2017)

Directed by Ridley Scott

Contains spoilers.

Over the last couple of decades the Alien franchise, Ridley Scott's sci-fi baby, has been steadily declining. Each successive movie, from Alien: Resurrection to the AvP entries, has gotten steadily worse. Prometheus brought back hope, making the mythos of the Alien universe something mysterious and intriguing. Alien: Covenant officially makes the mythos even more mystifying.

Covenant opens on the USCSS Covenant, midway through it's trip from Earth to Origae-6, a prime candidate for human colonization. On board are more than 2,000 colonists in hypersleep, as well as dozens more embryos in stasis and huge amounts of terraforming equipment, building supplies, and more. The crew of 15, in charge of the trip and watching over the colonists and supplies, are woken from hypersleep early by the mission's synthetic android, Walter, when a nearby stellar anomaly sends a shockwave that devastates the Covenant. In the midst of repairs, one of the crew intercepts a distorted transmission, human in origin, which is then tracked to a nearby planet. Scans indicate that this new planet is already suited for human habitation, with an oxygenated atmosphere, near-Earth-gravity, abundant plant life, and liquid water; as this new candidate is just a few weeks away, compared to the seven years remaining to reach Origae-6, the captain of the Covenant decides to divert and explore the new planet with the possibility of this being the new option of colonization. Most of the crew heads to the surface via a dropship to explore the planet and to trace the transmission back, maybe finding whoever sent it.

Let's start with the bad.

Immediately, with the disaster that wakens the crew, we're met with death and despair. Then we get a little ray of hope which we naturally know to be false because it's an Alien movie. As the story moves along we're met with a new, vibrant, gorgeous planet in which our new adventure takes place, as is the style with Alien films: we always get a new environment, be it a new planet or a new ship or a new colony on an old planet, we always get to explore different worlds. While this new, picturesque environment is a great place to explore, it's not where the story similarities end. It comes as no surprise that we get another heroine with a male supporting cast. The difference with this cast is that each guy takes a turn playing second fiddle. In Alien we had Bishop; in Aliens we had Hicks; in Alien 3 we had Dutton... even in Prometheus we had Fassbender's David and Elba's Janek (as both support and as foils). In Covenant we get a turnstile of Oram, David, Lope, and Tennessee all taking turns to support our heroine, Daniels.

None of these characters are necessarily well-written or consistent. Their logic never makes sense and their characters are unrealistic. In every situation, their decisions are entirely trite, cliché, and unexpectedly expected. Part of what made the start of the franchise so great is that character decisions were consistent and logical. The logical, sensical nature of these decisions and actions are exactly what make the original films so intriguing, because despite the completely sensible courses of action the characters still get bested at every turn by a shadowy, mysterious creature.

That is in stark contrast to Covenant, where character decisions follow every convention of the horror genre and characters are much less characterized than they are exactly what the plot needs them to be at any given moment. Every- and any- thing that happens is less plot-driven and more plot-expected. At one moment a character is weak and full of doubt and the next they're slyly delivering a badass one-liner while leveling an automatic rifle; another character is full of worry and seconds away from jeopardizing the crew and then the next moment he's the most clarified, logical, and dependable teammate. 

As for the deaths, they're more of the same. They'll be beautifully gruesome for sci-fi fans but trite for the Alien fans. Gone is the measured, suspense-building, spine-tingling pace of the first movies where you would hush your breath in case the xenomorphs could hear it through the screen; the only suspense we get is in the quiet, peaceful environment. Covenant has no measure of thrill because each attack moves more quickly; we get clean, unadulterated views of the aliens in bright areas; twists and surprises are made obvious and foreshadowed.

Despite these story, character, and genre faults, the movie is quite pretty. The scenery and the general philosophy is quite something. The CG is by-and-large fantastic, with the space, orbital, and planetary scenery looking incredibly realistic, even if the alien shots are often obviously wrong and out of place. Despite the philosophy following in the footsteps of Prometheus, it's still thought-provoking, even if incredibly narcissistic, often mentioning Wagner, the devil, God, etc.

The sci-fi aspects as a whole are admirable; space travel; human colonization of distant planets; terraforming; synthetic androids potentially replacing humans; bio-engineering; alien species... There's a lot to see and to explore, but Covenant adequately erases any curiosity. Some questions from previous installments are answered but there are just more questions... and worse ones... created by lazy writing.

This is much more in the vein of Aliens, being more of an action movie with horror, suspense, and dramatic aspects. There is suspense in tiny amounts but it's immediately squandered with fast-paced bits of action and lazy dialogue.

 

I think the worst thing about Alien: Covenant is that Ridley Scott is no longer being imaginative. When James Cameron wanted to spend 2 decades just developing the technology needed to produce a series of five films in gorgeous 3D with 99% computer generated effects on screen he just did it. But Scott, despite his renown and enormous critical and commercial success, cares more about how the audience and critics feel and, to disastrous effect, is playing his production utterly safe. He doesn't care about making the movie he wants to make.

Instead of the masterful, groundbreaking cinema that marked the start of his rocketing career, Scott is following the trends of the horror genre to appease audiences. The monster kills people showering. The supposedly logical captain has a breakdown. The wild, unkempt pilot comes to the rescue. The good hero turns out to be an evil genius. When he directed Prometheus, Scott took a huge chance on the story, characters, mythology, philosophy, etc. But it's become abundantly clear with Covenant that Scott is no longer willing to take chances. He instead wants to play it as safe as possible while still trying to tell some semblance of the story he started three decades ago with Lt. Ripley.

Now, none of this is to say that the movie is boring or terrible, because it's not. It's still a fun ride, and the scenarios are interesting to see. Some of the philosophical meandering is even thoughtful. The problem is that it's all wasted. Instead of breaking down barriers and trying something new, telling a new story, Scott tells the same old story with new humans, except that when they finally come up with a plan, everything works out perfectly in well-lit tunnels and then we get to the end, to the supposed-to-be earth-shattering twist ending that, surprise, every single audience member sees coming.

The characters' panic is still adrenaline-fueling; the desperate survival is still intense; the deaths are still gory; the engineers are still intriguing. But that doesn't change the fact that Prometheus' David still kills off an entire civilization of potential intrigue and exploration within 5 minutes of his introduction.

That brings us to Michael Fassbender. He may be the very best thing about this movie. His portrayal of both Walter, the good android, and David, the psychotic android, is absolutely superb. This movie cements, without question, the fact that he is a world-class actor at the top of his form. Walter is an incredibly supportive, loyal android, while David is Walter's gloriously creepy, devilishly underhanded foil. He takes the David character from Prometheus and turns him up to 11, creating enormously subtle but well-groomed and maintained growth and evolution.

There are some good things about the movie, besides Fassbender. There are more primitive, less evolved xenomorphs which care much less about the species' survival and act a bit more like instinctive beasts; Daniels is a proto-Ripley and saves the rest of the crew from mindless stupidity; we really get some explanation of the alien origin.

It's honestly hard to write this. Alien was once the pinnacle of my cinematic experience. The world, mythology, characters, and storytelling are fantastic. Covenant is not. I fully appreciate the exploration of mythology, origin, expansion of the universe, etc; but the story in and of itself and the way in which it's told is an utter disappointment.

The creation of the franchise and it's slow expansion created huge philosophical questions about creation, survival, the one vs the many, extraterrestrial life, our place in the universe, and still managed to be entertaining in the most pulse-pounding, primitively thrilling way. And Alien: Covenant is the first installment that's carried so much potential and, despite so much hard work to appear high-brow, been so... dumb.

Pretty. Fun. Dumb.

 
 

TL;DR: Right when we were about to get some answers, David killed them. Then he narcissistically postulated with Walter and the USCSS Covenant's crew before getting into a hand-to-hand fight. The crew are unwittingly drawn into the same damn scenario we've seen before. Unfortunately, as much as I know that this is a bad movie I'll still end up watching and enjoying it, spouting about how bad it is the entire time. I mean really... no protective clothing on a foreign planet? And then splitting up? And then splitting up again?

  • Acting – 17 / 20
  • Story – 8 / 20
  • Cinematography – 15 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 4 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 5 / 10
  • Sci-Fi/Horror – 6 / 10
  • Other – 4 / 10
 

Grade D = 59 / 100