Alien: Covenant Review
Alien: Covenant (2017) Film Review, a movie directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demian Bichir, Carmen Ejogo, Jussie Smollett, Callie Hernandez, Amy Seimetz, Nathanial Dean, Alexander England, Benjamin Rigby, Uli Latukefu, and Tess Haubrich.
For all the popular demand for film properties drenched in nostalgic value that can easily be turned into lasting franchises’, one such series has been conspicuously neglected by audiences. I’m speaking, of course, about Ridley Scott’s Alien, the 70’s science fiction slasher which spawned a number of sequels, spin-offs’, comic tie-ins and fan lore years before the studio execs at Marvel even dreamed of their cinematic universe. Despite the impressive box office performance of Prometheus, the first installment of the franchise’s prequel series, the movie failed to capture the imagination of viewers’ the way the original film and its immediate follow-up Aliens did, with Scott’s world of extraterrestrial engineers, alien abortions, and androids aping Peter O’Toole barely registering on moviegoers’ radar. This is a crying shame not just for Prometheus but for its sequel Alien: Covenant as well, since the recently-released follow-up shows that there is still much to amaze – if not necessarily scare – us in the compelling universe Scott created and his successors James Cameron, David Fincher, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet added to.
Unfortunately, before we get to be amazed, we have to sit through a very dull, very tedious opening third. After a short but effective prologue scene with both Michael Fassbender and Guy Pearce playing young versions of their respective characters from Prometheus sets the contemplative tone of the film, we are then thrust forward to a spacecraft ten years after the events of the previous film. Bound for a remote planet, the Covenant is tasked with transporting 2000 hibernating colonists so they may settle said planet and bring the blessings of civilization to it. As you might imagine, a ship full of people deep in sleep is not the most thrilling thing to watch, with another Fassbender-bot, the American-accented Walter, seeing to the vessel’s maintenance as the actual crew remains in stasis.
The sequence as a whole is so monotonous that even the part that is supposed to be most engaging, the turbulence that occurs when a nearby neutrino burst hits the ship and endangers its passengers, feels lifeless. In a film where phallic-tongued killing machines who bleed acid and impregnate human male and females alike with their ungodly offspring may be lurking just about anywhere, it’s extremely difficult for pretty much anything else to make audiences fear for the safety of its heroes. Some might counter that the first half of the original Alien was slow and low-energy, but such a comparison neglects that the movie’s second half was so quick and so tense that it required a good hour to adequately set up the horror that followed, a luxury that Covenant doesn’t have and, frankly, doesn’t warrant.
This isn’t to imply that the rest of the film is unwatchable: au contraire, things pick up once the crew wakes up and resolves to answer a distress call and find themselves on the planet David and Noomi Rapace‘s Elizabeth Shaw escaped to following the destruction of the Prometheus. Most of the cast turns in suitable, if not particularly memorable performances, but the few who do stand out really shine. Veteran funnyman Danny McBride turns in a surprisingly capable performance as the ship’s chief pilot Tennessee, but it is Fassbender who most comes into his own as both the earnest Walter and the duplicitous David. Coming from very different places and very different mindsets, the two androids give him the opportunity to play different versions of the same basic character interacting with each other, an opportunity that Fassbender uses to explore the existential questions about purpose and duty to others that drive the film and forge the most moving relationship in it.
The most moving moment, however, is certainly the most unexpected one, although David figures equally importantly in it as well. After being deceived by David into looking inside one of the Xenomorph eggs he cultivated, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) is sprung upon by a Facehugger and press-ganged into becoming a surrogate father for the synthetic human’s artificial offspring. Succumbing to the tyranny of the alien reproductive system, Oram belches blood before the baby Xenomorph bursts out of his chest, but not in the ways we’ve seen before. Instead of bombarding the audience with violent cuts and menacing chords, the camera lingers affectionately on the newborn Chestburster as it fights its way out of the captain’s corpse, tenderly cutting between it and an onlooking David as the somber sound of strings swells and a distant piano plays lonely notes. Awed by his creation, the robot raises his arms at the snarling creature and like an infant trying to impress its parent, it does too. Through its various forms and iterations, the Xenomorph has been a source of terror, suspense, and – as those who have seen Resurrection can tell you – even pity, but never before has it served as a source of pure, dare I say, innocent beauty like it does in Covenant.
Covenant, I might add, is not just a random name chosen because it sounds vaguely menacing. Signifying an agreement between the God of the Bible and the ancient Hebrews, the name is apt for a movie in which much of the drama stems from leaders and father figures making or breaking promises to those they are entrusted with guiding. Katherine Waterson’s Dany is determined to keep her promise to her husband, the ship’s first captain, to build a cabin on a lake wherever they settle after he dies in the turbulence at the start of the film and warns his replacement, Crudup’s Oram, against investigating the distress call from David’s planet because it will delay or otherwise derail their mission. Oram, of course, overrules her misgivings and opts to look into the matter, citing their legal responsibility to answer any distress calls they receive. But it is not the faraway bureaucrats who drew up the law Oram references that suffer when his decision proves to be a fatal mistake – it is the hundreds of colonists who have their fates and lives jeopardized when David sneaks onboard and commandeers the vessel.
Ironically though, the maddened robot appears just as – if not more so – committed to keeping the ship’s covenant with its passengers as Oram was, recording one final ship’s log noting that progress continues to be made in the vessel’s search for a home, but not before placing a couple of Xenomorph eggs in the Covenant‘s embryo storage. Indeed, David seems to be the most concerned with honoring his responsibilities to others (at least, those he views himself as having a responsibility to), a characteristic that is amply demonstrated when Oram kills a Neomorph (basically, a pale-skinned proto-Xenomorph) he is trying to communicate with. Upset that the captain shot the beast just as he was about to establish a bond with it, David cries “It trusted me!” To a covenant breaker like Oram, killing a creature after it just established peaceful contact is no big deal, but to a covenant keeper like David, it is a sin punishable by only the worst of deaths.
If you’re expecting a parade of non-stop scares and action, you’re better off popping one of the first two movies into your DVD or Blu-ray player: the only scene that made me jump out of my seat was a character shooting an alien, not anything the aliens actually did. But that’s alright because Scott takes us beyond the simple, scary world of Alien and to a nearby planet with a similar environment but a distinct identity. He plays by the series’ rules but interprets them in fresh ways and makes the franchise feel new again with the film, something that Prometheus, for all its efforts, failed to do. Alien: Covenant cannot – and does not – promise the visceral horror that characterizes its predecessors, but what it can promise is innovation, ingenuity, and heart.
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