Prometheus divided fans of the Alien franchise because of its notorious lack of “xenomorphs,” the iconic, penis-headed movie monsters that we first encountered in 1979’s Alien. But the prequel’s fatal flaw was a lack of focus. Was it an Alien movie? Something else entirely? The film had big ideas and profound questions, but the spotty execution rendered them meaningless.
Alien: Covenant suffers from a similar problem. It tries to be both a sequel to Prometheus and a pure Alien movie, failing at both. There are aspects to enjoy, including Ridley Scott’s amazingly beautiful but dark vision of the future and a stellar performance from Michael Fassbender. However, the film’s greatest crime is an utter lack of tension and focus. The mixed bag narrative takes away any urgency as the film tries to be everything at once.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
The colony ship Covenant is on its way to a brand new world with more than two thousand souls. The crew, including religious Captain Oram (Billy Crudup), terraformer Daniels (Katherine Waterston), pilot Tennessee (Danny McBride) and android Walter (Michael Fassbender), receives a transmission from an even better world. They head to the source, where they discover the lone survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition, David (Michael Fassbender) and a world full of dangerous creatures.
The first half of Covenant is nicely executed by Scott and his cast, creating a mysterious atmosphere. Once again, Scott creates a dark but visually striking world. The colony ship has a similar design to the Nostromo from the original film, but slightly updated. Thankfully, this isn’t the overly advanced ship from Prometheus. There are several callbacks to both Alien and Aliens in both set design and costuming, creating a much more natural linkage to those films.
But Scott’s crowning achievement is the dark world the crew finds on David’s new home. It’s a beautiful forest-scape contrasted with the unnatural biomechanical halls of the Engineers. Scott has always shot darkness beautifully and it’s everywhere in this film. From the Engineer’s ship to the long dead Engineer city, the characters (and the audience) are forced to confront their fear of the dark.
Michael Fassbender (who gets top billing in the credits…I’ll discuss this more later) is having a ball as both David and new android Walter. As the latter, Fassbender is almost childlike in his naiveté about duty. But it’s incredibly endearing, and makes you root for him. That and Fassbender’s American accent are charmingly goofy.
As David, Fassbender not only chews the scenery, he takes huge chomps into it. It’s fun to watch, though, adding some dark humor to the film. Fassbender has several scenes where David and Walter muse on humanity, and they are truly compelling to watch. Their relationship goes to some very weird places, but the good outweighs them.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid, though the focus on their development is strange. Those of you worried about Waterston’s Daniels becoming a Ripley clone can rest easy as she is definitely not that. She isn’t terrible, but Covenant barely develops her. She has a pretty powerful moment early in the film, but becomes a bit one-note as the story unfolds.
On the other hand, Danny McBride surprisingly stands out as Tennessee. Yes, the normally comic actor has some funny moments, but those don’t occur very often. He is great in the character’s heavier scenes. The criminally underrated Billy Crudup is also very good as the insecure Oram, a man who wants the respect of his crew but lacks the confidence to truly grasp the role.
There is one notable gripe about Oram. As this film’s “man of faith,” he is forced to spout some pretty terrible dialogue. It’s very obvious that his faith is basically a plot point, a reason for Scott to muse on creation and faith. I have known many people of faith and none of them speak like Oram. Despite Crudup’s strong performance, it never feels authentic.
This is just the start of Covenant’s problems. Characters become less important as Scott begins to tackle his big ideas.
A Second Half of Cliches
The rest of the cast is full of disposable fodder for the monsters in the movie. The tired “I’m going for a break” cliche is used too often, conveying the death of many minor characters. There are too many people to keep track of and the focus on each is inconsistent. In one strange instance, the film repeatedly shows the body of a minor character. It’s done for pure shock value…the character has so little screen time that I couldn’t even remember their name.
And that is the chief crime of this film. Tension is completely absent in this film due to these horror cliches and an increasingly ridiculous second half. Characters stupidly head to their gory deaths. The action ramps up in an over-the-top way as the strong build up from the first half is discarded. We get an exciting sequence involving Daniels hanging from a cord on a ship that wears out its welcome. There’s android kung fu. And finally, there’s a tacked on extra ending with a telegraphed twist. It’s a jarring switch in tone that never entirely works.
The return of the legendary xenomorphs is a bit of a mixed bag. While it’s great to see them back on screen, they are almost completely CGI. They don’t move or act in the same way as the original creature from Alien, removing some of their mystery. The new alien POV (or as I call it, Foreskin Vision…if you understand that reference you’re my new best friend) is an interesting new visual though. The new creatures, the white, twitchy neomorphs, are actually more fascinating because they bring a new dimension to the lore. Plus, the CGI suits them better.
In general, the whole second half feels shoehorned in, as though Scott made a compromise to add the legendary creature to his original narrative. Remember, Michael Fassbender is given top billing. Both David and Walter consistently work due to the attention and care given to their scenes. It appears as though Scott originally wanted this to be Fassbender’s film, and while it still is in many ways, the piecemeal story line is obvious. Lastly, the film does offer up some answers to the origins of the xenomorph…answers that not all fans will enjoy.
An Intriguing Misfire
With all of Covenant’s issues, there is just enough to say it’s worth checking out on a matinee or a lazy Sunday afternoon. Scott introduces some intriguing ideas despite this mess of a film. I’m genuinely curious to see where he brings this franchise. But it’s not a “highly anticipating” type of curiosity. It’s more of a morbid curiosity to see if the talented Scott can pull this one off.
SCORE: 5 OUT OF 10