It’s been several years since Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, a film that deserved more critical praise than it received upon arrival. Marketed as an attempt to lay the groundwork for what would ultimately become the prequel series to the wildly successful Alien and Aliens, Scott’s return to the series he created and then abandoned delivered a story that was not as concerned with its predecessors as some would have liked; rather than jump right into telling the story of how the xenomorphs came to be, he began laying the groundwork for something else entirely. Pivoting away from the horror and action themes that made the original films so popular, Prometheus instead delved into mythology and the origins of humanity, asking and raising many more questions than it answered by the time the credits began rolling. Some were swept away by the tense music, haunting visuals and attempt to breathe back life into an otherwise dead series. Others found themselves disappointed and angered by the gaps left unfilled and questions left unanswered.
Enter Alien: Covenant, a film that manages to find a happy medium between the grand themes of Prometheus and the outright horror of Alien. Where its predecessor made constant strides to distinguish itself from its source material, Covenant attempts to build a bridge to connect the two, laying the groundwork for Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley to go head to head with the Queen Alien many years later.
Named for the ship our protagonists find themselves on, our story begins with a tragedy; a sudden neutrino burst has damaged the ship and killed a group of those in stasis onboard, including the ship’s captain (a blink and you’ll miss it cameo by James Franco). His wife Daniels (Katherine Waterston) is left heartbroken, but commits to the idea of continuing on to build the life she and her husband envisioned on a new planet, Origae-6. This all changes when the newly anointed captain, Oram (Billy Crudup, who is having quite the resurgence with Jackie and 20th Century Women last year) decides to answer a distress call from a nearby planet, which just so happens to be perfect for human inhabitation. Daniels pleads with him to stick to the original plan, but like countless men before him, Oram can’t bring himself to listen to the woman on the other side of the table.
Upon arrival, two crew members foolishly step on dark pods that spew a familiar, black substance that enters their ear canals… I’m sure you can guess where this is going. They have just enough time to discover the abandoned Engineer ship that David (Michael Fassbender) and Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace) hijacked at the end of Prometheus in their quest to find out why the Engineers wanted to destroy the life they created before things go to shit, and this is where Covenant is at its strongest. The scene where the newly created Neomorph (a lesser, more feral version of the xenomorphs we’ve all come to be familiar with) is absolutely terrifying and disorienting. With the series depending on familiar story beats (stupid humans and predatory aliens) it’s nice to see Scott can still find new ways to make us squirm in our seats.
After losing several of their mates to the aliens and their way off of the planet, the remaining crew is saved by a masked figure, who ends up being David. He takes them back to a deserted castle of sorts, where the streets are filled with hollowed out, blackened corpses. And while our protagonists aren’t familiar with how twisted he is, the audience is. Soon it becomes clear that David is not just the reason why the planet is so deserted, but why the aliens exist at all. In fact, he’s been breeding and experimenting with the black goo discovered in Prometheus to engineer the perfect specimen, and what better way to do that than with some trusting and isolated hosts. What ensues is more or less a rehash of Scott’s original Alien, which manages to be no more and no less thrilling than that description. The ending, however, provides a maddening twist that was done less effectively in the Jake Gyllenhaal/Ryan Reynolds space-thriller Life earlier this year, paving the way for another sequel. Waterston, an actress who has been on the verge of a huge break for awhile now, is solid as the “final girl,” and a great audience stand in. She doesn’t attempt to riff off of Sigourney Weaver’s iconic performances as Ripley, but she seems much more at home here than Rapace did as Shaw in Prometheus. She’s vulnerable but resourceful; you really buy her character’s minor arc from grieving widow to sci-fi heroine.
But the true standout of this film is, once again, Fassbender who is pulling double duty here as David and newly created android Walter (a watered down, less emotive version of David). The actor’s mastery of mannerisms and accents really sells the differences between these two identical robots. His work as David is terrifying, highlighting the dark side of creativity and intelligence. I thought he was Oscar-worthy in Prometheus, but he really amps up the darkness of his character in a way that makes the film entirely watchable, even when you may start feeling tempted to check the clock.
If the film has a glaring fault, however, it’s its utter disinterest in its characters, not that they are “stupid” as some reviewers have complained (in what horror/thriller movie in the existence of filmmaking has there been a cast of “intelligent” characters?). The concept of the main crew being comprised of couples added a fascinating twist that could have given the actors more to play with, something that was apparently featured more heavily in promotional material leading up to the film. It would have truly benefitted the film to have it featured in the final cut, however, and I wonder if a director’s cut exists; there’s way too many loose ends here that don’t feel deliberate, but rather through the fault of editing. Crudup’s character specifically needed to be fleshed out more; a captain struggling with his faith in the fact of doom and death would have been great for the actor. Similarly, Waterston grappling with the utter demise of her marriage and the dream she and her husband built together would have been catnip for the actress. Fassbender makes such a large impression because the film is so much more interested in David; he is the sun, and everything else gravitates around him. The supporting cast boasts big names like Carmen Egojo, Damián Bichir and Jussie Smollett, but is more or less forgettable (through no fault of their own), save for Danny McBride who is amusing as the pilot “Tennessee.” I imagine what this film could have been had it devoted more time to exploring the dynamic of this crew and fully utilizing the abilities of this cast of very talented actors.
But overall, Covenant is worth seeing flaws and all. Some may be turned off by the refusal of Scott to let this story die a peaceful death, but I for one remain fascinated. In an era of sequels rehashing plots but simply switching up the location and characters, Scott is doing something different. Sure, some of the story beats remain the same, but giving your film over to the antagonist in the way Scott has done with these quasi-prequels has highlighted the element of the Alien films that work the best: the aliens. Giving us a peak behind the curtain and showing us their creation may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but outside of Ellen Ripley, what other characters from this franchise were truly memorable? In Fassbender’s David, Scott has found a conduit to give viewers gruesome thrills, chilling tension, big ideas that make you think while subverting elements that he helped instill in the genre. How many big budget blockbusters can say the same? That alone is worth the price of admission.