Director: Ridley Scott Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride Running Time: 123 minutes
Almost forty years ago now, the minds of Dan O’Bannon and the then up-and-coming director Ridley Scott crossed with the cold and violently Freudian imagery of H.R. Giger and created Alien. A massive hit, Alien took the science-fiction adventure dreams that were launched in viewers two years earlier by Star Wars and curdled them into a nightmare; not an Expanded Universe that invites exploration, but a cruel one that punished hubristic humans who wander where they’re not wanted. Alien‘s success and its iconic imagery made it a no-brainer for franchise material, and after the interpretations of other directors-some welcome, most not-and some regrettable dust-ups with Predators, Scott returned to the space where no one can hear you scream, first with the yes-but-no-but-yes prequel Prometheus and now with the bridge-gapping Alien: Covenant. These latest films may have their faults, quite a few in fact, but at least Scott is back for reasons other than money or brand building, instead using the old world he helped create to explore new ideas. It’s just unfortunate that having ideas at all puts Scott one up on any of the characters in these films, who almost never have two brain cells to rub together.
Covenant makes its importance as a Prometheus follow-up clear from the beginning, starting by focusing on the origins of one of that film’s central characters David, the creep robot played by Michael Fassbender. David was created by a human, but who created the human? And what, if anything can David create? And in each creators case, for what reason? This being the Alien universe, the answers are unlikely to be benevolent. After the cold open’s focus on David’s daddy issues with the entire human race, the film then follows the ship Covenant and its crew, tasked with bringing sleeping colonists from Earth to a new planet. The main crew are awoken prematurely by their own Fassbot Walter after a space storm damages the ship, killing their captain (James Franco in an unusual cameo), leaving his wife and their head terraformer Daniels (Katherine Waterston) bereft and leaving first mate Oram, a man with faith in God but not himself (played by Billy Crudup) in charge.
Maybe Oram is looking for a sign, or maybe he’s looking to assert himself quickly or maybe he suffered a massive concussion during the damage to the ship, but after hearing a radio transmission from a nearby planet he decides immediately to change the Covenant’s course and mission and see if they can’t colonise this closer planet instead. With their survival instincts and professional precautions non-existent, the group that travels down to the planet are sitting ducks for xenomorphs and it seems like the aliens are going to make short work of them all until the intervention of David, robed, long-haired and occupying an ancient city of Prometheus‘ Engineers since he and Noomi Rapace’s Dr. Elizabeth Shaw escaped the end of the previous film. Shaw’s absence and David’s immediate bad vibes and fascination with his Fassbender counterpart Walter should be immediate red flags to Waterston, Crudup and co, but they were already doomed from the minute they answered that radio transmission.
Your interest in Alien: Covenant will be heavily dependent on your interest in robots talking about the nature of creation and humanity. The xenomorphs may have returned, but Ridley Scott has undeniably moved on from them, at worst they’re afterthoughts, but they’re more better described as the tools of the true Alien Scott wants to explore: David. He’s the God to their Monsters and the bogged down mythology about where they came from is in fact not really about them at all. Scott has taken the series’ out of the hands of the American approach of more guns shooting more aliens and steered it back in a more horrific direction. And not just the horror of the 70s but old, old school horror, the Mary Shelley references are no coincidence and the empty Engineer city resembles something from a sci-fi edition of Tales from the Crypt. Fassbender’s melodramatic turn as David has more than a bit of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing to it. It’s creepy and weird and frequently amazing to look at, but inconsistencies let Covenant down. Philosophical ideas are discussed by idiotic characters. Scenes where Fassbender attempts to seduce himself via flute playing are exactly as interesting as scenes where Billy Crudup sticks his head into an alien egg are maddening, or the unending scenes of Covenant pilot Danny McBride arguing with other remaining crew members about how far down to take the ship are dull. Waterston shades in her grief-stricken character to be more than just a Ripley retread, but she’s still underwritten, her relationship with Walter just one of many leaps the script takes while leaving its audience behind. And whenever there’s an action scene…Scott can direct action but whenever it does happen here it’s apparent how much Scott would rather his androids sit back down to discuss Milton and Shelley instead of karate fighting each other.
At a time where nostalgia and familiarity rules blockbusters, where Fox could easily have banked on a Neill Blomkamp movie interested in saying nothing except “hey remember Alien? Remember Aliens??”, there’s something to be said for trying something different, inconsistent as it may be. Ridley Scott is going back to the old well, but it isn’t water he’s looking draw from it. Going along for the journey with him means an uncertain journey, and one that will most likely leave you thirsty, so it comes down to a question of what you would rather drink-Prometheus and Covenant‘s alien black liquid or the cinematic Toilet Duck of an Alien vs Predator?(3 / 5)